Smart Cities vs. Smart Communities: Empowering Citizens not Market Economics

Posted on November 6, 2014


“Smart Cities” has become a flavour of the day for governments, the private sector, even academics all of whom see this meme as being a way to translate the “hype”, err “glitz”, err “glory” of new tech–digital technology to the grimy old practices and policies of urban agglomerations and urban management.

The fact that according to the UN, sometime over the last year or so the balance between those living in urban areas and those living in rural areas tipped irrevocably over to the urban side. Now those who had always hankered to focus on the rather richer and more desirable (at least when it comes to actually doing field implementations, studies, property developments etc.) environs of big cities could, with all due conscience, begin to ignore the much poorer, less accessible and generally less “sexy”, rural dwellers.

Precisely what might be meant by a “smart city” has become a bit of play thing but is now exercising the imagination of the PR folks in major tech corporations and the offices of senior politicians in jurisdictions great and small. Wikipedia gives us this definition: a smart city is an emerging conceptual view of a city that promotes the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) to engage with citizens to develop social capital and intellectual capital, to make better use of hard infrastructure (physical capital), reduce usage of environmental capital and support smart growth (sustainable economic development).

I’m not sure that helps a lot, but perhaps a definition from the Whole Earth Catalogue of corporate America–Forbes Magazine would provide a bit of focus and clarity to what is meant by Wikipedia’s fuzzy generalities. In an article entitled “Smart Cities — A $1.5 Trillion Market Opportunity” the author from the consulting firm Frost and Sullivan identifies eight key aspects that define a Smart City: “smart governance, smart energy, smart building, smart mobility, smart infrastructure, smart technology, smart healthcare and smart citizen as follows”. In a associated presentation the firm goes into somewhat more detail on each of these “smartnesses”

Smart Energy uses digital technology through Advanced Meter Infrastructure (AMI), distribution grid management, high voltage transmission systems and for demand response for the intelligent and integrated transmission and distribution of power.

Smart Buildings are green, energy efficient, and intelligent with advanced automated infrastructure that controls and manages aspects such as lighting and temperature, security, and energy consumption independently or with minimal human intervention.

Smart Mobility enables intelligent mobility through the use of innovative and integrated technologies and solutions such as low emission cars and multimodal transport systems.

Smart Technology will connect the home, office, mobile phone and car on a single wireless IT platform. Smart Technology includes adoption of smart grid system, smart home solutions, high speed broadband connection, and roll out of 4G technology

Smart Healthcare is the use of ehealth and mhealth systems and intelligent and connected medical devices. It also involves implementation of policies that encourage health, wellness and well-being for its citizens and health monitoring and diagnostics as opposed to treatment.

Smart Infrastructure includes intelligent and automated systems that manage, communicate and integrate different types of intelligent infrastructure such as energy grids, transport network, water and waste management systems and telecommunications.

Smart Governance includes rolling out of policies and digital services from the government that help and support adoption of green and intelligent solutions through incentives, subsidies, or other forms of promotional schemes.

Smart Citizens possess Interest to embrace smart and green solutions in the day to day work schedule. More proactiveness of citizens in adopting smart concepts and smart products which includes making “smart” lifestyle choices

So what does this tell us about the nature of “city smartness” as it is currently being defined:
• It is centralized and top down–the folks implementing smart cities seem to think they know best what cities need and what citizens want and they are prepared to make sure that big bucks are spent in achieving these
• They require a very sophisticated and developed urban infrastructure–one that will be expensive to implement (lots of money for consultants and suppliers) and don’t seem to offer a lot of opportunity for citizens to be engaged in the planning or design
• It means that all those who want to take advantage of the smartness of the city need themselves to be “smart” i.e. plugged in, with high end sensing devices and smart phones and (expensive) broadband connections
• Lots of activity to enable individuals to do things for their energy management and transportation but not much (basically no) attention to the way in which many (perhaps most) people actually live in urban environments (and particularly low income people and slum dwellers in Less Developed Countries) i.e. communally–with shared access to scarce resources, very limited if any individual connectivity beyond basic communications, little access to individualized health care, environmental management, security and so on.
• It is also a city where there would appear to be no “public” services, presumably because all of these are provided by private contractors–garbage service, security/police service, and so on
• And finally it is a city without politics where “policies and digital services from the government” are rolled out apparently without consultation and input from citizens let alone any form of democratic input or decision making


So “Smart Cities” particularly in Less Developed Countries are ways of turning urban environments into gold mines for consultants, hardware and software companies and redoing the city in the image and for the benefit of its most prosperous and well-serviced inhabitants and in the meantime transferring additional resources and benefits from the poor to the rich.

But another type of “Smart” program is possible–one that is focused on social inclusion, enabling citizens, supporting communities–a community informatics model.  This would be a smart program where the emphasis is on “Smart Communities” rather than “Smart Cities” and enabling and empowering citizens and supporting their individual and communal quests for well-being rather than turning cities into a series of cascading neo-liberalized markets–for services, for infrastructure, for shelter. Thus the basic model of the “Smartness” could be one that included:
Smart Community Planning–supporting citizen involvement in the delivery of “Smart Services” — thus for example citizens in urban slums in Less Developed Countries helping with the collective mapping of existing public toilets and then working with planners to identify the most appropriate locations for additional or alternative public toilets (or public water supplies)

Smart Community Governance— providing a means for public scrutiny of municipal budgets including providing the funding for the training and support required for those with little education to review budgets and ensure that they are being spent appropriately and equitably among citizens

Smart Community Health–supporting decentralized health support workers and facilities including public health facilities in low income areas–including information and training, a tiered system of diagnostics to ensure and efficient use of scarce public health resources

Smart Community Citizenship–ensuring support ro location based electronic interaction among citizens around issues of local interest with information (government data) being structured (geo-tagged) in such a way that the information could be directly accessed and locally aggregated to support participation/intervention in municipal planning and programme design processes

Smart Community Infrastructure–incident reporting facilities structured so that citizens can report on issues concerning public infrastructure in an aggregated way based on location and where these electronic facilities are transparent to the user allowing for inter-individual and collective collaboration as required to ensure an active response

Smart Community Resources–digital support for administrative decentralization so that administration is structured in such a way as to be responsive to local circumstances and requirements and including structured processes for citizen participation in localized decision making including resource prioritization and allocation. A “smart” electrical grid for example should be able to ensure that some degree of control over how scarce electricity or water might be allocated in a municipal region–giving priority to hospitals and schools and less priority to individual users particularly high volume individual users

Smart Community Dwellings–digitally enabling public land use and dwelling records including rentals, renter complaints, work orders, etc. made accessible (and usable) in local communities including through providing training and support in how to use these to protect individual and communal land rights and to use compiled information to support the rights of renters and those with informal dwellings

There are tremendous opportunities for politicians and government officials who can see past the buzz and the hype of “Smart Cities” to apply ICTs to support citizens as they use this technology to enable themselves and their communities and in this transform their cities from the bottom up.