There’s more to smart cities than piling tech on top of them

more to smart cities
Shibuya district. Tokyo, Japan - May 3, 2019. Image by CCF.S | Bigstockphoto

ITEM: Smart cities sound like a great idea, but what we really need are smarter cities that understand the complex ecosystem of people who live in them. And we can’t get there by simply layering next-gen technologies on top of them.

That’s according to this opinion piece in MIT Technology Review, in which Riad Meddeb and Calum Handforth of the UN Development Programme (UNDP) Global Centre for Technology, Innovation, and Sustainable Development argue that smart city initiatives are at risk of becoming next-gen technology showcases rather than meaningful solutions for cities.

This take is, of course, at odds with the various tech vendors that have been pushing smart city technologies and solutions that combine various levels of 5G, IoT, big data, AI/ML and digital tech to create smart parking, smart traffic control, smart rubbish collection, driverless vehicles and whatnot, all of which will increase efficiencies, save costs, increase safety, etc and so on.

But while such technologies are useful, they are also typically marketed as solutions to transform cities into digital utopias of the future. The problem is that this encourages a mindset of treating cities as technology platforms, with subscribers and stakeholders instead of residents and citizens, with outcomes measured in terms of ROI and cold KPIs.

But that’s not how cities work in real life. A city is a living, evolving, collective entity – a community of people who live and work there, whose identities are partly shaped by it. Go to any city anywhere, and you’ll find people who will tell you what they love about that city, what they hate about it, and how it could be even better.

Thus, Meddeb and Handforth argue:

Truly smart cities recognize the ambiguity of lives and livelihoods, and they are driven by outcomes beyond the implementation of “solutions.” They are defined by their residents’ talents, relationships, and sense of ownership—not by the technology that is deployed there.

In other words, there’s more to smart cities than IT technology – for example, Harare’s passively cooled shopping center and “sponge cities” across China that use nature-based solutions to manage rainfall and floodwater are examples of smart-city solutions.

This expanded view of smart cities is necessary partly because tech-centric smart city solutions are “conceptually, financially, and logistically out of reach for many places”, and partly because technology alone doesn’t make a city smart.

This isn’t a new idea – Bruce Sterling wrote about this in 2018, describing smart-city projects at the time as the equivalent of sprinkling “digital stardust” on cities, which might make them attractive investment centers for businesses, but won’t necessarily make them any smarter, or improve the lives of citizens (at least not all of them).

Four years later, it appears, smart city projects are still mainly digital stardust plays.

Meddeb and Handforth stress that while technology can and will play a role in making cities smarter, “it must be applied thoughtfully and holistically—taking into account the needs, realities, and aspirations of city residents.”

It’s important to understand this because the planet is becoming increasingly urbanized – almost 70% of the global population will live in cities by 2050. These urban sprawls will need to be smarter, inclusive, holistic and sustainable in ways that take into account the living ecosystem of human lives that comprise them.

Full story here.

1 Comment

  1. This article has very good and important points. Someone just told me a good observation about smart city projects: how many times the plans really include UX and UI for citizens. They are so often smart tech stacks, ordinary people in the city are just objects, not subjects in the plans or implementations. I wrote earlier how important would be to make them more user centric:

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