Smart Cities Aren’t About Technology

It’s time to stop pitting smart and livable cities against one another. When executed properly, they achieve the same goals of providing residents with healthier, happier and more efficient communities.

In all the talk of smart cities, we tend to get lost in the jargon of how sensors, algorithms, and data analytics promise to reshape our cities into orderly, efficient machines. But cities are far closer to living, breathing organisms than programmed computers. Data is an important element in creating healthy, livable, and green urban environments, but if it’s the only thing we focus on then it means that we aren’t thinking about smart cities in the right way.

Smart cities aren’t about technology, really. At their core, smart cities are about people. Technological advancements in urban planning and design are useless unless they serve a purpose to people. It’s important to remember this when debating the merits of “smart” versus “livable” cities since, while they may initially appear at odds with one another, in reality they are more alike than many assume.

Both “smart” and “livable” cities seek to address a number of urban challenges, most notably the effects of climate change. While adapting to and mitigating the effects of climate change, cities are proving that being smart doesn’t preclude being sensible, and that effective action against climate change can, in the best case scenario, create both smart and livable places to live. This is one of the takeaways from Cities100, a yearly report by Sustainia, C40, and Realdania that showcases 100 of the most impressive and innovative municipal-led projects to address climate change in cities around the world.

We’re gearing up for the next edition of Cities100 towards the end of this year, and I am already inspired by the wealth of case studies we’re looking into.  Our inaugural report highlighted that many of the smartest, most data-driven cities in the world are also the most livable, because their technologies are designed to improve life, not measure arcane information.  Seoul, San Francisco, and Mexico City are just three cities whose data-driven livability projects are redefining what it means to be a smart, sustainable city. I expect to see even more cities following this trend, as I continue my research.

Seoul is widely recognized as a world leading smart city and many of the sensors peppered throughout the bustling Korean capital are designed to improve public service provision to residents. For instance, the city has used its pool of available data on telecommunications and transportation to streamline nighttime bus routes along five key lines, boosting commuter satisfaction and reducing unnecessary fuel consumption. Meanwhile, mSeoul, the city government’s app, provides location-based services to people looking for key government buildings, public bathrooms, hospitals and clinics, and bus stops. The city is also actively trying to ensure that all citizens have access to the knowledge and information provided through its smart city infrastructure, distributing 2,700 second-hand computers to underprivileged residents each year.

Further highlighting the point that technology can – and should – improve

livability, San Francisco’s Community Resiliency Index provides local officials and residents with crucial information about the health impacts of climate change throughout the city. Examining neighborhood-level data on 36 specific social, economic, health and environmental indicators, the Index gives each of the city’s districts a score for how well prepared they are for the effects of climate change. By zooming in on health resiliency, city officials and community organizations are able to know which neighborhoods are most vulnerable to health impacts of climate change, such as extreme heat, air pollution, and reduced water quality, and protect citizens that are most in need to help maintain a healthy population – critical to a livable city.

Another city that found a way incorporate technology into services that improve livability is Mexico City. Bike sharing programs are a hallmark of livability as they promote active, healthy and efficient mobility. While these schemes have been popping up around the world in huge numbers in past years, Mexico City remains one of the very few that has integrated a bike sharing scheme within its public transit system. This means that one card allows users to access the metro, buses, trains, and the public EcoBici bicycles, making pedal-powered transport a viable commuting method in which 87 percent of trips are made in combination with other modes of transportation. The card’s technological integration is a key to this success, as Ecobici’s daily trips have ballooned from 3,053 in 2010 to 33,700 in 2015.

These projects are particularly noteworthy when considered in the context of the Sustainable Development Goals. In an effort to achieve the SDGs by 2030, particularly goal #11 that aims to “make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable,” we are going to need all the synergies we can get. The world’s problems are so inextricably interconnected that we must find and capitalize on opportunities to reach multiple goals with fewer, targeted actions.

The projects coming out of cities like Seoul, San Francisco, and Mexico City illustrate the value of shifting the global discussion on cities from one that creates an unnecessary distinction between smart or livable communities, to one that focuses on discovering how to achieve both simultaneously.

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