The Rise of Smart Cities: Will It Do More Harm Than Good?

The costs of achieving real-time city updates

The ultimate goal of “smart cities” is to provide real-time status updates of a city to solve problems such as traffic congestion and environmental pollution by combining technology, data analytics, and urban services. However, to obtain such a goal, societies will be faced with different issues such as inequality and conflicts of interest between different groups. This, in turn, merits the need to create policies to address such issues while also facilitating the development of smart cities.

Rob Kitchin, in his 2014 article “The Real-time City? Big Data and Urbanism” in GeoJournal notes that there are various advantages to a ‘real-time’ city and also casts concerns on the sacrifices needed by a society to achieve this goal. While policies related to human capital, education, and economic development have the potential to be enhanced by information and communication technologies (ICTs), other policies related to privacy, security, and conflicts of interests between private and public sectors have the potential to be threatened. Policymakers will be tasked with the role of delicately balancing the potential benefits and threats to ensure the success of smart cities in alignment with the preservation of the rights of the citizens.

User Privacy and the Collection of Data

One way to understand how user privacy can be compromised is through understanding how data on urban services is collected. Kitchin notes that the real-time city would mostly rely on automated data collection. In particular, he mentions that automated forms of surveillance, networks created through the Internet of things (IOT) which enables everyday objects to send/receive data through sensors via the Internet, and the tracking of people and objects are of most interest for managing a city. Examples of these networks in a city include cameras auto-scanning license plates and matching them with details of the owner to trace vehicle movement or the attachment of small inexpensive sensors (RFID chips) onto trash bins to detect whether they have been collected or not. With continuous data being collected on people and things, a city can be envisioned as a growing constellation of connected pieces. In addition, the ability to capture these streams of data allows for evidence-informed policy analysis vital to provide objective measures of what is occurring in a city and what should be done to avoid urban problems in the future.

This offers an attractive vision of the future but also raises a number of concerns.

Technocratic Governance

One concern that the author raises concerns technocratic governance. Governing a city through feeds of information leads to a disassembly of complex social situations into simple computable problems. While this sounds appealing in theory, technocratic forms of governance are highly narrow in scope and fail to take into account the wider effects of culture, politics, policy, governance, and capital that have shaped and influenced cities. Smart cities cannot easily solve structural problems rooted in the environment. Rather, they use real-time analytics to solve manifestations of these root issues, conveniently painting over cracks rather than fixing them.

False Red Flags

Streetbump App utilized in Boston to pinpoint pot holes

In addition, smart cities are prone to issuing false red flags. In one example, Boston released the Streetbump[1] app, utilizing the accelerometer and GPS in smartphones to detect and report potholes. People in lower income groups and the elderly are less likely to have smartphones, which meant that the app excluded data from a large part of the population of the city resulting in an unequal allocation of funds. If data collected from smart cities does not accurately reflect the activities of people in the city, then will the benefits of using data for smart cities outweigh the costs? Measures to ensure accurate and equality of collection of data, would have to be taken by policymakers to ensure fairness and equal representation regardless of what socioeconomic class, demographic, or area of a city a citizen belongs to.

Corporatization of City Governance

Another problem, Kitchin argues, that may arise with the creation of smart cities is the corporatization of city governance. Kitchin notes that people are already concerned that the government consists of politicians with large special interests, and will give free hand exploitation to large corporations who will develop smart city-related technologies. Policymakers should be in charge of alleviating the concerns of citizens by creating guidelines and means of oversight as well as ensuring the safety of citizens’ data.

Without regulated oversight and enforcement concerning abuses and misuse of the data, there is likely to be a significant resistance and push-back against real-time urban analytics by citizens.

As more aspects and issues of life are captured through data in dynamic ways, tension between the technology enabling more effective modes of governance and concern from citizens is set to grow. It will be crucial for policymakers to consider protection of consumer data privacy, accurate representation of population in the data, and regulation of the budget spent on smart infrastructure to fully reap the benefits of urban analytics and gain widespread acceptance from the community.


Like what you read? Give Jennifer Joe a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.