The global urban population is expected to grow by 63% between 2014 and 2050 against the 32% total population growth in the same period, the fastest increase occurring among megacities hosting over 20 million inhabitants and located mostly in developing countries. The trend creates unprecedented sustainability challenges. In 2015, 828 million people lived in slums, lacking basic services such as drinking water and sanitation; the figure increases by 6 million people every year. Cities also witness instances of social instability due to rising inequalities and unemployment, air and water pollution, traffic congestion, and urban violence and crime.
However, cities also create tremendous opportunities for economic development – 80% of the world’s Gross Domestic Product is created in cities; for career development – urban citizens earn on average three times the income of their rural counterparts; and for sustainability – people living in larger cities tend to have smaller energy footprints, require less infrastructure, consume fewer resources, and have higher productivity levels. For example, a city of 8 million has 15% more productivity and 15% fewer infrastructure needs than do two cities of four million each.
There are several urbanization models that incorporate digital technologies to address some of the urbanization and sustainability challenges: Digital Cities feature the integration of digital technology into the city’s core infrastructure systems; Intelligent Cities rely on the digital city infrastructure to build intelligent buildings, transportation systems, schools, enterprises, public spaces, public services, etc. and to integrate them into intelligent urban systems; and Smart Cities – deploy intelligent urban systems at the service of socio-economic development and improving urban quality of life.
Smart City initiatives can help overcome the limitations of traditional urban development that tends to manage urban infrastructure systems in silos. By leveraging the pervasive character of data and services offered by digital technologies, such as Cloud Computing, the Internet of Things, or Open Data, they help connect different city stakeholders, improve citizen involvement, offer new and enhance existing services, and provide context-aware views on city operations. Smart City development is, however, highly complex, challenging and context-specific. The challenges include different discourses used by technologists and policymakers, lack of capacity to connect urban sustainability challenges to actionable approaches, and pressures on social and territorial cohesion requiring unique governance solutions. This case study looks at how smart cities affects sustainable development.
- Smart cities are commonly understood as incorporating the development of new digital markets, efficient urban management systems, and more informed citizens. However, this is too simplistic – ICT development must be understood as an ’emergent system’ that’s markedly different and more wide-reaching than its individual components.
- Badly planned implementation of smart city initiatives can cause societal harm – including the technological exclusion of people without ICT access, misuse of sensitive data, violation of citizens’ privacy rights, and business interests being prioritised above social and environmental issues.
- Large technology companies typically provide data collection and access hubs for smart cities, which increases the risk of private companies controlling the data of governments and citizens.
- Relying solely on new digital technologies creates vulnerability and risks excluding people with limited ICT access. Non-digital services should be retained in parallel with the rollout of new technologies.
- The development of city data platforms should follow international standards (such as ISO and ITU-T telecommunication standards) to ensure systems can operate across country borders and different system providers.
- Establishing new government departments with expertise in urban ICTs can break down existing silos and enable agile governance, using new models of multi-level governance that take into account that governance and technology mutually evolve and affect each other.
Smart Cities have a lot of potential for the circumstances of many developing countries but this potential is not being fully utilized, and a number of structural factors could actually widen the gap between the potential and reality. In terms of research capacity, only 12% of the most published Smart City researchers are from developing countries. In terms of policy capacity, only 8% of the Smart City policy organizations are based in developing countries. Weak research capacity can hinder the contextualization required for Smart City initiatives. Lack of indigenous policy organizations means that developing countries tend to adopt policy frameworks provided by and tested in developed countries, which may not be optimal, or even desirable for their own circumstances.