In 4,400 Days – How Smart Will Prague Be?

The year 2030 is roughly 4,400 days from now. In urban planning thinking, this isn’t the future, this is tomorrow. Martin Barry for Forbes Next.

In my circles, there is little doubt that cities will continue to be humankind’s greatest invention, nor is there doubt that we will continue to populate our cities at unprecedented rates.

The question about 2030 is important in the context of this statement, as it is the mission of Prague's Mayor Krnacova and Smart Prague to “make Prague a real smart city by 2030.” What does it mean to be smart, especially in Prague? Let’s take a closer look.

At the core, technology can enable a city to grow sustainably, governments to manage their services and infrastructure more efficiently, businesses to connect faster to the global economy, and citizens to have high-speed access with more power to participate in municipal governance and improve their own lives. For it to work, cities need to encourage their citizens become early adopters of new technology and need to give them the tools and Internet speed to do so.

Where does Prague fit, globally, when benchmarked against other “smart” cities, what is the city doing well, and what can be done better? Spoiler alert: Prague isn’t doing well when compared to other cities, but they realize that and are on the move. So, let’s look around to see where the world’s leading cities are on these issues, and take a look under the hood here at home in Prague to see what’s going right, and wrong.

First, what makes a city “smart”? The answer has broadened considerably over the years as we’ve understood how technology and sustainable urban solutions can improve the efficiency and reduce the carbon footprint of a city and it’s inhabitants. The so-called ‘smartest’ cities have very clear targets and implement plans quickly with broad private and civic sector incentives to hit those targets.

Importantly, no city can answer this question the same way. Those cities that excel beyond their regional and global competitors are the ones that have a clear vision and the political muscle and foresight to implement it. Cities need to know exactly where they want to go, not drift there.

Leadership and vision is the only consistent, determining factor that sets one city apart from the rest. Investing in buzzwords like “smart” will not attract more business, it will not encourage a vibrant SME and startup ecosystem, it will not get the garbage recycled quicker with less carbon output, or improve traffic and it certainly won’t improve people’s lives.

Prague (top), Petr Sevcovic on Unsplash.
Copenhagen, Shane Rounce on Unsplash
Photographs: Prague (top), Petr Sevcovic on Unsplash. Copenhagen, Shane Rounce on Unsplash
Copenhagen, just a few hours to the north aims to be 100% carbon neutral by 2025.

In Stockholm, 52% of all energy produced is renewable. In Tokyo, a highly efficient and easy to use rail system manages over 100 train lines and 14 billion passengers a year, making it easy for business to operate and citizens to travel without cars. Anecdotally, it is also one of the quietest cities in the world, adding a very important indicator to a very high quality of life.

Speaking of transport, Singapore boasts the most efficient and modern transport system in the world with one of the lowest car ownership rates thanks to high taxes on petrol and car purchases. Amsterdam focus on SMEs and startups makes it one of the EU’s most innovative, and wealthy cities. Helsinki, in 2014, implemented an integrated transport app connecting all forms of shared transport from bike, metro, bus, tram and auto. These cities are clearly decades ahead of Prague.

Easy Park Group has one of the most comprehensive smart city rankings in the world. While I generally dislike city rankings, I like the data sets and analytical process they use. Prague, which doesn’t typically break the top 50 in any type of global ranking (except tourism), sits at #72 on Easy Park’s ranking.

The City can move up the chart fairly quickly as we enter the next phase of being smart. The city is already quite livable thanks to the historical planning work since Charles IV and a reliable metro, bus and tram system. Small changes in mobility can improve lives. Big changes will come with autonomous vehicles and this is where the City needs help from the private sector to help predict and model streets without the need for parking spaces or excessive lanes.

Prague needs to build a metro to the airport. The Prague airport is one of the most depressing and empty terminals that I’ve been to in the world – and I’ve been in dozens of airports, hundreds of times. The lack of connectivity is partially to blame.

Work with the private sector to upgrade the 4G network immediately and encourage more smartphone usage. These two factors alone are a bell-weather for how innovative a city is.

Smart Prague has launched a call for smart ideas to improve the city. Next, they need to respond to ideas.

Several of our partners have indicated they do not even confirm receipt of submissions. Short term wins would focus on attracting an experienced and easy-to-use car sharing network like Daimler’s Car2Go, dedicate parking for them in each district and work to limit parking for private vehicles, or at least raise and implement fines for parking on sidewalks or green areas all over the city. Easy.

Digital or smart governance is a bit more challenging to implement. A digital dashboard should be used to pull all city utilities under one publicly owned management company, or system. It should be the cities’ responsibility to aggregate all utility data across systems, not the private sector – which currently does so, out of necessity.

If in 4,400 days we are going to be smart in Prague – we should have a task force group under or alongside IPR to work with the private and civic sector on well-considered pilot projects, and eliminate knowledge or political barriers to their implementation. We will need specific targets, and high profile companies willing to invest in the plan.

It’s not easy, especially in Prague where there are many barriers to political consensus. But, we know what to do – let’s just do it. If someone doesn’t know how or doesn’t want to try, let’s ask others that do and will. 4,400 days is not that many days.

Finally, let’s stop calling it a “smart city” and simply call it smart planning.

This opinion by Martin Barry was originally published in Forbes Next magazine, February 2017 issue, in Czech language.

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