Whose Smart City Is It Anyway?

Many believe residents are being left out of the process

24 June 2014

Gary Graham, a lecturer in operations management from the University of Leeds, in England, recently attended a government meeting in London about future cities, which led him to wonder: If smart cities will be designed for the people who actually live in them, why aren’t they part of the discussion?

In an article on TheConversation.com, Graham writes: “The people living in cities far outnumber the people making decisions about what those cities should look like in the future.” More than ignoring the opinions of residents, some see them as part of the problem he says. One civil servant in the meeting referred to them as “the dark underbelly,” or a weak point.

The same concern about not involving residents was brought up by Christine Outram, founder of the City Innovations Group—a self-described global network of experts who help to build smart cities. She believes city planners and architects focus too much on what they want people to do and not how people feel. Outram encourages them to talk to residents to find what changes would improve their lives. (See “Can You Build Happiness?”)

But not all city planners and officials are ignoring the general public. During last week’s Dubai Smart Cities Forum, speakers discussed not only how smart-city innovations could benefit residents and employees, but also the importance of communicating with and involving them in the process. “A smart city is not just about high-tech. It’s about engaging people and responding to their needs,” said Rashik Parma, president of IBM Academy of Technology, in Somers, N.Y. “The city should be able to talk to its residents through seamlessly interconnecting systems to facilitate their lives in the best manner possible.”

The positive impact of a smart city is reflected on its residents and visitors, added Hichem Maya, head of business transformation services at SAP, a software and solutions company, headquartered in Walldorf, Germany.

One question being ignored, however, is whether more technology is needed in the first place. According to Graham, at least half of city residents do not currently engage with smart technologies. (And perhaps would prefer more bike lanes and parks instead.) Despite that finding, they could still benefit from the information provided by these technologies. City planners can potentially make better decisions about improving infrastructure or public transportation, for example, by collecting and analyzing information from smart technologies such as advanced traffic-control monitors.

As IEEE president and CEO, J. Roberto Boisson de Marca, wrote this month: Smart cities must also be wise. “We are not only building a smart city for today, we are also initiating a path for generations to come,” he wrote. “Therefore, we must also educate the next generations to become builders of smarter cities.”

What is your opinion about who should be involved in developing smart cities? Is this a job for the city planners, government officials, and high-tech companies, or should residents also have a say in what their future town looks like?

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