Brussels has backed smart city projects to accelerate progress on its twin transition goals, but as with many efforts to digitise public services, they present opportunities and potential obstacles to digital inclusion.
Since the inauguration of the concept, “smart cities” have been thought of as a way to develop sustainable and efficient urban environments, contribute to broader national and international policy goals and strengthen the well-being of individual citizens.
However, the increasing deployment of digital technologies in these areas presents both old and new challenges. While smart cities can boost inclusion and accessibility, they also risk creating or cementing existing divides, particularly regarding the availability of digital technologies and skills.
“One of the main challenges for smart cities is to make sure that the benefits of digitalisation do reach everyone and do not leave anyone behind”, Camille Viros, an economist and urban policy analyst at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) told EURACTIV.
“Even well-intentioned smart city initiatives can contribute to widening the digital gap between, on the one hand, the tech-savvy people and, on the other hand, people who are not equipped with the technologies or with the knowledge of how to use them.”
The OECD defines these developments as “cities that leverage digitalisation and engage stakeholders to improve people’s well-being and build more inclusive, sustainable and resilient societies.”
The authorities around the world that are backing their roll-out, including in Brussels, have emphasised their importance in achieving intersecting policy objectives.
“Among the various policies cities can implement, digital innovation through smart city solutions can offer a powerful tool to help accelerate progress towards the SDGs [UN Sustainable Development Goals]”, said Viros. “In fact, many smart cities integrate the SDGs as objectives in their strategy.”
Within Europe, where almost 85% of the population is expected to live in urban areas by 2050, particular attention has been paid to how these developments could aid the achievement of Brussels’ green goals, from implementing circular waste reduction strategies to increasing the energy efficiency of buildings.
Mobility is another crucial aspect of this, with smart technologies linked to electric vehicle charging infrastructures or real-time data on traffic flows seen as ways to improve how people move around cities.
These approaches hinge on substantial volumes of data, particularly those that aim for in-the-moment applications. Given the sensitive nature of this resource, however, significant attention is also being paid to the safeguards needed to protect those providing it.
“As smart cities capture and collect a lot more information about citizens, it creates challenges in terms of who accesses and owns the data, for how long and for what purpose”, said Viros.
“It also generates concerns about surveillance, security and privacy among citizens, which can undermine the efficiency of smart cities and trust in public authorities,” she added, calling for robust data management systems, strong data protection and transparency.
Despite such a heavy reliance on data, human involvement remains a key component in ensuring the functioning of smart cities.
Speaking at the 5G Techritory Forum in Riga earlier this month, Google’s Technical Director, Larissa Suzuki, noted that even in heavily automated systems, such as those that monitor and predict traffic disruption, some things could not be reliably predicted, such as road accidents.
“We can automate some parts”, she said, “however, we still need to rely on our users…there are several things where we need to choose to rely on the wisdom of the crowds.”
A key benefit of applying connectivity in areas such as mapping and navigation, she said, is the contribution that individual citizens in these areas can make to the broader functioning of the smart city.
While citizen participation may be a key aspect of smart cities, it is not equally guaranteed. The digital divide in many societies may have received significant attention for how it not only mirrors but often exacerbates existing disparities but progress on addressing it has so far been slow.
With the level of digitalisation of public services required as part of smart city development, there remains a danger that existing divides could be widened or new ones created.
“If the needs of all population groups are not considered, smart city initiatives may inadvertently deepen the digital divide”, Viros noted. “It is, therefore, crucial to measure the performance of smart cities to ensure they achieve their objectives in terms of well-being, sustainability and inclusion.”
Despite the risk that these developments hand greater benefits to the more digitally equipped or those living in higher-income areas, smart city initiatives also present an opportunity to offer assistance to those in need by making core services more accessible, Viros said.
For example, by providing free and universally accessible internet in urban spaces.
[Edited by Luca Bertuzzi/Alice Taylor]