Commentary: smart cities need a human face

Launched in late 2017, the Smart Cities Council Emerging Innovators (SCCEI) is a network of young practitioners who are working at the intersection of technology, data and physical, social and natural systems. They are scientists, engineers, planners, architects and entrepreneurs seeking to contribute to dialogue and action for building smarter cities.

This new section of our e-news will be dedicated to hearing from our future smart cities leaders. This week we publish an article from David Batchelor, a planner from Wellington in New Zealand, and an active member of the SCCEI network. — Adam Beck


Smart Cities are coming. Automation, synchronization, and information are set to revolutionise our way of life. However, Smart Cities are yet to find a narrative which is popular with social communities. While the industry itself believes in the benefits that smart cities will bring, social communities in neighbourhoods, public spaces, and personal homes are not convinced by the current efficiencies-based narrative that the technology will improve their lives. What is required is a new human-faced narrative for smart cities which communicates their ability to enable and enhance the irreplaceable social environment that those communities value.

Broadly speaking, smart cities are a vision of future communities that use technology on a greater scale than what is currently used to manage and improve their lives. The ‘smart’ refers to the technology that will be able to monitor, make decisions, and action commands on behalf of the communities. This technology is set to remove the doldrums of daily life by automating low-valued tasks and experiences so human attention can be applied elsewhere. Early indications of where this technology may become commonplace first are in driverless cars, drone delivery services and automated home appliances and utilities such as power, audio-visual and heating.

Currently the dominant smart cities narrative emphasises achieving time and resource efficiencies through infrastructure and technology improvements. For example, the United Nation’s United Smart Cities initiative identifies the key areas for smart cities’ progression as in urban mobility, sustainable housing, clean energy, waste management and ICT. Other city-level initiatives, such as in Amsterdam’s City Data and London’s Datastore programs, emphasise big data to address city issues. For smart cities globally, these areas of emphasis are justified as they will have the greatest positive effect on the world’s liveability, workability and sustainability by lifting people out of poverty and building stronger economies.

However, this narrative has not been convincing for communities that do not prioritise these efficiencies; namely in those socially focused spaces such as in neighbourhoods, public spaces and personal homes. In Quayside, the Toronto neighbourhood designed by Google’s sister company Sidewalk Labs, opposition against smart cities’ technology grew when the community residents learned that their toilets and sinks, noise inside their buildings, the movement of people on the sidewalk, and more will be monitored to achieve improved natural resource and transport efficiencies. This did not bode well for the company associated with Google known for selling personal data to influence its users.

The community protested that these spaces will lose their democratic and organic social value by being monitored and potentially controlled by a private company. Even though Sidewalk Labs is investing $50 million to hold public consultations and develop a plan that attempts to reassure fears, the community is opposing the development’s use of monitoring in their immediate social environment. The benefits from smart cities’ efficiencies were recognised but ultimately, for the community they translated into potentially losing the intimacy and intricacies which makes their community feel like home.

This response has been consistent elsewhere in the world. Smart cities in Dholera, India; London, and Barcelona have received opposition from similar social communities about the fear of the technology breaching personal privacy, displacing or discouraging economically or politically marginal communities from spaces, or altering traditional ways of life.