Smart Cities: Our cities must become smarter - just not the way it is sold to us

17.09.2019 – Samuel Krist

The topic of Smart Cities is the talk of the town. All over the world, national and local governments are promising to make their cities smart. But what's behind it?

In India, as many as 100 cities were selected in 2015, to become Smart Cities. China goes one step further, where pilot projects have been launched in around 500 cities. Berlin has a Smart City strategy, Munich has one, Hamburg has one: A total of 50 German cities are included in the Smart City Atlas 2019 by Bitkom and Fraunhofer IESE.

Hardly anyone, not even the experts involved, may spontaneously explain, what exactly this means in each individual case. Apart from becoming as climate-neutral, digital and efficient as possible by 2050 or sometime in the distant future. To explain that you want to make a city "smart" accordingly makes sense as a PR tactic. After all, you're not a dinosaur.

One buzzword - many definitions

However, if one looks at the globally highly divergent objectives, the differences in the definitions become apparent: In India, one of the major projects of the Smart Cities Initiative is to develop a functioning drinking water supply as well as disposal and sewage systems. In Germany, this probably won't be enough to qualify as a Smart City.

The whole project sounds, quickly scanned, at first like a cure-all. The mass collection of data, collected by countless sensors and communicating devices, increases efficiency, safety and cleanliness and makes everything better anyway. No wonder, the idea comes from the think tanks of big tech companies who have a huge interest in selling and keeping these sensors and devices running and collecting and processing the data - or better yet, designing and building whole cities on the drawing board. How that might look in reality can be seen in Songdo in South Korea or in the very concrete plans of Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Alphabet, in Toronto. There, a completely networked, futuristic neighbourhood will be raised from zero to height and serve as a living laboratory for the cities of the future ... or not. The critics are increasingly being listened to by the responsible authorities, and the future of the project is uncertain.

Media reporting on this development is strongly divided into two camps, rarely nuanced: On the one hand there is the enthusiasm for technology of all those who hope for more comfort and quality of life through comprehensive interconnectivity and for whom sharing data is not a security concern. On the other hand, there are the dystopian visions of surveillance states and companies as well as vulnerable centralized technologies to control cities that are attacked or fail due to defects and leave people at the mercy of anarchy. How do you protect the mass-produced data from outside theft or, worse, abuse by the companies that collect it? How do you protect a central computer system for controlling electricity and water from cyberterrorism or, even more stupidly, faulty updates?

What makes a Smart City?

But let's keep our feet on the ground: In Europe, with its historically grown cities and its democracies, which fortunately still largely exist, these visions are unlikely to be fully realised in the near future. And that is not necessary, let alone desirable. Even with today's means, it is already possible to make our cities a lot smarter at a relatively low threshold - and without millions of sensors in every trash can.

To do this, we first have to think about what a Smart City should look like for us. For many people, the idea that a Smart City is constituted by limitless surveillance and an endless network of sensors sounds more dystopian than profitable. The question that arises is: is the human being still the focus of attention here? Also, many of the technological endeavors feel as if they have been developed past their goal and past their time. Will the sensors still be usable five or ten years later, at the current speed of technological developments? Do we really have to invest in traffic flow control everywhere if it is based on the outdated current concept of individual transport? Can we not justifiably hope that in 30 years' time we will no longer need cars as we know them, or that we will no longer need the job to which we commute?

Or does a Smart City Strategy simply cover everything that is supposed to change in a positive way? If the attempt to keep a city alive, for example by providing absolutely necessary daycare for children, green spaces and living space, is supposed to make a Smart City, the term becomes a farce. Let's not allow ourselves to be sold old wine in new bottles - delivery date 2050.

Let's create an environment where people have affordable housing and social security, feel co-responsible for their neighbourhood and enjoy being on the streets at any time of day or night - instead of installing cameras with face recognition.

Or is a Smart City a new paradigm of urban planning and administration, focused on the needs of the residents? A holistic concept that takes care of humanity and nature the best it can? Which tries to control developments proactively instead of always fighting the fire outbreaks? But lean, not over-engineered? At least that is how I imagine the utopian Smart City.

Too much garbage? Let's develop concepts to save food from being wasted and packaging material from being produced in the first place - instead of looking at which technology will take the waste to the dump the fastest.

Insecurity? Let's create an environment where people have affordable housing and social security, feel co-responsible for their neighbourhood and enjoy being on the streets at any time of day or night - instead of installing cameras with face recognition.

This just as an example. One thing is clear:
Cities around the world, in Europe and not lastly in Germany, must be better organized and generally rethought in order to be able to meet the challenges of the future. And we have to start all of this now.

The following measures are only a small exemplary selection of projects that can already be tackled. Let’s get to work!

What can be done today?

Digital administration & citizen participation
Who doesn't love them, the visits to the German Bürgeramt. It's easy to spend half a day of your day off waiting in a hallway from the 60s, with cigarette patina on the curtains, to be allowed to pay 60€ for a new passport. The whole system borders on adventurous inefficiency, and there are few arguments for not finally digitizing this system. A gigantic project? Yes. But the sooner it is implemented, the quicker it will have paid itself off. The technical means are available and far removed from futuristic NASA technology. How to do it properly, shows the Greek city of Trikala. Here, the simplest technology was used to increase public participation, make it transparent and improve efficiency. The average processing time for a citizen's request is now eight days, instead of the 30 days that used to be usual.

Autonomous & cheap local public transport
Several cities around the world, such as Copenhagen, have already shown that autonomous subways work. Autonomization and communication between trains can achieve shorter intervals, thereby coping with the ever-increasing numbers of people in city centres in the future. If one looks optimistically into the future, the autonomisation of suburban trains, trams and ultimately buses is just a question of time. What will soon be reality in other industries, such as the transportation sector, can also work here. Combined with a very reasonable offer, like the mythical 365 Euro Ticket, this can be a real alternative to individual car traffic in cities. Clearly, if you translate it directly, providing highly subsidised and autonomous public transport is an expensive business. However, if you convert the costs incurred - both direct for the urban operator and indirect for society (drivers, ticket machines, inspectors, prison sentences due to unpaid fines. pollution, infrastructure wear and waste of space by cars), it will be worthwhile in the long run.

Accessible & age-friendly cities
The subject is well known: Our society in Europe is getting older and older. In order to constructively meet the demographic change, our cities must also become appropriate to the age of the population. This is not only a measure to increase the quality of life of senior citizens and people with disabilities, for example by making infrastructure such as public transport barrier-free and easy to understand, but is an absolute necessity to counter the nursing care crisis. With a smart, in other words age-appropriate, construction and monitoring technology, the independence of impaired fellow citizens can be increased enormously and it can be ensured that they can live much longer in their own apartments or in communal residential communities. Cameras and sensors control health; temperatures, light, water and electricity can be controlled from outside. Few caregivers observe this remotely and are then deployed specifically where it is really necessary. This is a rare case where the benefits of one type of monitoring far outweigh the costs, whilst showing that under certain circumstances any technology can be useful, depending on the type of use.

An optimized last mile for parcel deliveries
Why a far-reaching rethinking on the part of the city as well as the delivery companies is necessary to save the city centres from suffocation in times of ever increasing online trade, you can read in our article about the last mile.

A forward-looking construction industry
A smart city needs affordable housing, and plenty of it. You will soon be able to read about the contribution that new construction methods, materials and processes can make here in our analysis of the construction industry.

So let's summarize

This list could be continued almost endlessly, and the individual aspects look somewhat different for each city, because each city, each country has its own peculiarities and unique aspects that cannot be lumped together. Everywhere in the world, unique solutions are required, from new infrastructure, administration and living together to cleanliness, greening concepts and nature conservation. And all over the world, many people are working on these concepts. We should not lose sight of how much we can already do today to make our communities the places we want them to be. It is important to actively participate and contribute our own ideas and opinions, because otherwise someone else will decide. Cities belong to the people who live in them.