A Smarter Name for Smart Cities

Photo by Yong Chuan Tan on Unsplash

The term “smart cities” is thrown around a lot in conversations regarding the future of urban infrastructure. As a name, it’s become synonymous with a groundbreaking sector, transforming everything from our familiar skylines to how we interact with the world around us. It’s innovative, it’s trendy, and it creates buzz among people regardless of whether the term actually means anything to them. There are a lot of benefits to this — buzz creates attention, attention leads to interest, interest can drive investment. However, this kind of buzz can quickly get out of hand, creating fear and promoting narratives that inhibit urban innovation. It’s this notoriety that I believe can be remedied by using more accurate language and shifting the focus in our conversations to better reflect the reality of what our cities are becoming. We can label this sector more precisely, using a name that more thoroughly encompasses the people, problems, and developments in this space — a name like Future Cities.

Photo by Michael Descharles on Unsplash

The main issue is that the predominant terminology, denoting what I would refer to as the Future Cities Sector as one of “smart” cities, creates the illusion that future cities must be smart (or technologically advanced) and by association, all of the problems modern cities face will be solved by technology. This illusion pulls attention away from the most important aspects of a space that’s much more than technology. If we take a minute to strip away the hype, what are we really left with? The consensus seems to be that a smart city is an urban environment connected through the Internet of Things, providing the ability for governments and private companies to monitor different levels of infrastructure, extract data, and distill useful insights from the daily operation of these connected systems. Insights that, if acted on correctly, can produce meaningful differences in the lives of the people in these cities. Keeping this description in mind, we ask ourselves: must future cities be smart? It’s likely that they will be, smart solutions present an incredible resource for the various levels of government to use, however, they can’t just be smart. Smart solutions won’t fix everything that’s wrong with modern cities and, in many cases, they may not even be the best option. A key example is homelessness, a crisis that exists in a web of complex and interconnected systems and thus, outside the realm of a quick technological fix. Issues like this are often deeply rooted in society and in detrimental human experience. In this case, increasing technological advancement, if not done properly, presents a means by which affected populations are further limited throughout an ecosystem which already presents them with unequal access.

New solutions shouldn’t cause new problems at the cost of solving old ones. The question of whether something can be done, is much less important than whether something should be done. Why are we innovating? What’s wrong with modern cities? What are the implications of these issues on citizens, and how can we most effectively solve them? In using questions like these to frame our discussions, we discover that innovation in cities, as with every sector, must be human-centred and technology-enabled, not technology-driven. The future cities we design must continue to provide value and be increasingly beneficial to all residents regardless of how smart they are. Remember, in these sectors we shouldn’t just create, we should create with reason.

Photo by Yong Chuan Tan on Unsplash

Understanding this, why do we continue to put technology at the forefront of these conversations if it’s not even the most important consideration. We use smart cities to label an entire sector when what we’re really talking about is future cities, inclusive of all their high-tech, low-tech, and no-tech solutions. The language we use frames the conversations we have, how we talk about things, what we talk about, and who feels involved. By signifying that the broad field of future cities is a strictly technology-driven entity through the title of smart cities, we inherently limit the scope of and participation in these conversations — smothering the human element. Smart solutions are simply one piece in the much larger puzzle. Useful? Incredibly, but far from comprehensive.

This isn’t an argument against smart cities, smarter infrastructure, or technology-enabled solutions to urban problems. It’s about nomenclature. It’s an urge to accurately represent this emerging sector for what it is. It’s a call to action to identify the causes of these problems, develop empathetic solutions, and follow the best course of action regardless of whether it’s the most technologically advanced. It’s a gentle reminder to frame the problems that modern cities face in a way that considers the only perspectives that matter — the ones of those living in the cities we create.

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