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Critically Assessing the “Smart City”

The phrase “smart city” is on the lips of urban planners and policy makers everywhere in recent months. Cities from London and Barcelona to Hangzhou and Rio de Janeiro are being hailed as “smart,” “wired,” and “networked” with their expansive grids of sensors, intelligent lighting, adaptive traffic signals, and closed-circuit cameras.

Image Courtesy of JCT600, © 2016.

The impetus for intelligent urban design is derived from an enabling technological environment and two other widely-discussed and interrelated trends of urbanization and population growth. The oft-cited statistic that by 2050, nearly 70 percent of the world’s population will live in cities, is wielded as an argument for the necessity of technological, data-driven solutions to the ongoing urban challenges of congestion, sustainability, and livability. The hope is that smart city policies will help alleviate these challenges while enhancing quality of life for residents through the use of predictive analytics and the Internet of Things (IoT).

For all the time spent extolling the merits of the smart city, there is little discussion devoted to defining just what, precisely, makes a city “smart.” Rarer still is the conversation concerned with critically exploring the smart city and the potential dangers it poses–issues around privacy, inequality, civil rights, social cohesion.

The Smart Cities Council echoes others in noting the absence of a “universally agreed definition,” adding that “the smart city sector is still in the ‘I know it when I see it’ phase.” The Council goes on to unhelpfully define a smart city “as one that has digital technology embedded across all city functions.”

Broadly speaking, it is helpful to think of “smart” in the context of urban planning, as any feature that utilizes data and communication technologies to make a city operate more efficiently, effectively, and competitively. Indeed, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) Focus Group on Smart Sustainable Cities identifies a smart city as:

“An innovative city that uses information and communication technologies (ICTs) and other means to improve quality of life, efficiency of urban operation and services, and competitiveness, while ensuring that it meets the needs of present and future generations with respect to economic, social, environmental as well as cultural aspects”.

Emerging trends and technologies in IoT, big data, automation, and machine learning are the driving forces behind the adoption of smart city initiatives. While smart applications can be applied in countless ways across all sectors and any area of city management, transportation and energy are often central to these initiatives as cities strive to implement innovative solutions to urban congestion and climate change-related issues.

Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, © 2011.

Singapore, ranked number one on Juniper Research’s Global Smart City Index, provides an example of the extent to which smart policies inform urban planning and government spending. Singapore’s Smart Sensor Nation Platform launched in 2014 with the aim to bring all 110,000 lamp posts in the city-state into an interconnected network of wireless sensors with built-in connectivity and power sources to which various devices, such as CCTV cameras or environmental and motion sensors, are attached. Working alongside other strategic national projects identified by the Smart Nation initiative, Singapore is fully embracing digital technologies in a bid to become more economically competitive. While such smart initiatives will undoubtedly bring increased efficiency and productivity, they have also bestowed upon the government enormous powers of surveillance.

As a 2016 Wall Street Journal article cautions, this network of cameras and sensors will enable the government to monitor and analyze “everything from the cleanliness of public spaces to the density of crowds and the precise movement of every locally registered vehicle… Already, for instance, authorities are developing or using systems that can tell when people are smoking in prohibited zones or littering from high-rise housing.” While most would agree that streets free from litter and cigarette butts is a preferable state to the inverse, there is something decidedly nanny state-esque in round-the-clock smart technology-enabled enforcement of no smoking signs.

A similar example of smart technology being used to police public spaces comes out of the Chinese city of Jinan, where it is reported that facial-recognition technology is used to catch jaywalkers. The proliferation of cameras, audio-recording devices, and data-gathering sensors in urban centers across the globe has serious implications not only for privacy rights, but for the democratic functioning of civil society. As Future of Privacy Forum Policy Counsel Kelsey Finch explains, “widespread surveillance could lead to chilling effects on the behaviour of people in public spaces… [as] folks won’t feel like they can protest or that they can speak freely or just go about their lives.”

Critical geography scholar and author Ayona Datta cites related concerns over the uncritical application of smart technologies by developing countries seeking to quickly boost economic development. She gives the Indian city of Dholera as an example of a purpose-built smart city that has created uneven geographic development–marginalizing farmers, informal workers, and indigenous people that live in small towns and villages–while perpetuating social, economic, and gender inequality. As former Chief Urban Designer of New York City Alexandros Washburn explains, the convenience and efficiencies generated by smart sensors and data-informed algorithms may initially benefit the collective good, but eventually, the system will create (or preserve existing) winners and losers.

Of course, the winners–those with privileged access to public goods–will be those who can afford to pay for them. To avoid repeating mistakes from the past and perpetuating current inequalities, it is vital that we think critically about the application of smart technologies and the impact of delegating governance to big data on the functioning of our societies in the future.


Olivia Edwards

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1 Comment

  1. Monte Edwards on April 22, 2018 at 3:29 pm

    The cautions of smart data give me more pause than the proposed benefits. Well balanced article.

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