A Tale of Two Smart City Models: One for People, the Other Profit

Barcelona, Spain
Image: Moyan Brenn/Flickr

A new report from Public Services International points to the dangers of ‘corporate-led’ smart city initiatives and insists that these technological paradigms must be designed for people rather than profit.

Over the last two decades, ‘smart city’ technologies have revolutionized the way business gets done in and around City Hall.

From streamlining the flow of traffic and waste water to predicting crime and other potential emergencies, these technologies have enabled 21st century cities to better meet the needs of their communities, all through the power of digital connectivity.

But while this technology also comes with the inherent promise of greater citizen inclusion, since it encourages, as Public Services International (PSI) points out, “participatory interactions between local authorities and citizen/service users facilitated by online surveys, mobile consultations apps, digital feedback systems and free wi-fi service access in public spaces,” this is often (and unfortunately) not the reality.

In a report released just last week (which can be reviewed and downloaded below), PSI argues:

Few smart city programs are oriented towards improving public service access, addressing inequality and citizens’ needs, or redefining data as common goods rather than a private commodity.”

“The example of India’s smart cities and that of Kenya’s Konza Technopolis and Silicon Savannah projects,” the report authors continue, “illustrate that some of these initiatives are not primarily oriented towards serving public interest but rather meant to attract private investors. This ‘for-profit’ approach to smart cities and related digitalization processes can be rightly labelled as ‘corporate-led digitalization’ as opposed to ‘public-led digitalization’.”

And the result is the development of ‘smart enclaves’ — gentrified swaths of once affordable neighborhoods, where low-income groups can no longer pay the increasing access charges for essential services like water nor the sky-rocketing real estate costs.

Barcelona, however, demonstrates a strikingly different model.

“Smart City Barcelona is about remunicipalization (e.g. of water), participation and citizen involvement, affordable housing, good healthcare, sustainable mobility, green public spaces and reduced CO2 emissions,” they write.

In contrast to other Smart City concepts, the municipal government is trying to avoid selling off infrastructure management and data handling to large private companies and has developed its own systems and tools, which are characterized by transparency and the democratic control of data.”

As another smart cities report explains, the successful implementation of such democratic smart city solutions ultimately comes down to “enlightened” leadership — leaders with long-term visions committed to inclusion and citizen collaboration above all else.

Get the full PSI report:

4fbc6dfa-0406-4050-b7eb-96033ab593ff_2019 – En Digit Main Report With Foreword by Ed Praetorian on Scribd

Learn more about smart city solutions in our special coverage series:

Special Coverage Series: Smart City Solutions

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Sarah Sinning

Sarah Sinning is Associate Editor of EfficientGov.com. She is based in North Carolina.