Building the smart cities of the future

girl friends in the park on smart phones

This article is the first part in a series on smart cities. See more from Christine Wong.

Smart cities are coming under siege.

In Songdo, South Korea, clusters of concrete high-rises sit empty, waiting for an influx of foreign workers that hasn’t materialized. The $40 billion smart city, which was to be completed last year, is only 70 percent finished. Just 100,000 people live in Songdo so far, well short of its target population of 300,000.

On the other side of the world, two members of the Sidewalk Toronto advisory panel resigned last year, citing concerns about how the smart city initiative will use citizen data and safeguard its privacy.

In the first of our two-part series, we’re asking: a decade into the digital development boom, are we in danger of being duped by smart city hype?

The ultimate goals [of smart city initiatives] are “better city services and a higher quality of life.”

The promise

Smart city initiatives around the world are building backbones of connectivity consisting mainly of the Internet of Things (IoT), data analytics and smartphone apps. By deploying sensors within city infrastructure – from roads and transit vehicles to traffic lights and sewage lines – local governments collect data to monitor and manage city resources for optimal efficiency, energy conservation and cost savings.

The ultimate goals, as summed up in a 2018 Deloitte report, are “better city services and a higher quality of life.”

How is this vision panning out so far?

The proof

Now that some smart city projects are mature enough to garner deeper analysis, some impressive results have been reported:

  • Louisville, KY: After sensors were installed on asthma inhalers to alert patients of bad air quality and help them track their asthma attacks, emergency inhaler use dropped by 82 percent in one year.
  • Beijing: Air pollution levels fell 20 percent after the city deployed sensors to monitor pollution sources and adjusted traffic flows and construction projects accordingly.
  • Dallas, TX: A pilot project providing west-end businesses with pedestrian traffic data boosted foot traffic in the neighbourhood by 13 percent, increased revenue at area merchants by 12 percent and reduced local crime by six percent.
  • Kansas City, MO: Public access to real-time data on parking availability, traffic patterns and streetcar locations (combined with the installation of intelligent streetlights, info kiosks and free Wi-Fi) saves the city an estimated $4 million per year in operational and energy costs.

Last year, researchers at McKinsey Global Institute estimated smart cities have the potential to reduce worldwide emergency response times by up to 35 percent, commute times by up to 20 percent, crime by up to 40 percent and water consumption by as much as 30 percent.

smart city highway at night

The pushback

As more smart cities sprout up around the globe, so too, do questions about how these metropolitan megaprojects are unfolding – and just who will actually benefit from them. Here’s a breakdown of some of the biggest issues:

Private partners: Local governments are teaming up with corporations to offset smart city costs and spur innovation. But in these public/private partnerships (known as PPPs or P3s), should corporate partners – like AT&T in Dallas or Google subsidiary Sidewalk Labs in Toronto – use public smart city data to boost their own profits? How much access should P3 business partners have to citizen data?

Data usage: How will smart cities oversee data usage and privacy? Ontario’s former privacy commissioner walked away from Sidewalk Toronto’s advisory council last fall over that very question.

Although Sidewalk Toronto declined our interview request, its head of data governance has outlined proposals for a civic data trust and responsible data impact assessments. This past December, Sidewalk Toronto posted an update on its most recent data governance consultations.

Security: “Experts worldwide are increasingly concerned about cybersecurity vulnerabilities in smart cities. The threats are both international and hyperlocal,” according to McKinsey. “The millions of sensors that make up the Internet of Things provide much more ‘surface area’ that is vulnerable to hackers, and interoperability enables damage to spread.”

Connectivity vs. Community: Songdo residents never have to take out their garbage, compost or recycling; a tube sucks household waste directly away from each home and into an underground sorting facility. It’s a fitting metaphor for a smart city that’s been disparaged as sterile and dull. Will digital connectivity strip away the character and sense of community that make cities livable and enjoyable?

Digital divide: Since residents require smartphones to access most smart city offerings, homeless and lower-income people could potentially be shut out of the experience. Will smart cities only widen the gap between First World nations (where smartphone penetration tops 90 percent) and developing countries (where it’s 60 percent or less)?

We’ll look at how smart city developers are addressing these questions in Part Two.

About Fast Future

It is our mission to explore the implications of emerging technologies, seeking answers to next-level questions about how they will affect society, business, politics and the environment of tomorrow.

We aim to inform and inspire through thoughtful research, responsible reporting, and clear, unbiased writing, and to create a platform for a diverse group of innovators to bring multiple perspectives.

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