The Other Side of the Smart City Coin

This blog post is a response to the 6th October 2015 Meeting of the Minds & Living Cities group blogging event. The topic states that year is now 2050. Write a letter to the people of 2015 describing what the city is like, and give them advice on the next 35 years.

The Other Side of the Smart City Coin

Oct 06, 2015

This year is 2050, the evolution of smart city has come a long way from where you are in 2015. Some cities have progressed faster than others, but in general, the outcome needs some way to go to meet the ideals promised in your time. Today, our cities run completely on technology and it supplies people with everything we need. While technology has solved a number of challenges, there will always be two sides of a coin. Whether or not we are better off than we were thirty-five years ago remains debatable, but we’re still optimistic that the benefits will eventually outweigh some problems we’ve experienced.  I hope you can learn some lessons from our experience.

Smart City technology was used to tackle numerous urban challenges. One of them was the success in addressing traffic congestion, a huge problem that confronted policy makers in 2015. Public infrastructure got digitized with sensors, cameras and connectivity embedded into public objects. Road accidents and reckless driving became a thing of the past. Today, self-driving cars are ubiquitous, minimizing congestion and avoiding collisions even though there are more cars on the road. In 2015, the end goal of Smart City was better efficiency. 

People experienced the impact of efficiency in the early stages, but soon it showed a downside. As efficiency generated more economic value, enterprises made it the end goal in order to remain competitive, resulting in more and more people losing their jobs to machines. Labour intensive jobs that existed during your time have become extinct. Fast food workers were replaced by robots that are more effective and efficient than humans in every imaginable way. This unemployment weighed on our cities because those left with jobs shouldered a higher cost of living as funding a digitized public infrastructure translated into higher cost for society. 

People today are becoming disappointed with the outcome of smart cities because the system is failing on society. A major irony is that people living in cities that are at the cutting-edge of technology don’t seem happier. This phenomenon is not new. There were already tell-tail signs way back in 2015 but we chose to ignore the symptoms for years. 

The fault didn’t lie with our excessive reliance on technology. Instead, it was due to a lack of innovation, which is important in adding value to society with new services and jobs. Innovation isn’t just based on an entrepreneurial environment; it’s also based on shifting emphasis from productivity to societal inclusiveness. We’re still struggling to achieve that today. Why has this been so difficult?

Fostering innovation requires a change in a society’s culture which carries a digital and a non-digital aspect. Some, but not all, of our Smart City leaders prefer people to be innovative in the digital aspect while enforcing self-censorship in the non-digital aspects.

Innovation on the digital aspect was never difficult. Sharing data with the public via an open data platform became well established with solutions developed by the private sector to address urban challenges. However, progress in the non-digital side continued to lag. Censorship has been a concern. It was not well addressed by policy makers in the past and society is facing the consequences today.

Censorship was hardly a concern for citizens in many of the new Smart Cities in 2015 and people took their freedom for granted. Subsequently, a number of policy makers were slow in developing legal provisions to safeguard privacy to keep pace with emerging technology trends. They left policies vague to leave room for maneuvering later on. By the time people realized that they were surrounded pervasively by sensors, they got increasingly paranoid about corporations and governments monitoring them and potentially using their data against them. By then it was too late to update policy so people took it upon themselves to censor themselves. This depressed our innovativeness and diversity of thought.

But, we are slowly starting to work with city and commercial leaders and are beginning to develop the safeguards we should have created back in your time. As you stand in 2015 looking ahead into the future, it is important for you to work with your city policy makers to decide how much control over the data collected in your Smart Cities they need and still ensure smart cities become inclusive societies. At the same time, you need to recognize that the root of the problem isn’t with the government or corporations alone. Your citizens need to be prepared to be active in developing your Smart City.

Education offers an important foundation, don’t forget about it. Smart Cities aren’t just about the technology, develop your citizens’ soft skills to complement their technical skills. Guard intellectual property rights because without adequate legal protection, there is little incentive for people to create innovative content.

Take it from me, drastic changes caused by Smart Cities can result in a sense of confusion. Smart cities hold a lot of promise, but try to maintain a gradual development process to ensure a smooth transitional change.

Thirty-five years from where you are standing today will seem remote and distant. But if your society can be decisive, then all of your stakeholders can realize the promises of Smart Cities by the time you get to 2050.

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Serene Chan


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