Jan Alexa (Research Manager, IDC Government Insights)

Smart cities have been one of the most dynamic markets in recent years. According to IDC’s semiannual smart city spending guide, up to €20 billion was spent on them in Europe in 2018 — and that trend is expected to continue in the near future.

It’s worth noting, however, that this kind of spending spree did not come out of the blue. For years, municipalities tested a range of use cases in pilots, national governments issued strategic frameworks and the EU invested a lot of effort (and money) into seed projects to disseminate innovative practices throughout Europe.

The term “smart city” has been widely used for more than 10 years and we are now at an inflection point with functioning ecosystems, widespread knowledge of the most common use cases, a willingness to invest from both national and regional stakeholders, and growing demand from final users (citizens) facilitating substantial investments in cities large and small, historical and newly built, from Lisbon to Vladivostok.

If we go back to the beginning of the smart city story, there were some tell-tale signs that the market was destined for significant growth. These include:

  • Heavy investments in digital infrastructure. Digital infrastructure is a sine qua non for all digital projects. It was the investment in regional digital infrastructures that enabled the spread of smart ideas beyond the metropolitan boundaries. Sustainable ecosystems cannot be maintained only by the force of a few early adopters, and the growth in good quality infrastructure has enabled a critical mass of cities and towns to join the trend and sustain interest.
  • Policymakers’ focus on quality of service and a comparison thereof. With the advent of international workforces and the increase in labour mobility in general, cities are increasingly comparing themselves against each other. The seamlessness of transport, air quality, noise pollution and the ease of communication with city administration are now meticulously tracked and compared, and are key metrics that can determine the economic success of a city, given that the quality of living in a city could attract (or deter) the talent.
  • City administrations’ changing views on their core mission. Instead of being “just” providers of municipal services, city administrations now see themselves as stewards of the ecosystems, keenly aware of the virtuous circle between quality of municipality services and overall economic performance of the region.

The same early signs can now be seen in another key part of the public sector — education. Digital transformation in education has been relatively slow — changing the curricula to reflect the importance of digital skills, but not so much the functioning of the sector itself. As of this year, however, we have seen the same early signs that heralded the rise of smart cities:

  • Heavy investments in digital infrastructure. The recently approved DigitalPakt Schule programme in Germany, for example, provides a substantial boost to digital infrastructure investments (to the tune of €5 billion). Other countries have their own programmes, and though the investments aren’t quite as eye-watering as in Germany, they are still solid commitments to the building of pan-national ecosystems of users that will be inclusive and sustainable.
  • Policymakers’ focus on (almost obsession with) PISA results. National education systems have become much more competitive, and it is hard to find a national-level policymaker that does not regularly quote PISA results and seek inspiration from the best-performing countries (Finland and Singapore are the favourite role models). This growing tendency to compare and seek best practices is driving the adoption of innovation, with digital innovation key to this.
  • The slow realization that “business as usual” is not an option for the education sector. The transformational shift that will redefine what we look for in education is slowly emerging. The importance of life-long learning, the changing nature of skills demand and above all the change in the ways children interact with the world are forcing even traditionalist education providers to stop and rethink their approach. Parents and policymakers are clamouring for change. With the increasing importance of education to the long-term growth of the national economy, this can no longer be ignored by education providers, as funding is increasingly tied to outcomes and this creates the same virtuous (or vicious) circle for education providers as it did for smart cities.

So, to answer the question in the headline: Yes, I believe that smart education is the new smart cities — and perhaps with even greater potential in the medium term. Facilitated by widespread high-quality digital infrastructure, driven by the competitive outlook of national stakeholders and enabled by the acceptance for the need for change from educational providers, smart education is on the same pathway as the smart city movement was half a decade ago. Far-sighted market strategists should take note.

Please contact Jan Alexa if you want to learn more about this or related topics.


IDC research on Citizen Centricity and Smart Cities