This post is about the rise of the smart city movement, the different forms it has taken and what its future can be. It is the third edition of the series Better cities: The role of digital technologies.
The term smart cities shows up in the last decade of the 20th century. Most definitions refer to the use of (digital) technology as a tool for empowering cities and citizens, and a key to fuel economic growth and to attract investments. Some observants will add as an instrument to generate large profits.
Barcelona, Ottawa, Brisbane, Amsterdam, Kyoto, and Bangalore belong to the forerunners of cities that flagged themselves as ‘smart’. In 2013 approximately 143 ‘self-appointed’ smart cities existed worldwide. To date, this number has exploded over more than 1000.
Five smart city tales
In their article Smart Cities as Company Story telling Ola Söderström et al. document how technology companies crafted the smart city as a fictional story that framed the problems of cities in a way these companies can offer to solve. Over time, the story has multiplied, resulting in what I have called the Smart city tales, a series of narratives used by companies and city representatives. I will address with five dominant ones below: The connected city, the entrepreneurial city, the data-driven city, the digital services city and the consumers’ city.
The connected city
On November 4th 2011, the trademark smarter cities was officially registered as belonging to IBM. It marked a period in which this company became the leader of the smart city technology market. Other companies followed fast, attracted by an expected growth of this market by 20% per year from over $300bn in 2015 to over $750bn to date. In the IBM vision cities are systems of systems: Planning and management services, infrastructural services and human services, each to be differentiated further, to be over-sighted and controlled from one central point, such as the iconic control center that IBM has build in Rio de Janeiro (photo above). All systems can be characterized by three 'I's, which are the hard core of any smart city: Being instrumented, interconnected and intelligent.
The corporate smart city
In many cities in the world, emerging and developing countries in the first place, administrators dream about building smart towns from scratch. They envisioned being 'smart' as a major marketing tool for new business development.
Cisco and Gale, an international property development company, became the developers of New Songdo in South Korea. New Songdo was in the first place meant to become a giant business park and to enable a decent corporate lifestyle and business experience for people from abroad on the first place, offering houses filled with technical gadgets, attractive parks, full-featured office space, outstanding connectivity and accessibility.
Quite some other countries took comparable initiatives in order to attract foreign capital and experts to boost economic growth. For example, India, that has planned to build 100 smart cities.
The data driven city
The third narrative is fueled by the collection and refined analyses of data that technology companies ‘tap’ for commercial reasons from citizens’ Internet and mobile phones communication. Google was the first to discover the unlimited opportunities of integrating its huge knowledge of consumer behavior with city data. Sidewalk Labs - legally operating under the umbrella of Alphabet - responded to an open call for a proposal for redevelopment of Quayside, brownfield land around Toronto's old port, and won the competition. Its plans were on par with contemporary urbanist thinking. However, that was not Sidewalk Labs’ first motive. Instead, its interest was ‘ubiquitous sensing’ of city life’, to expand Google’s already massive collection of personalized profiles with real-time geotagged knowledge of where people are, what they are whishing or doing in order to provide them with commercial information.
As could be expected, privacy issues dominated the discussion over the urbanist merits of the plan and most observers believe that therefore the company put the plug out of the project in May 2020. The official reason was investors’ restraint, due to Covid-19.
The consumers’ smart city
The fourth narrative is focusing on rise of urban tech targeted on consumers. Amazon, Uber and Airbnb are forerunners disrupting traditional sectors like retail, taxi and hotel business. They introduced a platform approach that nearly decimated the middleclass in in the US. Others followed, such as bike- and scooter-sharing companies Bird and Lyme, co-working companies like We Work and meal delivery services like Delivero.
City tech embodies the influence of entrepreneurship backed by venture capitalists and at the same time the necessity for city governments to establish a democratic legitimized framework to manage these initiatives.
The smart services city
Thanks to numerous ‘apps’, cities started to offer a wealth of information and services to citizens concerning employment, housing, administration, mobility, health, security and utilities. These apps enable city administrators, transit authorities, utility services and many others to inform citizens better than before. With these apps, citizens also can raise questions or make a request to repair broken street furniture.
Some cities, for instance Barcelona and Madrid, started to use digital technologies to increase public engagement, or to give people a voice in decision making or budgeting.
All aforementioned narratives suggest a tight link between technology and the wellbeing of citizens, symbolizing a new kind of technology-led urban utopia. In essence, each narrative puts available technology in the center and looks for an acceptable rationale to put it into the market. The fifth one witnesses an upcoming change into a more human-centric direction.
An upcoming techlash or a second wave of smart cities
It is unmistakably that business leaders, having in mind a multi-billion smart city technologies-market overstate the proven benefits of technology. Garbage containers with built-in sensors and adaptive street lighting are not that great after all, and the sensors appearing everywhere raise many questions. According to The Economist, it is not surprising that a techlash is underway. As I accentuated in last week’s post, politicians are becoming more critical regarding behemoths like Google, Amazon and Facebook, because of their treatment of sensitive data, their lack of transparency of algorithm-based decision making, their profits and tax evasion and the gig economy in general. Skepticism within the general public is increasing too.
Nevertheless, a second wave of smart cities is upcoming. The first wave lacked openess for the ethics of urban technology and the governance of urban development. The second wave excels in ethical considerations and intentions to preserve privacy. Intentions alone are insufficient, politics will also have to break the monopolies of Big Tech
Besides, in order to gain trust in the general public, city governors must discuss the city’s real challenges with residents, (knowledge) institutions, and other stakeholder before committing to whatever technology. Governance comes prior to technology. As Francesca Bria, former chief technology officer of Barcelona said: We are reversing the smart city paradigm. Instead of starting from technology and extracting all the data we can before thinking about how to use it, we started aligning the tech agenda with the agenda of the city.
Apart from Barcelona, this also happens in cities such as Amsterdam, Boston, Portland and the Polish city of Lublin. The question is no longer which problems technology is going to solve, but which exactly are these problems, who is trusted to define them, which are their causes, whose intersts are involved, who is most affected, and which ones must be solved most urgently. Only after answering these questions, the discussion can be extended to the contribution of (digital) technology. In a next contribution, I explore digital social innovation, as a contribution to a revised smart city concept.
This post is a brief summary of my article Humane by choice. Smart by default: 39 building blocks for cities in the future. Published in the Journal of the American Institution of Engineers and Technology, June 2020. You will fine a copy of this article below: