What Makes a City Smart?

This blog post is part of the Jean Monnet Ring Lecture Series: Crises, Democracy and the Media in Europe and the ‘Jean Monnet Chair of European Media Governance and Integration Series’ headed by Jean Monnet Chair of European Media Governance & Integration Prof. Katharine Sarikakis, and curated by Wagner Piassaroli Mantovaneli und Markos Mpadanes.

The current series of blog posts is titled: Do we need Europe?


By Vincent Mosco

My latest book, The Smart City in a Digital World,  takes on the question of what makes a city smart by describing, challenging, and offering democratic alternatives to the view that the answer begins and ends with technology. In the wake of the 2008 global financial meltdown, corporations converged on cities around the world to sell technology, harvest valuable data, and deepen the private governance of urban life. They have partnered with governments to promote what on the surface look like significant benefits to city dwellers. These include safer streets, cleaner air, more efficient transportation, instant communication for all, and algorithms that take governance out of the hands of flawed human beings. But there is another story that lies beneath that surface. Technology-driven smart cities deepen surveillance and shift urban governance to unelected corporate executives with their Business Improvement Districts and public-private partnerships. They also shrink democracy, create a hacker’s paradise, and hasten the coming of climate change. To address these problems, it is essential to understand the technologies, the organizations, and the mythologies that power the global smart cities movement. It also means assessing the growing resistance to a technology-driven city, led by EU cities, especially Barcelona, Amsterdam, and Oslo.

Photo by Andreas Brücker on Unsplash

One starting point is a set of principles that should guide the future development of the world’s cities.

People make cities smart. The collective experience and intelligence of those who live and work in cities, along with those who visit them, are what make cities smart. The goal of smart city technology applications, especially the Internet of Things, big data analytics, and cloud computing, should be first and foremost to help improve the quality of life and the capabilities of those who live in cities. It should not principally be to expand the profit and power of businesses or the control of government over its citizens.

Smart cities are democratic cities. Citizens must be involved in decision-making about smart city applications from the beginning of each project throughout completion, as co-participants with governments, private companies and public non-governmental organizations. Citizens have the right to access all information, including plans, policies and debates, about the smart city development process. A key index of a successful smart city project is the extent to which it helps citizens to expand democracy, i.e., the fullest possible participation of citizens in the decisions that affect their lives.

Smart cities value public space. Public space is comprised of areas where individuals and social groups are free to come together to communicate openly, including about social problems and political action. It is to be distinguished from commercial spaces whose primary purpose is to sell products and services. Smart city technologies make it easier to turn exchange into a market transaction, thereby threatening spaces outside the commercial sphere. Because public spaces are central to supporting the free flow of ideas and democracy, smart cities must protect public space, both on- and off-line. This includes public communication through universal access under public control, essential public utilities that provide energy and water, as well as public institutions such as schools, parks, libraries, and public meeting spaces.

Smart cities share data. Data gathered from smart city projects belongs to the people from whom it is collected. Citizens have the right to retain, remove, or place in a citizen-controlled public trust all data collected on their activities in smart cities. Data gathered on citizens does not belong to the private companies or government agencies that collect it. Citizens can agree to have private and public institutions make use of their data, but only when all parties are fully informed and when there is a guarantee that, if people choose not to share data at any time in the process, there will be no repercussions.

Smart cities defend privacy. People have the right to personal privacy. That means any smart city data-gathering system must de-identify data at the source of collection and must take full responsibility to ensure that personal data does not go to third-parties for sale to advertisers or other interested entities.

Smart cities do not discriminate. Smart city projects, whether to improve transportation, energy delivery, communication or security, must be carried out without gender, race or social class discrimination. This includes the algorithms used in the decision-making process. These must be subject to public review and oversight, with the goal of ending the replication of historical social divisions. To that end, all decision-making algorithms based on data gathered in smart city projects must be open to public scrutiny.

Smart cities preserve the right to communicate. People have the right to communicate, not just to receive communication. It is essential for public authorities to create universal and affordable citizen access to high-speed communication and extend access to information, especially about the operation of municipal governments and their private sector partners.

Smart cities protect the environment. People have the right to a healthy planet. At every stage of each smart city project, it is essential to place at the forefront the goals of meeting the challenge of climate change, reducing and eliminating the use of non-renewable energy resources, and maintaining a healthy biosphere.

Smart cities and their streets are about people, not cars. The design of city streets and sidewalks is smart only if it begins with pedestrians, whose use of both breathes life into cities. Smart sidewalks are built to be filled with people and lined with trees. An empty sidewalk is like an empty theater. Both demonstrate that there is something wrong with the production. Smart streets are best designed to first accommodate the needs of pedestrians and those who travel on non-motorized vehicles.

Smart cities deliver services. Abiding by these principles, particularly the commitment to citizen control over technology, it is reasonable to expect that smart city applications will strengthen the efficient management and delivery of all city services. These include public transportation and energy systems, as well as fire safety, policing, waste removal, water and sewer services. Furthermore, they can help in the delivery of public health services, as well as the management of public housing and public education.                                                                                                                                                                                           ————————————————–

Vincent Mosco (vincentmosco.com) is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at Queen’s University and Distinguished Professor of Communication, New Media Centre, Fudan University, Shanghai. Dr. Mosco is the author or editor of twenty-six books including The Digital Sublime (2004) and The Political Economy of Communication (2009). His To the Cloud: Big Data in a Turbulent World, was named a 2014 Outstanding Academic Title by Choice: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries. It is the first in a trilogy on the social impacts of Next Internet technologies. The second is Becoming Digital: Toward a Post-Internet Society, published by Emerald in November 2017 and the third is The Smart City in a Digital World, also published by Emerald, in 2019. Dr. Mosco received the 2019 C. Edwin Baker award for Outstanding Scholarship in Media, Markets, and Democracy by the International Communication Association.





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