Can Smart Cities be Good Cities?

The UN’s new playbook for urban planners advocates for a more humane, inclusive digital transformation.

IN 2017, SIDEWALK LABS, a subsidiary of Google’s parent company, Alphabet Inc., struck a deal with Toronto to develop a technological utopia in one of the city’s neglected waterfront neighborhoods. Sensors, data, and robots — along with mixed zoning, fanciful buildings, bridges, and computing — would create a smart city of the future, Sidewalk promised. But the deal sparked a huge debate around surveillance, data privacy, and a slew of ethical and political pitfalls, as “it became clear that many of its ideas were either half-baked or relied too heavily on rewriting the rules,” architecture critic Alex Bozikovic wrote in Architectural Record. By 2020, the project collapsed and Sidewalk withdrew, giving developers and dreamers a harsh lesson in the realities of smart cities.

Around the same time, Barcelona began taking a more practical approach to the future. With approval from its city council, Barcelona worked to democratize the city’s technologies: delivering digital services to residents; promoting open-source, free software for public and private use; and ensuring the responsible use of data. The plan promoted digital skills and safeguards for its citizens, minimizing the need to rely on outside vendors. Rather than promising utopia, Barcelona applied ethics to the humdrum of software and legal structures.

The differences in these two approaches show how broad the “smart city” idea is — and how fraught. In a world that the United Nations estimates will be more than two-thirds urban by 2050, with nearly seven billion people living in cities, being “smart” could deliver advantages for city managers and developers. But a humane approach will also be essential, mitigating the human rights violations that can occur when cities idealize new technologies over the needs of the populace. To help promote a better approach, the UN’s Human Settlements Program, better known as UN-Habitat, has created a playbook for decision-makers, “Centering People in Smart Cities.”

“The People-Centered Smart Cities Playbook Series aims to help cities and communities ensure that urban digital transformation works for the benefit of all,” wrote Maimunah Mohd Sharif, the under-secretary-general and executive director for UN-Habitat, “driving sustainability, inclusion and prosperity in the process.”

The ideas behind smart cities have gone through distinct phases since the advent of the computer. In the 1980s, computing helped researchers focus on complex urban systems, to study the city as an organism. In subsequent decades, developers began to emphasize a technological focus on big data and cost reductions, prioritizing digital infrastructure. But these new projects raised concerns. Starting in the 2010s, “residents, academics, and public authorities started sensing that the use of technology in smart cities lacked clear objectives and was driven primarily by private-sector interests,” according to UN-Habitat. This prompted more focus on digital inclusion, participation, and data governance.

We have now entered the fourth phase, what UN-Habitat calls “the consumer smart city,” where old business models have been disrupted by the likes of Uber, Lyft, Doordash, and Grubhub as “tech companies started to leverage cities as platforms to create their own markets.” It is here where city planners like those in Toronto and Barcelona find themselves, navigating the complicated ethics, civics, and politics of “consumer smart cities.” And it is here where UN-Habitat hopes to have an impact.

Many cities already use digital tools for civic engagement, public services, and infrastructure. But the developers of the UN playbook say these technologies often worsen discrimination. Surveillance, for example, can be especially risky for groups that face bias in policing, education, healthcare, housing, employment, or policy.

Urban schools often track students based on their performance. In the wrong kind of tech city, the futurist Bruce Sterling recently wrote in The Atlantic, “the ‘bad part of town’ will be full of algorithms that shuffle you straight from high-school detention into the prison system. The rich part of town will get mirror-glassed limos that breeze through the smart red lights to seamlessly deliver the aristocracy from curb into penthouse.”

To address these risks, UN-Habitat and others are seeking to better steer the next wave of smart cities toward “the people-centered smart city.” The UN playbook imagines smart cities that “leverage data, technology, and services for common good, delivering the inclusive and sustainable cities that are needed in the 21st century.”

“I think that the kind of top-down traditional smart cities, with sensors everywhere, [are] going out of fashion,” said Pontus Westerberg, a program management officer at UN-Habitat. “I’ve seen a big change in the last two years in the way people talk about it. We need to… think creatively about public participation and engage with the private sector to develop those tools we really need. And that requires working with people who work in cities who don’t consider themselves tech-savvy.”

What would a humane smart city look like?

Urban development can be constructive and inclusive, the playbook says. When cities maximize community representation, transparency, and participation, they can put citizens at the center of the process and successfully address community needs. This involves bridging the digital divide, partnering with stakeholders, and engaging communities in a meaningful way. “Sometimes in the technology industry, there’s a lack of understanding about what can be done to make cities better,” Westerberg said. “We’ve seen a lot of projects taking technology as the starting point, rather than improving quality of life.”

Humane smart cities consider privacy, surveillance, and cybersecurity as they digitalize, the playbook says. Governments must ensure they can keep data secure and protect human rights when new technologies are in place. The playbook promotes the idea of “digital public goods,” such as “open-source software, open data, open AI models, open standards and open content that adhere to privacy and other applicable laws and best practices.”

Digital public goods can have a broad variety of applications, including better financial technology, networked publics, and improved urban design. Tools for a networked public can include ride-sharing, citizen science, or crowdsourced data. Across different applications, data choices form the basis for a better smart city, the playbook says. Citizens ought to have control over how governments can use their personal information, and to consent to what data is collected.

Meanwhile, UN-Habitat is working to diversify the voices heard in urban design, Westerberg said. For example, the Block by Block Foundation — a collaboration between UN-Habitat, videogame developer Mojang, and technology company Microsoft — uses the video game Minecraft as an urban planning tool, inviting young people in low-income communities to make design recommendations for city halls. There have been 150 projects of this type in 45 countries — mainly Africa, Asia, and Latin America. In another project, Her City, UN-Habitat invites young women from marginalized communities to map their own environments, identifying neighborhood issues that men might not see.

“It’s important to think about how to reach out to those that we call hard-to-reach groups,” Westerberg said. “It’s not easy. The typical way that cities do public-participation processes is meetings that are during working hours. If you go to a public meeting, you might not feel comfortable speaking out. Typically, you hear the voices of the people who have already been heard for many years.” Instead, he said, planners should “go out in the communities, talk to people, and think creatively about tools that they can use to engage them.”

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