Smart cities no longer belong to science fiction. Fuelled by the rise of emerging technologies, especially artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things (IoT), many are presently under development. Governments are investing in cloud-based Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) to transform everyday elements of urban life into next-generation intelligent systems. The next revolution of urban living is long overdue – we have no choice but to prepare for the 2.5 billion people that will migrate to cities over the next thirty years.
In our ambitions to accelerate technological prowess, it will be crucial not to forget the ethical dimension that must underlie all of human infrastructure. There are four freedoms that must be maintained in the future designs of smart cities: the right to transparency, security, interoperability, and happiness.
The first two can be achieved by publishing open-source data and extending consumer data protection laws to every aspect of city life. 5G infrastructure and smartphone apps used to access municipal services and measure energy output must be made affordable and equally accessible to all to ensure a universally connected society.
The last measure of happiness is more complex. This may look like human-focused design, such as Dubai’s use of AI to reduce fatigue-related traffic collisions, or something as simple as 365 days of unpolluted air, every year. The beauty of smart cities is that the power is in the hands of those that will live in them.
But like the lessons learned in science fiction, we have the responsibility to ensure emerging technology is used in ways that will serve society, instead of burden it. While the development of smart cities has the potential to make our lives and planet more habitable, there are risks inherent to any technological advancement.
As seen with the recent concern over the ethics of ‘safe’ cities, the handling of large amounts of data has the potential to be used to propagate control and surveillance. Unlike smart cities, the technology governing their systems are often opaque, while those in control see urban populations as a security risk to be mitigated, rather than protected and empowered.
Smart cities must remain a breaking ground for collaborative conversation on how big data can be used to make our homes better places to live, play, and do business in. Instead of security, sustainability must be at the forefront of the design of smart cities, a precept underscored by the global resurgence of interest in circular economies, IoT, and green energy possibilities.
Governments must work together with private investment to develop the emerging technologies that will be the basis for a global ecosystem of sustainable smart cities. This may look like prioritising vendor contracts that serve the Sustainable Development Goals agenda, such as Shenzhen’s decision to replace its fleet of petrol buses with electric-powered ones, or Copenhagen’s implementation of innovative intelligent bike lanes that have made transport safer and healthier.
There is room to dream big here, as the Singapore government has done. The city-state’s Housing and Development Board has plans underway to build the world’s first ‘green smart city’ from the ground up. The eco-town of Tangah will include 42,000 new homes cooled by a water system, chilled from solar power, automatic lights that switch off when public spaces are unoccupied, and trash will be stored through a pneumatic system, with monitors detecting when garbage needs collecting.
The development itself will be built according to sophisticated computer modelling to simulate wind flow and heat gain across the town, helping to reduce the heat island effect and carbon emissions. Most importantly, designers have ‘futureproofed’ the streets, ready to accommodate new technologies as they enter the market, such as self-driving vehicles.
Not only will the use of smart technology significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it also invites residents to consider their consumption which can cause positive behavioural change on a national scale. Though it will be no small feat, climate targets will only be reached if we transform the ways we think about and use energy in our homes, our streets, and our communities. But we have reason to be positive. As urban areas continue to expand and grow, smart city technology is developing alongside enhancing sustainability and advancing urban liveability. By leveraging universal connectivity, transparent open-source data, end-to-end security, and human-focused design, we can align evolving smart city needs to better serve humanity for generations to come.