The collective imagination of the Future of Cities is alluring, and dangerously incomplete.
Evidence suggests that past 15 years of Open, Green, and Smart cities has further entrenched inequities within cities rather than equalizing the urban experience. This ever-widening gap threatens cities’ very reason for being: to accelerate opportunity, possibility and innovation. In response, global organizations are (finally) asking the important question, “Smart cities for who?” To begin to answer this question and develop a counter narrative that is inclusive, dynamic, and as complex as the interconnected challenges we face, let’s first examine how we got here.
1. Data is political
The Open Data/Gov movement that took off in the mid-2000s gave rise to a new crop of civil society organizations like Code for America, Sunlight Foundation, and Omidyar Network that funded and worked with (predominately global north) municipal governments to unpack and unleash the vast amount of data aggregated by cities for better decision making and policy development in health, mobility, and economy. From the United States to Taiwan, the Gov 2.0 movement was marked by young, data literate, data hungry developers designing governments from the outside-in. It began with digitizing paper-based services, moved onto to Municipal Dashboards and off the shelf software solutions for procurement, to using social media platforms for consensus building.
But data is political — as the Open Data movement itself has shown. In many countries, developing and developed alike, who and what gets measured, how it gets measured and if it gets used are highly politicized questions. A recent study published by the World Wide Web Foundation found that 10 years into the movement to make government data open, leading governments have opened fewer than 1 in 5 datasets. In this context, what can we hope for in the least developed countries and middle-income countries in democratic transitions who might not have the political will or capability to implement these strategies?
Furthermore, there is often incentive from multi-national institutions, governments, funders, and even civil society, to skew data to reflect the world the way we want to see it versus the way it is. Seeing the world the way it is involves collecting data with people who are often hard to track: migrants, those without access to basic services, those without access to the internet. In India, only 18% of 1.25 billion people have access to the internet; that is 225 million people — larger than the population of many countries. However, what that means is the opinions of over 900 million Indians do not get factored in to the Big Data machine.
2. Smart is exclusive
So, albeit with incomplete information, we barrel toward the Smart City: that city with smart cars, smart transportation, and smart tall glass buildings with smart sensors… a utopia of responsive efficiency fueled by the 4th Industrial Revolution. The ubiquity of smartphones has given developers access to some of our most personal data and by partnering with private companies to unpack this aggregated data, cities have begun to ease traffic congestion in real-time, monitor the health of the city and its infrastructure, and develop new planning policies.
But Smart, like open, is a vision that caters to those who shape and utilize the technology being leveraged. It often skips over resident engagement, and uses a “smart one-size-fits-all“ template that results in frustrated residents and planners alike. If Uber is measuring and predicting traffic patterns, it is predominantly looking at the routes of those that can afford to use ride-sharing platforms. If buildings are capturing air quality data, it is often hyper-located in urban centers and doesn’t begin to capture the levels of air pollution further out, where the factories spew greenhouse emissions and the most impoverished live with limited access to public health services.
3. Green is imperative and incomplete
As the Smart City dawned, people became keenly aware of the need for smart and open interventions to be grounded by a green ethos. Circular waste systems can now turn black water into drinking water, aquaponic farms grow food in pristine underground labs that is monitored from above, smart transportation systems run on time and with zero emissions, and buildings not only measure air quality, but have carbon sequestration machines that vacuum up air pollution. It is a compelling vision of the future… however overly polished and deeply inadequate it may be.
It might be blasphemous, perhaps heretical, but the Green Gospel has left out some important reflections. “Going Green” is initially an expensive and time-consuming process that is difficult to achieve if either the organizational/political will or strong capital is missing. For developing and middle-income countries, green is still seen as a luxury they can’t afford. Although plenty of evidence demonstrates the far-reaching economic and environmental benefits of low-carbon models, for many places it remains a case of avoiding short term pain for long term gain. This is not to underestimate the importance of retrofitting factories and municipal buildings, replacing thousands of city light bulbs, and adding solar arrays. It’s just that doing so often incentivizes the wrong thing: buy more new technology, rather than reduce demand for power and consciously reassess our extractive relationship with the global ecosystem.
We must move away from relying on incomplete big/thick data, fetishizing technological or “smart” solutions for challenges that can’t be solved with an app, and conflating green with ecologically responsible. This might be a bleak picture, but it is not without hope.
The new narrative needs dreamers and doers from all walks of life to envision a future that is equitable, diverse, representative, open, green, and yes… even smart.
Well-meaning institutions and the machinery of international aid have played a role in supporting this incomplete and sometimes damaging dominant narrative about the future of cities. Thankfully, for as many years as we can count, people and collections of people (not always organizations or companies), have been designing and testing interventions at the edges. These ideas cut across domains, technologies, sectors, and approaches to reach the “last mile,” they design and deliver inclusive services, move faster to tackle global challenges and, in effect, beat international aid at its own game. Current institutions are, paradoxically, too small for the problem and the ambition of the solutions, and much too large to match the agility of these decentralized, unconstrained actors.
If Lagos, Nigeria is set to be the first city with 100 million people and by 2030 more than 50% of global population will be concentrated in China, India, Tunisia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Malaysia, and South America, then the world demands an inclusive narrative for the future of our cities that does not look or feel like our current one. We need new structures that are designed and shaped by those who were once called beneficiaries and are now called participants; we must center marginalized voices, amplify them, and provide them with the tools, space, and permission they need to dream and dare a new, and wholly unpredictable, future.
Cities are sandboxes for experimentation at the most impactful scale and, ultimately, where the future of our world will play out. That’s why at UNDP we are supporting deeply collaborative innovation practices, reimagining traditional aid and procurement, as well as the very future of governance. We are committed to the challenging effort to recognize, name, and address the mismatch between the problem, the traditional problem-solvers, and the next generation of diverse, uncoordinated and fast-moving surge of solutions emerging in cities.
Whether it’s securing remittances in Serbia from families living abroad, delivering food for refugees in Jordan, or banking the “unbankable” in Sierra Leone, regional hubs and country staff are pushing innovation forward and positively impacting the lives of millions. Additionally over the next two years UNDP is undertaking an ambitious strategy to launch more than 60 policy innovation labs around the world in an effort to truly match the grand scale of the challenges we collectively face.
“Fuelled by technology-driven possibility as well as the emerging civic outrage about the systemic failure of governance, [cities] present the sites of potential near-now futures that are human-centric, empowering and transformative.” — UNDP, #NextGenGov
We cannot just be idle consumers of the future of our cities. Our profound and inescapable responsibility is to shape it.
Our new blog series, Future of Cities, will explore emerging and best practices in Inclusive Innovation and endeavor to provide a powerful corrective to the standard narrative around open, green, and smart cities.
We welcome your ideas and feedback as we share emerging practices and insights. Let us know. Jump in. Connect.