Today cities are raging at an exponential rate with developments that are hard to decipher and keep track of. Over the last decade, a lot has been invested in developing, redeveloping, and redefining cities as smart cities. However, this fast-paced rush to modernisation equipped with a plethora of technological advancement entails one to travel an unprecedented route, sometimes aligned with transparency, governance, and equity and more often devoid of development, perspective, and far-sightedness.   

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Infographics showing smart cities supported by several types of technologies_© CBInsights

The Complex Equation of Smart Cities

The complexity and uncertainty revolving around the making of a smart city has its roots in the early concepts of urban planning and urban renewal dubbed as garden cities, a term painted in the 1980s. (Tatsuno, n.d.). There is no linear definition that can be assigned to define a smart city, and the existence of one is debatable as numerous scholars find the concept of the Smart city challenging to define, often perceiving it as elusive and virtually imperceptible to the naked eye. (Caprotti, 2018). The narratives that revolve around the seamless transition of cities into Smart cities and, eventually Smart urban centers have their fair share of scepticism.

From new towns to eco-cities, urban concepts were conceived with distinct visual representations, delineating spaces and environments for specific urban endeavours. The Smart city emerges as a subsequent evolution of the desire to envision and mould the future of cities and urban communities. However, this concept transcends the boundaries of previous utopian urban planning principles by encompassing a broader definition. Unlike its predecessors, Smart cities are nevertheless confined to conventional planning practices; instead, they entail a comprehensive reevaluation of the economic and cultural dynamics that underpin urban existence (Cowley and Caprotti, 2019). Consequently, a universal Smart city model cannot be applied to all Urban areas, just as there is no singular, all-encompassing solution to the challenges that are faced today.

Defining what a Smart city upholds is a complex equation that encompasses a human-centric approach and the transformative role of technology. A Smart city prioritizes the well-being and quality of life of residents, considering their diverse social, economic, and cultural backgrounds in technological and urban planning efforts. Technological efficiency caters to the needs and aspirations of the citizens of a city. It inculcates innovation through data driven decision making which in turn promotes connectivity and delivery of public services. However, a truly Smart city recognises that technology alone is not sufficient. 

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The city of Pune was among the first tapped for India’s 100 “smart cities” initiative_© Chris Mills via Flickr

The definition of Smart cities varies across countries, influenced by numerous factors. The concept of a Smart city in India, for instance, differs significantly from that of other geographical locations. In the Western context, Smart city initiatives often emphasise efficiency, sustainability, and security. Conversely, Smart city policies in India tend to prioritise modernisation efforts and infrastructure development. Nevertheless, a common aspect shared by smart cities worldwide is the implementation of intelligent Internet of Things (IoT) solutions (Lee et al., 2022).

Identifying the need and setting the context 

A city comprises ecosystems that integrate a complex network of actors into the local context. Smart cities possess the capability to tackle numerous modern urban challenges by harnessing the power of information and technology. They are increasingly recognised as processes for social innovation aimed at attaining sustainable and inclusive urban development. 

As predicted by the  UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA) cities will be occupied by nearly 70% in the year 2050. It is crucial to ensure that urban environments are liveable, inclusive, and sustainable, particularly in the context of a green recovery from COVID-19. This should serve as the driving force behind any Smart City. As it is, every other city has the potential to become ‘smart’ through innovative strategies and reflective decisions focused on meeting the needs of its populations.

Three layers of smartness will elevate life in cities of future_©McKinsey Global Institute analysis

The process of uplifting a city and enhancing its conditions should not be viewed as a marathon but rather as a recognition that cities, much like technology, are in a constant state of evolution. They are not static entities, and their context continuously changes. While embracing technology has its importance, the primary focus should be on creating livable and human-centric cities. This becomes even more crucial in times when the gap between marginalised communities and the affluent is increasingly apparent.

Smart cities and their technological manifestations

AI has entered the city, and technology has become synonymous with smart cities. 

The use of smart technologies inherently embodies a moral perspective, aiming to advance fairness and equity in society. These technologies have the potential to benefit marginalised groups greatly. However, achieving these goals requires cities to prioritise reinvesting in their social infrastructure, which has often been neglected over time.

Powerful tools like Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR), the Internet of Things (IoT), Artificial Intelligence (AI), blockchain, and other exponential technologies offer significant potential for positive change and progress. However, realising their full impact relies on the implementation of wise urban policies (Tatsuno, n.d.).

Few technologies are integrated into the making of a smart city

  1. Artificial Intelligence (AI): One of the key technologies integrated into the making of a smart city is AI. However, its increasing integration with human systems raises ethical concerns. For example, the application of facial recognition algorithms can contradict fundamental values such as privacy and non-discrimination. Careful considerations and safeguards are necessary to ensure the responsible and ethical use of AI in smart city initiatives.
  2. Big Data: By harnessing large volumes of data from various sources, cities can gain valuable insights for informed decision-making and efficient resource management. Big Data analytics enable urban planners to understand patterns, trends, and challenges, facilitating better planning and resource allocation in transportation, energy, and public services.
  3. Cloud Technology: This technology enables urban planners to create centralised databases that can efficiently store and process vast amounts of information related to urban areas. 
  4. The internet of things is a system of linked devices and sensors embedded in the Urban setting. The IoT facilitates the gathering and exchange of information between tangible.
  5. The internet of things refers to a network of interconnected devices and sensors. Within smart cities the IoT network facilitates the gathering and sharing of data, offering valuable information to enhance the efficiency of urban activities. The application of IoT spans a broad spectrum, encompassing energy saving intelligent lighting systems, efficient waste management and assessment of environmental conditions.
  6. Smart Lighting: Smart lighting systems are an example of sustainable technology in smart cities. Cities can achieve significant energy savings by leveraging advanced lighting technologies, such as LED and automated controls, 

The advent of technologies has not only increased the efficiency of urban planners but has also empowered citizens to actively engage in the urban planning process. These innovations facilitate greater participation and collaboration, allowing residents to contribute to shaping the future of their cities.

Reference List:

Caprotti, F. (2018). Spaces of visibility in the smart city: Flagship urban spaces and the smart urban imaginary. Urban Studies, 56(12), pp.2465–2479. doi:https://doi.org/10.1177/0042098018798597.

‌CreativeTribes.co. (2019). Technology in Urban Planning: building smarter cities | CreativeTribes. [online] Available at: https://creativetribes.co/increasing-role-technology-urban-planning/.

‌Lee, J., Babcock, J., Pham, T.S., Bui, T.H. and Kang, M. (2022). Smart city as a social transition towards inclusive development through technology: a tale of four smart cities. International Journal of Urban Sciences, pp.1–26. doi:https://doi.org/10.1080/12265934.2022.2074076.

Tatsuno, S. (n.d.). The Evolution Of Smart Cities. [online] Forbes. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/cognitiveworld/2019/03/03/the-evolution-of-smart-cities/?sh=3e7ff1745df5 [Accessed 14 Jul. 2023].

tomorrow.city. (n.d.). Technology for smart cities: the pillars of urban planning of the future. [online] Available at: https://tomorrow.city/a/technology-for-smart-cities-the-pillars-of-urban-planning-of-the-future.

‌UNDP. (n.d.). Handbook on Smart Urban Innovations | United Nations Development Programme. [online] Available at: https://www.undp.org/publications/handbook-smart-urban-innovations.

‌World Economic Forum. (n.d.). What is a ‘smart city’? [online] Available at: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2021/08/what-is-a-smart-city/.

Woetzel, J. (2018). Smart city technology for a more liveable future | McKinsey. [online] www.mckinsey.com. Available at: https://www.mckinsey.com/capabilities/operations/our-insights/smart-cities-digital-solutions-for-a-more-livable-future.

Author

Afnan Ashraf is an artist, architect and an educator. She is the principal architect at TwoPoints ArtLab and a founding member of Coearth Foundation. Afnan excels in developing brand identities, conceptual storylines, and website content. She emphasises on a research based approach fueled through collaboration, creativity and critical thinking.