A Guide to Smart Cities

Smart city

Bill Gates once said that “The internet is becoming the town square for the global village of tomorrow.” What if it’s becoming a city centre instead? That’s the question that smart cities are here to answer.

Smart cities are municipalities infused with ‘smart’ technologies to enhance infrastructure and overall quality of life. With the world’s population increasing at rapid rates, urbanisation has accelerated to the point where 68% of the world’s population will live in urban areas by 2050 and there will be 39 megacities by 2030, according to the United Nations and Euromonitor International, respectively. The prospect of diminishing issues, such as overcrowding and making life more aesthetic and convenient for citizens, is incredibly attractive for governments who both care about their citizens and seek reputation and profit.

The powerful combination of information and communication technologies and the Internet of Things are paving the way for these cities to become high-tech havens. This, in turn, improves quality of life for citizens: examples range from Helsinki’s Urbanflow manifesting interactive directory kiosks that map out optimal walking routes, to Smart Nation Singapore’s technologies providing suggestions for homeowners to conserve energy whilst monitoring their energy usage.

Google has recently capitalized on the smart city trend. Google’s Sidewalk Labs has announced that they would construct a smart city on Toronto’s waterfront. The momentous project will be one of the first smart cities to be made from scratch, or “the internet up” as Sidewalk Labs defines it. The city is said to include 3000 units of ‘affordable’ housing in wooden modular buildings, powered by solar power, geothermal heat, and wireless 5G internet. It will be automated by robots collecting waste and managing deliveries- when visualized, the city seems like the pinnacle of technological wanderlust.

Sidewalk Labs - Smart city
Credit: Sidewalk Labs

But with the myriad of virtues that technology brings, we can’t forget its downfalls. The human desire for safety and security is something that smart cities need to consider if they want a positive relationship with citizens. Smart technologies facilitate the ease of data collection and ultimately create clusters of big data per city to dissect ways to improve quality of life. However, this advantage can translate into privacy concerns. Residents want to know how and what data is being collected, and what is being done with it. Additionally, the possibility that a single data threat can give cybercriminals access to all residents’ data is incredibly scary for anyone.

This is exemplified by the public reactions to the Sidewalk Labs project. The BBC reports how not even Toronto’s mayor, John Tory, had seen the full legal agreement between Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto. A year after it had been announced, Tory asked: “What is it that is being hidden, why does it have to be secret?”. The lack of transparency between the public and the project has seen opposition grow, particularly in the wake of a report that Sidewalk Labs is attempting to claim Toronto residents’ taxes for funding- you wouldn’t invest in something you don’t understand, so why should their taxes go to a project they don’t know anything about?

Thus, whilst you may be quick to herald the concept of a lucrative high-tech metropolis (saturated with limitless advantages as the new municipal ideal), it is important to consider transparency issues as residents call for honesty and open communication regarding smart city projects.

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