Smart beyond technology push

Tech companies have successfully focused the definition of smart cities on being ‘wired’. In an earlier article I mentioned the three ‘I’s that designate smart cities according to IBM: instrumented, interconnected and intelligent. In the narrative of this company the smart city is depicted as a technology-led urban utopia, promising the solution to many urban problems, including crime, traffic congestion, inefficient services and economic stagnation and bringing prosperity and healthy lifestyles for all. I labeled this narrative as Smart City 1.0.

What does being ‘a wired city’ mean in practice?

In a recently published article Complex Cyber Terrain in Hyper Connected Areas, Mike Matson has depicted the physical and virtual components of the cyber space in urban areas. Billions of kilometers of fiber optic cable connect data centers and “carrier hotels”: Internet exchanges; places where private networks converge to form a larger network (the internet). Until recently, individual computers were often the end of the line, but they have been outnumbered by so-called Ubiquitous Sensor Networks (USN) like smart meters, CCTV, microphones and a whole array of sensors (sentient tools). Their functions are:

  • Detecting (for instance: abnormalities in systems, identification of intruders),
  • Tracking (for instance: packages, people and vehicles), and
  • Monitoring (for instance: health, rates of degradation of infrastructure like bridges and roads.)

Sensor networks are the cores of all urban systems; they monitor the environment (air quality, traffic density, unwelcome visitors) and act on their own in an intelligent manner, if desired. Mike Matson calculates that in 2050 a relatively small urban area of 2 million people will deploy one billion sensors, all connected by the Internet.

We all will be the center of our personal area networks (PAN) that will move with us (laptop, phone, glasses, watch, diagnostic health observation sensing unit – possibly embedded in the body and wearables). All devices within the personal network interconnect and communicate directly with sentient tools or via the Internet. They deliver information upon which we can react, but most information will be processed with artificial intelligence and result in autonomous acts, for instance the heating in every room in our house any time of the day. As part of ‘the Internet of Things’, domestic appliances will be connected to the Internet and artificial intelligence will optimize their use.

A Personal Area Network (PAN) will start growing around a person from shortly after birth. These networks communicate with the immediate- (house, car, office) and wider surrounding. For instance – in case of rain – a driverless car will wait for you before your door, otherwise the system ‘knows’ that you will leave walking.

Within (and between) cities, sensors are linked hierarchical. Sensors within the house feed the PANs of the members of a family and the control center of the apartment building and the neighborhood. Relevant data from the neighborhood, with respect to energy production and consumption, mobility, water and sewage and safety are combined with data from other neighborhoods and processed at city (or higher) level.


Not that smart after all….

Although this technology-led narrative still dominates in many parts of the world, contest is growing. Differentiating principles and insights are emerging, like:

  • Technology is not the main solution for many urban problems.
  • The development of cities must be based at the people and citizens and must be focused on the development of human and social capital.
  • Social and environmental problems are the starting point of urban policy, rather than looking immediately to technology for solutions.
  • The change of the balance of power between the use of information technology by business, government, communities and that of ordinary people who live in cities.
  • To keep the choice of technology to solve urban problems or to boost investments under democratic scrutiny.
  • A better balance economic between economic growth and sustainability.
  • Awareness of the privacy aspects of connectedness and the right to choose the degree to which an individual is connected or unplugged.

Whatever we do, we know the world doesn’t need another plan that falls into the same trap as previous ones: treating the city as a high-tech island rather than a place that reflects the personality of its local population Interview with Daniel Doctoroff, CEO of Sidewalk Labs

Looking for a more inclusive definition of a smart city

It is important to realize that adding too many considerations will make any definition meaningless. For instance, some alternative definitions of a smart city already refer at the levels of health and education of its population. In my view, considerations like these belong in a quest for developing more humane – not necessary smart – cities.

A description of smart cities should always include references to technology and to its democratic legitimation as well. This means that citizens are involved in the process of decision-making on the use of technology and keep – in general – ownership of data.

Two basically different, although not mutually excluding directions, can be distinguished in the democratic legitimation of the use of technology:


Systems thinking versus complexity theory

Since most of us consider the “real truth” to be inexistent, we all construct our own realities and continuously discuss their. These mental constructions depend from the nature of our assumptions about reality.

On the one hand is the belief that reality is molded by a stable chain of actions and reactions. Nobody will contest this with respect to the physical world (think about gravity). In the social world, most people believe that this is partially true at most. For instance, rising rents in cities will result in people moving out and wealthier people moving in (gentrification). A chain of related actions and reactions can be considered as a system.

On the other hand is the belief that most effects of interactions between people are unpredictable. For instance, higher rents might induce creative solutions (Airbnb, founding a private restaurant) instead of migration, and other unexpected events might follow, for instance collective resistance. Reality is considered to be a complex adaptive system, although often the use of the term ‘system’ is avoided and a reference is made to ‘complexity thinking’.

Both approaches have policy implications

Social systems can be influenced by changing elements in the chain of actions and reactions. Alternative scenarios can be distinguished and democracy is decision-making by representative body on behalf of the subjects who are involved.

Changing complex interactions to shape desirable outcome is virtually impossible. In this case, democracy is to leave decision-making on the people who are involved directly (self-government).

As said before, both approaches are complementary. However, nowadays they are unbalanced. Urban policy is focused at a systemic approach including more and more details and is favoring citywide solutions. In spite of comprehensive deliberation that precedes decision-making, many citizens lack involvement. The same applies to institutions and firms. Choosing in favor of an area-centered approach and involving as many stakeholders as possible might have resulted in a more profound democratic legitimation.


Smart city 2.0 and Smart city 3.0
On the base of the foregoing Smart city 2.0 is characterized by a carefully prepared selection and democratic controlled selection of technological solutions for a specific city’s problems. Alternative scenarios will be formulated and the population is stimulated to think about their (dis)advantages. In the end, the city council takes a decision and technology companies can bid. The consultation of citizens who are involved or interested continues in the executive stage. The redevelopment of the old harbor in Toronto with assistance of Sidewalks Labs (an Alphabet company) is an excellent example.

Otherwise, a city might decide to limit democratic but centralized decision-making on basic infrastructural projects. In addition, it might invite and enable as many as possible life-improving initiatives within neighborhoods or in multi-actor networks. Some examples:

  • The implementation of smart-grid solutions within a neighborhood.
  • The organization of a citywide system of IT-enabled facilities for mutual by association of older people.
  • Co-development of transit services within a region-wide system of mobility-as-a-service.

In these examples, the role of ICT differs, but is always supporting if not essential. The label smart city 3.0 is applicable at cities that rely on a large number of stakeholders to define and solve problems, choosing for a centralized approach if needed and creating as much as possible support and room for initiatives for stakeholders and neighborhoods. It is easy to see that in this model, smart citizens are in the center.

In my view, cities like Amsterdam and Rotterdam are on their way to become Smart cities 3.0, although it still has a long way to go. Nevertheless, their citizen-centered approach is exemplary. I come back to this later.


*) This article was brought to you by Professor Herman van den Bosch, Professor at Open University of The Netherlands.

Herman van den Bosch

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