Book review - Smarter New York City: How City Agencies Innovate

Edited by André Corrêa d’Almeida and reviewed by Julie T Miao

23 Oct 2019, 4:33 p.m.
Julie T Miao

Smarter New York City book cover

Smarter New York City: How City Agencies Innovate

André Corrêa d’Almeida, (ed.)

New York: Columbia University Press, 2018; 448 pp.: 978-0-231-18375-8, US$30.00/£24.00 (pbk)


This is a comprehensive and timely book that uncovers the ‘secret ingredients’ of New York City emerging as one of the leading smart cities worldwide. Highly plausible is the volume’s due attention to what Miao and Phelps (2019) termed the public ‘intrapreneurship’, that is, innovations residing within the city agencies and administrations, that make the city’s urban systems smarter. Equally important, the editor and contributors rightly draw our attention to the evolutionary and networked nature of becoming smart or smarter, which is often ignored by technocrats. These qualities underline this volume’s theoretical and practical value, and confirm it as a ‘contribution to cities around the world on how to move purposefully toward smarter ways of conceiving and running their urban systems’ (p. 25). The 12 empirical chapters following the introduction are grouped under the three themes of ‘data and technology’, ‘city services’ and ‘safety and mobility’, contributed by not only recognised academic experts in their respective fields, but also entrepreneurs, senior practitioners and policy advisors, which further enriches the practical value of this book. To combat the inherent complexity of smart initiatives, these 12 cases follow the same structure in addressing the three main principles of innovation process, innovation drivers and analytical tools, adding depth and making it possible to cross-reference each chapter. In generating an actionable ‘Becoming Smarter Framework’ (pp. 373–374) through the diverse case studies, the editor has decided to focus on two axes: the innovation drivers and the innovation phases. The cross-sections of these two have resulted in 13 so-called ‘innovation arenas’ (p. 374) – a provoking concept that nevertheless could do with some further elaboration. This book is, therefore, a good resource for those with prior knowledge and/or hands-on experience with smart city initiatives worldwide.

Regarding the innovation drivers, the editor and the 27 contributors have intentionally steered away from an exclusive focus on data and technology, as previous publications in the US have tended to do. Instead, they have borrowed insights from business management, political economy and public administration literature in adding factors of: (1) institutional context and legislation; (2) organisational structure and culture; (3) networks and collaborations; (4) leadership and decision-making; and (5) results and impact. Arguably depending on the scale and innovativeness of the initiatives, different drivers play different roles at different times. The case of ‘One New York: A Plan for a Strong and Just City’ (‘OneNYC’; Chapter 1), for example, demonstrates the pivotal role of the institutional context and strong leadership in drafting this long-term city sustainability plan in concert with the sustainable development goals (SDGs). The example of LinkNYC (Chapter 2), on the other hand, demonstrates the importance of technology feasibility and collaborations, since it aims to lay the foundation of free high-speed public broadband with minimal taxpayer money. But what gradually emerges after reading through all these cases is the importance of the synergy and integration of all these factors in order to make an initiative successful – the more ground-breaking and hence riskier a project is, the more demanding it is on such synergy. Yet, although the drivers discussed are relatively comprehensive and the editor has taken great efforts to identify their temporal differences in the innovation process (p. 340), this volume could do more to distinguish their relative importance in supporting the success of a smart city project; it is unlikely that all seven drivers will be in place, let alone synthesised, in any city context. There is also a sense of slight bias in favour of the public sectors in conceiving and leading most of these drivers, such as in the case of the New York Business Atlas (Chapter 4), a platform designed to alleviate the information gaps facing small business services. One could expect a bigger and more proactive role for the private sectors in pushing its further development instead of the passive information-seeking at present. The same applies to the grassroots involvement of citizens. Various cases (e.g. Chapters 6, 7 and 9) suggested consultants and engagement of civil associations and activist groups; how representative they are remains in question and casts further doubt on the representativeness of networks and collaborations in many of these projects.

Regarding the innovation process, this book divides the ‘becoming-smarter-journey’ into problem identification, design, implementation and evaluation. In the first phase of identifying problems and opportunities, the crucial issues that emerge are balancing the interplay of innovation drivers and leveraging them to move from idea to action (p. 362). Contributors focus on the contextual background and critical moments of when an idea gained momentum in action. Here a shared ‘crucial moment’ was the election of Bill de Blasio as the Mayor of New York City in January 2014, who turned out to be highly entrepreneurial and decisive in pushing forward a digitally enabled and inclusive economic development agenda. Yet, in exploring how a problem was identified in case-specific contexts, a deeper theoretical reflection is highly desirable in all chapters, as the ‘seeds of innovation’ are more difficult to spot. The phases of project design and implementation call for incrementality and flexibility. Taking innovation as an agile process helps to pilot and improve designs before scaling up. Success in this process adds to the credibility of policy decision-making. What emerges as an interesting example here is Vision Zero NYC (Chapter 11), which was borrowed from Sweden and thus presents a successful case of policy transfer for other cities thinking of adopting the ‘best practice’ of New York City. The lesson learnt was to take great care to contextualize these alien models during the design phase, and in the case of New York that involved a redesign of meaningful metrics and wider education programmes. Yet readers could benefit more if richer background information had been provided on how this foreign practice was selected and how the learning processes were engineered, since transnational policy transfer is inherently more challenging. The last phase of monitoring, evaluation and learning completes the loop and offers evidences/incentives for further action. But here, common challenges in establishing a suitable evaluation index and focusing on longer-term outcomes surfaced in most cases. The case of Midtown in Motion (Chapter 12), for example, represented the difficulty of identifying the most appropriate and feasible metrics for project impact. In the case of Demand Response (Chapter 5), although the programme exceeded its goal in megawatts enrolment and revenue generation, it was not clear how much contribution it had made in greenhouse gas reductions, which underscores the value of setting up a policy making logic chain (Miao and Maclennan, 2019) that starts with ambitious outcomes and then takes steps in reaching practically grounded goals, as shown in the case of OneNYC.

Notwithstanding some of the limitations noted above, this book is highly recommended for academics and practitioners hoping to get a holistic picture of how New York City has embarked on its ‘becoming smarter’ journey. The individual chapters, bringing together multidisciplinary and integrated perspectives, offer concise key takeaways and actionable insights for city officials, urban planners, policy makers, civil society and potential private-sector partners. The introduction and conclusion chapters are a must-read in bringing these diverse cases together in theoretical reflections. The teaching notes at the end of the introduction and the epilogue are additional bonuses.



  Miao, JT, Maclennan, D (2019) The rhetoric–reality gap of cities’ success: Learning from the practice of Scottish cities. Regional Studies. Epub ahead of print 23 April 2019. DOI: 10.1080/00343404.2019.1597970.
Google Scholar | Crossref
  Miao, JT, Phelps, NA (2019) The intrapreneurial state: Singapore’s emergence in the smart and sustainable urban solutions field. Territory, Politics, Governance 7(3): 316–335.
Google Scholar | Crossref


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