global tech

Are You Already Living in a ‘Smart City’?

Photo-Illustration: Stocktrek/Getty Images

Common knowledge assures us that cities can’t be built in a day. Well, not if so-called geopolitical innovators have anything to do with it.

It seems that everywhere you turn, a new high-tech promised land is popping up. Last month, Chinese e-commerce conglomerate even opened a dedicated research institute specifically to “facilitate the development of ‘smart city’ construction.” This time, by promising hoards of use of AI and blockchain technologies of course, because 2018.

The goals of these smart-city programs, like most other development programs, is to create an urban area that provides a high quality of life for residents and generates increased economic growth. The “smart” part is that it does that with the help of data collection, using technology to move cities toward modern standards of transit efficiency, public safety, and overall convenience.

According to IESE Business School’s Center for Globalization and Strategy’s index, a city’s “smartness” is determined by nine major characteristics, such as technology-based infrastructure like digitally backed train times, environmental initiatives, a strong sense of urban planning, a highly functioning transit system, and actual humans to live and work there and use these resources (a more common problem than you might imagine).

“The fundamental concept of smart cities has to do with connectivity and functionality of basic public services, more so than flashy consumer-facing tech products,” explains Garry Golden, a consultant with the research group FutureThink, where he advises companies on the future of infrastructure.

In other words, it’s not so much about “disruptive” Wi-Fi-enabled shuttle buses, but how a metropolis promises to deal with evolving transportation and transit data, safety, sewage, traffic patterns and the like. “Part of the smart-city planning approach is local government seeing itself as a platform of sort to its residents, allowing others like start-ups or corporations to come in and provide everyday services, such as ride shares, to solve the last-mile problem or affordable housing infrastructure,” says Golden.

Government acting as a “platform”

Golden says that typical smart cities will often depend on contractors to replace public services, for example, having Uber help solve the last-mile problem.

Even as far back as 2013, Smart Cities author Anthony Townsend told NPR that while there is concern over handing urban planning to the tech industry, a smart city’s success relies on a strong partnership between government (along with its bureaucracy and regulations) and the private sector’s innovation efforts. This is because the work to maintain digital, data-driven systems often happens outside of town hall. If a city is looking to improve its most congested streets, it might use cameras from one company, sensors from another, and a cloud server from a third. Contractors may be hired to analyze that data and report it back to the city, which then might hire an app-development company to come up with a solution. If that solution is something like traffic-light countdown clocks, that company is going to have to stay a part of the system for when its software needs updating. The path to “smart city” starts looking less like a single project and more like a web of partnerships.

“The way that these projects are structured is that these companies don’t just build a system like you would build a road, like a contractor would build a road, and then hand it over to the city to operate and maintain. They stay involved,” Townsend said to NPR. “Essentially, a city is outsourcing all its operations.”

And as with other tech innovation within the past few decades, smart cities’ effects go beyond their physical borders. Similarly, the surge in autonomous and electric vehicles’ rise has pushed their ramifications to spread wider than just decreasing car ownership. “If parking goes away, road capacity increases by, perhaps, several times, and an on-demand ride is the cost of a coffee, then one needs to start thinking much more generally, not just about cars, trucks and roads but cities, land use and real-estate,” writes Andreessen Horowitz partner Benedict Evans of autonomous cars’ “second or third order consequences” on cities.

So can any urban enclave be a smart city?

Chances are, you may already be living, breathing, and going to yoga within the ecosystem of an emerging smart city without even knowing it. In fact, one look at any ranking of the world’s “top smart cities,” and one notices that these spots are not claimed by Alphabet’s latest initiative. They’re usually achieved through multi-decade effort and investment by local government. Currently, cities like Tokyo, Reykjavik, Singapore, and Toronto rank as some of the world’s smartest cities of 2018.

Even New Yorkers may be surprised to learn that their hometown is considered a smart city, Golden says. Considering it competes among the global smart hubs like Hong Kong and Dubai, for example. While those newly installed subway countdown clocks may have been a long time coming, they alone don’t make for a smart city, but are a large part of its foundation.

The most basic goal behind developing smart cities is to bring benefits to the overall way they function, with the use of technology integration and data collection. For example, surveying how many Lyft and Ubers head in a specific traffic direction during rush hour is one of the fastest and cheapest ways to plan for future routes, Golden explains. Collecting data from ride-share providers in exchange for allowing them to operate has already proven to be lucrative for growing cities. This information will become especially vital as smart cities forgo expensive road and transit construction projects and incorporate alternatives such as autonomous vehicles, private shuttles, etc.

Who exactly are smart cities for?

Governments and investors of new smart-city developments will likely get a dose of reality when they find competition in attracting international talent to create a self-sustaining economy as well as actually live, work, and play in their urban oasis. After all, there are only so many cocktail bars and yoga studios — as evidenced by Saudi Arabia’s promotional photos showing women wearing yoga pants and crop tops — can offer in lieu of actual culture to dot smart neighborhoods with.

“These new cities need to invest a lot in their intellectual experience, especially going up against historical ones with deep ties to their natives,” Golden explains, stressing that smart-city engineers won’t be able to attract and retain residents without a cultural fabric. “You can’t program that; there is no software for it.”

Smart City Consulting founder Tom Jones expressed a similar sentiment to Business Insider last year. “Ready-made cities generally falter because they lack a sense of place, authenticity, and distinctiveness. They are like an Epcot version of a city,” a reference to the Bill Gates–backed Buckeye, Arizona, smart-city project announced in 2017.

In the case of these cities being plopped down in the middle of the desert, such as Saudi Arabia’s Neom and Arizona’s Buckeye, the concern over their lack of established populations and even sustainable water supply is being brought up while construction is underway.

For this very reason, the “retrofitted” smart cities, like New York and San Francisco, may be better off than their built-from-the-ground-up counterparts — something to consider before packing up and moving to a promised desert oasis. While historical cities may take years or even decades to develop, their existing populations give them an advantage over glitzier new smart cities, forgoing the need to recruit “residents.”

One prominent trend to emerge from the smart-city rush has been conservative regimes in the Middle East and China — where new smart-city projects are concentrated — attempting to get in on the ground floor of superficially advanced ventures, like “futuristic theme parks” and the promise to have more robot residents than human ones. The plans have flashy rollouts and ambiguous funding, and are expected to attract Western technology and urban-planning talent. A perfect example of this was last year’s $500 billion Neom construction, ambitiously set to launch in 2030 in Saudi Arabia.

Projects like Neom have garnered criticism for tainting what a decade ago was considered the appeal of smart cities, which was the vision of bringing together different stakeholders in urban planning. “Right now we’re in a disillusioned phase where you’re starting to hear critiques that these so-called smart cities promise exclusive benefits to the global elite, as opposed to building functional urban areas for existing residents,” Golden says.

As with everything else tech-adjacent, eventually the public will give in and the current wave of criticism will come to an end and shift to a more pragmatic phase, much like the regulatory pushback against Uber and Airbnb as they took off.

“Eventually, the flashy side of smart cities will become more muted as construction gets underway and some of the overpromised ‘features’ like robot baristas fall to the wayside,” Golden notes. This is also when newer smart cities will emerge as habitable homes to residents.

Good ‘Smart Cities’ Actually Need People to Live in Them