Screenshot of Barcelona’s open data service landing page. Barcelona is one of the most well-known “smart cities”.

Is the smart city the city of the future?

Maxim Goryunov Dec 11, 2021

Taking a human community perspective, one of the trends shaping its future is the growing importance of cities and their impact on social and economic processes. More than 55 percent of the world's population lives in cities, and by 2050 this proportion is expected to rise to 68 percent . The vast majority of scientific, educational, industrial, and other institutions are concentrated in cities, where most socio-economic innovations are born. At the same time, the rapid development of cities brings about such problems as increased use of infrastructure, outdated planning solutions, traffic congestion, pollution, overcrowding, obsolete governance institutions, and loss of identity by city dwellers. Further urbanization is inevitable, although the specific forms are likely to vary. Against this background there is a significant increase in interest in urban issues.

The smart city model, which reflects visions of the future cities and how to solve their problems, is one of today’s most common concepts. At the abstract level, the smart city is presented as an innovative way to achieve a high quality of life for the urban community. In one projection, smart cities can improve this indicator by 10-30 percent . Thus smart cities offer residents reductions in mortality, disease burden, greenhouse gas emissions and travel time. As a systematic story , integration within a single urban space is about health and safety, mobility, activities, opportunities, and governance.

In practice, the term smart cities is very general. Experts use it to refer to a variety of processes, although it implies two necessary aspects:

  1. the presence of multiple sensors to receive and process information, advanced data collection systems and specialized software for analytics;
  2. the presence of 'smart' residents who are interested in the application of smart and green solutions and are able to use them.

In this way, we can already see examples. Orders are placed online. Cars are conveniently distributed around the city, and the customer pays for their time of use. Many city governments have introduced bike-sharing programs. This transport system is equally popular among city residents and tourists. Albeit on a small scale, the cooperation of people makes life in the city more comfortable. When people believe that sharing information, services, and goods is beneficial- and enjoyable- for all concerned, they will participate .

However, when talking about smart cities, there are several nuances to keep in mind. One, of course, is privacy. We have no idea how much data is being created and stored about us all the time. Google knows about our online search habits, personal information and so on. Cameras all over the city track the movements of people and cars, monitor security threats, incidents and other anomalies. Participation or non-participation in more personal aspects of smart cities and the collection of information about a person should be a private matter for everyone. There should also be secure ways of encrypting and then destroying information about an individual to guarantee the right to privacy.

Secondly, investments in smart cities and the costs of their modes of operation and technology are high initially, but over time they turn into long-term savings. Therefore, there should be a consensus between politicians and their electorate as to where the city's development is heading, what its priorities are, and what it needs to invest in. This coordination will also help avoid unnecessary projects and even entire ghost towns. Moreover, it is worth mentioning the possible transition from a smart city to human smart city (HSC) concept with a practice of public-private-public partnerships. The essence of this formation process lies in the fact that HSC is an open, innovative ecosystem aimed at the formation of social inclusion, growth of well-being, and environmental sustainability. Stakeholders -- municipal government, urban planners, universities, technology companies and financial institutions -- organize themselves into a dynamic, decentralized innovation ecosystem. By understanding what motivates a city’s residents' behavior, it is possible to get a more accurate and complete picture of how the city functions and develops.

We should also not forget that the smart city concept is designed for a person with a modern gadget and all the installed applications, i.e. for a fairly wealthy part of society. Certain groups of people are simply not taken into account by this concept and this leads to a new digital inequality . That is why the focus should be on small or fairly inexpensive changes that can improve the quality of city residents' lives - especially those who are the most economically vulnerable.

Given the consequences of the pandemic, there is a need to raise the question of forming new economic institutions in order to build a new economy . Furthermore, in a global world, with the advent of the internet and high technology, the boundaries of ideas and possibilities are being blurred. Information and knowledge are becoming more accessible. But do we want to live in such a world, or will we create barriers?

Local and regional authorities are now a key driver of initiatives to make cities greener, more resource-efficient, and adapt quickly to change. Infrastructure is expensive and requires investment and maintenance over the long term. Building a system -- how a city prioritizes and communicates the needs and requirements of citizens -- is not a short-term endeavor. This means that leaders need to focus on the long term, not on momentary ideas to get votes. Investing in a smart city is an investment in infrastructure, technology, monitoring and coordination systems. It is a way of expressing attitudes towards sustainable development and defining the role of government.