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One Size Does Not Fit All: Framing Smart City Policy Narratives within Regional
Socio-Economic Contexts in Brussels and Wallonia
Giovanni Esposito *a
Jessica Clement a
Luca Mora b
Nathalie Crutzen a
a HEC Liège Management School, University of Liège
b The Business School, Edinburgh Napier University
* Corresponding author at: HEC Liège Management School, University of Liège, Rue Saint-
Gilles, 35B - 4000 Liège (Belgium). Phone: +32 4 232 73 59; E-mail address:
Smart city initiatives are increasingly dominating urban policy scripts worldwide, and their
diffusion is centered upon different regional strategies. Adopting the Narrative Policy
Framework as methodological basis, this article examines the smart city strategies developed
by the Wallonia and Brussels-capital regions during the 2014-2019 period. Moving away from
corporate-led deterministic models of smart city development, it shows that there is no one-
size-fit-all approach to smart urbanism. Regional governments attribute different meanings to
urban innovation and formulate place-based strategies of smart city development in relation
to their socio-economic contexts, seeking to advance technological solutions to what they
perceive as the most pressing problems of their territories and populaces.
Keywords: smart city policies, regional governments, Narrative Policy Framework, socio-economic
ESPOSITO G., CLEMENT J., MORA L. and CRUTZEN N. (2021) “One size does not fit
all: framing smart city policy narratives within regional socio-economic contexts in Brussels
and Wallonia”. Cities - Volume 118: 103329 - https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cities.2021.103329
Smart city initiatives are complex transformational processes consisting of profound
modifications of ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ components of existing urban regimes (Angelidou, 2014;
Wahlström et al., 2020). These initiatives can be understood as urban strategies to advance
technological solutions to the pressing sustainability issues facing policymakers (Viitanen &
Kingston, 2014; Karppi & Vakkuri, 2020). Inspired by different modes of leadership, smart
city initiatives aim to improve the capability of city governments to exploit digital innovation
for boosting urban sustainability (Mora & Deakin, 2019; Sancino & Hudson, 2020). Their
implementation builds on government-led innovation ecosystems in which large collaborative
networks composed of heterogeneous actors organize in a quadruple-helix organizational
setting (Mora et al. 2019b; Nesti & Graziano, 2020; Timeus et al., 2020; Drapalova & Wegrich,
Because of this complexity, the smart city concept often appears nebulous and ambiguous
(Shelton et al., 2015: 13) with practitioners attributing different meanings to it (Angelidou,
2014; Anthopoulos, 2017; Kitchin, 2015; Korachi & Bounabat, 2020; Lazaroiu & Roscia,
2012). These meanings range from a holistic interpretation – with a broad focus encompassing
sustainability and civic participation issues - and to a more reductionist interpretation – with a
narrow focus on technological deployment (Mora et al., 2019a). Nevertheless, despite its
ambiguity, the smart city concept is increasingly dominating urban policy scripts through
narratives that shape the strategic development of urban technologies (Lorquet et Pawels, 2020;
Söderström, 2014; Visser, 2019). Within this context, this article explores how narratives,
while reducing the ambiguity of the smart city concept, contribute to frame the strategic
development smart city initiatives. Narratives are indeed pivotal to the strategic management
of complex urban innovation projects (Esposito et al., 2020). They create coherence and order
in the cognitive universe of all concerned actors (Weick, 1995) through sense-making, the
process by which actors give meaning to their collective experiences (Weick et al., 2005). As
“new imagination of alternatives” (Sandercock, 2003: 18), smart city narratives provide actors
with a common understanding of future city challenges and possible solutions (Söderström,
2014). From this viewpoint, smart city development can be seen as “emplotment,
characterizations, descriptions of settings, and rhythm and imagery of language”
(Throgmorton, 2003: 126).
By shaping concepts and imaginaries about how ICTs will improve urban sustainability, smart
city narratives convey ideas and practices which are transmitted and reproduced within
different local city contexts around the globe (Joss et al., 2019). Nevertheless, notwithstanding
the worldwide permeation of these narratives, research has acknowledged the diversity of smart
city narratives within local contexts (Desdemoustier et al., 2019a; 2019b) suggesting that the
choice of a narrative over another is very dependent on local contextual parameters such as,
for example, the perception of new technologies, attitude towards privacy and cultural
heuristics (Csukás & Szabó, 2021; Ruhlandt, 2018). A key role in the development and
formulation of these local narratives may be played by regional governments whose strategies
for smart city implementation within their territories have a powerful influence on local actors,
for example, by offering financial support to municipalities in return for compliance with
proposed regional strategies (Adapa et al., 2018; Yang & Li, 2013; Ye, 2014). Indeed, as
national and regional governments sense the importance of sustainable development and
industrial transformation (Li & Wang, 2012), smart city narratives can be increasingly found
in various supra-municipal urban development plans aimed at encouraging municipal
policymakers to advance technological solutions for boosting urban sustainability (de Jong et
al., 2016; Liu et al., 2014). In a similar vein, (Lu & de Jong, 2019: 157) argue that “for the
implementation of national protocols at the local level in planning, governments often use
regional strategies and visions as an intermediate step”. To put it bluntly, regional
governments’ policies are important because they convey narratives that connect local smart
city initiatives to the socio-economic needs of the regional contexts (Tang et al., 2019).
Regional policy texts embedding smart city strategies are thus documents of major concern for
analysis. Nevertheless, despite their importance, regional smart city policy narratives have
remained an under-explored area of investigation. So far, scholars have explored smart city
narratives emerging from scientific publications (Mora et al., 2019a), corporate texts
(Söderström et al., 2014), and the opinions of municipal policymakers operating within
different local contexts (Desdemoustier et al., 2019b) but little attention has been paid to
regional policy texts. Therefore, this paper contributes to fill such a knowledge gap with a
comparative case study analysis guided by the following research question: how do regional
governments operating within different socio-economic contexts develop different smart city
To answer this question, our analysis follows the Narrative Policy Framework (NPF) approach
to explain how regional governments formulate policy narrative plots to make sense of their
environment (settings), to attribute roles to key actors (characters) and to identify policy
solutions for implementation (moral) (Jones et al., 2014; Weible & Sabatier, 2017). While the
NPF has been widely applied to a variety of public policy domains – climate change (Jones &
Song, 2014), education (Ertas, 2015), disaster management (Crow et al., 2017) finance
campaign regulation (Gray & Jones, 2016), public administration reforms (Weiss, 2020), to
mention but a few – no study so far has empirically applied this framework to the analysis of
smart city policies.
As for the empirics, we choose a comparative case-study research approach. This approach is
well suited to address how questions (Yin, 2014; Flyvbjerg, 2001) - such as the one at the basis
of this article – involving an in-depth and detailed examination of the phenomenon under
observation – here the different smart city policy narratives developed by regional governments
operating within different socio-economic contexts. We choose Belgium as empirical site
because this is one the of the most high-performing European Union’s countries in the area of
digital policy (European Commission, 2018) and because the smart city transformational
process is actively happening in this country (e.g. Simonofski et al., 2019; Desdemoustier et
al. 2019a, 2019b; Van den Bergh & Viaene, 2016; Walravens, 2015). In Belgium, we
particularly choose to study the policy texts for smart city development adopted by the Walloon
regional governments during the 2014-2019 period because they adopt two
In this paper, the term Brussels government refers to the Brussels-Capital Region. This region comprises 19
Belgian municipalities, which includes the City of Brussels.
different smart city strategies within two different socio-economic regional contexts.
Therefore, Wallonia and Brussels’ regional strategies for smart city development can be
regarded as two typical cases of smart city policy narratives developed by regional
governments operating within different socio-economic contexts, thus exemplifying “what is
considered to be a typical set of values, given some general understanding of a phenomenon’
(Gerring, 2006: 91).
Innovatively building on NPF, we argue that regional governments operating within different
socio-economic contexts develop different smart city policy narratives that reflect different
place-based regional interpretations of the smart city concept. Because of these different
interpretations, such governments understand and use smart city projects as policy instruments
to solve what they consider the most pressing socio-economic problems of their territories and
populaces. Based on these findings, we argue that there is no one-size-fit all approach to smart
urban policies and we call for an active role of regional governments in the formulation of
place-based smart city strategies that are aligned with the socio-economic needs of their
territories and reflect the ambitions of their populaces.
The paper is organized as follows. Section 2 reviews the literature on smart cities and regional
policy narratives. Section 3 describes case studies, data and methods. Section 4 reports on the
results of the analysis. Sections 5 and 6 provide the discussion and conclusion, respectively.
2. Smart cities and regional policy narratives
2.1 Smart city: an ambiguous concept susceptible to multiple place-based
The concept of “smart city” is increasingly dominating urban public policy scripts around the
world (Lorquet & Pauwels, 2020; Visser, 2019). It is introduced as a new paradigm to think of
and organize the sustainable development of urban areas (Acuto & Parnell, 2016; Viitanen &
Kingston, 2014) and, in particular, to exploit ICTs for developing livable, competitive and
sustainable cities (Greco & Bencardino, 2014). To put it bluntly, a smart city is a city using
ICTs to achieve: (1) resource efficient, safe, inclusive and accessible urban environments; (2)
economic growth based on the principles of environmental sustainability and inclusive
prosperity; and (3) equal access for all to public goods and high-quality services (United
Nations, 2015). However, achieving such objectives through smart city innovations is a
complex transformational process that involves multiple and interconnected changes at the
level of “hard” (e.g. buildings, energy grids, water networks, mobility) and “soft” (e.g. human
and social capital, urban culture) components of urban systems (Angelidou, 2014). These
changes can be grouped in three main categories (Meijer & Bolívar 2016): technology, human
resources, and governance. While the technological dimension brings the focus on the
introduction of loads of ICT solutions in urban systems as the key factor for smart city
development (Washburn & Sindhu, 2010), the other two categories focus on non-technological
components. Cities require human capital to enable smart-city-related transition processes
(Hollands, 2008; Shapiro, 2006), but also collaborative environments for technology to be
correctly integrated and deployed in the urban environment (Torfing, 2016). The smart city
concept is therefore multidimensional and consists of multiple features like enhancing the
quality of life, adopting ICTs in urban systems, implementing new governance, focusing on
human capital, favouring public value creation, supporting innovation and reaching a more
sustainable territory (Appio et al., 2019; Batty et al., 2012; Giffinger et al., 2007; Ibrahim et
al., 2018; Ramaswami et al., 2016).
Because of such conceptual multidimensionality, “the smart city is a somewhat nebulous idea”
(Shelton et al., 2015: 13). It is ambiguous and practitioners often see it as fuzzy, thus attributing
different meanings to it (Angelidou, 2014; Anthopoulos, 2017; Kitchin, 2015; Korachi &
Bounabat, 2020; Lazaroiu & Roscia, 2012). Policymakers have therefore cultivated different
interpretations of the smart city concept, ranging from a holistic view – with a broad focus
encompassing sustainability and civic participation issues - and to a more reductionist
understanding – with a narrow focus on technological deployment (Mora et al., 2019a).
Research by Desdemoustier et al. (2019b), for example, shows that a holistic view of smart
cities prevails among policymakers operating in medium- and large-size Belgian
municipalities. Conversely, policymakers operating in rural areas and small size municipalities
either do not have any understanding of smart cities or display a narrow technology-focused
interpretation. Narrowing down the focus on the holistic view of smart cities, Csukas & Szabo
(2021) undertake a comparative study of smart city strategies in Amsterdam, Barcelona,
London, Helsinki, New York, Vienna, Berlin, Budapest and Moscow. Four different
development strategies emerge from their analysis: (1) focusing on environmentally related
objectives; (2) focusing on developing and rolling out platforms and ICT applications to
provide quality of life improvements directly for citizens; (3) focusing on social inclusion
activities such as involving innovations that deal with elderly care, better working conditions
for disabled people, or helping immigrants to settle; (4) focusing on activities that facilitate
citizen engagement in urban governance. Consistently with Ruhlandt (2018), this work argues
that the choice of a strategy over another is very dependent on local contextual parameters such
as the perception of new technologies, attitude towards privacy and cultural heuristics. In line
with this evidence, Tang et al. (2019) argue that city governments have different place-based
interpretations of smart city development because they operate in different urban local
environments where residents experience different practical problems. Bringing the focus on
the broader social, technological and, economic environment in which policymakers operate,
their work explains that decision making is not only affected by the needs expressed by local
dwellers but it is also affected by the technological affordances of available ICT solutions and
exiting urban infrastructures, as well as by the budgetary constraints that limit public and
private investments. Adopting an inductive method of analysis, they examine the smart city
plans of 60 municipalities and single out four different development models, which are largely
associated with specific attributes of the urban environment: (1) the broad-spectrum (holistic)
model of major metropolitan areas, which are economically prosperous and/or embed
provincial or national capitals; (2) the business ecosystem model of cities transitioning from
former transportation hubs and manufacturing centers to high-tech entrepreneurial economies;
(3) the smart transportation model, which surfaces from rich and congested population centers
with a history of business activity in high technology and finance; and, (4) the essential services
model, which relates to urban environments where smartphone-based information systems are
widely diffused in the day-to-day activities of the local population. Echoing (Nam & Pardo,
2011: 190), this work argues that there is no one-size-fits-all approach for smart city
development and that “city governments’ imperative is thus to establish a set of clearly
articulated strategies that are well-situated in the environmental context”. These are indeed
place-based strategies that are not made in a void but based on existing economic and regional
contexts (Lu & de Jong 2019). The objective of such place-based choices is to contribute to the
efficient economic and social functioning of a place consistently with the broader goals that
urban planners have established for the place (Ashworth & Voogd, 1990). Therefore, place-
based solutions for cities can reflect both their status quo and the future ambitions set by city
planners (de Jong et al., 2018; Han et al., 2018; Merrilees et al., 2012).
While municipal policymakers are pivotal to the implementation of place-based smart city
strategies, very often the design of these initiatives is steered by national and regional
governments (de Jong et al., 2016; Esposito et al., 2021; Liu et al., 2014; Tang et al., 2019;
Yang & Li, 2013; Ye, 2014). This is confirmed by Lu and de Jong (2019: 157) arguing that
“for the implementation of national protocols at the local level in planning, governments often
use regional strategies and visions as an intermediate step”. Regional policy texts for urban
development have indeed a significant impact on cities' growth, development and image (Yang
& Li, 2013; Ye, 2014) and exert powerful harmonizing influence on smart city initiatives
developed at the municipal level (Tang et al., 2019)
2.2 Unpacking regional smart city strategies through narrative policy analysis
Since the 1990s, as the social sciences underwent their discursive turn, there has been a wide
recognition within urban planning theory of the role of storytelling (Van Hulst, 2012). “Stories
are central to planning practice” - say Sandercock (2003: 12) - “the way we narrate the city
becomes constitutive of urban reality, affecting the choices we make, the ways we then might
act”. However, as argued by Potter (2020: 1537), “stories are not mean here in a superficial
sense, as an aesthetic narrative that is belatedly brought to a space to explain or adorn that
environment. They refer instead to expressions of ontological and epistemological imaginaries,
manifested or enacted in the making [...] of a place. In this sense, practices of formalized urban
place-making like urban planning are modes of expressions – they give voice to narratives of
human/environment relations”. Indeed, “although we might consider this discursive activity
with some skepticism, it often makes a difference. It is performative, because it shapes the
imaginaries and practices of a myriad of actors concretely building the city” – says Söderström
(2014: 307). Therefore, the narrative analysis of key planning texts is a powerful instrument to
unpack place-based strategies of urban development through which policy makers represent
their socio-economic environment, the problems to be solved in this environment and possible
solutions. Indeed, the way governments understand and label urban problems is central to
determine policy intervention (Lascoumes & Le Gales, 2007).
Introduced as a new paradigm to think of and organize the sustainable development of urban
areas through the use of ICTs (Acuto & Parnell, 2016; Greco & Bencardino 2014; Viitanen &
Kingston, 2014), over the last decade smart city narratives have become a major leitmotif in
the discourse on urban development (Crivello, 2015) and have spread in a variety of local
contexts (Franco & Ortiz, 2020). Cowley et al.'s (2018) analysis of smart city initiatives across
six British cities show that local smart city practices have a strong discursive component
(pamphlets, websites, etc.) while spatio-physical articulations may remain ephemeral, thus
concluding that these initiatives were largely determined by a national discourse on “future
cities” instigated by the UK government. Joss et al. (2019) analyze diverse online policy
documents produced by a wide range of smart city stakeholders (municipal authorities, national
agencies, international organizations, think tanks, consultants, etc.), thus presenting the smart
city paradigm as a strong international narrative involving a network of 27 (mostly capital or
world) cities in Asia, Europe, and North America. The narrative embedded in these texts
consists of multiple dimensions that go beyond the infrastructure-technology understanding of
smart city in order to encompass issues of participatory governance and, to a lesser extent, of
environmental sustainability. Following-up on this line of inquiry, Desdemoustier et al.’s
(2019a) work on Belgian smart cities shows that this international narrative on smart cities has
been approached differently by local policymakers depending on the future societal problems
– e.g. traffic congestion, environmental pollution, increased participation in the city
management, etc. - they want to solve in their local context through the use of ICTs. Framed
as such, the “smart city is more of a strategy than a reality, a strategic vision for the future”
(Angelidou et al., 2018: 7). More precisely, it is a strategic narrative - intended here as a written
and a spoken story of an imagined future captured in a 'before,' 'now,' and 'to be' sequence
(Barry & Elmes, 1997) - shaped by aspects such as the local context and the socio-economic
challenges of the target city, the challenges and desires that motivate city policymakers at
different levels of government (Sadowski & Bendor, 2019).
As mentioned above, urban development strategies adopted by regional governments exert
powerful influence on the smart city initiatives developed at the municipal level (de Jong et al.,
2016; Liu, Zhou, Wennersten, & Frostell, 2014; Tang et al., 2019; Yang & Li, 2013; Ye, 2014).
However, notwithstanding the importance of regional policy texts, smart city scholars have
mainly explored narratives emerging from scientific publications (Mora et al., 2019), corporate
storytelling (Söderström et al., 2014), and municipal policymakers (Desdemoustier et al.,
2019a, 2019b), while regional smart city policy strategies still remain an under-explored area
of investigation. In addressing the analysis of regional smart city narratives, we build on the
Narrative Policy Framework (NPF), a widely spread methodological approach to explain how
policymakers make sense of complex policy issues and develop stories which inform decision-
making (Jones, 2014; Jones et al., 2014; Weible & Sabatier, 2017). NPF defines policy
narratives as discursive constructs composed of four main elements: a setting, a group of
characters (victims, villains and heroes), a plot, and the moral of the story (Jones et al. 2014).
The setting consists of policy-related, taken-for-granted facts characterized by very low levels
of disagreement (e.g. figures provided by experts or national statistics bureaus). Characters are
the relevant actors in a policy narrative, consisting of those that are harmed (victims), those
that perpetuate the harm (villains), and those that will correct the situation (heroes). Similar to
Greimas' (1983) notion of “actants”, NPF characters may be either persons or abstractions (e.g.,
“the economy”, “the environment”, “the city” or “the territory”). The plot connects the setting
to the characters and the characters to one another, spelling out the causal arrangements of the
policy problem. Plots describe how the villain harms its victims, but they are also instrumental
in explaining “how blame is assigned to the villain, what actions are needed from the hero and
what moral is to be gleaned from the story. The moral of a policy narrative typically refers to
the policy solutions” (Gray & Jones, 2016: 197). Based on this rationale, policy narrative plots
make it possible to understand the causal mechanism through which a government makes sense
of its environment (setting), attributes roles to key actors (characters), and identifies policy
solutions for implementation (moral) (Jones et al. 2014).
3. Research design, data collection and analysis
Using the NPF as a methodological basis, we analyze the narrative structure of the policy texts
adopted by the Walloon and Brussels governments to guide the smart city development in the
Wallonia and Brussels regions. Since 2014, smart city strategies are indeed initiated in both
regions - i.e. Smart Brussels strategy in Brussels and Digital Wallonia strategy in Wallonia.
Following Gioia et al. (2013), the research was organized on the basis of the following three
steps. The first step is the research design and involves articulating a well-defined phenomenon
of interest through a research question ‘how’ terms. The second step is the data collection and
involves the use of multiple data sources – documents, interviews and, if needed be, statistics
– to gather empirical insights into the phenomenon of interest. The third step is the data analysis
and involves a systematic approach to the interpretation of data sources that occurs through
multiple levels coding.
3.1 Research design
The research question at the basis of this paper is: how do regional governments operating
within different socio-economic contexts develop different smart city policy narratives? To
answer this question we choose Belgium as empirical site as it is one the of the most high-
performing European Union’s countries in this policy area (European Commission, 2018). We
particularly choose to study the smart city strategies of the Wallonia and Brussels Regions for
the following two reasons. First, we select Wallonia and Brussels for comparative purposes as
they adopt two different models of smart city policy. The latter is closer to the holistic model,
while the former proposes a narrower approach. Secondly, as we further explain below,
Wallonia and Brussels have two different historical pathways that have led these regions to be
very different in terms of socio-economic characteristics.
Wallonia - Since the age of the Roman Empire, Wallonia was a well-known industrial district
for the production of iron and coal. In 12th and 13th centuries, the industrial expertise developed
to such an extent that the local method of refining iron came to be known around Europe as the
Walloon Method. In 14th century, coal mines around Charleroi and the Borinage emerged and
prospered for centuries until 19th century when Wallonia was one of the most important
industrial powers of the world (Destatte, 1997). Towards the mid-20th, the end of an era began,
with the coal running out and its extraction costs dramatically increasing. The crisis hit other
sectors in the heavy industry – such as steel, metallurgy, glassmaking – resulting into massive
industrial restructuring plans and, consequently, high unemployment rates. At beginning of the
21st century, relaunching economic growth in the region features high on the political agenda,
and the government has particularly committed to the development of high-tech industries in
the ICT sector. Within this framework, in 2005 the Walloon government launched a long-term
recovery plan with the popular name of the Marshall Plan. As a part of this plan, since 2015
the Walloon government has adopted Digital Wallonia, the regional strategy framing the smart
city development in Wallonia between 2015 and 2018. It consists of 23 actions in the following
4 areas of activity: (a) empowering digital enterprises in order to increase their size in the
Walloon economy; (b) reforming the public administration in order to create innovation
ecosystems supporting the development and growth of digital enterprises; (c) strengthening the
connectivity and smartness of the Walloon territory through better ICT infrastructures; (d)
training the Walloon human capital in order to increase its digital literacy. In 2018, the impact
of the regional strategy was apparent with 288 smart city projects initiated across the Walloon
cities - 72% developed by the public administration – (Vanmarsenille & Desdemoustier 2018).
Brussels - The Brussels region has instead followed a different historical path. Grown from a
small rural settlement of the Stone Age on the Senne river, the Brussels region was firstly home
to Roman occupation and, when the Western Roman Empire eclipsed, to the Franks. For many
centuries since the 11th century, the region developed as an important international commercial
hub for light-industry products (namely textile and clothing manufacturing) on the fluvial trade
route between Bruges, Ghent and Cologne. Following the 1830 Belgian revolution, the 19th
century was a turning moment in the history of the region: Brussels rose to capital status and
became the governmental seat of the newly-born nation. Because of its proximity to the newly
born political institutions, the region soon became a financial hub. Following the building of
the Brussels-Charleroi Canal, the region strengthened its position of commercial and
manufacturing hub, growing prosperously until the 20th century when it became the scene for
various international conventions, such as the three International Expositions held in 1910,
1935 and 1958. Since the end of the Second World War, it has been a major centre for
international politics and home to numerous international organizations. It has strengthened its
position as financial centre of Western Europe with the creation of the largest stock exchange
in continental Europe, so called Euronext Brussels. Serving also as the centre of the EU’s
political administration, nowadays Brussels is one of the most prosperous economies among
the European regions (Eurostat, 2019), hosting world headquarters of multinationals and
international organizations. Within such economically-prosperous and globalized context, in
2014 Brussels launched ‘Smart Brussels’, an ambitious regional strategy framing the smart city
development on the basis of a holistic approach that consists of four activity areas: (a)
sustainability, replacing paperwork with electronic procedures in public administrations to
reduce the use of paper and car transfers from citizens’ residences to municipal administrations
in order to decrease the ecological footprint of public sector operations; (b) e-government,
constructing new high-speed telecom networks and providing more urban areas with free Wi-
Fi connection; (c) open government, promoting open-data initiatives in order to improve
citizens’ access to government’s work; and (d) security, creating one single regional platform
of video images collected by urban cameras to improve street surveillance. In 2019, the impact
of the regional strategy is apparent with hundreds of initiatives initiated in the following areas:
mobility, economy, society, quality of life, government and environment
. Examples of these
initiatives are a platform for citizen participation in urban policy-making
, on-line access to
public administration services (e-counters)
, new urban Wi-Fi connections and video-
, to mention but a few.
3.2 Data collection
Data collection involved firstly a qualitative stage and, subsequently, a quantitative stage
(Johnson & Onwuegbuzie 2016).
Initially, the officers in charge of smart city policies in Brussels and Wallonia were contacted
to know what strategic guidelines were used to frame the design and implementation of smart
city projects at the municipal level. The documents that they provided were used for the
narrative analysis. Brussels adopted a policy document entitled “Smart Brussels 2014-2019”,
which exposes the region's philosophy on the smart city matter and provides stakeholders with
a coherent understanding of most relevant smart-city challenges affecting the Brussels area. In
Wallonia, the regional guidelines for smart city development are embedded in the document
entitled “Digital Wallonia – Stratégie numérique de la Wallonie”, which covers the 2015-2018
period. This document sets the framework for the digital transformation of the region and is
structured around five strategic themes: digital sector, digital business, skills and education,
public services and digital territory. Using the NPF as a basis, we undertook an in-depth
analytical reading of the two governmental documents which we subsequently triangulated
with complementary information sourced from two semi-structured interviews with the two
key regional officials in charge of smart city strategies in Brussels and Wallonia. To strengthen
the data triangulation process, additional data was also sourced from the websites
‘smartcity.brussels.be’ and ‘digitalwallonia.be’, which were used as secondary data sources
because they regularly disseminate information about the implementation of regional smart
For the purpose of complementarity and clarification of the results from the qualitative
analysis, we subsequently collected quantitative information through official databases
(Johnson & Onwuegbuzie, 2016). We thus looked for socio-economic indicators offering a
visual representation of qualitative information embedded in the textual material and
interviews. Such indicators covered the following areas: economy, digital infrastructure,
human capital and public administration (Table 1).
TABLE 1 ABOUT HERE
3.3 Data analysis
The two guideline texts were analyzed following tenets of interpretive research in order to
discern between first order (close to the language of interviewed actors) and higher-ordered
categories (Gibbs, 2007; Gioia et al., 2013) (Figure 1).
FIGURE 1 ABOUT HERE
Phrases and terms were coded manually in order to highlight themes and patterns of meaning
within data. This first phase led to code 523 utterances. These utterances, for example, include
statements on the digital transformation of the economy, the economic opportunities provided
by this technological shift to enterprises as well as the structural weaknesses that prevent
enterprises to fully embrace this transformation.
We then looked for codes across interviews that could be grouped into higher-level themes.
For example, comments on the digital transformation of the economy and the opportunities
provided by this technological shift to enterprises, as well as the structural weaknesses that
prevent enterprises to fully embrace this transformation could be grouped under the topics
“Digital revolution” and “Structural weaknesses”, forming a set of first-order categories.
We then established links among first-order categories in order to develop distinct clusters of
themes in relation to different policy aspects. For example, categories containing instances of
the growth opportunities provided by the digitalization of the economy and structural
weaknesses that hamper this process collapsed into a theme called “The state of the Walloon
Drawing on NPF concepts, the final step involved organizing thematic clusters into theoretical
dimensions corresponding to NPF concepts. Themes 1 to 3 emphasize elements of the policy
problem to be addressed and the context in which such problem takes place, and were therefore
coded as Settings. Themes 4 to 11 highlight elements concerning the policy actors, and were
therefore coded as Characters. Among them, Themes 4 and 5 were coded as Victims (those
harmed by the problem), whereas Themes 6 and 7 identify the Heroes (those that provide or
promise relief from the harm) and Themes 8 to 11 focus on the Villains (those who cause the
harm). Themes 12 to 17 emphasize aspects of the policy solutions. As a result, they were coded
as Moral of the story. Plots emerged from the interconnection of these elements and were
defined by taking onto account the socio-economic indicators presented in Table 1.
Settings, characters, plots and morals of the story were validated through semi-structured
interviews with the two regional officials in charge of smart city strategies in Brussels and
Wallonia. Upon this validation, the findings were summarized in a table providing an overview
of key narrative elements by region (rows) and NPF component (columns). Section 4, here
below, provides extensive explanation of these findings.
4.1 The settings
“A policy narrative is directed towards addressing a specific policy problem and must situate
that problem in a specific context” (Jones et al. 2014). The two strategies begin with exposing
the problematic circumstances that form the setting for governmental action in the smart city
domain. Both regional governments take for granted the fact that a digital revolution is on the
way, i.e. a massive societal shift from mechanical and analogue electronic technology to digital
electronics entailing an increasing adoption and proliferation of digital computers and digital
record keeping in several domains of human life.
The digital revolution will radically redefine the competitiveness criteria of our territories,
quality of services and well-being of people. From family to business, including public
services, school, health or even culture, the digital shift is on the way. As Michel Serres states,
this digital revolution will have effects as profound as the invention of writing and printing a
long time ago. [Wallonia]
Digital networks are important to improve efficiency and, therefore, competitiveness. Today
they fulfill the same essential role that the railways fulfilled in the 19th century contributing to
the industrial Revolution. Efficient connectivity is essential for everyone: the citizen, to learn,
learn and access online services, the company for the same reasons and to develop its business
online, to the public sector to offer innovative services. [Brussels]
However, the circumstances associated with this revolution vary across the narratives, with
governments paying selective attention to certain aspects over others. In examining the myriad
of contextual elements surrounding them, the Walloon and Brussels governments bring their
focus on different socio-economic problems.
The Walloon government focuses on the unexploited growth potential of the digital revolution.
It argues that, even though the digital sector is highly profitable, it still represents a small share
of the regional economy. Within this context, smart urban territories are presented as a
competitiveness factor which makes it possible to increase the number of firms operating in
the digital sector. This narrative suggests that, equipped with a highly performing infrastructure
in terms of connectivity, data storage and ICT applications, smart urban territories can become
a place where digital enterprises - such as e-commerce firms and app developers – strive to
establish themselves, thus creating new jobs and added value for the regional economy. The
following quotes are exemplar:
The weight of the digital sector in the economy remains insufficient. It is underdeveloped. It
captures only 10% of the total added value produced in the Belgian digital sector and
represents a small share of the Walloon economy equal to 1.4% of GDP against 2.6% of GDP
Our territory must be seen as a real factor of competitiveness. Connected to very high speed
and smart, it offers unlimited access to digital uses and acts as a catalyst for industrial and
30 Mbps connections are widely used in Wallonia. Acceptable for current uses, such
connections will not be sufficient in the face of the profound evolution of online consumption
patterns of businesses and citizens.
In contrast, the Brussels government brings attention on a new urban era characterized by
multiple societal challenges. Within this context, the smart city concept is presented as the
emerging policy framework to address such challenges. However, compared to other
international metropolitan areas, Brussels lags behind in the smart city transition process, as
also apparent in international benchmarks.
The city is the epicentre of the challenges of this 21st century whether these challenges are
about demography, prosperity, mobility, sustainability, or security.
City dwellers use 75% of the planet’s natural resources while cities are responsible for 70%
of greenhouse gas emissions. […] Such environmental emergency pushes the city towards the
path of sustainable development while the effects of past financial, social and economic crises
still persist. Is the city's destiny too heavy for it to bear?
ICTs provide their solutions to the challenges of urban sustainable development: this is what
an increasing number of cities, sometimes the most unexpected, have understood by defining
their city project on the model of the smart city.
While several metropolises take first place in these rankings and are talked about in the
international smart-city scene, the Brussels-Capital Region never appears there.
4.2 The cast of characters
The different ways of interpreting the settings resulted in different configurations of the
characters embedded in the policy narrative.
Within the Walloon narrative policy framework, regional economy and citizens emerge as the
main victims of the unexploited growth potential of the digital sector. The economy suffers
harm in the form of slow growth, which results into job losses and relatively low productivity,
while citizens suffer from not having a vibrant and innovative digital sector. This sector is
pictured as fundamental for providing public administrations with ICT solutions that can
improve the quality of public service provision. The hero is equated with digital enterprises, in
particular large tech companies. Companies operating in the ICT sector are presented as key
actors which possess the financial resources needed to invest in ICT solutions for better-quality
public services, thus creating new job opportunities and added value for the regional economy.
Nevertheless, three threats (i.e. the villains) prevent digital enterprises from successfully
completing their mission. Firstly, traditional administrative procedures burden
entrepreneurship and inhibit the creation of new digital businesses. Secondly, urban territories
characterized by insufficient coverage of telecoms network hampers cities’ ability to store and
speedily exchange data, while depriving digital enterprises of the physical infrastructure they
need to operate their business. Thirdly, the low digital literacy of the majority of enterprises
operating within the Walloon economy is deemed an obstacle to the overall regional market
demand for ICT solutions provided by digital enterprises, representing a limit to their growth.
Such a low literacy is accused of leaving the majority of Walloon enterprises deprived of the
technological skills required to access and deploy the ICT solutions that digital enterprises can
[The digital transformation] is a top priority in order to create value and jobs, and to ensure
the well-being of all citizens.
ICT services enable us to envision a new generation of public services, open and transparent,
both examples and vectors of a digital transformation that meets the needs of citizens as well
as of other societal sectors.
Among the 3.509 enterprises composing the Walloon digital sector only 48 are large ones (less
than 1%) and 6 are very large. However, it is precisely these large enterprises that provide a
strong contribution to employment (24%) and to the creation of added value (42%) in the
digital sector. Moreover, with an annual growth rate of 12% since 2008, these enterprises are
the ones driving growth in the sector.
According to entrepreneurs, administrative formalities remain a major obstacle when it comes
to the creation of a new company, hiring procedures, access to financial incentives, etc.
While 3G coverage in the country is close to 100%, this is far from being the case for 4G […].
This situation is detrimental to the development of new growth opportunities for our
enterprises and to the development of new services for our citizens.
Walloon enterprises are lagging behind in the adoption and use of ICTs. This impacts their
competitiveness and slows down the use of services offered by Walloon digital players, which
also partly explains the small size of the digital sector.
In contrast, within the Brussels narrative policy framework, Brussels’ dwellers – and,
particularly young generations - emerge as the main victims of the upcoming societal
challenges. The hero is equated with ICT solutions having the potential to solve not only
environmental challenges, but also e-government, open government, and security challenges.
E-government refers to new ICT opportunities for more direct connections between citizens
and government. These digital solutions allow the latter to provide services directly to former
while minimizing the intermediation of public bureaucracies. Linked to this is open
government, which aims at applying the principle of freedom of information and holding that
ICTs can improve citizens’ right to access governmental documents, thus allowing for effective
public oversight. Security refers to the use of cameras and video images to monitor city-life, as
well as to prevent crimes and make urban rescue services more effective. However, such
potential can be properly unleashed only if such solutions are framed within a global strategy
that connects individual ICTs to regional policy needs. Therefore, the lack of a global vision
on technological solutions in connection to policy is presented here as a threat that might
complicate ICTs’ mission of relieving young urban generations from contemporary societal
The smart city challenge is about bringing a higher quality of life to all the people, enterprises
and organizations which "are" Brussels […]. Failure is not allowed as not fully exploiting this
potential equates to refusing to offer a future to our young generations.
We want to help the Brussels-Capital Region to improve the quality of life through ICT
solutions that benefit […] people, businesses and public administrations. To achieve this, we
will address four challenges: making Brussels a connected, sustainable, open and secure
In a smart city, ICT sensors help governments to get their pulse on cities. More precisely, this
is done thanks to video images. Cameras are indeed a crucial component of our urban systems
of crime prevention, security and rescue services.
[…] ICTs are never an end in itself but an instrument to optimize our effectiveness. […] It is
therefore the lack of a global vision on the integration of ICTs in our regional policies […]
which prevents our Region from reaping their benefits.
FIGURE 2 ABOUT HERE
4.3 Interpreting the plot: the moral of the story in the post-industrial city and in the
Both governmental narratives framed smart city initiatives as instruments to be mobilized at
the municipal level to take advantage of the ongoing digital revolution. Nevertheless, there are
differences in the way governments interpret the settings, with each of them providing selective
attention to different contextual elements with a corresponding plot and a causal arrangement
of characters and policy solutions (the moral of the story). The dashboard of descriptive
statistics in Figure 2 enables us to interpret these causal arrangements showing that regional
governments operating in different socio-economic environments opt for distinct smart city
models. More precisely, the holistic model is adopted in Brussels – a globalized and
economically-prosperous region - whereas a narrower model is adopted in Wallonia - a former
industrial, manufacturing area transitioning into the new economy with the ambition to become
a hub for high-tech, digital businesses. While the latter proposes policy solutions bringing
emphasis on business innovation ecosystems and digital skills training as a necessary
accompaniment to create a trained workforce to support the digital transformation of the
regional economy, the latter emphasizes ICT-driven solutions to improve the quality of public
service provision, pollution control and civic accountability.
Concerning economic prosperity, GDP per capita data indicate a clear gap between Wallonia
and Brussels with the former featuring lower values than the latter. This difference is rooted in
the recent history of the two regions and can be appreciated by looking at the fundamental
characteristics of the two economies. In the mid-20th century, Wallonia underwent a profound
economic crisis due to the decline of the heavy industry. On the contrary, Brussels – the capital
of Belgium since the mid-19th century - flourished prosperously becoming a major centre for
national and international politics, particularly for the EU, and one of the top financial centres
of Western Europe. Nowadays, Brussels and Wallonia have thus two different economies with
the former more service oriented than the latter. Indeed, 26% of Walloon enterprises operate
in the manufacturing or construction sector (Brussels: 18%); 34% in general activities such as
wholesale and retail trade, transportation and storage, accommodation and food services
(Brussels: 29%); 36% provide services - i.e. real estate activities; professional, scientific, and
technical activities; administration and support service activities – (Brussels: 45%); and 4.6%
provide ICT services (Brussels: 8%). ICT services indeed contribute more to the value
produced by the Brussels enterprises than Walloon ones.
Nevertheless, with the adoption of the so-called Marshal Plan in 2004, Wallonia has started a
profound process of economic restructuring aimed at increasing the weight of the ICT sector
in the regional economy. This plan provides a strategy for the digital transformation of the
regional economy and set the guidelines for the development of smart city initiatives. Within
this framework, smart city development is understood as part of a wider effort of regional
economic restructuring process where policymakers want to rejuvenate the urban productive
structure of Wallonia by establishing it in the new economy. The Walloon smart city is thus a
‘post-industrial city’ in which the relative importance of manufacturing reduces but that of
services, namely in the ICT sector, ambitions to grow.
The restructuring of the Walloon economy requires a strong and rapid increase in the digital
intensity of all our businesses. This is essential for the emergence of an industry 4.0 and for e-
We want to provide Wallonia with smart and connected territories where tech enterprises are
recognized as world leaders and as the key drivers of a successful industrial transformation ….
Key to this process are the digital enterprises and their business ecosystem, intended here as
the environment composed of the sum total of non-digital enterprises, public administrations
and other forces such as telecom networks that are outside the control of a digital enterprise
but the digital enterprise still depends upon them as they affect the overall performance and
sustainability of the digital business. As showed in the cast of characters presented above, the
Walloon government estimates that a low digital literacy rate among non-digital enterprises
along with burdening traditional public administration procedures and insufficient coverage of
telecom networks are a threat to a positive business ecosystem. Thus, envisaged policy
solutions bring the focus on ICT-related training programs and awareness campaigns aimed at
strengthening the digital skills of the Walloon human capital, on the modernization of public
administrations and on more investments in the digital infrastructure of Walloon territories.
Having fewer concerns in terms of ICT infrastructure coverage, human capital, ICT penetration
at the enterprise level and administrative burden on entrepreneurs than Wallonia, the Brussels
Region centres its smart city strategy around a broad-spectrum model characterized by a
holistic approach to ICTs aimed at solving key human, economic and environmental issues of
contemporary cities. The Brussels smart city is thus a ‘global city’ that follows the path of other
major international metropolises adopting the smart city model to address a wide variety of
future urban challenges.
The Brussels Region must bet on technologies as a lever for human, economic and environmental
In launching the 2011 preparatory works for the Regional Sustainable Development Plan adopted
in September 2013, Minister-President Charles Picqué said: "In many respects, our Region follows
the evolution of big metropolises, receptacles of the tensions of contemporary societies as well as
of the forthcoming solutions because it is on these innovative territories that our future is being
Amsterdam, Berlin, Copenhagen and Vienna: 4 inspiring cities for our region. Why these four
cities? First of all because they share many common points with our Region. These capitals are
close by their size, their institutional status, their population or their economic and social context.
In addition, all stand out in benchmarks, including Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Vienna, which
are among the 6 most mature smart cities according to the Mapping Smart cities in the EU
Key to this process are ICT solutions and the global vision behind their integration into existing
urban systems in connection with those that in the eyes of governments are the most pressing
urban challenges. As showed in the cast of characters, the Brussels government estimates that
priority has to be given to (a) environmental sustainability, (b) e-government, (c) open
government and (d) security. Thus, proposed solutions bring the focus on: (a) replacing
paperwork with electronic procedures in public administrations to reduce the use of paper and
car transfers from citizens’ residences to municipal administrations in order to decrease the
ecological footprint of public sector operations; (b) constructing new high-speed telecom
networks and providing more urban areas with free Wi-Fi connection in order to facilitate
online interactions between citizens and governments; (c) promoting open-data initiatives in
order to improve citizens’ conditions to access the documents and proceedings of the
government; and (d) creating one single regional platform of video images collected by urban
cameras in order to facilitate the day-to-day surveillance work of police services as well as of
firemen, infrastructure managers, public transportation companies and urban waste managers.
Summing up, according to our analysis depending on the initial contextual premise of a region,
a general narrative plot develops, which begins with generally consistent characters (victims,
villains and heroes) and culminates in specific policy solutions (Table 2).
TABLE 2 ABOUT HERE
Through an in-depth narrative analysis of the smart city strategies adopted by the Walloon and
Brussels regional governments during the 2014-2019 period, this paper finds that regional
governments operating within different socio-economic contexts develop different smart city
policy narratives that reflect different place-based regional interpretations of the smart city
concept. On the basis of these different interpretations, regional governments use smart city
projects as policy instruments to overcome what they see as the most pressing socio-economic
needs of their territories and populaces. Drawing on these findings, the paper provides three
contributions. Firstly, it suggests that regional governments operating within different socio-
economic contexts can attribute different meanings to the smart city concept, thus opting for
those smart city strategies that are best-situated in their contexts. Secondly, it unpacks two
different regional strategies of smart city development showing that regional governments can
use smart city initiatives as policy instruments to overcome a variety of place-based
(environmental, social, and economic) sustainability problems. Thirdly, moving away from
corporate-led deterministic models of smart city development, it invites to refuse the corporate
one-size-fit-all approach to smart urbanism, thus calling for an active role of regional
governments in the formulation of place-based smart city strategies that are consistent with the
socio-economic needs and ambitions of their territories and populaces.
5.1 Place-based regional interpretations of the smart city concept
Policymakers’ understanding of smart city development varies across municipalities of
different size (Desdemoustier et al. 2019b). It therefore exists a relationship between
policymakers’ interpretation of smart cities and the socio-economic context in which they
operate. Echoing Lu & de Jong (2019), we particularly argue that policy-makers’ choices about
smart city models are not made in a void but based on their interpretation of existing socio-
economic and regional contexts. Consistently with Tang et al. (2019), we show that policy-
makers operating in major economically-prosperous regional areas embedding national
capitals choose the holistic smart city model; whereas the narrower technology-focused model
prevails in areas transitioning from former logistic hubs and manufacturing centers into the
new economy to become hubs for high-tech business. Through a narrative analysis of regional
smart city strategy texts in Wallonia and Brussels, our study offers evidence about the different
regional socio-economic profiles which can be associated with different smart city choices.
According to our findings, in the Brussels region, the economy is more service-oriented, the
perceived administrative burden on entrepreneurs is relatively low, and there are relatively high
levels of GDP per capita, human capital, ICT infrastructural coverage, and ICT penetration in
enterprises. In this context, a holistic model of smart city development prevails. Conversely,
the Walloon region has a less service-oriented economy, the perceived administrative burden
on entrepreneurs is relatively high and there are relatively low levels of GDP per capita, human
capital, ICT infrastructural coverage and ICT penetration in enterprises. In this regional area,
a more narrowly technology-focused approach to smart city development has been selected.
Joss et al. (2019) argue that smart city development models are increasingly adopted
worldwide, and their diffusion is centered upon different narrative frameworks. Their work
sheds light on narratives developed in global city contexts, including the Brussels area.
Consistently with our findings, their analysis suggests that policymakers operating in such
contexts posit their territories at the vanguard of the smart city innovation adopting holistic
narratives that they use “concurrently to promote urban renewal to their domestic audiences
and to signal their global ambitions to foreign audiences, and in doing so frequently engaging
in mutual cross-referencing and benchmarks” (Joss et al. 2019: 23). In addition to this, our
findings provide insights into the smart city policy narrative developed in a post-industrial
context such as the Wallonia region. Urban studies research on such contexts explains that the
attention of policymakers usually revolves around a narrative of advanced, technology-driven
production, giving priority to business services and tech-driven development with a key role
played by Industry 4.0 agenda, including production through robotics, automation, and data
analytics (Grodach & Martin, 2020; Schwab, 2016). Consistently with this research
perspective, our study indicates that policymakers understand the smart city transformational
process as an opportunity to develop competitive economic advantages through technological
leadership. Their ambition is to transit the urban economy from former manufacturing centers
into the post-industrial, knowledge economy era.
5.2 Regional strategies of smart city development
Echoing Desdemoustier et al. (2019a) and Lu & de Jong (2019), our findings show that, despite
different narrative policy frameworks across jurisdictions, smart city initiatives can be
understood as policy instruments (Lascoumes and Le Gales 2007) designed and implemented
by governments to achieve a variety of environmental, social, and economic sustainability
goals. In the Wallonia region, the narrative plot frames smart cities as an instrument to
transform the former industrial, manufacturing urban areas of the region into hubs for high-
tech, digital businesses. In the Brussels region, the narrative plot frames smart cities as an
instrument to tackle a number of societal challenges – such as sustainable development,
democratic governance and urban security – that are already a priority on the agenda of other
important international metropolises. Our analysis particularly suggests adopting a multilevel
perspective with supra-municipal authorities (i.e. regional governments) framing smart city
projects to be developed at the municipal level as instruments to achieve supra-municipal
policy objectives linked to ongoing processes of strategic change.
Operating within a post-industrial environment, the Walloon government frames the smart city
development of its municipalities in relation to the digital transformation of the regional
economy. Therefore, Giffinger et al.'s (2007) ‘smart economy’ and ‘smart people’ measures
feature high in the policy text of this region, including for example economic incentives to
support the growth of digital enterprises and ICT training program to strengthen the human
capital. Conversely, operating within a global city environment, the Brussels government
frames the smart city development of its municipalities in relation to the overpopulation and
environmental problems that are progressively undermining the quality of life of urban
dwellers. Giffinger et al.'s (2007) ‘smart governance’, ‘smart environment’ and ‘smart living’
measures feature high in the policy text of this region, including e-democracy solutions to
enhance citizens’ interactions with the public sector, ICT solutions to replace administrative
paperwork with electronic procedures to reduce the footprint of public administrations, and
surveillance cameras to render the street life more secure.
These two strategies have a promising heuristic potential for future analyses and, on a more
practical level, for policy design. Indeed, similar strategies can be found in urban environments
that exhibit socio-economic profiles that are similar to those examined in this paper (Tang et
al. 2019). For example, old industrial and trading urban areas such as Edinburgh, Lyon and
Toronto have also embraced smart city models that are instrumental to their economic
transformation into hubs for high-tech innovative business. Conversely, globalized and
economically-prosperous urban areas in Europe and North America (e.g. Barcelona, Berlin,
London and Vancouver) also emphasize smart city strategies aimed at improving the quality
of life through more efficient and effective urban services (e.g. local security, water, or waste
management), introducing technological solutions for pollution control (e.g. clean energy,
smart lighting, environmental protection) and, to a lesser extent, facilitating civic participation
in the city governance.
5.3 One-size-does-not-fit-all: for an active role of regional governments in the
formulation of place-based smart city strategies
In pointing to the role of policy narratives and policymakers’ understanding and definition of
smart city plans, our findings emphasize the importance of agency in smart city development.
It particularly conceives agency in the form of policy narratives crafted by regional
governments to make sense of the spreading smart city paradigm as well as of the urban
problems that can be fixed through the design and implementation ICT solutions. Echoing Tang
et al. (2019), we argue that regional governments choose to adopt different smart city plans
because they operate in different urban (socio-economic) environments whose residents
experience different practical problems and direct policy makers to design and implement
different ICT solutions to solve them. Such environments might act as cognitive filters that
shape policymakers’ perceptions about what is feasible, legitimate, possible and desirable (Hay
& Wincott, 1998), thus influencing key strategic decisions about the smart city model that is
more appropriate to existing socio-economic circumstances. These findings invite to think
more about the varieties of smart city arrangements that might develop in different institutional
environments. Building on a public governance approach to smart cities (Meijer, 2018) and
political economy theories of business–politics relations (Culpepper, 2010), Drapalova &
Wegrich (2020) identify varieties of smart cities along two major dimensions, namely the
magnitude of citizen mobilization and the degree of politicization and direct involvement of
elected politicians. Through different combinations of these dimensions they identify four
varieties of smart city governance: citizen-centred, disjointed, weak business–politics coalition
and captured city. This framework relates citizens’ mobilization and political leadership as
primary factors that can influence the smart city model and the role that companies and other
actors play in it. In pointing to the role of citizens’ mobilization and political leadership,
Drapalova & Wegrich (2020) emphasize the importance of agency in smart city varieties.
Drawing on Hall & Soskice (2001), we argue that smart city varieties can be also linked to
differences in economic, technological and human environments within which smart-city
actors operate. Particularly, our findings suggest that well-established knowledge-economy
environments characterized by technological as well as human capital abundancy are fertile
institutional environments for the adoption of holistic, broad spectrum smart city plans whereas
environments consisting of less mature (economic, technological, human) institutions may be
fertile grounds for more narrowly-focused approaches to smart city development, such as the
business ecosystem approach.
These findings have important practical implications. They invite governments to refuse the
deterministic, one-size-fits-all mentality of smart city development - which dominates the
corporate understanding of smart urbanism (Luque-Ayala & Marvin, 2015) - in order to
embrace a place-based approach. Technological determinism prompts a reductionist view of
urban technological innovation, which is understood as a mere technical process, taking place
outside social, political, organizational, and cultural settings (Pritchard & Brittain, 2015).
Conversely, this study shows that urban technological deployment is socially-constructed
process whereby governments attribute different meanings to technology and select among
multiple alternative choices the smart city model that is more aligned with the economic,
technological and human characteristics of their territories. In other words, our narrative
analysis demonstrates that there is much more than the corporate-led one-size-fit-all mentality.
Governments can choose to formulate their smart city policies in alignment to their socio-
economic contexts, seeking to advance technological solutions to what they perceive as the
most pressing issues on their political agendas and a “desired urban development” (Verrest &
Pfeffer, 2019: 1329). Consistently with the cognitive approach to policy-making (Jones et al.,
2014; Weible & Sabatier, 2017), our findings point to the power of interpreting and defining
urban issues as central to smart city policy outcomes. We particularly suggest that the way
governments understand and label urban challenges is key to determine smart city policy
interventions, thus inviting future research to pay more attention to actors’ discourses about
smart city development and the socio-economic environments in which these discourses are
Innovatively building on NPF, we argue that regional governments operating within different
socio-economic contexts develop different smart city policy narratives because they have
different place-based regional interpretations of the smart city concept. Because of these
different interpretations, such governments understand and use smart city projects as policy
instruments to solve what they consider the most pressing socio-economic problems of their
territories and populaces. These findings allow for three key policy recommendations. Firstly,
we recommend policy-makers to adopt a place-based approach to smart city development in
order to design and implement smart city strategies that are well-situated in their socio-
economic contexts. Secondly, we recommend policy-makers to see smart technologies as
means - and not as ends in themselves - thus suggesting to use smart city projects as policy
instruments to address the most pressing socio-economic problems of their territories and
populaces. Thirdly we recommend government to adopt an active role in the formulation of
smart city policies by designing and implementing strategies that are aligned with the socio-
economic needs and ambitions of their territories and populaces.
Based on an in-depth analysis of the Walloon and Brussels cases, this paper has identified two
strategies of smart city development that are well-suited in two particular socio-economic
contexts. On the one hand, with an emphasis on ICT solutions in government and
administration to improve civic participation, urban services and pollution control, the holistic
strategy might be well-suited in urban environments that - such as the Brussels region - are
economically prosperous and/or embed provincial or national capitals. Conversely, with an
emphasis on business innovation and digital skills training programs to create a trained urban
workforce, a narrower approach might be well suited in urban environments – such as the
Wallonia region – that are transitioning from former logistic hubs and manufacturing centers
into the new economy to become hubs for high-tech business. These findings suggest further
exploring the hypothesis that well-established knowledge-economy environments
characterized by technological as well as human capital abundancy are fertile institutional
environments for the adoption of holistic, broad spectrum smart city strategies whereas
environments consisting of less mature (economic, technological, human) institutions may be
fertile grounds for more narrowly-focused approaches. Even though these two regional
strategies have promising heuristic potential for future analyses, it is worth remembering that
they emerge from an exploratory comparative case-study analysis involving only two regions.
Therefore, further empirical analysis is certainly needed in the future to generalize this
emerging hypothesis. In this regard, we suggest to test the above-mentioned hypothesis on a
large sample of regions, looking for more robust correlations between the typology of smart
city strategy adopted by regional governments and the socio-economic parameters of the local
contexts within which governments are situated (e.g. economy, human capital and digital
infrastructure). In this case, data availability is certainly a major problem that can be possibly
overcome through surveys addressing residents in (supra-)municipal administrations.
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