What makes a city smart?

What makes a city smart? By Gabriella Somos

Nowadays it seems like almost every city call themselves a smart city for one reason or another – it became such a catchphrase, so overused that the real meaning behind is getting hard to grasp. I was determined to dig beyond the hype so I turned to an expert. Marko Lehenberg from Business Järvenpää shared his take on the topic.

Growth-hacking in Järvenpää

Järvenpää, less than an hour drive North of Helsinki is growing fast – people actually want to go live and do business there and this makes all the difference. Excellent location and mobility also helps: despite the small physical size, there are 4 train stations and the airport is close by.

“We call Järvenpää a growth-hacking city, because we are openly dedicated to growth, and growing fast. We are bold, provocative, and we want to promote (and provoke) that it is okay to grow fast. We must be doing something right, because we see more than 2% annual growth, and we want to make that number even higher in the future. This is an open invitation for people with similar mindset to move here and make this city as smart as possible together.”

When talking about smart cities, the first step is to decide what makes a city smart. At the time of our interview, Marko is in Matera, Southern Italy, in one of the oldest towns in Europe and still finds aspects that make this historic town very smart in its own sense. Because for him, being smart has nothing to do with using the latest technologies. It all boils down to 3 key ingredients that are tightly connected: people, user experience and long-term planning.


“The most important thing cities have are its inhabitants. Cities that were designed with people and mind, their connection to the surroundings are the ones that are working. When you start the other way round, with technology and architecture, that’s when it goes wrong. For example, Brasilia (the capital of Brazil) was built in the middle of nowhere. It was decided that a city should be built here, it was carefully planned according to the latest trends by the best architects of the time – still, no one wanted to move there, strong incentives were needed in order to populate the city.”

User experience

“Matera has been here for a very long time: it’s a city made of stone, but the streets are still enjoyable to walk on, the old town is still here, and even though it wasn’t built thinking about how long will it last, here it stands. Paris is also a good example of the importance of user experience: it doesn’t need to be tech driven to be smart in its own sense. It gives you the feeling you want to live there and it works.”

Long-term planning

“Right now, everything revolves around technology. But technologies become obsolete fast: in 25-30 years, what we have now as cutting edge, will no longer be considered as such. So we are building for the next 25-30 years, not 500 and 1000. A shift in view is needed when planning a city, a smart city, to focus on more lasting aspects than technology, like user experience. The most interesting challenge that cities have now is to see how they will stand the test of time.”

And when it comes to identifying what prosperous cities have in common, Marko says: “Those cities succeed that are tolerant towards different ideas, that welcome people who challenge the status quo, because this is how business, technology, science develops. Cities that are truly smart make room for people to fulfil their potential, they make it easy for them to try and see how it goes by eliminating bureaucracy and by creating a supportive environment. This is what we are working towards in Järvenpää as well. I believe when we do this, then all is going to be well.”

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