Can Smart Also Be Beautiful?

How smart cities can also be nice places to live
6 Min.

Text: Alexander Rühl, 20.11.2020

Imagine a neighborhood that uses PV systems and gas from local biowaste to cover its energy requirements, and keeps these as low as possible through heat recovery and passive buildings. Picture trash cans with fill level sensors, street lamps with integrated charging stations, readily available bicycles and e-bikes wherever you look, an on-call shuttle service, app-based doctor’s appointments and citizen services, a supply of crisp vegetables and fresh fish from one of the neighboring rooftop gardens – this is what city living could look like in twenty years: smart and sustainable. Or could it?

What does the term “smart city” actually mean? City districts planned at the drawing board, e-government applications supplied by IT corporations, digitally controlled infrastructure, controversial model projects – although countries around the world have invested billions in this subject, there is no generally accepted definition. The smallest common denominator is probably widespread use of cameras and sensors and cloud processing of the data extracted from them. In other words, is smart something that is produced by technology, helpful to operators and feasible in the eyes of developers?

There are doubts about this. When you live in a state of total convenience, when the heating and lighting switch on automatically and the fridge orders more food itself, this can give you more time for… what exactly? On the flip side, decisions made by algorithms can start to subvert the human need for self-determination and independent design. When everything runs on a schedule, this may make you feel as if “other people are living your life for you,” which is the total opposite of a free and independent life.

So how do you make a fully digitalized city attractive at the same time? Just like in any relationship, intelligence and money only stretch so far – what you need is character. Therefore it is only logical that smart cities are created in their own image and do not resemble any other. Creating scalable one-size-fits-all concepts for Mumbai, Cape Town, London, Bangkok and Bucharest may be the fantasy of industrious IT companies. But what makes a smart city appealing, first and foremost, is broad participation and local solutions.

Smart new world or a city for everyone?

Sybille Bauriedl and Anke Strüver believe that what we urgently need is a societal debate on the dynamics of the current state of affairs. Their book “Smart City – Kritische Perspektiven auf die Digitalisierung in Städten” (Smart City – Critical Perspectives on Digitalization in Cities) was published in 2018.

Dr. Anke Strüver observes that “big names in the digitalization business deliver universal solutions, and the things they can’t deliver are usually not very important either in the implementation of the city in question.“ Dr. Sybille Bauriedl, in a video accompanying the book, explains that the development of infrastructure itself also establishes the possibility of development opportunities for the future. Those who worry about fairness might consider the risk that less-privileged city districts may become left behind, digitally speaking.

Strüver gives the following piece of advice: “Cities should think about whether they might like to come up with their own definition of what ‘smart’ means for them. One way of doing this is through research. Another is by writing a ‘wish list’ of things that people would like to have in their daily lives, not what companies think people need. This can be achieved, for example, if you have local meeting areas, where residents can work out and articulate themselves what works well in their district – and what doesn’t work so well – and are even invited to develop solutions themselves.“

What do people living in the city of the future need?

The popularity of the subject means that there are countless smart city rankings. Sometimes Vienna and London come out on top, and sometimes it is Dubai or Hamburg, depending on the publisher’s point of view. “Most rankings define and classify smart cities on the basis of their technologically ‘smart’ solutions like GPS tracking to predict traffic jams, lighting or waste management systems and connectivity infrastructure, i.e. internet speed, data transfer rate, network coverage, etc. With this methodology, they fail to ascertain whether the city residents actually experience the effectiveness, benefits and advantages of these technologies in their daily lives,” explains Christos Cabolis, Chief Economist of the IMD World Competitiveness Center. So, in cooperation with the Singapore University of Technology and Design, the International Institute for Management Development (IMD) developed a Smart City Index that also devotes attention to the “human aspect” of the debate.

It starts by asking residents questioned during the ranking process to select what they consider to be the most urgent issues from a list of typical development subjects. In many European cities, the most urgent issue is often affordable housing; elsewhere, it is air pollution, security or corruption. Citizens are not only asked for their opinions – i.e. on the disclosure of personal data for better traffic management – but also to systematically analyze various statements such as: “Information about local government decisions is readily accessible,“ yes or no?

The collection of case studies that forms the basis of the Index, “Sixteen Shades of Smart,” provides food for thought with concepts from all over the world. Zurich, which is ranked number three in the 2020 Index, wants to tackle the real problems of real people in six priority areas. Whether the objectives can be tackled using digital or interpersonal means, an “iterative” approach of progressive approximation is taken in each case. Under “Nightlife,” for example, which is the reason for the most police intervention, the list includes changing building permits, an online neighborhood platform, a roundtable and the development of technical solutions through a startup. The situation is very different in Singapore, which takes into consideration the digital skills of its aging population to ensure that smart mobility, e-payment and e-health applications actually reach the desired target group. The Colombian city of Medellin, on the other hand, sets store by transparent innovation with an ideas platform to resolve city problems, the sharing of knowledge on the prevention of violence and digital education initiatives. Free, public Wi-Fi for access to local initiatives undisputedly has the highest approval level in the ranking.

The challenges, technologies and approaches may be different in each city, but the goal remains the same: to improve the lives of residents. Cabolis: “All the cities focused on the elements that were particularly problematic and relevant to them. This means there is no single ‘smart’ model that we can apply wholesale to all cities.”

Connectivity plus solidarity – the perfect fit

The public sector and international organizations are now also adopting a stance in the debate, pointing out that the digital transformation of cities is about much more than a technological vision.

The Federal Ministry of the Interior’s Smart City Charter suggests that digitalization is a tool to achieve values and objectives, including strengthening the local economy and establishing CO2-neutral, green and healthy cities.

To what extent are factors such as sustainability, public welfare, democratic processes and integration taken into account in the planning and implementation of smart cities, and what role does people’s needs play? These are key questions relating to city development, and they are increasingly being reflected in the Federal Ministry of the Interior’s model projects. Jena, for example, is directing its attentions to cooperation, open access common rights, and Cologne wants to see greater involvement of the city community at large.

This doesn’t mean that other aspects should be overlooked. The transportation of goods, energy supply and communication in growing cities worldwide all need to function as well and there are smart solutions for this. But it is worth asking oneself whether expanding the local public transport network and digitalizing services in rural regions might play at least as significant a role in determining quality of life as autonomous shuttles between Berlin city center and Kreuzberg. That is why the Federal Ministry of the Interior’s model projects also include small cities and villages like the smart village of Bad Belzig.

Digital potential or not – nothing in the future will work without sustainability

There is a surprising silence in the debate when it comes to the resource consumption of smart applications. After all, massive-scale data processing correlates to increasing energy consumption in the first place. A key element of the debate must touch on how we cover this consumption using renewable energy sources and how we fully offset it.

The United Nations specialized agency for information and communication technologies, ITU, is an advocate of “smart sustainable cities” and emphasizes that they only have a future if the two go hand in hand. Its definition forms the basis for Number 11 of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals: Make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.

It has put together a list of KPIs (key indicators specifying the degree of fulfillment of strategic objectives) that cities can use to exploit their development potential. Examples of cities that have committed to this process are Dubai and Ålesund in Norway. The nineteen indicators in the three dimensions of Economy, Environment, and Society and Culture are delivering some surprising results, because they don’t just ask about smart water meters and internet access, but also about things like local food production.

Does smart just mean digital, or rather, intelligent?

The same argument applies to smart cities as it does to the whole digitalization debate: it is not just about the “what” and the “how quickly.” A better approach is to contemplate the “why” and from there derive the “how.” Specifically, this means not just leaving the analysis and implementation up to the economic and technology experts, but involving the people in the interest of making the city a good place to live for everyone. There may well be people who pave the way, but we all determine the direction in which we’re headed.