Behind the Allure of the ‘Smart City’

The glamour of digital technology can obscure the hard work of building healthy, sustainable cities.

June 28, 2022, 8:00 AM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction


Writing in Technology Review, Riad Meddeb, interim director of the UNDP Global Centre for Technology, Innovation, and Sustainable Development, cautions that an overemphasis on “smart city” technology “risks a transactional—and limiting—approach to city improvement, focusing on immediate returns on investment or achievements that can be distilled into KPIs.”

A focus on building “smart cities” risks turning cities into technology projects. We talk about “users” rather than people. Monthly and “daily active” numbers instead of residents. Stakeholders and subscribers instead of citizens.

According to Meddeb, “Truly smart cities recognize the ambiguity of lives and livelihoods, and they are driven by outcomes beyond the implementation of ‘solutions.’ They are defined by their residents’ talents, relationships, and sense of ownership—not by the technology that is deployed there.”

Meddeb calls on cities to look beyond the flashy appeal of technology and explore the uses of digital technology while also doing the less glamorous work of tackling urgent problems like climate change, inequality, and pollution. For Meddeb, city leaders and policymakers must “move beyond the sales pitches and explore how our cities can be true platforms—not just technological ones—for inclusive and sustainable development.”

Monday, June 27, 2022 in Technology Review

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