What are smart cities?!

What are smart cities?!

“Smart city” is a marketing term used to define the use of technology – and in particular data collection – to improve the functioning of cities. The idea behind smart cities is that the more local governments know about city inhabitants the better the services they deliver will be. However, the reality is that the term means different things to different actors from companies to governments.

The World Bank suggests two possible definitions of smart cities. The first one is “a technology-intensive city, with sensors everywhere and highly efficient public services, thanks to information that is gathered in real time by thousands of interconnected devices.” The second one is “a city that cultivates a better relationship between citizens and governments - leveraged by available technology. They rely on feedback from citizens to help improve service delivery, and creating mechanisms to gather this information.” The different priorities, characteristics and terms used in each definition, in this case, given by the same entity reflects the diversity that exists in the sector.

Companies have given definitions of smart cities such as “new ways for the city to workfor IBM or “open-air computers” for Siemens.

Smart city projects range from the use of apps created by small start-ups – for instance to grade local services – to very broad infrastructures, designed by companies like IBM, Oracle and Microsoft that centralise the data collected on citizens and offer cities data analytics services. All of these have in common the reliance on data: whether it’s about generating and collecting data or offering services based on already available data.


How are smart cities developed?

While smart cities are extremely diverse, they are most commonly employed in three sectors: transport, energy and health.


A research paper commissioned by the UK Department of Business Innovation & Skills described Intelligent Transport Systems as “any technology, method or application that provides the traveller/client with added value, guidance, improved safety or efficiency benefits through information collection, storage, manipulation and subsequent dissemination.”

Smart public transport projects often rely largely on “smart cards.” Smart cards are travel pass that have integrated circuit within them. They are personally identifiable: either because it’s mandatory to register them under your own name (like the “Navigo” cards in Paris) or because they can be traced back to you by other means – for instance if you use a credit card to top up credit on your card. Today, smart cities developments have moved further down the road to “one card fits all.” People can now use their contactless credit card or their smart phones to pay for public transport in cities like London or Beijing, or they are linked to other forms if identity such as in student cards in the city of Buenos Aires. Bike sharing programmes are also being developed in more and more cities, as with public transport data is systematically collected. In New York, Citibike has been sharing the data they gather on their bike users, thus revealing the extent of the data gathered: trip duration; start and stop time, date and location; gender and year of birth of users among others. 

Smart cities are also gathering data on road users, using electronic toll collection to detect when cars drive by. 


Energy and water

Energy and water management technologies are starting to be implemented in order to optimise energy use and to better understand demand and supply. Energy management technology range from smart grid – implemented by the state – to home energy management systems – also known as smart meters. Smart meters allow states to obtain more data to assist them with management of energy storage and help them resolve energy loss and power outage. They allow companies to reduce billing errors and customers are offered cheaper energy deals.

But having your energy consumption constantly monitored also means that both the state and your energy provider, and any other third-party in the service provision chain, get to know when you are at home, what time you wake up, when you go to bed, if you’re a shower or a bath person... From this data, a lot more intelligence can be deduced about you, your family and others within you networks, for instance about religious practices, composition of your household, etc. 


Smart health

Technology and data collection is also being used to allow the elderly to stay in their own houses instead of being moved to retirement homes. The European Union is among the institutions encouraging the development of assisted living. Elderly people are offered to wear wearable skin-contact devices that relay information about their health (heart rate, blood pressure, etc.…) to health care centres so that professionals can immediately help when the person appears to be at risk. These technologies would also detect when people who may not be autonomous leave their homes and get lost. Censors placed around the house will detect for instance if a person fell.

In Singapore, sensors have been installed in some elderly people’s publicly managed homes as part of the Smart Nation programme, aiming at transforming Singapore into a leading smart city. Sensors alert families of the elderlies if they stop moving and even monitor how regularly they use the toilet.


Who builds and supplies smart cities?  

Smart cities are the results of partnerships between the public and the private sectors.

While the funding and the initiative of smart cities often come from local government, hoping to improve their cities, national governments can sometimes be the ones leading the development. In India, for instance, the government has launched a programme, the Smart Cities Mission, to have over a hundred smart cities developed across the country. 

Furthermore local and national government are not the only ones involved in this field,  they are also supranational institutions like the European Union, the United Nations and the World Bank.

Regardless of if it is a central or local government or supranational institution, it is often the case that they lack the in-house expertise and resources and so they must rely on the private sector to design, implement and maintain the devices, systems and infrastructure on which these smart city initiatives are built.

Nevertheless, companies are not only enablers and providers but they are also drivers in their own role.

While companies that offer services integrated into smart cities are diverse, it is worth noticing how large corporations offering data processing services – like IBM, Alphabet (the Google parent company), Microsoft and Oracle – have been driving the narrative behind smart cities, a narrative focusing on increased data generation and processing.

IBM: IBM is the company that originally coined the term “smart city.” With their Smarter City Challenge programme, the company has developed their vision of urbanisation – based on centralisation of data, with a strong focus on security – across the world. To find out more about the role of IBM, read our report “Smart Cities: Utopian Vision, Dystopian Reality.”

Oracle: Oracle’s priority is to create a “sentient city,” one that relies heavily on open source intelligence. Their brochure makes it clear: “Oracle’s Smart City Platform offers the means to gather all types of feedback from citizens, business and measuring devices alike. Data, measurements, messages and events are captured from high tech networks of devices, retrieved from smart grids, taken in by both traditional instruments and innovative sensors. The platform can intelligently combine these hard facts with softer information retrieved from social networks.”

Hitachi: The Japanese storage company Hitachi is now focusing on smart cities and has been purchasing smaller companies like Avrio and Pantascene to insure they were capable of independently providing all the necessaries technologies for smart cities like sensors and video. 

Sidewalk Labs: Sidewalk Labs is a subsidiary of Alphabet, Google’s parent company. In October 2017, they announced their project to rebuild Toronto’s 12-acre waterfront.

Microsoft: Microsoft is relying on a partnership with other companies to provide smart city infrastructures. In India – where the company is focusing a lot of its effort to create smart cities and help private companies – they launched a smart city initiative to sponsor promising local start-ups that want to work in the field.


What are the problems?

Smart cities, as they are being built today, have become data-centric projects focusing on the constant generation,      collection and processing of data. This model comes with a cost for our right to privacy. Indeed, as we place sensors and CCTV cameras all over our streets and even in our houses – with the development of smart meters – we are building a public space in which we are constantly subject to surveillance, all our movement, even a walk in a park, can be monitored. This loss of privacy in the public space is alarming for democracies around the world. Cities are spaces where we gather and organise: what will happen to legitimate dissent in cities where we can no longer evolve anonymously?

Another question that the current models of smart cities is who will these cities be smart for? The current initiatives we have observed have often failed to take into consideration issues of poverty, access to technology, access for the less-abled and more generally the issue of gender and how to insure cities are smart for all genders. By failing to do so, these supposedly smart cities are not only failing to address issues they promise to address such as discrimination, exclusion, poor service delivery and safety but they are actually heightening them.

The issue of security is also often ignored or not prioritised in the design, implementation nd maintenance of such smart initiatives. As we see our governments failing at protecting any centralised, interconnected databases and online systems but also the devices we are being forced to engage with, it is extremely worrying to watch as we are sleep-walking into a world where our cities are becoming vulnerable, and ultimately so are we as individuals, to all types of security threats including breaches, leaks and hacking as well. Research has also already demonstrated that street lamps could be extremely vulnerable to hacking, as they are connected to one another it would take no time to put a whole city in the dark after hacking a single bulb using their wireless connectivity. Now what if the sensors that are tracking us, our public transport systems or our energy grids fall again between the wrong hands? What are governments and companies really doing to insure it does not happen?

To find out more about the problems with smart cities, read our case study “Smart Cities and Our Brave New World.


What should we do?

We need to bring back the individual’s needs at the core of our cities. When we think about urbanisation we need to consider how the solutions we find could impact their enjoyment of their rights such as non-discrimination, freedom of movement, privacy, assembly or freedom of expression, amongst others.

Cities should be smart for everyone and for that to happen decision-making processes should be open, transparent and inclusive. The legal and ethical obligations fall across actors involved. Governments should seek the input and expertise of citizens at large, civil society, but also technology and security experts, academia as well as the private sector. When proposing solutions, the private sector should ensure they undertake a thorough problem analysis and needs assessment and respect basic fundamental data protection and security standards. And finally, other actors which promote and also fund such initiatives have a responsibility to ensure they do so responsibly.   

To read more about Privacy International’s position and recommendations on smart cities, read the “Key Findings and Recommendations” section of our report “Smart Cities: Utopian Vision, Dystopian Reality.”