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For whom smart cities are?

How digitization and data can revolutionize product design and development.

There is no uniform definition of "smart city". But there is a general consensus that what makes the city intelligent is the use of different types of electronic data sensors for information gathering, which are then used to efficiently manage assets and resources. The concept is often presented as a perfect marriage of information and communication technologies and the efficient operation of urban infrastructure and services.

The notion of "smart city" is not a problem in itself. Even making decisions based on data acquired from deployed technologies is a commendable goal. The problem with this whole idea is that it is often presented as a panacea. There is a fundamental assumption that technology should only be the key to unlocking smart solutions that our cities need. However, if you want to believe it, you can easily mistake yourself.

By Jiri Parola

This insight first appeared in Contigen 

We should not focus exclusively on which cities are the fastest in using new technologies, but those who have smartest strategies to deal with the 21st century.


We already know what will make the cities better

We already have a lot of data on what makes the city a more attractive and interesting place for people and what not. For example, with regard to our streets, the largest public space in most cities, there is a simple solution - bring people into it. People walking with animals, devoted to everyday physical activities and social contact are a key part of overall health and well-being in every city. Research shows that simple walking activity in green space can reduce stress levels and improve our mental health. Children who go to school have a higher academic score more likely to meet day-to-day physical activity recommendations and have fewer school problems. On the other hand, older adults living in car-dependent communities with low availability and poor transport are at greater risk of social isolation.

Creating safe and integrated infrastructure for walking and cycling, reducing speeds, land use and investment in public transport and more comfortable public spaces - including amenities such as street trees and comfortable seating - can boost physical activity, social inclusion and improve quality of life.

What the cities are targeting for?

According to the Bloomberg Philanthropies, 108 cities around the world are either preparing for or preparing for autonomous pilot projects of electric vehicles (EV). Billions of euros have already been invested in this technology. Jan Gehl, the world-renowned Danish architect, famously says that cities "are measuring what they care for." For decades, the city has been gathering a lot of data on car traffic and their priorities are clear. Mr. Gehl was one of the first to systematically measure the behavior of people in the public sector, using this data to bring life to public spaces. So really smart cities are those that focus on people. At present, the data that collecting smart cities tends to divert attention from what we have already gained from the reforms that are really important.

This reminiscent of the enthusiasm of the early 20th century for the new technology - the car - which appeared to be an intelligent and perspective solution to solving the problems of urban life. Over the past 100 years, we have been designing our cities with regard to efficient movement of cars in them, instead of focusing on health and happiness of their inhabitants. This focus on one technological innovation has brought billions of euros from public budgets to the roads and parking infrastructure that the city now needs to maintain. At the same time, this attitude has drastically changed the conditions of land consolidation and land use, which now has a serious impact on the environment. "But the destructive effect of cars is far less than a symptom of our incompetence in building a city," as urban planner Jane Jacobs wrote. Now we may witness a repetition of this history, as large technology companies are about to decide again about the future of cities.

City strategies for people?

We should not focus exclusively on the cities that are fastest in using new technologies, but on those who have the smartest strategies to tackle 21st century problems - increasing economic inequality, social isolation, congestion, housing affordability, air pollution, climate change and more. We know that cities' strategies to tackle automotive problems usually have an adverse impact on those who do not drive - kids, elderly and economically dependent. This may limit their rights to autonomous mobility, the right to public space, or the right to participate and engage in civic life. Therefore, we should be careful that over-dependence on technological solutions does not have a negative impact on our most vulnerable population groups. A key part of intelligent cities should therefore be how our new technology can help us with the planning of initiatives focused on creation of city communities that focus on people, their ownership and easier integration.

The Center for Globalization and Strategy at the IESE Business School in Barcelona has recently released the world's smartest cities in 2018: First, cities such as New York, London, and Paris have arrived. However, the authors of the report also noted that cities on top of the list "are facing social cohesion issues and are at the end of this ranking." Creating fairer, more inclusive and healthier cities is not a technological puzzle that should be solved or destroyed by car, smartphone, autonomous vehicle, artificial intelligence or any other major technological breakthrough. It should be the result of a common vision, collective activism at local level, civic engagement, clear policies and political leadership. Using new technologies to support these goals can make us wary and truly smart.

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