The Age of Smart Cities has Arrived – But Can We Even Agree On What They Are?

Whether we’re talking about the internet of things that joins us to our homes and our possessions, or the apps, sensors, and monitors that track every aspect of modern civilization, one factor remains consistent – all are part of the interconnected (and growing) web of data-driven smart technology that we’ve collectively adopted as a species.

It’s little surprise therefore that the smart city is the natural manifestation at the urban level, of the socio-technological shift that’s quietly taken place around the world over the last several years.

The macro evolution of a micro revolution in connected technology and big data, so called smart cities and connected conurbations have rapidly begun to emerge, and have done so seemingly out of nowhere and without much in the way of fanfare – until now.

From Helsinki to Toronto and everywhere in between, the cities of the world are getting smarter.

But what exactly does this mean?

What is it that actually makes a smart city as smart as we say it is, and beyond this, have we even come to a commonly agreed upon definition of the smart city yet?

Defining the Smart City

Try pinning down a handful of planners, architects or urban science advocates on defining the emergence of the entities that we’re rapidly labeling as smart cities, and you’ll likely end up with a handful of different answers.

To illustrate this point, if we go higher up the chain and take a look at the definition from the supranational level, the European Commission refers to the smart city as:

a place where traditional networks and services are made more efficient with the use of digital and telecommunication technologies

Sounds simple enough, but now let’s take a look at the view from the private sector to see how closely the definitions align:

A smart city is one in which the seams and structures of the various urban systems are made clear, simple, responsive and even malleable via contemporary technology and design

It seems that part of the smart city’s identity ambiguity is down to the fact that what a smart city is often depends on who you ask.

If you examine what the urban shaping and data integrating movers and shakers are saying, planning and doing regarding the roll out of smart cities, a few key topics begin to emerge (although few will agree on the same ones).

Many smart city advocates and commentators believe they will form a core part of the solution to addressing the huge challenges society and civilisation will likely face over the coming decades.

From climate change and rocketing inequality, to projections of significantly increased urbanisation and the geo-economic specter of imminent automation and machine intelligence, smart cities will help soften the blow and maintain the societal balance.

Beyond this, the proliferation of abundant data that we collectively produce every second combined with increasingly intelligent technology will result in devices, cities and shared urban experiences that are more personalised, inclusive and enjoyable.

Some experts believe that the multi-layered integration of technology with the urban fabric of our cities and urban spaces will result in the creation of places that are safer, more productive and more equitable for all inhabitants.

At least these are the views that the proponents of smart cities espouse.

There are others however who view the rapid increase in connected technology and data – and the ever-increasing spread and integration into the cityscape of both –  with a greater degree of scepticism and suspicion.

Privacy concerns are of course, always high on the list of concerns and are regularly highlighted as the area most likely abuse wherever the integration of personal metrics and data are combined.

Given the inherently public nature of the wider urban environment, in this regard the smart city as a concept is inherently flawed as a solution for many commentators.

Similarly and somewhat unsurprisingly, the thing that has the widest consensus among almost all parties is that the rise of the smart city is going to be increasingly big business and will deliver considerable economic and financial benefits to those on the right side of the curve.

Again, to the detractors of such smart technology being integrated at the urban scale, this introduces myriad issues regarding everything from transparency, accountability and equality, through to data-usage concerns and ethical considerations based around conflicts of interest.

If private industry leads the way and becomes a major (if not the primary) stakeholder in the eventual shape of the smart city, can we ever really trust that the delivered solution is truly beneficial to all the actual stakeholders (that is, the inhabitants and users who interact with the urban environment every day) and not simply to the shareholders of a company with little if any vested interest in greater the public good?

On the other side of the coin, some fear that if the public sector leads the way with the implementation of smart technology at the city level, the end-result may fall short of the mark depending on city budgets and conflicting priorities.

So if we assume that there’s the potential validity in every point made by the supporters and the naysayers across both sides of the public-private divide, let’s break this all down into some kind of aggregated list to try and reach a solid (sort of) smart city definition.

Smart cities:

  • will integrate network connected technology and big data with the wider urban environment (we’ll assume at every level) to create a web of always-communicating devices and systems.
  • should aim to alleviate the biggest issues of urban life and in doing so, contribute to lower inequality, increased safety, greater efficiency (across the board), higher productivity and result in an overall net benefit to quality of life for those interacting with the city.
  • have the potential to assist in addressing major future societal challenges but may equally have the potential to exacerbate them if not implemented in a way which is equitable and appropriate for all stakeholders.
  • are vulnerable to exploitation at multiple levels from network security and data privacy concerns through to systemic manipulation and the potential for misalignment of values on the part of those implementing connected technology at the urban scale and across the public domain.