Moving Beyond the ‘Smart City’ Paradigm

The dominant prism through which we have looked at the inevitable and growing relationship between technology and our cities has long been the ‘Smart City’. Here are four reasons why we may need a new paradigm:

Beyond the Smart City: Mathieu Lefevre (moderator), Lutz Bertling, Reinier de Graaf, Wim Elfrink, Laurent Vernerey – © Rex C Curry

The ‘Smart City’ Is Apparently Not for Humans

Type ‘smart city’ in your search engine. Now go to the images tab. What do you see? On a recent search, the first human being appears on page 8.  The first hundred or so images are sci-fi renditions of cities that will probably never exist. And they are entirely devoid of human life. Cities are exciting, living organisms because they are full of people, not sensors. Cities succeed not because of how ‘smart’ they are, but because of how human they are. A new paradigm to replace the ‘smart city’ will need to put people on page 1, not page 8.

The ‘Smart City’ Is a Business Unit

For many, the ‘smart city’ evokes closed-door meetings between large technology companies selling flashy solutions to City Hall. This is clearly exaggerated, and most great urban innovations do come from companies large and small but the perception of the ‘smart city’ as a great way for business to access piles of the taxpayers’ cash probably won’t go away. A more transparent and constructive dialogue between technology players, citizens and a better informed City Hall is vital to ensuring citizens’ needs are met by the best solutions at a fair price. The good news is this is staring to happen, especially in cities that have put in a strong Chief Information Officer.

The ‘Smart City’ Is Stealing My Data

Imagine how the protestors in Kiev, Ukraine, felt about the ‘smart city’ when they got a geo-localized personal text message a few months ago from their oppressive government saying essentially “Go home, or else”. Ed Snowden, however one may feel about him, started a wave of concern about data privacy that will continue to grow into a global tsunami. The ‘smart city’ brand is tainted. A new concept will need to take into account legitimate, growing citizen demands for more transparent rules on data.

The ‘Smart City’ Puts Tech in a Box

The average urbanite in Dallas, Shanghai or São Paulo uses the mobile internet a dozen times before he or she leaves the house in the morning: to check Twitter or Weibo, look at the schedule for the day and peek at the traffic report. A study by NewCities shows that global commuters increasingly expect to be online on their commute on the subway. This is prompting 70 percent of global subway system operators to make investments in broadband infrastructure over the next three years. And city dwellers aren’t just online on the subway. Recent research shows that young urbanites frequently wake up in the middle of the night just to check Facebook. Technology is an integral part of almost everything we do in our busy, urban lives. Isolating it in a box labeled ‘smart city’ makes less sense with each passing day, and does not adequately describe the intimate relationship we have with our devices or with our cities.

Towards a New Paradigm

The ‘smart city’ may be past its prime. A more benevolent, transparent and personal vision must emerge in its place.