Confused by 'smart city' hype? This expert explains what it is and why we should care

As cities around the world begin integrating technology more deeply into urban infrastructure, it's still not clear what people mean when they talk about "smart cities." Urban sustainability professor Andrew Karvonen talks about how to define smart cities, as well as some concerns critics have about the so-called cities of the future.

'Smart city' sounds poetic, but what's smart about it?

So-called 'smart cities' might make our lives more efficient, but at a cost to privacy. (Adam Killick/CBC)

This story was originally published on April 26, 2019.

Cities around the world have already started taking steps to more deeply integrate technology into everyday infrastructure — as well as the lives of residents — but it's still not clear what precisely defines a smart city.

Are cities smart because they let smartphone-equipped citizens connect with public services — like using smartphones to order buses?

Or are smart cities defined by the presence of sensors that collect data directly from sidewalks and other public infrastructure?

Andrew Karvonen is an associate professor at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm where he specializes in urban sustainability.

He spoke with Spark host Nora Young about his thoughts on smart cities, as well as conversations that both citizens and city planners are having about the cities of the future.

So for someone who's never heard the term "smart city," how would you describe it?

KTH Royal Institute of Technology urban sustainability professor Andrew Karvonen. (Submitted by Andrew Karvonen)

I think about it in sort of simple terms. So if you think about the individual, a smart individual today is a person who has a Fitbit or who has an Apple Watch and they use it to monitor their health, they use it to pay bills or communicate with their family and friends, and then we can scale it up to a smart home, where you would have automated systems for lights and music and kitchen appliances — things like that.

So what it's about is applying information communication technologies to make cities function better.

Could you give me some examples of the kinds of features that we might find in a smart city?

A lot of the features will just be in the background where they're already operating today. So if we think about transportation systems, there are ways that traffic engineers can use the connected city to make traffic flows work better. You can prioritize buses over cars, you can think about it in terms of energy systems. So things like making sure that the energy systems are balanced so that supply and demand don't get out of sync and we have blackouts, things like that.

So just different ways that we can make cities function more efficiently. It's interesting to think about cities and what they were like a 100 years ago. Obviously we didn't have as many cars 100 years ago, but a lot of the systems that were in place then are still in place today. And so we're trying to get cities to catch up with the rest of our lives that are very connected to the internet.

I know that you also have some concerns about smart cities or how they might be developed. What are some of the potential issues or problems?

There's been a number of critiques of smart cities and one of the big critiques is that they focus on technological development, rather than on the problems that are faced every day by residents.

So this shift towards a smart city 2.0 or towards this more participatory democratic mode of smart cities is an attempt to really focus on problems rather than on solutions. The beneficiaries of the smart city according to critics should be the residents rather than technology companies.

There's also big issues that we can think about when we're experiencing them already with Facebook and with Google and with privacy issues. And when we start monitoring the city, cameras with various different sensors, when different companies different public authorities can track where we spend money, where we ride on public transit, where we drive around and where we park, it raises privacy issues. Can you hide anymore in the smart city or is everything going to be publicly available?

One other critique that I think is really interesting is about who controls the smart city. There was a lot of worry maybe a decade ago that when you get IBM or Cisco or a big tech company that comes in and says we can operate your infrastructure for you more cheaply using the internet, there was a worry that these companies were going to take over the governance of cities and the public authorities were just going to hand the keys over to these private companies.

And what we've seen over the last 10 years is that the municipalities have been much more savvy than this and they've said, "We need the services from the private companies but we're going to control these services. We're going to continue to control the data streams."

So that hasn't come to fruition, but there still are some some issues about who is going to control the smart city of the future. How are decisions being made in these triple-helix or quadruple-helix formations — and ultimately, what will life be like?

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Click the listen button above to hear the full conversation.


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