Smart Cities

What are smart cities?

While there is no single definition of a smart city, smart cities typically use a variety of digital technologies and data to improve the efficiency of city service delivery, enhance quality of life and increase equity and prosperity for residents and businesses.

“Smart” often includes technologies that rely on citizen surveillance by government; but from democratic- governance and human-rights perspectives, surveillance is the opposite of “smart”.

How do smart cities work?

Solar power lights an evening market in Msimba, Tanzania. Smart cities monitor and integrate their infrastructure to optimize resource use. Photo credit: Jake Lyell.
Solar power lights an evening market in Msimba, Tanzania. Smart cities monitor and integrate their infrastructure to optimize resource use. Photo credit: Jake Lyell.

Smart cities aim to monitor and integrate their infrastructure — roads, bridges, tunnels, rails, subways, airports, seaports, communications, water, power, major buildings, sometimes even private residences —  to optimize resource use, to conduct maintenance, and to monitor safety. At the same time, smart cities aim to improve the quality of life for their citizens by improving quality of services, access to services, the livability of the city, and civic participation.

The term smart city does not refer to any single kind of technology, but rather a variety of technologies used together. There is no official checklist for what technological features a city needs to be considered “smart”. But a smart city requires urban planning: generally, a growth strategy is managed by city governments with significant contribution from the private sector, which provides technology services.

Data is at the heart of the smart city
Smart cities generally rely on data-driven technologies and decision making. This usually means gathering and analyzing data to address issues like traffic, air pollution, waste management, water leakages and security. Often, smart sensors are installed across the city and connected to a grid, and data from these sensors are collected and analyzed. The Internet of Things , an expanding network of devices connected to one another through the internet, can allow all of these smart devices to communicate to one another: for instance, a smart phone may connect to an electronic bike through the internet. Advancements in data analytics and algorithmic decision-making can help city governments implement a circular economy, cutting down on waste, monitoring emissions, reducing energy use.

Data shared by citizens with their city governments is also a way of giving feedback to improve services and strengthen the relationship between citizens and government. Responsible digitization and data use can create a better relationship between citizens and governments — for example, a government can make their budget and spending visible online to the public. However, the use of sensitive personal data and the invasive use of surveillance technology can alienate citizens and reduce trust — for example, surveillance cameras that track citizens during their daily activities to monitor their behavior. For a city to be truly “smart”, people need to understand and agree to what is happening with their data. Smart cities also require a detailed and rights-respecting data management strategy in advance so that everyone knows what data is being collected, that citizens agree to sharing these data, how data are processed and used, and why these data will be useful.

All Smart Cities are different
Cities are extremely diverse, and so every city will have different needs for how it can become “smart,” depending on its location, its citizens, and its priorities. Some smart cities are built on the existing infrastructure of cities, like Nairobi, overlaying ICTs on existing infrastructure, while others some smart cities are built “from scratch,” like Konza City, Kenya’s “Silicon Valley.” Many elements of smart city development are not necessarily digital, such as improvements in housing, walkability, parks, the preservation of wildlife, etc. Some smart cities focus on technology, digitization, and growth as the end goal, though this is not ultimately “smart” for citizens. Others focus on inclusive governance and sustainability. China has the most “smart cities” (or “safe cities” they are often called in China) of any country or continent in the world, followed by Europe. But these Chinese urban projects are surveillance-focused and are very different from smart cities that are focused on civic participation, inclusion, and sustainability.

Smart cities in developing countries face fundamentally different challenges than smart cities in countries without the same legal, regulatory, or socioeconomic challenges.

Drivers for Smart City Development in Developing Countries
  • Financing capacity of the government
  • Regulatory environment that citizens and investors trust and investors
  • Technology and infrastructure readiness
  • Human capital
  • Stability in economic development
  • Active citizen engagement and participation
  • Knowledge transfer and participation from the private sector
  • Ecosystem that promotes innovation and learning

Barriers to Smart City Development in Developing Countries

  • Budget constraints and financing issues
  • Lack of investment in basic infrastructure
  • Lack of technology-related infrastructure readiness
  • Fragmented authority
  • Lack of governance frameworks and regulatory safeguards for smart cities
  • Lack of skilled human capital
  • Lack of inclusivity
  • Environmental concerns
  • Lack of citizen participation
  • Technology illiteracy and knowledge deficit among the citizens

Children playing at Limonade plaza, Haiti. Improving the quality of life for citizens is at the heart of smart city projects. Photo credit: Kendra Helmer/USAID.
Children playing at Limonade plaza, Haiti. Improving the quality of life for citizens is at the heart of smart city projects. Photo credit: Kendra Helmer/USAID.

The process of developing a truly smart city – one that is smart for its citizens – takes time and careful planning. Smart city planning can take several years, and then the city infrastructure itself should be updated gradually, over time and as political will, civic engagement demand and private-sector interests converge. Smart city projects can only be successful when the city has cared for the basic needs of residents, and when basic infrastructure and legal protections for residents are in place. For instance, if technology will be collecting data about citizens, the city must have a data-protection law to protect citizens’ personal data from misuse. The infrastructure needed for smart cities is very expensive and requires routine, ongoing maintenance and review, and many skilled professionals. Many smart city projects have become graveyards of sensors because these sensors were not well maintained, or because the data gathered were not ultimately valuable for the government and citizens.

Common Elements of a Smart City

Below is an overview of technologies and practices common to smart cities, though by no means exhaustive or universal.

Open Wi-Fi: Affordable and reliable Internet connectivity is essential for including citizens throughout a smart city. Some smart cities provide free access to high-speed Internet through city-wide, wireless infrastructure. Free Wi-Fi can encourage residents to use public places, be used for emergency services to aid rescue workers, and can facilitate data collection, since smart cities that use sensors to collect data remotely control these sensors through wireless networks.

Internet of Things (IoT) : The Internet of Things is an expanding network of physical devices connected through the internet. From cars and motorbikes to refrigerators to heating systems, these devices communicate with users, developers, applications and one another by collecting, exchanging, and processing data. For example, smart water meters can collect information to better understand problems like water leaks or water waste. The IoT is largely facilitated by the rise of smart phones that allow people easily to connect to one another and to devices.

5G : Smart city services need internet with high speeds and large bandwidth to handle the amount of data generated by the IoT and to process these data in real time. 5G is a new internet infrastructure with increased connectivity and computing capacity that facilitates many of the internet-related processes needed for smart cities.

Smart Grids: Smart Grids are energy networks that use sensors to collect data in real time about energy usage and requirements of infrastructure and of citizens. Beyond controlling utilities, smart grids monitor power, distribute broadband to improve connectivity, and control processes like traffic. Smart grids rely on a collection of power- system operators and involve a wide network of parties: vendors, suppliers, contractors, distributed generation operators, and consumers.

Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS): Like Smart Grids, various transportation mechanisms can be coordinated to reduce energy usage, decrease traffic congestion, and decrease travel times. Intelligent Transport Systems monitor traffic, manage congestion, provide public information, optimize parking, integrate traffic-light management, provide for emergency response, etc. ITS also focuses on “last mile delivery”, or optimizing the final step of the delivery process. Often autonomous vehicles are associated with smart cities, but ITS goes far beyond individual vehicles.

Surveillance: As with connected objects, data about residents can be transmitted, aggregated, and analyzed. In some cases, existing CCTV cameras can be paired with advanced video-analytics software and linked to the IoT to manage traffic and public safety. Solutions for fixed-video-surveillance infrastructure account for the vast majority of the global market of smart city surveillance, but mobile-surveillance solutions are also growing fast. There are many kinds of surveillance—for instance, surveillance of objects versus surveillance of people, and then surveillance that actually identifies the identities of people. This last kind of surveillance is a hotly debated topic with significant ramifications for civil society and DRG actors and in many places is illegal.

Digital IDs and Services Delivery : Digital-identification services can link citizens to their city, from opening a bank account to accessing health services to proving their age. Digital IDs centralize all information and transaction history. This brings some conveniences but also security concerns. Techniques like minimal disclosure (also known as the data minimization principle, this means asking for and relying on as little of a user’s data as possible) and decentralized technologies like ‘Self Sovereign Identity (SSI)’ (which avoid data being controlled in a central registry) can help separate identity, transaction and device.

E-government: Electronic government—the use of technology to provide government services to the public—aims to improve service delivery and quality, to enhance citizen involvement and engagement, and to build trust. Making more information available to citizens is another element of e-government, for instance making government budgets public. Mobile smartphone service is another strategy, as mobile technology combined with an e-government platform can offer citizens access to services remotely without having to go to municipal offices.

Chief Technology Officer: Some smart cities have a Chief Technology Officer (CTO) or Chief Information Officer (CIO), who leads the city’s efforts to develop creative and effective technology solutions and who collaborates with residents and elected officials. The CTO studies the community, learns the needs of the citizens, plans and executes related initiatives, and oversees implementation and continued improvements.

Interoperability: The many different services and tools used in the smart city should be interoperable, which means they should be able to function together, to communicate with each other, and to share data. This requires dialogue and careful planning between business suppliers and city governments. Interoperability means that the new infrastructure must be able to function on top of the city’s existing infrastructure. (for example, combining new “smart” LED lighting on top of existing city streetlight systems.)

“A smart city is a process of continuous improvements in city operation methods. Not a big bang.”

Smart city project leader in Bordeaux, France

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How are smart cities relevant in civic space and for democracy?

Smart cities raise difficult questions for democratic governance and civic participation. Technology must be overlaid on a functional democratic foundation, with transparency, legal safeguards, and citizen participation.

Streetlights in Makassar, Indonesia. Smart cities have the potential to reach carbon reduction and renewable energy goals and improve economic efficiency and power distribution. Photo credit: USAID.
Streetlights in Makassar, Indonesia. Smart cities have the potential to reach carbon reduction and renewable energy goals and improve economic efficiency and power distribution. Photo credit: USAID.

The multinational company IBM originally coined the term “smart city” in 2009. Smart cities were at first a business opportunity for private-sector actors looking to sell their technology to governments, particularly after the 2008 economic downturn reduced their market opportunities. Even today, “smart city” is not an academic term as much as it is a marketing term. The fact that smart cities are promoted by the private sector raises significant concerns for civic and human rights, democracy, and even for government authority and national sovereignty.

Often smart city technologies are purchased from outside one’s own country: China, followed by South Korea and Singapore, have sold considerable smart city products to countries in Africa. China’s sale of smart city technology is framed as part of the country’s Belt & Road Initiative (BRI), an ambitious plan to connect Asia with Africa and Europe through trade and economic growth. China is also investing heavily in Latin America.

Smart city technologies are interconnected so that they can function together: for example, connecting LED streetlights with sensors to the city’s energy grid. All parts must be compatible, and so groups of technologies are often sold by companies as a package. Chinese companies, for example, are developing comprehensive smart city technology packages so that they can supply everything a city government would need.

Nairobi Business Commercial District, Kenya. Some smart cities, like Nairobi, are built on the existing infrastructure of cities. Photo credit: USAID East Africa Trade and Investment Hub.
Nairobi Business Commercial District, Kenya. Some smart cities, like Nairobi, are built on the existing infrastructure of cities. Photo credit: USAID East Africa Trade and Investment Hub.

Smart city technology, then, is at best a double-edged sword: potentially improving civic participation and democracy on the one hand, and potentially imposing government surveillance on the other. For example, the country with the most smart city projects, China, also has the largest surveillance system in the world. The project, known as “Skynet,” involves 300 million connected cameras. The data-collection capacities of these cameras are enhanced with advancements in artificial intelligence, data analysis, and facial recognition. To support these surveillance technologies, China is developing its own global satellite system, an alternative to GPS, called BeiDou. When linked to 5G internet infrastructure, this satellite system will be able to access the geolocations of all mobile phones on Chinese 5G networks.

Surveillance technology, in addition to being potentially being used in repressive and undemocratic ways, is also often faulty. Indeed, technology is not perfect, and in fact, the more complex and interconnected it is, and the more data it collects, the higher the risk that something will not function as planned, or that it will be vulnerable to attacks. Other risks of smart city technology are explored below, related to cybersecurity, inequality, marginalization, and freedom of expression.

Smart cities raise difficult questions for democratic governance and civic participation

When planning a democratic, inclusive, and sustainable city, it is essential to know what information will be gathered and how it will be used. Will the smart city help citizens access government services online, or access safe Wi-Fi, healthcare, and educational opportunities? As in Estonia (described below), will citizens be able to vote from their homes, to ensure full participation in democratic elections? Or will citizens be tracked without their knowledge or consent, or discouraged from meeting in groups or with certain friends or relatives?

Surveillance can be a barrier to human rights like freedom of assembly, even for people who have “nothing to hide.” Imagine your cousin is wrongfully on a government blacklist, accused of being in a gang. Would you want the government to know you went to her house? Surveillance reduces citizens’ trust in the government, and could make citizens less likely to access services or to participate in civic and social activities.

As more and more devices are connected, where will the line be drawn between convenience and risk? Perhaps an e-payment app that allows you to purchase groceries is convenient. But should the data on that app then be sent to insurance companies, who would then know everything you eat and adjust the price of your insurance in response?

Smart cities raise difficult questions for democratic governance and civic participation. Technology must be overlaid on a functional democratic foundation, with transparency, legal safeguards, and citizen participation. Having data collected by government about citizens is not the same thing as information citizens choose to share about themselves. For example, a facial recognition camera on a train that claims to read someone’s emotions is likely less accurate compared to that person sharing openly how she feels.

It is important that citizens participate actively in the formation and functioning of the smart city. As with any technology, citizens must be empowered to participate in all municipal processes, and there must be ways for them to give meaningful input and feedback. Education and training programs are necessary, so that citizens understand and master the technology surrounding them: the technology should be at their service, not the other way around.

Legal infrastructure is critical to defend against discrimination and abuse through technology. In addition to privacy and data-protection regulations , due-process systems must be in place. Technology suppliers and governments must uphold high standards of transparency and must be accountable for the effects of their technology. Smart cities brand themselves as “inclusive”, but smart city technology is often criticized for benefitting the elite and for failing to address the needs and rights of society’s most vulnerable: women, children, migrants, minorities, persons with disabilities, persons operating in the informal economy, those will lower levels of literacy and digital literacy, low-income groups and other disadvantaged communities. In particular, smart city infrastructure can disproportionately harm the poor. In India, where the government has pledged to construct  100 smart cities between 2015 and 2020, government entities have often evicted people from their homes to do so. Along with protective legal frameworks, human-rights standards and indicators are needed to monitor the implementation of smart city developments, to ensure they benefit the whole of society and do not harm vulnerable communities. The “Triple Test” is a good starting point for civil society and governments to determine if smart city technology will harm citizens more than it benefits them: First, is the technology appropriate for the objective (does it actually achieve the goal)? Second, is it necessary (does it not exceed what is required, is there no other way of achieving the goal)? Third, is it proportionate (the burdens and problems it brings do not outweigh the benefit of the result)?

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Smart Cities can have a number of positive impacts when usedto further democracy, human rights and governance issues. Read below to learn how to more effectively and safely think about smart cities in your work.
Environmental Sustainability

According to the OECD, modern cities use almost two-thirds of the world’s energy, produce up to 80% of global greenhouse-gas emissions, and create 50% of global waste. Smart cities have the potential to reach carbon reduction and renewable energy goals, and improve economic efficiency and power distribution, among other sustainability goals. Smart cities can relate directly to Sustainable Development Goal 11 on sustainable cities and communities. Smart cities are often linked to circular economic practices: these include “up-cycling” (creative reuse of waste products), the harvesting of rainwater for reuse, and even the reuse of open public data (see below). Urban areas are ideal environments for reconfiguring the flow of building materials, food, water, and electronic waste. In addition, smart city technologies can be leveraged to help prevent the loss of biodiversity and natural habitat.

Disaster Preparedness

Smart cities can help achieve disaster-risk-reduction and resilience goals: preparedness, mitigation, response, and recovery from natural disasters. Data collection and analysis can be applied to monitoring environmental threats, and remote sensors can map hazards. For example, open data and artificial intelligence can be used to identify which areas are most likely to be hardest hit by earthquakes. Early warning systems, social media alert systems, GIS and mobile systems can also contribute to disaster management. A major issue during natural disasters is a loss of communication: interconnected systems can share information about what areas need assistance or replenishment when individual communication channels go down.

Social Inclusion

Smart cities can facilitate social inclusion in important ways: through fast, secure internet access, improvements in access to government and social services, avenues for citizen input and participation, improvements in transportation and urban mobility, etc. For example, smart cities can establish a network of urban access points where residents can access digital-skills training; digitization of health services can improve healthcare opportunities and help patients connect to their medical records, etc. Cities may even be able to improve services for more vulnerable groups by drawing responsibly from more sensitive datasets to improve their understanding of these citizens’ needs — though this data must be given with full consent, and robust privacy and security safeguards must be in place.  Smart city technologies can also be used to preserve cultural heritage.

Knowledge Sharing and Open Information

An open approach to data captured by smart technologies can bring government, businesses and civil society closer together. Public or open data — unlike sensitive, private data — are data that anyone can access, use and share. An open-access approach to data means allowing the public to access these kinds of public, reusable data to leverage the benefits for themselves and for social or environmental benefit. This open approach can also provide transparency and reinforce accountability — for example by showing the use of public funds — improving trust between citizens and government. In addition to open data, the design of software behind smart city infrastructure can be shared with the public through open-source design and open standards. Open source refers to technology whose source code is freely available publicly, so that anyone can review it, replicate it, modify it, extend it. Open standards are guidelines that help ensure that technology is designed to be open source in the first place. 

Citizen Participation

Smart cities can encourage citizens to participate more actively in their communities and their governance, by facilitating volunteering and community-engagement opportunities and by soliciting feedback on the quality of services and infrastructure. Sometimes referred to as “e-participation,” digital tools can reduce the barriers between citizens and decision making, facilitating their involvement in the development of laws and standards, in the choice of urban initiatives, etc. The United Nations identifies three steps in e-participation: E-information, E-consultation, and E-decision-making. 

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The use of emerging technologies can also create risks in civil society programming. Read below on how to discern the possible dangers associated with Smart Cities in DRG work, as well as how to mitigate for unintended – and intended – consequences.

Surveillance and Forced-Participation

As noted above, smart cities often rely on some level of citizen surveillance, which has many flaws. Surveillance can be marketed in positive ways, for example, in the Toronto Waterfront project Quayside (the project was abandoned in May of 2020). The company installing the smart city infrastructure in Toronto, a subsidiary of Google, promised to make street lights better for elderly people by ensuring that traffic stopped for as long as it took the elderly person to cross the street. This might sound positive; but to do this, the city must be watching the elderly person approach, track their movements with a camera and store that data somewhere. Perhaps this data is anonymous, stored locally by the city and not shared with any outside actors who might want to sell this person a product knowing that they are in the neighborhood; but it could be accessed by nefarious actors, who might wish to follow this person.

Even if this surveillance is truly 100% anonymous (extremely difficult, perhaps impossible), the question remains: did this person consent to the surveillance? In many countries, consent by individuals is required before information may legally be collected about them. This consent must be informed consent: the individual must understand what information is being collected and for what purpose. It is already complicated to give informed consent when browsing on the web — most people click “Yes” to access a webpage, even though advertisers may then collect data about them and adjust prices or services based on this data. Obtaining informed consent is even more complicated when surveillance is happening in a city. Do city residents consent to be watched when they are crossing the street? Will their behavior change? Certainly, one might say, we consent to being watched when we are shopping, and we know that a CCTV camera is making sure we don’t shoplift. But in most democratic societies, there are restrictions on how this security footage is used: only when necessary, by police authorities after a crime. It is not supposed to be shared with advertisers, companies, insurance providers, job recruiters and future employers, etc.

Discrimination is sometimes made easier because of smart city surveillance. Smart city infrastructure can provide law enforcement and security agencies with the ability to track and target certain groups, for instance, ethnic or racial minorities. This happens in democratic societies as well as non-democratic ones. A 2011 study showed that CCTV cameras in the UK disproportionately targeted people with certain features through a strategy of “preemptive” policing. Predictive policing is the use of data analytics to guess the potential locations of future crime and to respond by increasing surveillance in “high-risk” areas, usually neighborhoods inhabited by lower income and minority communities.

Unethical Data Handling and Freedom of Expression

As cities aggregate and process data about residents, expectations of privacy in people’s daily lives break down. Specific concerns about data protection and personal rights to privacy break down too. For example, smartphones increase data collection by sharing geo-location data and other metadata with other applications, which can in turn share data with other service providers, often without users’ knowledge and consent. As the city becomes more digitally connected, this data sharing increases. Much data may seem harmless, for instance data about your car and your driving practices. But when paired with other data it can become more sensitive, revealing information about your health and habits, your family and networks, the composition of your household, your religious practices, etc.

Personal information is valuable to companies, and many companies test their technology in countries with the fewest data restrictions. In the hands of private companies, these data can be exploited to target advertising to you, to calibrate your insurance costs, etc.  There are also risks when data are collected by third parties and, particularly, by foreign companies. Companies may lock you into their services, may not be open about security flaws, may have less data protection, or may have-data sharing agreements with other governments. Governments also stand to benefit from access to intimate data about their citizens: “[P]ersonal information collected as part of a health survey could be repurposed for a client that is, say, a political party desperate to win an election.” According to Bright Simmons, Ghanaian social innovator and entrepreneur, “the battle for data protection and digital rights is the new fight for civil rights in the continent.” For more on this topic, see Privacy International’s reporting: “2020 is a crucial year to fight for data protection in Africa: Africa is a testing ground for technologies produced elsewhere: as a result, personal data of its people are increasingly stored in hundreds of databases.”

Worsening Inequality and Marginalization

In many cases, smartphones and apps become the keys to the smart city. But increased reliance on smartphone applications to access services and to participate in city life can reduce access and participation for many inhabitants. In 2019 global smartphone penetration reached 41.5%, and while this number will surely grow, smartphone ownership and use reveals important equity divides. Other questions must also be asked. Can all residents use these apps easily? Are they comfortable doing so? Residents with low literacy and numeracy skills, or who do not speak the language used by an application, will have further difficulty connecting through these interfaces. The reliance on apps also alienates the unhoused populations in a city, who, even if they have smart devices, may not be able to charge their devices regularly, or may be at higher risk of their devices being stolen.

The term digital divide refers to the uneven distribution in the access to and familiarity with high-quality and secure technology. People with limited internet access, limited digital training, and visual or hearing impairments as well as society’s generally increasing reliance on digital technology could worsen the digital divide. Smart cities are often criticized as being designed for the elite and the already digitally connected. In this way, smart cities could speed up gentrification and displace, for example, the unhoused. For example, a smart city program that asks residents to alert the municipality about potholes on their street  through an app is catering  to people with smartphones, who know how to use the app and who have the time to participate in this initiative. As a likely result, more potholes will be identified and attended to in wealthier neighborhoods.

The use of surveillance in smart cities can also be used to repress minority groups. Much has been reported on government surveillance in Xinjiang, the Northern province where China’s Uyghur Muslim population lives. This surveillance is in part made possible through a phone app.

“It aggregates data – from people’s blood type and height, to information about their electricity usage and package deliveries – and alerts authorities when it deems someone or something suspicious. It is part of the Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP), the main system for mass surveillance in Xinjiang.”As described by Human Rights Watch

Data Despotism and Automation Failures

Smart cities have been accused of “Data Despotism”. If city governments can access so much data about their citizens, then what is the use of speaking with them? Because of potential algorithmic discrimination, flaws in data analysis or interpretation, or inefficiencies between technology and humans, an overreliance on digital technology can harm society’s most vulnerable—intentionally or unintentionally without hearing their voices.

Much literature, too, is available on the “digital welfare state”. Philip Alston, the UN rapporteur on extreme poverty, reports that new digital technologies are changing relationships between governments and those most in need of social protection: “Crucial decisions to go digital have been taken by government ministers without consultation, or even by departmental officials without any significant policy discussions taking place.”

When basic human services are automated and human operators are taken out of the transaction, glitches in the software and tiny flaws in eligibility systems can be dangerous and even fatal. In India, where many welfare and social services have been automated, a 50-year old man died of malnutrition because of the failure of his biometric thumbprint identifier. “Decisions about you are made by a centralised server, and you don’t even know what has gone wrong…People don’t know why [welfare support] has stopped and they don’t know who to go to to fix the problem,” explains Reetika Khera, an associate professor of economics at the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad.

These automated processes also create new opportunities for corruption. Benefits like pensions and wages linked to India’s digital ID system (called Aadhaar) are often delayed or fail to arrive completely. When a 70-year-old woman found that her pension was being sent to another person’s bank account, the government told her to resolve the situation by speaking to that person.

Worsening Displacement

Smart city projects, like other urban projects, can displace residents by building over neighborhoods and pushing people out of their homes. In India the movement towards smart cities has meant that many have been evicted from slums and informal settlements without offering them adequate compensation or alternate housing. An estimated 60%–80% of the world’s forcibly displaced population lives in urban areas, not in camps as many would think. And among people living in developing cities, one billion people live in “slum” areas—defined by the UN as areas without access to improved water, sanitation, security, durable housing, and sufficient living area. This number is expected to double to 2 billion by 2030. In other words, urban areas are home to large populations of society’s most vulnerable. Smart cities may seem like an ideal solution for expanding populations, but they also risk building over these vulnerable groups.  The smart city emphasis on urban centers also neglects the needs of populations living in rural areas.

Refugees, internally displaced persons and migrants are inherently vulnerable, and these groups may not benefit from the same legal rights and protections as residents. Because of the sensitive nature of their data and because of their limited access to other basic resources, these most vulnerable populations in cities will likely experience the worst, most invasive elements of smart city technology.

The United Kingdom, like many countries, has digitized services for asylum seekers. Through partnerships with private companies, the ASPEN card gives asylum seekers access to products and services while they are awaiting a decision on their applications. However, this card also tracks their whereabouts and penalizes them for leaving their “authorized” cities. Tracking data about refugees and internally displaced persons can also be dangerous in the hands of actors with bad intentions. For example, the UNHCR collected sensitive biometric data about the Rohingya people fleeing persecution, data which was largely collected without informed consent and is not in sufficiently secure storage.

“Corporatization”: Dominance of the Private Sector

Smart cities present an enormous market opportunity for the private sector — one study estimates the smart city market will be worth $2.75 trillion by 2023, sparking fears of the “corporatization of city governance.” Large IT, telecommunication and energy-management companies such as Huawei, Alibaba, Tencent, Baidu, Cisco, Google, Schneider Electric, IBM and Microsoft are the driving forces behind many initiatives for smart cities. As Sara Degli-Esposti, an Honorary Research Fellow at Coventry University, explains: “We can’t understand smart cities without talking of digital giants’ business models… These corporations are already global entities that largely escape governmental oversight. What level of control do local governments expect to exercise over these players?”

The important role thereby afforded international private companies in municipal governance raises sovereignty concerns for governments, along with the privacy concerns for citizens cited above. In addition, reliance on private- sector software and systems can create a condition of business lock-in (when it becomes too expensive to switch to another business supplier). Business lock-in can get worse over time: as more services are added to a network, the cost of moving to a new system becomes prohibitive.

The city of Yachay, Ecuador, can serve a cautionary tale of a smart city project that was far too reliant on private companies, in particular private companies based outside the country. The “Ciudad del Conocemiento” (city of knowledge) as it was called, in Yachay, was conceived of as the first technology park in Ecuador, a science and technology hub like Silicon Valley. The project was largely supported by Chinese investment: it was partially funded in 2016 through a $198.2 million loan from China Export-Import bank, following investments from Chinese companies. Today in 2020, the city is still a construction site: half of the land dedicated to the project has been abandoned; the water and sewage infrastructure was not completed in time for the next stages of construction; and there are no basic services available. Some of the anticipated investment was never even received. The project is an example of the smart city package: with investment, city infrastructure, and supporting technology infrastructure all provided by Chinese companies. (The new government is examining the project for corruption).

Yachay is just one example of many Chinese-financed smart city projects around the world and in Latin America. Even in Ecuador, Yachay is one among multiple projects in the country that are financed by Chinese corporations. In 2011, the company China National Electronics Import and Export Corporation (CEIEC) was contracted to construct the national emergency response system, ECU-911. Marketed as a public emergency response system, in reality it was modeled on the Chinese government surveillance systems.2

Security Risks

Connecting devices through a smart grid or through the Internet of Things brings serious security vulnerabilities for individuals and infrastructure. Connected networks have more points of vulnerability and are susceptible to hacking, and anything connected to the Internet can be susceptible to cyberattacks. As smart systems share more data,  often private data about users (think about health records, for example), this raises risks that unauthorized actors can breach individual privacy. Public, open Wi-Fi is much less secure than private networks, so this convenience also comes with a cost. IoT has been widely criticized for its lack of security, in part because of its novelty and lack of regulation. Connected devices are generally manufactured to be inexpensive and accessible, without cybersecurity as the primary concern.

The more closely infrastructure is linked, the faster and more sweeping an attack can be. Digitally-linked infrastructure like smart grids increases cybersecurity risks due to the increased number of operators and third parties connected to the grid, and this multiplies supply-chain risk-management considerations. According to Anjos Nijk, Director of the European Network for Cyber Security: “With the current speed of digitisation of the grid systems.. and the speed of connecting new systems and technologies to the grids, such as smart metering, electrical vehicle charging and IoT, grid systems become vulnerable and the ‘attack surface’ expands rapidly.” Damaging one part of a large interconnected system can lead to a cascade effect,  infecting other systems as well. This can lead to a large-scale blackout, or the disabling of critical infrastructure like health or transportation systems. Energy grids can be brought down by hackers, as experienced in the December 2015 Ukraine power grid cyberattack. Smart city grids offer cyber threat actors an unprecedented attack surface.

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If you are trying to understand the implications of smart cities in your work environment, or are considering using aspects of Smart Cities as part of your DRG programming, ask yourself these questions:

  1. Does the service in question need to be digital or connected to the internet? Will digitization improve this service for citizens, and does this improvement outweigh the risks?
  2. Are programs in place to ensure that citizens’ basic needs are being met (access to food, safety, housing, livelihood, education) and to allow for humans to reach their full potential, outside of any smart-city technology?
  3. What external actors have control or access to critical aspects of the tool or infrastructure this project will rely on, and what cybersecurity measures are in place?
  4. Who will build and maintain infrastructure and data? Is there a risk of being locked into certain technologies or agreements with service providers?
  5. Who has access to collected data and how are the data being interpreted, used, and stored? What external actors have access? Are data available for safe, legal re-use by the public? How are open data being re-used or shared publicly?
  6. How will smart city services respect citizens’ privacy? How will residents’ consent be obtained when they participate in services that capture data about them? How will they be able to opt out of sharing this information? How will the government respect specific data protection regulations like the EU GDPR? What other legal protections are in place around data protection and privacy?
  7. Are the smart services transparent and accountable? Do researchers and civil society have access to the “behind the scenes” functioning of these services? (data, code, APIs, algorithms, etc.)
  8. What measures are in place to address biases in these services? How will this service be certain not to further socioeconomic barriers and existing inequalities? What programs and measures are in place to improve inclusion?
  9. How will these developments respect and preserve historical sites and neighborhoods?  How will changes adapt to local cultural identities?

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Case Studies

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
The city of Rio partnered with the corporation IBM to build two large data-operation centers before its hosting of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic games: the “Operations Center” and the “Integrated Center of Command and Control (CICC)”. These two data centers cost the city a combined $40 million. The goal was allegedly to help with environmental-disaster preparedness given the city’s geography. Rio was devastated by mudslides in 2010, and much of the city is at risk of landslides, particularly the favelas, which are home to the city’s poorer residents. However, the reality, as detailed by researchers Christopher Gaffney and Cerianne Robertson in 2016, was a system for city-wide monitoring to stop urban protests. The Guardian described the project as “the world’s most ambitious integrated urban command centre”. The CICC (or COR as it is also known) is essentially a monitoring center where different police units and municipal services can communicate and coordinate. The center receives all emergency calls and organizes the city’s security operations, including the controversial “pacification program” in the city’s favelas. The chief executive of the center admitted that the CICC’s activities had evolved after nationwide protests in 2012. In the words of one researcher, “COR plays a key role in positioning the mayor as somebody who’s in control of his city…Rio has historically been very unruly, very difficult to command – and now there’s a central operations centre that’s connected to not just social media but Globo TV and local radio stations. And they’re constantly reporting not from the mayor’s office, but from COR, very often with the mayor there, giving the public this impression that the city’s being managed; that Paes is in action, everyday, through the COR. Ofcourse, this is being contested, because if you talk to anyone they’ll tell you the city is a mess.”

For further reading, CityLab, Will Rio Be a ‘Smarter’ City After the Olympic Games?

Dharmshala, India
In 2015, India released a $7.5 billion plan to construct 100 cities by 2020 with high-speed internet, uninterrupted power and water supplies, efficient public transportation and high living standards. Not only has this plan not achieved its goals (as of March 2020, 54% of the completed projects are concentrated in only four Indian states and 34 cities have not had one a single completed project), but it does not address the needs of the most marginalized, including the poor, women, minorities, and migrants. The plan fails to provide them with basic services. It has even evicted thousands from their homes without providing them sufficient compensation or other accommodation. In the plans for the city of Dharmshala, the proposal says it will provide 212 houses for slum dwellers; however, 300 houses were demolished in the construction. The demolition of settlements in Dharmshala is just one example of many of this pattern of evictions and displacements. The citizens, and even the municipal government, were not given a voice in the project. The mayor revealed to a civil society group that she was unable to intervene — the private sector and a centralized government entity had so much control over the project. For further reading: India’s Smart Cities Mission: Smart for Whom? City for Whom?
Barcelona, Spain
Barcelona is often referred to as a best practice smart city because of its strongly democratic, citizen-driven design. The smart city infrastructure is built on three components: Sentilo, an open-source data-collection and sensor platform; CityOS, an open-source platform that processes and analyses the data; and a set of user-interface services apps that enable citizen access to the data. Open-source design mitigates the risk of business lock-in and allows citizens to maintain collective ownership of their data and how they are processed. The city has also focused on implementing e-democracy initiatives and improving the digital literacy of its citizens. In the words of Francesca Bria, Barcelona’s Chief Technology and Digital Innovation Officer: “We are reversing the smart city paradigm…Instead of starting from technology and extracting all the data we can before thinking about how to use it, we started aligning the tech agenda with the agenda of the city.” However, Barcelona’s smart city projects have not all been successful: many initiatives have been abandoned and left unused sensors across the city. One city analyst has described these as “graveyards of smart junk”.

Further Reading: Josep-Ramon Ferrer. Barcelona’s Smart City vision: an opportunity for transformation (2017)

Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Amsterdam is touted as a best practice smart city, in particular for its sustainability achievements. The city has recently revealed its aim to transition to a completely circular economy— based on the Doughnut economic model developed by environmental economist Kate Raworth—by 2050, through the reuse of raw materials to avoid waste and reduce Co2 emissions. It is also developing a monitoring tool to follow the use of raw materials and the initiatives that contribute most to their circular economy goals.. Amsterdam’s Smart City initiative has eight categories: smart mobility, smart living, smart society, smart areas, smart economy, big and open data, infrastructure, and living labs. There is also a strong emphasis on citizen innovation: the winners of a 2013 design contest are now key players in Amsterdam’s smart city efforts.
Tallinn, Estonia
Estonia is one of the most highly digitized countries in the world and a leader in cybersecurity, largely by necessity. In April of 2007, Estonia was hit by major cyber-attacks that took down critical parts of their infrastructure — banks, news outlets and government services. These attacks were later attributed to Russia and followed Estonia’s decision to move a Soviet World War II memorial from downtown Tallinn, the capital. Following these attacks, Estonia established technical as well as legal and internationally cooperative cybersecurity measures that brought attention to the small country from around the world. The Tallinn-based NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence (CCD COE) was set up in 2008 to advance research and development in cyber defense and initiated the Tallinn Manual process, contributing to international norms in the field. Tallinn has a large number of digitized services and initiatives, and has prioritized Wi-Fi access (the No Citizen Left Behind program provides Public Internet Access Points) and interoperability (interoperability is crucial for allowing cross-usage of data by national and city databases). Meanwhile citizen data is secured and stored using strategies of encryption and decentralization technologies. Estonia is the first country to have a data embassy: government data are stored in the country of Luxembourg—under Estonian state control—where they are safe in case of crisis; and the data embassy is capable of providing data backups and of operating essential services.

Toronto, Canada
In 2017, Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Alphabet (Google’s parent company) won a bid from the city of Toronto to develop the city’s Eastern Waterfront of 800 acres. Sidewalk Toronto sought to be a model for future cities around the world. However the project’s chief privacy expert, Dr Ann Cavoukian, resigned from her role over data privacy issues she found embedded in the project, writing in her resignation letter: “I imagined us creating a Smart City of Privacy, as opposed to a Smart City of Surveillance.” Sidewalk Labs’ head of data governance proposed that the data collected be controlled and held by an independent civic data trust and that all parties accessing data must file a publicly available Responsible Data Impact Assessment; but this approach was still criticized by many, and serious concerns remained about the disproportionate role played by a private company in the development of the city. In May 2020, the controversial project was officially called off, after years of investment and controversy.

Songdo City, South Korea
Many countries plan to build smart cities “from scratch,” often as satellite urban areas outside of existing cities. The utopian ambition is that these cities will attract foreign investment, skilled international workers, and tourists, and that such projects can also be experiments in governance and urban living. The problem with these model cities is that they sometimes end up as ghost towns. Songdo City, a satellite of Seoul, South Korea, is often cited as the quintessential smart city dystopia. A “ghetto for the affluent,” the city has not attracted the vibrant community that planners expected. Among other noted disincentives, extensive surveillance cameras constantly observe residents and create an alienating atmosphere.

Masdar City, United Arab Emirates
The project of building Masdar City in the United Arab Emirates began in 2006 and was promised to be an “ecotopia” and center for science and technology. The city was constructed as a satellite of the capital Abu Dhabi.  It was planned to host 1,500 green-energy businesses and a workforce of 110,000 people, and to be the first carbon-neutral city in the world. However it has failed to attract the residents it hoped would come. It has become a much more modest project: a cluster of clean technology and renewable energy businesses and a research institute. The renewable-energy goals have not been reached, and most other elements of the ecological city have been abandoned.

Further Listening: Gökçe Günel Ottoman History Podcast, Status Quo Utopias in the UAE. (2019)

Nice, France
For many years, Nice, France, has been experimenting with security surveillance technology. In 2008, the mayor was awarded the ironic “Big Brother Award” after his decision to install a pervasive video-surveillance system across the city.  By 2010, the city had installed 1,000 cameras in an effort to make France’s fifth-largest city into a “laboratory” for the fight against crime, an experiment that other French cities could learn from. Nice is now the most video-monitored city in France, with 1,962 cameras, or 27 per square kilometer. The city has leveraged facial recognition technology, installing it at a high school and deploying it at the annual celebration Carnival, as well as at the gates at its major airports. In the outline of the “Safe City Experimentation Project” launched in June of 2018, to be deployed by the private transportation company Thales, the company stated its aims to create a “Waze of Security… developing new analysis and correlation algorithms to better understand a situation and develop predictive capacities.” The experimentation project contact from 2018 is available here. In 2019, the city tried to install “emotion detection” on local trams. The tram project was to employ software leveraging “happiness algorithms” to detect emotions like stress in passengers, but it was ultimately aborted. The city has partnered with a private security company to develop a smartphone app to encourage citizens to report crime, which was eventually blocked by the French data-protection authority. Nice thus exemplifies the city-wide use of surveillance tech and predictive policing techniques, but it also exemplifies a city with successful data-protection safeguards and a strong civil society response.

For further reading, visit the website Technopolice, a project designed to raise awareness about the spread of “safe city” projects across France.

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Find below the works cited in this resource.

Additional Resources


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Digital Development in the time of COVID-19