The Problem with Smart Cities

It’s easy to be seduced by the promises of a ‘smart’ city – a highly efficient system, fed by sensors and data that, promisingly ease many of today’s present and future challenges of urbanisation. Traffic flows are adjusted with smart traffic lights to ease congestion, car-parking pricing is offered dynamically based on demand and key infrastructure (like autonomous public transport car fleets) could even anticipate our demands, arriving at our front door based on information in our web-connected calendar before even digitally hailing a driver.

The problem with these promises, with this supposedly utopian vision, is that it’s technology driven. But just because the technology exists, does that mean it should be used? And if we decide the technology does add value, how does it change the very way we interact with our environment, our city. The Smart City conversation has to evolve beyond one of tech – it’s not just an IoT story … and nor should a city be adopting ‘smart city’ technology just because it exists.

The very notion of ‘smart city’ likens the city to a ‘smart device’. Just the phrase is inherently tech driven. We have ‘smart watches’ and ‘smart phones’ … but those devices are simply that, devices, and require human interaction and nuance to realise their value.

My issue with the concept of a ‘smart city’ is it infers a city can be ‘digitised’ or ‘smartified’ … which leads us down a path of thinking of hyper connectivity, data driven efficiencies. But a city is so much more than that. Cities are hubs of people, supported by infrastructure. Cities are where people come together to experience the benefits of being together in close proximity – access to services, culture … very literally the benefits of urbanisation.

There’s no doubt that applying ‘smarts’ to city infrastructure has benefits. But the conversation needs to be bigger than ‘smart’. It needs to be about connecting the people of the city to each other and desired services in ways that add value to their lives (Facebook’s worldwide popularity is because it’s done just that); it needs to be about helping city (and state and federal) governments deliver services better; and from a future planning perspective, it needs to be about enabling cities to grow and evolve to the changing demands of it’s residents and businesses.

I prefer, therefore, the phrase ‘smart, connected cities‘, where we explore how to intelligently connect people with people, services and infrastructure. A smart, connected city is human-centric – it’s a city that enables the residents and visitors of the city to do what they want, more easily. A smart, connected city should enhance livability – which includes everything from quality of work and calibre of jobs, arts, culture, public facilities to transit and transport options.

It follows then a that smart, connected city should increase choice, not limit it. For example, when I’m in a hurry, I love that Google gives me step by step directions to ensure I get to my destination on time. But there are other times that I want to organically discover the city … even if that means making wrong turns, getting lost and discovering a whole new part of the world. At a higher level, there needs to be choice to buy something without it being tracked by my bank or loyalty program … or to simply ‘go off the grid’ whilst still accessing the services and infrastructure of the city.

It further follows that a smart, connected city must include everyone … not just those who can afford the latest gadget (let alone know how to use the latest gadgets). For me, this is one of the most exciting promises of a truly smart, connected city – digital infrastructure has the potential to be the great equaliser. Everyone can access the information, discourse and input channels that inform the design and creation of their city.

But my idealistic notions of course require a shift in our collective thinking. In the past, we expect our governments to ‘do things’ for us. But in the new ‘digitally-enabled’ environment, there is a growing expectation of co-design, of input. Perhaps a truly smart, connected city is one more akin to an ecosystem, or platform … where the government provides the enabling infrastructure on which residents and businesses, large and small, can build solutions to the problems that truly bug them. Such a model though blurs the lines between government/people/corporates more than ever before. We will continue to expect cities to ‘do things’ for us … but where will the lines be drawn in a civicly engaged, connected ecosystem?

To enable such a ‘platform’ requires a significant shift in paradigm by all members of the ecosystem. At the purest level, it requires cities become the provider of the enabling infrastructure; residents ideally provide input to both problems they want solved as well as desired solutions and business – large & small, provide the solution. Of course, those lines are not really that discrete, and in order for this new ‘smart’ ecosystem to work we need to revise the business models of cities too – who pays for what?

Which brings me to the greatest challenge currently facing us in the implementation of truly ‘smart, connected cities’. The very collaborative nature required to fundamentally rethink the needs of a city’s residents, not just now but generations down the line; to not interact as we have always done as stakeholders in the ecosystem and be truly co-creators … and I’m not sure we’re there yet. So we have to stop pursuing perfection and instead be comfortable with the uncomfortable, messy process of incremental change towards a bigger, long term vision, comfortably uncomfortable in the knowledge that the vision may change as we make progress. The vision needs to be more principle-orientated than future-state orientated; human-centric, liveability, equality rather than a prescribed futuristic vision; because it’s really hard to visualise just where the rapid pace of technological change may take us … let alone collectively agree to that (as yet) fictional future.


Further Reading

All of these references, plus others, informed this piece … and whilst they weren’t quoted in test, they provide context and further information.

We can’t allow the tech giants to rule smart cities‘, Paul Mason, October 2015, published in The Guardian

Australia must catch up as industry 4.0 heralds 4th industrial revolution‘, Tony Yoo, February 2016, published in The Guardian

Trade offs in the in the smart city‘, by Paul Wallbank, March 2016, Decoding The New Economy

City as a Platform: Applying platform thinking to cities‘, by Margaret Thornton, guest blogger on Platform Strategy