Author: Petra Hurtado
When reading about smart cities and related technology innovations, one may get the impression smart cities are something IT companies are creating by selling information and communication technologies (ICT) to cities, while implementing these technologies mainly for technology’s and innovation’s sake. New ideas and technologies are generated by big IT companies such as Cisco or IBM, new start-ups, innovation-driven mayors, and city technologists, all wishing to present something sexy to their citizens with the intention of improving efficiencies and quality of life. Yet, other mayors are apprehensive of these mysterious technologies, criticizing their impact on privacy and emphasizing the need for better data protection, while explaining that urban development should focus more on sustainability, resilience, or livability instead of ICT. One could get the impression that cities can only be either “smart” or sustainable, but not both at the same time. The flood of city rankings that inform us which is the “smartest” city in the world, the most sustainable city, the most resilient city, or the most livable city, is fueling this wrong impression.
However, this conversation misses the crucial connection that exists between the “smartness” of a city and its sustainability, resilience, and livability. It often seems as if those topics are not interrelated, which is incorrect in concept and intention. Smart city solutions are a crucial step in the development of sustainable, resilient, and livable cities (SRL cities). By putting these city categories and their specific objectives next to each other and comparing them according to specific targets and achievements, we tend to forget the real opportunities smart city technologies offer. However, by using smart city technologies and innovations as tools to reinforce the capacities of important urban systems and by integrating them in the processes of creating SRL cities, we can achieve SRL cities in more innovative and most likely more efficient ways.
In general, smart city technologies have the purpose of making the operation of cities more efficient. But what does that mean? Smart city technologies can have a tremendously positive impact on cities and the way they are operated and developed. There are three main areas where smart city technologies result in more efficiency in relation to sustainability, resilience, and livability:
(1) Resource efficiency:
Smart technologies are available for almost every sector or area of operation within a city that consumes natural resources (transportation; residential, commercial, industrial, and public buildings; and energy sector). An efficient transportation system with attractive public transit, bike share options, or mechanisms to avoid congestion or car traffic results in the decrease of fossil fuel consumption, a decrease in GHG emissions, and time savings for residents, businesses, and commuters. Smart parking, real-time information, automated congestion pricing, or app-based transit passes are just a few examples of smart technologies that make the transportation sector more efficient. Smart building technologies such as smart meters, motion sensors, or BIM (Building Information Modeling) reduce energy and water consumption and can increase systems performance in buildings. The use of renewable energy in combination with smart grids, providing options to store or distribute energy depending on demand and supply, additionally helps to decrease fossil fuel consumption and use renewable energy more efficiently.
(2) More efficient communication and closer connection between the city government and the citizens through e-government and a two-way communication stream:
Smart technologies enable city governments to understand the needs of its citizens better. By tracking daily mobility patterns (origin, destination, and route / means of transportation used), measuring air pollution and noise through sensors, or simply by providing communication channels for feedback, inquiries, or requests (e.g. a smart phone app to report a pothole in the street or an online platform to complain about dust from a construction site), the city government can be in contact with and responsive to its citizens in a timely and 24/7 manner. Enabling closer connectivity to the citizen can also make certain decision-making processes easier and more effective, especially in fields such as transportation planning (e.g. determining the need for a new bus line or bike lane according to existing usage), development of public spaces (e.g. determining location of public space through tracking of movement of people in urban spaces), or demand for other infrastructure services. Smart technologies can facilitate information dissemination and bring the government and its citizens closer together by making this direct communication possible. Additionally, efficient e-government technologies can enable citizens to take care of certain administrative issues such as getting a building permit, buying a transit ticket, or paying the electricity bill in more efficient ways; that is, online while sitting on their couch.
(3) Efficiency of local governments and their administrative processes:
The more efficient a government works, the more tax revenues can be collected and, in turn, invested in new infrastructure and other amenities that make cities livable, sustainable, and resilient. At the same time, the more efficient a government works in their decision making processes, planning processes, or the organization of certain city services such as waste management, the easier it gets to solve problems at their source and not just address their symptoms. Access to big data on citywide issues and the capacities to narrow down data to smaller scales are important to understand the sources of problems and to resolve them accordingly. Citizens become active participants in planning processes, by providing timely and locational feedback and notifying city authorities of needs and risks in their communities.
Smart city technologies are instrumental to SRL cities not only to help decrease the consumption of energy, water, and other natural resources while decreasing GHG emissions, but also to help integrate the citizens into the planning and decision-making processes through improved communication with the aim to foster greater civic engagement and equity.
The main problem the smart city concept faces is the missing cooperation between the key stakeholders and decision-makers. That is, on the one hand, we have IT companies that design and create the technologies; while on the other hand, we have those responsible for planning, operating, and developing cities. Looking at smart city conferences worldwide, for example, most are hosted by IT companies, or organizations funded by global IT players. Presentations by IT experts for IT experts are not necessarily helpful nor understandable for urban planners or mayors.
Cities are very complex per se. Urban planning and the development of a sustainable, resilient, and livable city entail a number of multi-disciplinary tasks that can’t be handled separately but have to be understood in a holistic, integrative way. At the same time, the development of ICT systems is a complex process as well that requires technical expertise in fields often difficult to understand by lay people. Bringing together the field of ICT and the multidisciplinary field of urban planning, not for the sake of implementing new technologies and calling it “the smartest city in the world”, but rather for the sake of creating urban system efficiencies to help achieve climate goals, promote accessibility, and equity, and create closer connections between city governments and all its citizens, can result in powerful solutions.
Most importantly, we must keep in mind to start with the problems and not the technology, as outlined in Walter Schönwandt’s “problems first” approach (University of Stuttgart). Currently, in many cases, the approach is the reverse, whereby, IT companies offer solutions without knowing the problems and their sources. Starting with the technology, and implementing it for its own sake, will result in a technology-based urban world where we ignore the real problems such as growing urban population, crime, inequality, or environmental degradation. Smart city technologies should be used to solve current problems and make current challenges easier instead of creating new problems, doubts, or mistrust. IT companies may not always be aware of the pressing problems or challenges, but the city governments and people who live, work, and play in the cities are. It is therefore important that both fields come together to advance the next generation of smart cities.
As highlighted in previous Urban Breezes articles, in order to achieve truly sustainable, resilient, and livable cities, people-centric and nature-based solutions are imperative components, while purely technology-based solutions can result in problems as we face them today. One of the main issues of today’s cities is car traffic and related emissions, traffic deaths, and land use. The invention of the once innovative technology of cars made urban planners adapt cities to cars. Today, we try to reverse our car-centric cities to create cities that are walkable, bikeable, or simply, people-centric instead of technology-centric. We regret having revolved our planning efforts around a technology for the last 60 or more years; we shouldn’t make the same mistake again. This is not a contradiction to smart cities. Quite the opposite, smart city technologies, as outlined above, can be the missing link between plans and people, between the built environment and people’s activities, and between decision-making processes and people’s behavior.
Knowledge sharing and learning from both fields is therefore fundamental. IT companies need to understand city operations and its socio-economic, ecological, and institutional challenges, while city governments, urban planners, and citizens need to understand the value and usefulness of the investment and use of ICT. Awareness building is important when it comes to overcoming fear of new technologies. At the same time, we have to avoid making the same mistakes of a hundred years ago when a new technology (the car) became the center of urban planning and development. We must remember to start with the problems and not with technology. It should not be the ICT industry approaching the cities with their technological solutions, asking for an opportunity to implement them; instead, it should be mayors and their planning teams approaching the ICT industry with current urban problems and challenges, asking for ways to solve them.