Smart cities are the future, but how will they be governed?

Smart cities

This summer, the G20 Global Smart Cities Alliance celebrated its 2-year anniversary in working towards the UN's Sustainable Goal 11 to"make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable."

A global conversation on smart cities is needed more than ever – with the adverse impact of the global pandemic having made these goals more difficult to attain by 2030.

Over 5 billion people are forecasted to live in cities by the end of the decade, with95% of urban expansion happening in the global south. Smart technologies are being used to accelerate how we imagine, plan, and govern the unforeseen challenges of the cities of the future.

Developing economies pose unique challenges to rapid urbanization. Not only does urban growth exert unsustainable pressure on fresh water supplies, sewage, the living environment, and public health, but raises concerns on how and through what means they will be governed.

As was discovered recently in Singapore, a city widely lauded as a forerunner of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), technology used to trace COVID-19 cases was commandeered by police to track citizens.

This follows recent concern over the ethics of 'safe' cities across the UK and Europe, the handling of large amounts of data has the potential to be used to propagate control and surveillance. Stricter control of dense urban areas due to the pandemic has given rise to technological systems that perceive urban populations as a security risk to be mitigated, rather than protected and empowered.

Public accountability is now emerging as a serious consideration when it comes to the use of 4IR tools to drive smart city objectives.In our ambitions to accelerate technological prowess, it will be crucial not to forget the ethical dimension that must underlie all 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 a Japanese town's adoption ofBluetooth Low Energy tags, enabling loved ones to receive a notification via a secure app of a child or an elderly person's location.

Different cities have different needs. But it is a universal 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.

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 a resurgence of popular 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 to make 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. With the realization that you cannot plan for 2030 with the knowledge of 2021, designers have 'futureproofed' the streets, ready to accommodate new technologies as they enter the market.

But Singapore's biggest challenge will be to inspire trust in the 4IR systems that are posed to govern the city.This means not only addressing the foundational principles of ethical deployment, but also the role of private sector collaboration and the experimentation needed to evolve new technology governance approaches.

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.