Dozens of cities around the world have latched on to the concept of becoming a ‘Smart City’, with initiatives being driven by both public and private sector departments. From an annual 3-day Smart Cities conference in New York to government-driven projects in Basel, there are concerted global efforts to revitalise the infrastructure of urbanised areas by harnessing the rapid technological innovations of the 21st-Century.

But such efforts can be fragmented, implemented in silos and without due thought given to the social implications. This could be due, in part, to the poorly-defined nature of what a smart city actually is. There are a variety of views as to what this should constitute, as a 2014 Centre For Cities study highlighted, from the broad definitions of the British Standards Institute to business-focussed data-driven definitions.

A common theme, however, seems to be the utilisation of digital systems to increase efficiency, reduce costs, and enhance quality of life.

But there is a danger that, in the rush to adopt clever new technologies like sensors, edge computing, machine learning and facial recognition, there could be a high cost to privacy. Data collection is seen as crucial for public services and city administrators to improve their services, but it is also a huge concern amongst citizens, with many respondents to a recent Wi-SUN poll concerned about data privacy and network security/vulnerability.

While the ongoing urbanisation of the world’s population presents significant challenges to city infrastructure and necessitates the use of smart technology to optimise services, there must also be social innovation if the smart cities concept is to benefit the majority of citizens.

Other aspects of smart cities are easier to make a business model from: energy, mobility, management. But, up to now, social engagement has been tricky to strategise. Recently, public sector-driven smart city initiatives have been showing the innovation needed to drive citizen participation and enable the inhabitants of cities to contribute to solutions that matter most to them

In Helsinki, an open application allows citizens to submit reports on everything from pot holes to traffic signs and ideas for broader improvements. Meanwhile, in Dublin, the Smart Docklands project aims to giver startups and innovators the chance to trial new ideas in the city.

The success of these initiatives and others like them points to the importance of a citizen-first approach to smart cities. After all, what is the point of developing a city if not for the people who live there?

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