Home Citizen Engagement What can Big Cities Learn from Small Cities?

What can Big Cities Learn from Small Cities?


Over the past few weeks we have published a number of articles that have been focussing on H2020 projects and a showcase on smart cities in central eastern Europe. Whilst researching for these articles it struck me what great effort some of the so called “smaller” cities in Europe are doing when it comes to smart city development. This got me thinking about the different challenges that small and big cities face and what they can do to learn from each other. Usually this type of article will focus on what smaller cities can learn from big cities, I thought for this article we could turn this on its head and look at the opposite. So, what can big cities learn from small cities?

The first point I would like to raise is nimbleness. Smaller cities by nature have less citizens, they also have less people working in city hall, when it comes to moving quickly and getting things done less is usually more. Less people to get involved in the decision making process and less bureaucracy to overcome when they are looking to get projects off the ground. Such nimbleness should not be overlooked, it means that when city hall has an idea or receives a proposal from a residents association for a project then it does not get lost in the mountain of requests that a big city would receive.

Everyone knows there is a big difference between living in a big city and a small city or town – in a small city or town citizens are generally friendlier, more sociable and there is a greater sense of local community. Such feelings are often lost in big cities, but that is only due to size and it is not something that has to be. If local councils or municipalities in cities were to really engage with local residents in the planning and future development of their area then there is absolutely no reason why they could not create the same level of community feel that you get outside of the big cities. Local leaders should not accept that because they are part of a big city that everyone that lives there should automatically have a big city mentality – at the end of the day I think most people would prefer to live in an area with a nice sense of community and where they feel they can have an influence on local development.

There are some great examples from across Europe of smaller cities that are doing a lot to put themselves on the map by becoming smart cities (eg: Zaragoza in Spain, Alba Iulia in Romania & Umeå in Sweden). These are by no means the largest cities in their respective countries, but they have put smart and sustainable development at the heart of all of their future planning, one of the key benefits of this is that it allows them to compete with other cities in the race for talent attraction. Smaller cities have a great opportunity here – they may not have the power of a large capital city, but because they are smaller they can put projects in place a lot quicker and start to have an impact on a greater % of the population in a much shorter timeframe. This makes the city a nicer place to live and will start to attract more talent.

Regeneration zones in bigger cities could learn a lot from this, there may be other areas of the city that are more attractive to live, but if the regeneration area puts smart development at its core then there is no reason why citizens should not be tempted to move. By doing this they can create a key differentiator between their newer, up and coming part of the city and the other more traditional areas for citizens to live. This can also have a big impact on the startup community. Startups quite often place their business in an area where rents are cheaper, but they still have access to the talent that they need to grow. If regeneration zones focus themselves on smart development then they will make themselves attractive to this community which will start to have a positive impact on the local economy.

By improving the quality of life cities will start to have a positive impact on citizen engagement and the success of further smart city projects. If a large % of citizens see a positive impact in the quality of their daily life then they are more likely to give their support, both political and financial to further developments in the city. Bigger cities can learn from this by starting their projects off on a local level, but ensuring that successful projects can be quickly scaled up to the rest of the city. This way the positive aspects of development can be felt by all – naturally this is tricker to do in a big city with more citizens, but it should be at the core of every smart city project. There is no point for a city to pilot a project in one area, have great success with it, but then not extend that project to the rest of the city. This is a lot easier said than done because whilst large cities have large budgets, these budgets are usually all allocated and gaining funds to extend successful pilot projects can take time.

In this instance all pilot project cities should should include an estimation of what the cost would be to roll the project out to the rest of the city. City hall should set aside funds each year for the roll out of successful projects – this pot of money should not be touched other than for the city wide rollout. Not every project will be a success, so there is no need to have the funds to cover each project sat waiting to be used, but by allocating that before the fiscal year starts city hall will be able to scale up pilot projects quickly so that all citizens can start to benefit. Let’s hope that the big cities start to look to the small cities as a source of inspiration because they could definitely learn a lot from them!