Smart Cities: Double-Edged Swords

We asked smart city experts the following question: “What do smart cities teach us about sustainability?” Though the experts agreed that smart cities can make urban living more efficient, they also highlighted concerns about various negative consequences associated with smart cities. Chief among these negative consequences are energy consumption required to manage smart city infrastructure, corporate interests having excessive influence, loss of privacy, and a focus on only managing factors that are amenable to computation.

Source: United Nations

More people are moving to urban areas around the globe. The United Nations estimates that by 2050, two thirds of world’s total population will be city dwellers. For comparison, half of all people live in cities today. In 1960, just a third of all people lived in cities. Rapid urbanization stresses the Earth system and makes it imperative for policy planners to consider how to make cities sustainable. Emerging technologies like machine learning and the Internet of Things may enable us to create so-called “smart cities” that improve urban sustainability.


Bianca Wylie – Co-founder of Tech Reset Canada and Senior Fellow at the Centre for International Governance and Innovation

Smart cities teach us about political atrophy and market-making. In the absence of leadership and strong regulatory frameworks to protect the environment, cities are being sold technological solutions to climate change. And while smart city products may chip away at the edges of sustainability issues, they will never solve them.

In the absence of leadership and strong regulatory frameworks to protect the environment, cities are being sold technological solutions to climate change TEll a friend

Beyond this, what are the trade-offs involved in a quantified city? The way that smart cities rely on resident data collection introduces an unnerving trade-off: seeking efficiencies in waste, energy, and transport creates the conditions for a surveillance state and more governmental privatization. Cities can’t buy their way out of environmental problems. They would be best served by building their own technology solutions in collaboration with their communities and in non-invasive ways. For big results on sustainability and climate change, cities must enact political and legislative change. There’s no easy or technical fix.

Leighton Evans – Senior Lecturer in Media Theory at Swansea University; co-editor of Creating Smart Cities

Leighton Evans co-authored Creating Smart Cities

Smart cities teach us much about what sustainability means in the digital age. The logic of digital media is transformational; transforming natural phenomena into a computable form for computation. The smart city is a form of digitization of the phenomena of urban life; an endless drive to make aspects of the urban experience computable in order to predict, perfect, and control the morass of the urban through computational logic. What then, for sustainability in the smart city? The idea of sustainability through digitization must in itself become computational, the subject of sustainability must itself be amenable to the process of translation and transformation into the computational through the application of digital technology. Those parts of the urban order that cannot be computed or resist computation can have no place in the sustainability agenda of the smart city. Sustainability in the smart city is as much about exclusion as it is saving.

Julian Agyeman – Professor of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning at Tufts University; co-author of Sharing Cities: A Case for Truly Smart and Sustainable Cities

Julian Agyeman co-authored a book that explores sustainability aspects of smart cities

I would rephrase your question. Instead of asking, “What do smart cities teach us about sustainability?”, I would instead ask “What can smart cities teach us about sustainability?” My question problematizes the approach that sees smart cities simply as investors in high-tech information and communication technologies (ICT) that “wire up” the city and enhance its efficiency, boost the ICT sector as a motor of growth and property development, and attract skilled talent by delivering a high quality of life. Smart cities in my mind are those that use ICT to release human potential and capabilities, a radically different vision compared with a global race to the bottom to attract footloose investment capital. We need to redefine what “smart cities” of the future can really mean – harnessing smart technology to an agenda of sharing, solidarity, and sustainability, rather than one of competition, enclosure, and division.

Aoife Delaney – Postdoctoral Researcher at School of Geography, University College Dublin

In theory, the smart city concept offers insights into sustainable planning, living, and working. In practice, however, it is a neoliberal concept linked to improving public perception and international branding, and as such does little to advance sustainability. Instead, smart city initiatives often contribute to unsustainable urban practices through corporation-led solutions that end up excluding ordinary citizens.

As it stands now, though, corporation-led solutions eclipse discussions of complex political, cultural, and societal factors. tell a friend

However, if the smart city concept could be situated within a political discourse which promotes sustainability, the benefits of smart cities would spread more evenly. Furthermore, we would have more meaningful debates about what smart cities ought to be. As it stands now, though, corporation-led solutions eclipse discussions of complex political, cultural, and societal factors. Thus, the smart city today does not teach us about sustainability. Instead, it teaches us how inappropriate planning can result in corporations owning urban data, citizens losing privacy, cities becoming passive actors, and business interests overshadowing others.

Vincent Mosco – Author of forthcoming book, The Smart City in a Digital World; Professor Emeritus of Sociology at Queen’s University

Smart cities are often hailed as environmentally friendly and as a defense against climate change. Such an assessment is typically based on the view that technology will help cities operate more efficiently, reducing their carbon footprint and slowing, if not halting and reversing, the arrival of destructive climate change. Some providers of smart city systems have made more use of sustainable solar and wind energy to power their data centers and their own headquarters buildings. By monitoring every device that draws on carbon-based power sources, cities are now more aware of how they use energy and are more capable of controlling their power requirements. This leads to expectations that the spread of smart cities will reduce power consumption by as much as 20 percent.

Vincent Mosco’s upcoming book explores what makes cities smart

But all of these measures are dwarfed by current and anticipated demands for electricity that are arriving with the global expansion of ever larger data centers and the installation of sensor-equipped devices throughout cities. The accelerating demand for data and for systems that can distribute and use data also expands the need for power. There is reasonable concern that, instead of reducing carbon consumption, smart cities will increase it by promoting what is called the efficiency trap; energy-curbing measures may tend to create false confidence and in fact end up increasing consumption.

Francesco Pilla – Associate Professor at University College Dublin’s School of Architecture, Planning, and Environmental Policy

I think a truly smart city is a city that embraces technology from the bottom rather than one that has technology enforced from the top. This should be done by engaging stakeholders like citizens and practitioners in co-designing smart solutions to remove acceptance barriers. In Dublin, we implement a close quadruple helix collaboration as part of the Smart Dublin initiative. This is crucial for the success of smart city interventions, which in turn support the development of evidence-based policies for cities. As part of this, we are using geospatial big data to influence decision-making and we are tapping into EU funds to tackle big challenges such as air quality (H2020 iSCAPE) and flooding in cities (H2020 Operandum). We are also leveraging the power of public and private data smart partnerships, for example with MasterCard and Google, to use geospatial big data to help cities make better decisions.

Robert Bradshaw – Postdoctoral Researcher at Technology Adoption Group, Maynooth University

I tend to see sustainability in the ethical and sociopolitical sense and from that perspective the “smart city” has not performed well. Critical research has firmly linked the concept with increased privatization and neoliberal forms of governance – in other words, with a set of technologies and practices that typically cater to special people and places.

For me the smart city should embody the concept of technological sovereignty – infrastructure and services should be designed and implemented with enhancing citizenship and the common good as the main priorities. Barcelona is currently pioneering this approach with a new strategic vision which equates the “digital revolution” with a “democratic revolution”. Their smart city is designed to encourage democratic participation and new forms of cooperation and collective consumption which shift the priority away from profit to long-term sustainability. Cities like New York and Amsterdam are now following suit with the Cities for Digital Rights coalition. These kinds of initiatives, which are guided by a moral and ethical compass, are the ones which are likely to deliver more sustainable and supportive urban spaces.