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Digital Cities for a Smarter Tomorrow

shutterstock_216526753A Smart City is one that embeds digital technology across all aspects of government, including transport, energy, water, waste, and health care. By 2010, 50% of the world was living in urban areas and by 2050 that rate is predicted to rise to 75%. This population explosion necessitates sophisticated economic, societal, and technological responses to create and maintain a high quality of life and sustainable economic development.

The smart city of the future will behave more like a living organism, using various connected networks to respond to citizens’ needs. People will get information in real time about traffic, public transport, the electrical grid, and other vital city services.

Achieving this smarter future will require the placement of sensors and extensive monitoring on everything from roads and sewer pipes to the electrical use of individual buildings. This brings up the question of who will monitor and control this technological infrastructure.

Companies such as Intel, Siemens, and IBM are currently developing and selling software to predict and monitor city issues such as air pollution, water leaks, and traffic congestion. For instance, IBM is creating algorithms in cities like Singapore, Stockholm, and in parts of California that will predict traffic jams an hour before they occur.

More and more cities around the world are implementing projects to help them gain traction as a Smart City, and in 2014 300 cities participated in the Smart City World Expo Congress. Some prominent smart cities in the world include Boston and Chicago in the U.S.A., Barcelona in Spain, and Stockholm in Sweden.

Citizen involvement

A truly connected city gathers data across all aspects of daily life, and uses data analytics to improve the quality of life for everyone. Citizen involvement can be critical to collecting such data and getting results. For example, a project called Egg alerts people to levels of air pollution in their cities. It sells cheap sensors that individuals can use to collect local data about greenhouse gases, such as carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide, and then aggregates this data to show the big picture.

The city of Rio has a central control room that displays data from cameras and sensors all over the city, and China has replicated this approach in several of its cities. However, other cities are taking a more decentralised approach. For example, London Mayor Boris Johnson has access to a number of iPads that show him statistics on weather, pollution, river levels, what Twitter users are saying, and the general happiness of the London population. The difference is that this data is available to the public on the Internet too, instead of being concentrated in the hands of the central government. This encourages the public to be aware of issues and get involved.

Critical response

The success of Smart City projects depends on civil support for both users and service providers. Currently, many smart projects involve the use of technology to create a platform for exchanging services. This new business model has clashed with traditional service businesses, causing some governments to outright ban companies such as AirBnB and Uber. This type of resistance, along with the small-scale nature of current experimentation, has led to worries that change is not happening fast enough.

Another criticism of the smart city approach is fear that it may prompt governments to make decisions based solely on business data, treating its citizens like consumers. Current models tend to solve problems on a technological level rather than acknowledging that the citizens of a city are the entire reason for systems to exist.

Experts predict that the next five years will be a tipping point in the development of smart technology. As the data infrastructure of a city becomes more critical to its operation, it will be important to steer the control of this infrastructure away from big business and central control and towards the hands its citizens.