Smart Cities and Place Branding: Which are the Opportunities and Challenges?

“Smart” has become a fashionable brand attribute for cities and regions, eager to position themselves as innovative and modern. But what does the term actually mean? And does being a “smart” city or region really increase its competitive advantage? What are the links between “smart cities” and place branding? We asked our panel of place brand experts. Below a summary of answers.

Smart city: what does it mean?

Innovative use of technology is the most common association with the “smart city” term. It is a vision for urban progress and stands for the idea that technology, if used correctly, can improve a city – almost by itself.

Such technology-enabled, “smart” cities can be attractive, especially for businesses and global talent. But they can also repel others, such as travellers seeking warm, friendly experiences with local communities.  Using “smart city” as part of a brand identity has therefore clear positives and negatives – depending on the target audience (Christopher Hire | 2thinknow).

Despite the common affiliation of the term with technology, our panel points out that the meaning of “smart cities” is very much open to interpretation – and not always regarded positively. Some reject it as mere marketing hype, “an empty label hiding a complete lack of clear ideas on what being smart means in concrete for a community” (Cecilia Pasquinelli).

Robert Govers even sees a risk of “smart-washing”, when cities use such brand values to be fashionable (like “sustainable city”), rather than to focus on what really makes them unique.

Likewise, Efe Sevin warns that “creating smart cities for the sake of adapting most recent technologies will only give places a short-term media interest.”

It’s therefore clear that focus on technology alone falls short of smart city potential. A perhaps more useful interpretation of smartness (Hila Oren):

A smart city is one which listens to its residents, is attuned to their needs and strives to meet them… [It] is able to galvanize its residents to collaborate with the city to improve their quality of life.”

As such, “smart” is much more than a place brand positioning element. It is a strategic development decision (Hjörtur Smárason | Scope Communications) and a commitment to listen to the local community.

A “smart” city goes beyond commercial purposes in its use of technologies – it uses such tools as effective and efficient as possible (Juan Carlos Belloso) to improve the lives of residents and visitors (Jonathan McClory).

Natasha Grand observes that new cities in particular like to tout their “smart city” credentials in order to attract talent.

Overall, our panel coincides in that use of new technologies alone does not make a city “smart”. Rather, active listening to and involvement of residents is the key – just like place branding campaigns are doomed to fail without the buy-in of the local community.

“Smart city” as opportunity for place branding – and vice versa

Andrew Hoyne (Hoyne) summarizes the potential of place brands as smart city facilitators as follows:

[A place brand] should be the spokesperson for the project, able to clearly communicate the tangible and distinct benefits of the ‘smart’ factor to your target audience and create a vision for the future that engages stakeholders and gets them to understand its value. This clear, distinct vision should be linked to the specific location and local assets, to ensure it is not generic. Achieve this and not only will it provide a shared vision that all parties involved can rally around, but it will also substantially speed up the process of securing investment as organisations will immediately understand the value, community and financial benefit of the project. In this context, the place brand can be both a statement of belief, as well as a call to action.

Similarly, Cecilia Pasquinelli points out that “the branding effort may help the local community to visualise the ‘unique’ smart city to be envisioned, thus avoiding blind and non-critical adoption of the global script.”

On the other hand, “smart city” initiatives can also benefit place branding, “since technology can create tools for efficient community engagement and collaboration” (Caio Esteves | Places for Us).

And, if done well, being smart can enhance a city brand and narrative: “when coupled with tangible initiatives, it’s the kind of commitment that can create global ‘buzz’ – the kind of profile and momentum that comes from inventive leadership and a reputation for ‘making things happen.'” (Jeannette Hanna | Trajectory).

Magdalena Florek:

The concept of a smart in the process of brand building creates a potentially attractive message for many groups, and above all for residents, which take advantage of the smart city solutions on a daily basis. Therefore, being “smart” offers potentially great opportunities from the point of view of brand building, but only if it involves many areas of life, therefore delivering a consistent message. Cities, which comprehensively use “smart city” tools, including communicating with different groups of stakeholders, have the biggest chances to achieve a marketing advantage based on the smart city concept.


Anyone involved with long-term, community-led city branding initiatives knows how difficult those can become, not least because of the many stakeholders involved. “Cautiously optimistic” probably describes the overall feeling of our expert panel towards “smart city” best.

Asked about the challenges of “smart cities” in connection with place branding, Andrew Hoyne stresses that “a strong place brand is tasked with communicating a sense of purpose, differentiation and clarity. In the context of a ‘smart’ theme, it must work even harder to achieve cut-through.”

He further laments the frequent lack of communication between stakeholders: “Silos are often created, inhibiting collaboration, which is an absolutely fundamental ingredient for a smart city or destination to succeed. Breaking down these silos is a challenge in itself…”.

Another key obstacle observed by Hoyne: “translating a utopian vision of the future into a realistic, achievable plan that resonates with investors and the target audiences.”

Sometimes, it might not even be advisable to spend money on “smart city” improvements, if this isn’t part of the overall place vision. Ed Burghard:

My biggest concern with the concept is communities opt to invest capital for interconnectivity without a sense for how it fits with the overall brand promise. It reminds me of the wisdom that just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Start with the place strategy (the WHAT) and then decide if investment in smart technology makes tactical sense (the HOW).

Efe Sevin shares this skepticism and warns against giving technology too much power: “If ‘technology’ takes priority over solving problems, the place brand will suffer.”

Hila Oren, reflecting on her many years of involvement with Tel Aviv, an early adopter of the “smart city” concept:

Good infrastructure, technology and talent are important tools but, fundamentally, it is about engaging with residents. A place can do that when it knows its people, its story, its points of distinction. These are the ingredients of both a city brand and a smart city.

Jeannette Hanna (Trajectory) shares this example of Toronto in Canada:

Toronto, Canada won a coveted Smart City designation several years ago. Sidewalk Labs, a Google sister company chose to collaborate with the city to create the world’s first digitally planned neighbourhood on the waterfront. It was a great coup for Canada’s largest city. But the project must now grapple with thorny issues around who owns the data that’s generated by a hyper-connected, sensor-driven “smart” neighbourhood. So, part of Toronto’s brand as a future-forward city will be how transparently and effectively it deals with the emerging privacy issues.

Unnecessary limitation to the interests of businesses and global talent (those most likely to consider a “smart city” an asset) is another drawback of using the term, finds Jonathan McClory.

And even those audiences might not necessarily move to a place because of its “smartness.” As Natasha Grand observes, today’s competent professionals “want a place with a character, if not necessarily history.”

Sustainability and smartness go hand in hand in that they are both a must in the long-run, but not very useful for city marketing (Magdalena Florek).

In sum, our key takeaway from the input provided by the panel is to forget about “smart” (and “sustainable”) as a city brand value, if you only use those because it is fashionable. Better to focus your communication efforts on those only if they really characterize your place – if they make you unique.

With thanks to all panel participants. More about the panel here.

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