Measuring Cities´Smartness: Navigating through an Ocean of Indicators

By Josep Antoni Ivars Baidal from University of Alicante

Smart cities and smart destinations have become widely used buzzwords with different meanings and interests. Institutional self-proclamations of smart city / destination are so frequent that it is interesting to specify clearly what constitutes smartness and how it is measured. An undoubtedly complex but necessary task.

The pioneering work coordinated by R. Giffinger (2007) established the six basic characteristics of the smart city and specified them in 74 indicators to build the first European smart city ranking, focused on medium-sized cities ( Since this study to date, there have been countless initiatives to assess the level of smartness of cities. These initiatives are aimed at a variety of purposes: scientific work, rankings, indexes, standards or indicators systems integrated in urban/tourism management programs. These contributions recall the wide use of indicators since the 1990s to measure sustainability, a dimension that, on the other hand, being integrated in the smart city/destination concept, has generated specific analyzes around the best way to conceptualize and measure the relationship between sustainability and smartness.

The European Commission has supported different projects based on the evaluation of smart cities initiatives, such as Mapping Smart Cities in the EU (2014) ( or CITYkeys (2017) (, aimed at the creation of smart city indicators that can function as Key Performance Indicators for tracking the progress towards city and project objectives. This approach is interesting for international comparison of smart city performance and for policy analysis leading to improved urban management. For a similar purpose, standards related to smart cities have been developed by the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO). In particular, ISO 37122: 2019 (Sustainable cities and communities-Indicators for smart cities) in conjunction with ISO 37120: 2018 (Sustainable cities and communities – Indicators for city services and quality of life).

In a recent research paper, A. Sharifi (2020) ( has examined thirty-four smart city assessment schemes showing the prevalence of indexes of different nature, above all market-oriented as the Cities in Motion Index ( or the Innovation Cities Index (, together with academic contributions, such as the Lisbon ranking for smart sustainable cities ( These indicators are structured according to the typical dimensions of smart city: economy, people, governance, environment, mobility, living, and data; with logical variations based on the objectives and methodology used.

How is tourism and its urban implications reflected in these indicator systems? The analysis of these systems evidences a very low presence of direct tourism indicators, a logical consequence of systems that try to measure a complex reality in a holistic way. This marginal role of tourism indicators prevents the establishment of correlations or cause-effect relationships between tourism and its urban effects, fundamentally those related to processes of social exclusion, which are also under-represented in the evaluation schemes of smart cities. In this context, the SMARTDEST project is an opportunity to contribute to a better measurement of the relationships between urban smartness, tourism and other forms of mobility and social exclusion processes.

digitalization for tourism

The challenge of digitalisation for a more sustainable, competitive and inclusive tourism in Europe under the smart destination approach

By Josep Ivars Baidal from Universidad Alicante

The challenge of digitalisation has been accelerated by the Covid-19 crisis, a process that tends to be integrated into the broader concept of smart tourism as a way to progress towards a more sustainable, competitive and inclusive tourism in Europe.

Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) have been a major factor of disruption in the tourism sector even before the Covid-19 crisis. Digitalisation is perceived as a key challenge to improve competitiveness of tourism firms. Nevertheless, the tourism industry is a highly diverse and complex sector that integrates different subsectors (Accommodation, Travel Agencies and Tour Operators, Food & Beverage, Transport Services, Entertainment and Recreation Attractions, etc) which comprise mostly small and medium size enterprises (SMEs). This complexity together with the lack of accurate data hinders the identification of the exact degree of technology adoption in tourism, but some facts are quite relevant:

  • The higher technology adoption by large companies and the risk of widening the gap between large and small companies.
  • The existence of geographical differences, taking the level of digitalisation of each European country as an approximate indicator of the degree of digitalisation of its tourism industry. According to the Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI) (, the most advanced countries are Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands and Denmark, while Bulgaria, Romania, Greece and Poland have the lowest scores on the index.
  • The need to revise the perception of tourism as a sector with low digital intensity, as recent studies highlight that the Accommodation and Travel Agency & Tour Operator subsectors are above other industrial activities in digital intensity. On the other hand, subsectors like Food & Beverage are at the bottom of the digital intensity indexes.
  • Technology adoption in tourism is mostly related to marketing and distribution and is less oriented towards productivity improvement, while more advanced technologies (big data, customer relationship marketing, etc.) are underrepresented compared to other economic activities.

However, digitalisation goes beyond the mere adoption of ICT and new sources of data. Dredge et al. (2018) ( describe the journey towards digitalisation of SMEs from an initial stage of weak digitalisation, characterized by an individual mindset, to a strong stage representing smart tourism, as a connected mindset that promotes a high level of innovation and ICT systems interoperability. Thus, the emergent smart paradigm becomes a core element for tourism destination management.

Digitalisation is among the four categories of the European Capital of Smart Tourism initiative (, together with sustainability, accessibility and cultural heritage and creativity. Best practices in digitalisation from a city perspective include facilitating information for specific target groups, collecting information for smarter management, and improving physical and psychological accessibility through innovation. This sectoral objectives should be complemented, within a framework of urban governance, by the potential of using technology to analyze and prevent the processes of social exclusion caused by tourism-related mobilities, a goal that inspires the SMARTDEST research project.

The European Union reaction to the Covid-19 crisis and the strategies for recovery, summarized in the European Commission Communication, “Tourism and transport in 2020 and beyond” (COM(2020) 550 final) (, have reinforced the need to work towards the smart management of tourism flows and the digitalisation of local companies to become more resilient and competitive. The revival of tourism must involve new management approaches in order to truly evolve towards more sustainable and inclusive models of development.