Smart Cities Developments – impacts on democracy and why we should remain critical

What’s so smart about ‘smart cities’ and who really benefits when technology and expert private firms are building them? A final-seven finalist in the 2018 Trinity College Dublin and Development Issues series, George Wade explores some of the shortcomings of ‘smart cities’ and what price is paid in transparency and decision making by city dwellers.

In recent years the concept of a smart city has been a buzzword in development throughout the world. Famed for its utopian image of tackling urban problems smart cities have become a major fixture in both the west and ‘the rest’. But wait, hold on, what is a smart city?

In essence, smart cities aim to integrate technology into the built environment in order to tackle major issues facing cities such as pollution and over-population. An exciting and obvious prospect to help develop more environmentally friendly cities, right?

Graphic 1: What is a Smart City by Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, Government of India (2015)

One country which has particularly looked to embrace this is India with their 100-smart city plan. According to the consultancy firm PwC, India has the potential to ‘…unleash their true potential as centres of opportunity’. Critically, this raises an integral question – who is the opportunity for in this development? Is it for the enhancement of living conditions or to enhance companies such as PwC or CISCO to exert influence over urban planning and increase their profits as a result? (see, for example Luque-Ayala and Marvin’s 2015 journal article in Urban Studies).

Democracy in decline? 

Issues raised by smart cities have been subject to work by critical scholars over the last 10 years, with many questioning the impact smart cities will have on democracy. But how will democracy decline, you may ask?

Well, it is evident from India’s ‘smart cities mission’ that consultancy firms feature heavily in their implementation. This is common practice; multiple large technology firms’ websites contain a section about how they’re creating smarter cities and the benefits they bring in tackling problems through development. Sites such as CISCO’s place emphasis not only on the benefits to people, but also to creating new revenue streams – but at what cost? By allowing greater influence from non-elected officials in the development of the cities that we reside in, citizens are likely to be dominated by these neo-liberal, technology-based structures that are not only difficult to challenge, but do not benefit everyone equally. 

Development benefits for who?

Often regarded as a utopian ideal, we need to look further. What will happen with the data generated by citizens? Who is using it and ultimately who is this data going to benefit? The data is likely to be used to influence political decisions and reduce responsibility, which further erodes the strength of democracy among public planning as algorithms and data dictate how we live (see Rob Kitchin’s 2017 journal article in Information, Communication & Society). The data generated by the public will also be used by large corporations for purposes such as targeted marketing, ultimately for capital and not human gain.

Therefore, if the smart city is understood to be a major form of development within cities and throughout the world, shouldn’t it be more focused on being able to put citizens first, providing more opportunities and allowing them to be more capable to make decisions about how to live their lives?

Instead of countries ploughing even more billions of euros into tech company’s pockets, through which New Zealand urban planner and academic Vanessa Watson calls ‘the allure of ‘smart city’ rhetoric‘ as cities further inequalities through social and economic fragmentation. Instead, policy initiatives should focus on creating bottom-up initiatives aimed at enhancing living conditions for all, not simply for the few firms tasked with controlling and implementing the ‘modern’ and ‘visionary’ infrastructure.

One of the world’s most ambitious programmes, India’s 100 smart cities plan, for example, is coming under scrutiny for failing those who most need the help of the government. The Delhi-based Housing and Land Rights Network civil society coalition’s human rights and social justice study of smart cities was blistering in its findings, stating:

“Despite recognising that a large percentage of the city population lives in under-serviced and inadequate settlements,” it says, “none of the  shortlisted cities have adopted a human rights approach to housing or included safeguards that the right to housing will not be violated during the implementation of ‘smart city’ projects.”

The idea that smart city initiatives offer a fast track utopian development strategy to jump into the 21st century and be a global leader is not looking entirely convincing.

An opportunity wasted?

Currently, smart cities lack the kind progress they have promised to achieve and whilst they offer opportunities to develop more resource efficient cities, creating positive change well needed in the 21st century.

There is still a real need to question the impact that corporations are having on urban development, and how profits are often put before making real positive impacts on people’s lives. After all, in order for development to be successful it needs to positively impact human beings (as Indian economist Amartya Sen famously wrote about in 1988), and not to reduce their agency in being involved in decision making and the level of democracy within their political surroundings.

Smart cities offer potential to have a positive impact for many people, however, there is a need to remain critical of the interaction between corporations, the state and democracy in order to ensure that the role of the citizen does not erode even further under a neo-liberal restructuring of urban spaces.