Smart City models often overlook one key component – the people in them

smart city people
Smart city landscape with modern buildings, bullet train, electro buses and cars, sunbatteries, network of things, icons. City of future concept. Image by Gvardgraph | Bigstockphoto

Numerous cities around the world want to become ‘smart’ cities. One main objective of smart cities is to collect data to improve and develop services. As a result, many vendors are also keen to get to the smart city business. These projects are network, infrastructure and big data intensive. So how does this benefit ordinary people? Any value to individuals and their privacy seem to have a lower priority, although the ultimate target should surely be to improve the lives of residents.

Smart city concepts started to trend some years ago and are increasing in popularity. 5G and Edge also are seen as essential technology boosts for those projects, and that’s why network vendors and carriers are involved in most projects. Smart cities are seen as a good reason to build technology infrastructure to collect, transfer and analyze all that data.

Cities target to collect data and analyze it to optimize services and operations for many purposes, such as traffic management, public transportation, power consumption and production, water supply, waste collection, crime reduction, healthcare and community services. Environmental aspects are also becoming more critical. Air quality, noise pollution and consumption of energy are other areas cities want to improve.

This all sounds great, but as we know from many other technology projects, it’s very different to focusing on the development of services for individuals, the user experience, and their unique needs and values. Beyond that, privacy and data protection are now critical issues in these kinds of huge data projects. At worst, smart city infrastructure resembles a real ‘big brother’ scenario.

It is possible to build smart cities that serve individuals better, but it would require parties to develop services from a consumer’s perspective. The concept could help people get better services, optimize their movements, live healthier lives, save time and money and improve the quality of life in many ways. Ten years ago, we had to rely on mobile app developers to provide useful apps to individuals because carriers and network vendors were not able or motivated to do it.

Many services would also become more valuable if we were able to combine personal and public data. Your movements combined with traffic and public transportation data, air quality data with your daily walking and running routes, and your personal habits with daily energy consumption peaks are just some examples. Together, the two data sources could create value for the individual and society.

This could be achieved if individuals had access to public data combined with their own personal data. In this way, privacy could be respected and preserved. But if public services start to surveil individual people, we immediately encounter data protection and privacy risks. It would also lead to a model that cities, authorities and service providers would plan what they think is suitable for individuals, not to offer tools for individuals to improve their own lives.

For city authorities, infrastructure vendors and carriers that dominate projects, it is not easy or conducive for them to build systems from an individual’s point of view. Of course, politicians in the city councils should be thinking of the residents they represent, but it’s not enough. We also need technology solutions and vendors that focus on building solutions and services for individuals.

This would likely involve an additional layer for the services. Maybe something similar to app stores made for mobile apps that also enable users to protect their privacy and manage their personal data. It could also empower many other parties to develop services for residents and give them the power to decide what services they want to use. The best services are hardly ever developed by authorities and big tech companies deciding on what the individual wants.

Smart cities should be focused more on the needs of residents. There are many ‘nice’ and ambitious plans to make cities and the lives of residents better, but nice plans are never enough. The real questions are who are the actual customers, who can decide which services to use and who will control the data. To make these services beneficial for people, the concepts, technology, architecture, data and business models should be designed to empower people, not just to surveil and control them.

Related article from 2018: Smart cities won’t work without citizen engagement: Gartner

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