© 2022

Smart Cities: A Journey Through Time



Throughout history we have seen some version or another of what it means to be a smart city. From the early days of the Indus Valley civilization (estimates indicate that it was established around 26th century BC) featuring efficient waste management, street lights, and urban design that used the flow of the wind to create an exhaust system – to Ebenezer Howard’s paper on Garden Cities of To-morrow, first published in the year 1898, laying out urban design for the modern working man merging the pleasures of the city with the charm of the countryside. Some famous cities based on Ebenezer’s model include: New Jersey, Greater London Area, New Delhi, Canberra, and Tel Aviv among many others.

Today, when considering smart cities of the future, it is not just about urban design integrating information and communications technology to ensure the most efficient use of available resources; one of the key goals of smart city initiatives is to provide opportunities for community building. This means being able to bring people together to achieve and cater to common interests by creating services that facilitate as such, and consequently being able to improve the overall quality of life for all citizens.

One of the 17 key goals of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as stated in 2015, is the creation of ‘sustainable cities and communities’. There are a myriad of services that are characteristic of a ‘smart city’; one of which is sensors, that can play a key role in collecting real time data used to make timely decisions. Sensors can be utilized for controlling traffic flow, monitoring air pollution levels, and surveying underground waste management systems that can be used to efficiently generate electricity to power cities – all to facilitate citizens.

The “right to the city” reaches slightly further than technology alone, an idea that has been debated since the 1960s. Originally developed by French sociologist and philosopher Henri Lefebvre in his 1968 book Le Droit à la ville, it is based on the idea that inhabitants not only have the right to access resources of the city but also to be a part of the process of developing, transforming, and shaping the city – the idea of co-creating the city space which has in recent centuries been hijacked by capitalism. Lefebvre aptly summarizes the crucial idea as a “demand for a transformed and renewed access to urban life.”

At the core of it, there are new problems that need answers. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic shows us just where the chinks in the armor lie: elderly people living in an increasingly fast paced environment facing widespread isolation – and death. Even with technological advancement, and as the pandemic rages, we are trying to figure out how technology can help communities adapt to the new normal: new habits, working from home, and new ways to commute, all facilitated by ICTs.

Marginalized communities are often neglected in the world of smart cities where technology takes center stage, where the power dynamic is still gendered, and the digital space is not easily accessible to those who are disabled, those with low literacy levels, racial and religious minorities, and the LGBTQ+ community.

By the year 2050, an estimated 6.25 billion people will live in urban centers, which means that there will be nearly a billion people with disabilities living in cities according to the UNDESA. It is ironic then that technology is considered part of the solution, a sort of levelling the playing field, to help marginalized communities. It is crucial when working to build inclusive sustainable cities, that we critically understand how relationships play out in the physical space, where marginalized groups are hardly included at the research and digital design stage where ICTs alone cannot deal with barriers they face.

This is probably the most significant area where a complete overhaul is essential, in order to establish cities that are fair, equitable, and where services are easily accessible to the most vulnerable in society.

McKinsey analysts predict that the number of smart cities will reach 600 by 2020 and that 5 years later almost 60% of the world’s GDP will be produced in them. But smart city initiatives can no longer be just about reaching metrics, measuring and controlling CO2 emissions, or data integration — at the heart of the smart cities citizens have to take center stage. It is also interesting to note that smart city technologies alone are estimated to have a potential of giving back ‘125’ hours to residents per year, according to an Intel sponsored report.

The definition of smart cities might be ever evolving and continue to change with time, but one thing is certain: they have to be inclusive and accessible to all, and incorporate the right to the city as a co created space.

We must ensure that “humans” are not just treated as data gathering points but as empowered citizens holding the key to create spaces that enrich day-to-day life.

Warda Saif (she/her) is an avid reader, who has a penchant for writing poetry and storytelling. She loves to travel, hike, explore cities, listen to jazz and obscure bands, and considers studying (human beans, or academic) a lifelong pursuit.


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