Pathways to the Making of Prosperous Smart Cities

An exploratory study on the best practice

By Kevin C. Desouza; Michael Hunter; Benoy Jacob, PhD; and Tan Yigitcanlar | Dec 1, 2020 | ARTICLE

From the November 2020 LGR: Local Government Review supplement in PM magazine:


In this paper, we examine the under-examined issue of the pathways to smart cities. While the extant literature on smart cities offers several insights into what smart cities are, with a few notable exceptions, it has less to say about how they come to be? With this latter question in mind, we identify three pathways to smart cities — a green field development pathway, a neighborhood development pathway, and a platform-oriented platform. Drawing on eight different case studies, we offer some insights into the ways in which each of these pathways is, more or less, able to realize smart city objectives. While exploratory in nature, we offer unique insights into the pathways to smart cities, as well as areas for future research.


Cities continue to invest significant resources in information and communication technologies (ICT) that increase their ‘smartness’ and ‘intelligence’ (Cosgrave; 2013, Angelidou, 2015). These efforts have come to define the smart city movement which, over the past decade, has become an important part of the urban agenda (Kitchen, 2014; Husar et al, 2017). As cities have continued to invest in creating smart (or smarter) cities, scholars have sought to develop an intellectual foundation for understanding this movement. There is now extensive ‘smart city literature’ that: 1) conceptualizes and defines smart cities (Yigitcanlar et al., 2018), 2) explores its social and political implications (Rossi, 2016), and 3) examines the data that defines and shapes smart city efforts (Hashem et al., 2016). An important, yet understudied issue, is the way in which smart cities actually emerge. With a few notable exceptions, (e.g., Yigitcanlar et al., 2019a; Desouza et al., 2019) there is little in the way of a systematic examination of the pathways that lead to smart cities. Thus, while we have some sense of what smart cities are, we know far less about how they come to be?

Much of the scholarship suggests that the emergence of smart cities is a “natural” or organic process (Husar, 2017). It represents the ‘conclusion’ of an ongoing pattern of integrating information and communication technologies (ICT) with the everyday activities of cities. While this “natural” progression represents an important part of the story of smart cities, such as path dependency, it is incomplete. It does not account for the deliberate and intentional efforts to create smart cities. This omission is non-trivial. The increasing awareness of urban fragility and need for resilience in the face of a growing population and numerous environmental challenges create a need for cities to deliberately identify new urban efficiencies and planning approaches (Hunter et al., 2019. Desouza et al., 2019). These intentional efforts vary from city to city and, depending on the approach taken, they will present different challenges for the realization of smart city objectives. In this paper, we consider three different types of deliberate approaches, i.e. pathways, to the creation of smart cities: 1) the development of entirely new (smart) cities—from scratch development, 2) smart city development projects within particular parts of the city—infill smart precinct/neighborhood development, and 3) the advancement of smart cities through the integration of ICTs within the city organization—retrofitting the city with smart technologies and platforms to increase efficiencies. To better understand the different pathways to smart cities, we employ eight case examinations. It is worth noting that some of the cases in this study are considered canonical examples of smart cities.

The reliance on these oft-employed examples have been met with some criticism. For example, Kichen (2015) notes that these examples may be “exceptional in nature, rather than typical.” As a result, they have become “master tropes for smart cities…[that] provide idealized visions of possible futures.” That said, unlike previous case study research on smart cities, we put these cases forward not as examples of best practices to be emulated, but rather as examples that reflect the continuum of smart city efforts.

Following this introduction, this paper proceeds in four parts. The first part describes our conceptualization of ‘pathways to smart cities,’ as well as the framework we use to examine these pathways. The second section provides an overview of our cases and their relationship to the three pathways we consider. The third section summarizes our key
findings, and then we offer some concluding thoughts in the final section with respect to future directions for research.

Pathways to Smart Cities

In this paper, we are interested in understanding the different pathways taken for creating or facilitating smart cities. While scholars have yet to offer any systematic examination of these different pathways, the literature offers fairly clear descriptions thereof. Drawing on this literature, then, we are able to conceptualize three different pathways to smart cities. As depicted in Figure 1 (below) this conceptualization allows for different understandings of ‘a city,’ and, thus, implies different types of challenges.

First, in many instances, smart cities are developed from scratch. This conceptualization of—and operational approach to—smart cities draws upon the idea of a city as a singular physical entity. As such, it can be built ‘from scratch’ to draw upon the economic benefits typically attributed to cities. Often referred to as green field developments, these new cities are created through a series of public-private partnerships. Often as part of a federal government initiative, these developments are marketed in terms of their potential for solving issues regarding urbanization, congestion, and employment. In this paper, we examine this pathway through three cases: Songdo, South Korea; Masdar, Abu Dhabi; and, Gujarat, India.

A second, but related, pathway focuses on the development of particular neighborhoods within a city. To some degree, this is the most challenging conceptualization and operationalization of a smart city. It requires “retrofitting infrastructures and systems” to existing cities. We examine this pathway through two cases: the Hudson Yards development project in New York City, and Jurong Lake development in Singapore.

Finally, the third pathway we consider focuses less on developing the physical space that occupies the city, but rather pursuing a smart city through the development of a technological platform that integrates data from various organizational silos within the city. From this perspective, the city is understood in its organizational and managerial forms. The emphasis here is on the ‘smartness’ of the city as it relates to improved delivery of public services. We consider this pathway through four cases: Amsterdam, Netherlands; Manchester City, England; Barcelona, Spain; and, Tel Aviv, Israel.

As previously noted, these pathways are not wholly unique. Other scholars have described smart city cases in similar terms. The contribution that we offer in this paper, then, is to provide a side-by-side examination of these pathways. To focus our examination, we consider each of these pathways in terms of three dominant themes that comprise the smart city literature—governance and services, integration of ICT infrastructure, and the role of sustainability and social capital.

As depicted in Figure 2, these themes offer a lens through which we can examine the different pathways to smart cities. The themes, as we describe below, reflect key ideas about the objectives and potential outcomes of smart cities. They provide a reasonable basis, then, by which to consider the different paths toward smart cities. More specifically, we can examine—through our cases—how these objectives and outcomes have been, more or less, realized through different pathways.

Over the previous two decades, scholars have put forward numerous definitions of smart cities. For example, Bowerman, Braverman, Taylor, Todosow, and Wimmersperg (2000) defined a smart city as a place capable of monitoring the conditions of all critical infrastructure while optimizing resources, planning preventative maintenance activities, and monitoring security aspects to maximize services to residents. This definition focuses on the relationship between the physical infrastructure, technology, and systems in place capable of maximizing services to residents. In contrast, Rios (2008:4) defines a smart city as “A city that gives inspiration, shares culture, knowledge, and life, a city that motivates its inhabitants to create and flourish in their own lives. An admired city, a vessel to intelligence, but ultimately an incubator of empowered spaces.” While this idea is on the far side of human centered, it demonstrates the variance between “smartness” through technological means and “smartness” through human capital. Finally, a third definition focuses on governance and information systems. In particular, Piro’s (2014:169) definition denotes, “A smart city is intended as an urban environment, which, supported by pervasive ICT systems, is able to offer advanced and innovative services to residents to improve the overall quality of their life.”

These definitions reflect the three main themes behind the smart city concept (Waart, 2016); namely a technological theme based on the use of infrastructures; a human theme based on people, education, learning, and knowledge as key drivers; and an institutional theme based on governance and policy and as a result of the importance of cooperation between stakeholders and governments (Nam and Pardo, 2011). We employ these three themes—‘governance and services,’ ‘integration of ICT infrastructure,’ and ‘the role of sustainability and social capital’—in our analysis. They provide a lens through which to examine the motivations, processes, and outcomes of each case study. As an exploratory project, we seek to develop insights into how each of the pathways manifest the different outcomes described in each theme.

Theme #1: Smart City Governance and Services

Information systems and urban policy research have launched a large body of scholarly work surrounding the intersection of technology and city governance, with a strong focus on digitalization of services to improve resident’s quality of life. For example, Liu, Gavino, and Purao (2014) regard smart governance as a city that develops policies, strategies, and frameworks that serve the unique needs of individual residents. Dunleavy, Margetts, Bastow, and Tinkler (2006) describe this as Digital Era Governance and notes a transition towards a re-aggregation of public services under direct government control around the resident.

Over the past two decades, this perspective has largely defined the use of ICT within public services and has been identified as having three separate phases. Liu et al. (2014) regard the first generation as a mirror of the private sector with a focus on reducing costs and increasing automation. The second generation saw government adopting market-based mechanisms to increase efficiencies, however, it often resulted in increased complexity for government organizations. In the final phase, governance has adopted a platform-based approach where ICT products are enablers of outcomes, with a focus on service to residents (Fishenden, 2013).

Theme #2: Smart City ICT/Infrastructure

Another focus of smart city research has been the movement toward technologically enhanced public infrastructure. By focusing on technological advancements, researchers considered that efficiencies of the urban environment could be increased considerably to deal with rising populations (Yigitcanlar et al., 2009b). Heo et al. (2014) divide a smart city into six main technological areas: 1) Smart power grids, 2) Structural approaches, 3) Surveillance applications, 4) Transportation and traffic management, 5) Food, water quality, and environmental monitoring, and 6) Ubiquitous healthcare applications. This approach varies considerably from the digital governance focus of other researchers. This approach has a definite focus on a city’s infrastructure rather than the services it can offer to residents. Thus, this theme requires that we consider how, as a city’s infrastructure is improved by technological advancements, it might open the city to challenges regarding network scalability, security, and privacy concerns; network communication standards; and system interoperability (Heo et al., 2014).

Theme #3: Smart City Sustainability and Social Capital

The concept of sustainability developed from the realization that current social, economic, and urban development research failed to fully account for the risks of environmental disasters or social decays (Bibri, 2018: 100). Following this, the premise of sustainability has risen as a holistic approach to aligning city practices and urban development with nature (Bibri and Krogstie, 2017). Its defining factor is that it looks at all-inclusive decisions for long-term benefits. This is a key distinction from the Digital Era Governance approach (described above) that look toward individualized services. Instead, sustainability is based in the holistic, all-encompassing nature of future developments. As such, sustainability can be thought of as a state in which the natural and social systems are not undermined by society (Bibri, 2018: 101).

Smart city sustainability research has largely focused on ICT enablement to support the natural environment and, as such, the common understanding of smart city sustainability tends to focus on renewable energies, waste removal, and other environmentally sustainable practices. While these practices often focus on the physical environment, researchers have begun to suggest that sustainability must also consider the social sphere in general, and social capital, in particular (Lara, 2016; Granier and Kudo, 2016).

Social capital can be understood as: “the links, shared values and understandings in society that enable individuals and groups to trust each other and so work together” (OECD, 2007: 102). Within the smart city literature, this idea has been adopted to consider the influence of information technologies to empower communication, community engagement, and co-creation. This approach to a city’s “smartness” is based on creating a network of communication that simultaneously shares, educates, and involves all residents, helping the city adapt to the problems that arise. This thinking follows the idea that “human capital will transform how people live and interact with each other, leading to advancements in tech innovation. Investments in communities and their learning capabilities would lead to a better yield in innovation and entrepreneurship” (Kummitha, 2017: 47).

Findings and Discussion

Our objective in this paper is to begin to develop some insights into the different pathways that lead to the making of prosperous smart cities. In particular, we sought to understand how the pathways differed (or not) with respect to achieving key outcomes that define smart cities; notably governance and services, integration of ICT infrastructure, and the role of sustainability and social capital. In this section we summarize the key insights from our case examinations for each of these outcomes.

First, at the core of the governance and services theme, is a question of the provision of public services. That is, how is the adoption of ICT’s facilitating government services? It may not be surprising, but the two development pathways—green field and neighborhood development—seem less successful than the platform pathway in enhancing public service delivery. This insight, however, may be somewhat premature. The primary objective of the development pathways is to establish a new physical infrastructure—which these development projects have, more or less, achieved. The question of how these infrastructure efforts have effectively met the needs of residents remains somewhat of an open question. In contrast, the platform-based pathway, perhaps predictably, is more quickly and effectively enhancing the service provision for local residents. For example, Tel Aviv’s population has seen a large improvement in technological capabilities from the Digi-tel platform, noting residents even developing their own improvements to the software. This technologically educated population provides an attractive talent pool for business and investment and allows residents to engage further with the co-creation of solutions to numerous urban challenges. Additionally, to the degree that “transparency” is an objective of public sector service provision, the platform pathway far exceeds the two development pathways. For example, in smart city initiatives in both Amsterdam and Barcelona, the government enhanced transparency toward the community by publishing documents and websites that clearly outline the goals of the initiative. Rather than attempting to reach these goals independently, council launched a platform where the community can contribute and become a part of the discussion.

The second theme, integration of ICT infrastructure, shifts the emphasis from service delivery to infrastructure development. As one might anticipate, both development pathways are clearly more successful at integrating ICT’s with their physical infrastructure than the platform-based approach. That said, these development pathways face multiple challenges in terms of achieving “smartness.” That is to say, projects have demonstrated varying levels of success, partly due to the complexity, duration, and scale of the transformation. For example, green field developments like Masdar City show little success in terms of population, but large success in terms of global partnerships and economic return. Also, Hudson Yards is one such example that has received public criticism due to its failure to so far deliver on the advanced data and sensor technology it promised. The physical construction is successful, but without delivering on some of the initial smart city deliverables, the development has been interpreted as purely an exercise for commercial investment, without a clear benefit for the greater public. What these examples demonstrate is that even as the physical infrastructure is developed, one of the most difficult challenges with these development projects—both green field and neighborhood—is in aligning the development processes with the socioeconomic and political conditions in which they operate. Often, the most impressive infrastructure upgrades have been left underutilized due to a lack of public interest, or the political conditions change before the project’s completion.

In our final theme, the role of sustainability and social capital, we find some unique findings. At the heart of this theme is the idea that smart communities are both environmentally and socially sustainable—where social sustainability is understood in terms of resident engagement and connectedness.  nterestingly, the
platform pathway has provided far greater reported level of engagement and connectedness. This is somewhat surprising. Because the development pathways occur in the physical space of the city and are, typically, part of a public development approval process, one might expect to see more resident engagement than in smart cities created through the platform pathway. Conversely, we found the opposite. For example, a noticeable trend across the European smart city landscape; Amsterdam, Barcelona, and Manchester have all focused on the development of a platform that allows residents to participate within the urban transformation conversation. At the outset, these initiatives are cheaper and tend to result in greater buy-in from the public. Less examples of public criticism can be found within these initiatives, as the public is a present actor within the transformation. These initiatives tend to align with the transformation of existing areas and the integration of ICT systems to enable the resident-government conversation. Relative to the development pathways, the platform pathways are, in some ways, developed and implemented through a more engaged and bottom-up approach. That said, both development pathways are clearly far more complex undertakings. As a result, more top-down approaches may seem to be the more expedient way forward. But to pursue smart city developments from this perspective presents clear limits on the ability to fully develop a city’s “smartness.”


Transforming urban areas into prosperous, livable, and sustainable settlements is a longstanding goal for local governments. Today, countless urban settlements across the globe have jumped onto the smart city bandwagon to achieve this goal. Under the smart city agenda, presently, many government agencies are attempting to engineer an urban transformation to tackle urban prosperity, livability, and sustainability issues mostly through the means of technology solutions (Yigitcanlar et al., 2019a). Nevertheless, there is limited understanding on what smart cities really are, how they emerge, and how prosperous and sustainable smart cities can be erected. This paper aimed to shed light on this understudied area and generate insights to assist cities and  their administrations. Our exploratory study focusing on the smart city best practices across the globe helped us develop insights into the making of prosperous smart cities. The investigation revealed that we are at the beginning of a new era that technology and the city are converging; but at the same time the traditional tools of urban policymaking and planning—such as  stakeholder/community engagement, placemaking, participatory design, urban metabolism approach—are still highly relevant. A healthy mix of contemporary and traditional tools and approaches are critical in the development of prosperous and sustainable smart cities. This is to say, while smart technology is critical, technology alone cannot create smart cities, as it takes more than just the state-of-the-art technological solutions to transform cities into truly smart and sustainable ones (Yigitcanlar and Kamruzzaman, 2018).

Additionally, as the study reveals, different approaches are followed in different corners of the globe for the development and practice of smart cities. This finding has helped us to conceptualize three distinctive pathways for smart cities. These pathways to the making of prosperous smart cities are: 1) the development of entirely new (smart) cities—from scratch development, 2) smart city development projects within particular parts of the city—infill smart precinct/neighborhood development, and 3) the advancement of smart cities through the integration of ICT’s within the city organization—retrofitting the city with smart technologies and platforms to increase efficiencies.

Finally, while each of the above-mentioned pathways has their strengths and weaknesses and suitability for certain country contexts, they shed light on the future research studies that will focus on the development of new and consolidated pathways. Nevertheless, it should not be forgotten that the making of prosperous smart cities highly depends on adequately linking the guiding principles (such as having a system of systems approach, adopting a quadruple-bottom-line sustainable urban development perspective, and mainstreaming the urban metabolism approach) and traditional policymaking and planning methods with technological advancements and the needs of the societies (Yigitcanlar et al., 2019c). This rule applies to all of the distinctive pathways this study introduced, and the prospective ones yet to be formed.

Adapted from a forthcoming paper, "Pathways to the Making of Prosperous Smart Cities: An Exploratory Study on the Best Practice," in the Journal of Urban Techonology.


The comprehensive bibliography can be found on pp. 9-13 with the full article in the November 2020 edition of LGR: Local Government Review.


KEVIN C. DESOUZA, Professor of Business, Technology, and Strategy | School of Management, QUT Business School | Queensland University of Technology (


MICHAEL HUNTER, Researcher, School of Information Systems | Queensland University of Technology (


BENOY JACOB, PhD, Director, Community Development Institute | University of Wisconsin, Madison, Affiliated Faculty | LaFollette School of Public Affairs (


TAN YIGITCANLAR, Associate Professor of Urban Studies and Planning, School of Built Environment | Queensland University of Technology (


You may also be interested in