Smart Cities: How Infusing Technology Is a Sustainable Strategy

In regard to smart cities as an urban innovation, there are factors that play key roles in the level of success achievable with them, despite the availability of resources (people, technology and financing) for the transformation that such a radical or disruptive technological innovation requires.
To this end, authors like, Costa & Oliveira (2017) elucidate on why it is risky to be led by “technology focus” only, rather than a “humane focus” – where the innovation is engineered to address the needs of the residents and promote overall wellbeing. Lom et al. (2016) also stated that the emergence of the smart city initiative was about deriving a sustainable model for cities and to preserve the quality of life of the inhabitants of cities. In the same vein, (Caragliu et al., 2011) suggest that the viability of an ICT deployments across the city does not suffice except (Kitchin, 2014b, p. 2) when it promotes innovation by building on citizen participation and engagement.
This position controverts the ideology that a technology focussed society is an informed approach for a city to become ‘smart’. Similarly, despite the importance of climate action, branding by sustainability emphasis is insufficient (The Climate Group, 2008; ICC, 2010; Steinert et al., 2011). In addition, branding prefixing by name only as shown across the board, does not cut it (Hollands, 2008) as human actors must be involved to drive the change process (Pardo & Nam, 2015). According to Lee & Lee (2014) and Kitchin (2014b, p. 2) the process must create smart people. And in addition, Eger (2009, p. 48) opines that serving urban innovation as an end in itself is not a way for cities to lay claim to smartness.
These elucidations become interesting, given that a smart city vision, traditionally, attempts to build the expectation beyond simply optimising or enhancing the operations of the city, which spurred the interests of early adopters of urban technological innovation in the first place. And this occurrence was highlighted in the works of authors like (Aina, 2017; Pettit et al., 2018). Therefore, technological innovations today are becoming pervasive, with ubiquitous technologies around the urban and city making processes becoming the new normal. While this is compelling, living in the digital era should not be about these technologies and what they dictate, it should be about people and how we want these technologies to be around us promoting our wellbeing.
While cities and their private partners (tech giants; tech monoliths; technocrats; tech monopolies; early adopter building tech companies; and others) are trying to decipher through the appropriate models for these emergent city forms and how they will be profitable to them; other stakeholders or contributors like research and academia are getting their focus lost in the translation of these changing paradigms in relation to what a smart is and what it is not or what it should be or not. But we need to be mindful of time as research often trails technology in practice by years. For example, if we spend dozens of years, yet unable to advance a single congruent concept and a standard universal definition of a smart city, too much time will be spent before research and pedagogy can be effective contributors in the development of an efficient infrastructure to support the diverse needs of the stakeholders of these future cities?
The management of these new types of projects are precarious in ways that we have never seen before in traditionally risky projects like even the biggest megaprojects that we have deployed and maintained. The challenge with this type of precariousness in project planning and management of such highly complex and expensive project is that the available information to baseline and plan for their sustainability is very limited and those available may be inadequate and of very poor quality based on the huge and defining interests in their outcomes. There are fundamental differences in the architecture of a smart city that must be understood and addressed at the project initiation and planning stages. A smart city project for the construction of a connected or driverless transportation infrastructure is not the same as a conventional road or highway project and cannot be expected to follow the same processes and utilise the same knowledge areas.
But in fact, smart cities as a concept could not have drawn so much interest for the mere goal of transitioning a city from an ‘As-Is’ state to a ‘To-Be’ state. The concept of a smart city and what it is to live in them is yet unseen in its full brilliance. These smart cities, however, will be cities that we need in an abundantly digitized world. The technologies that we are harnessing through digital capabilities today, such as Big Data and AI together with machine and deep learning are creating exponential possibilities. The abilities of internet of things (IoT) and sensing technologies to enable objects in our environment to communicate intelligently with us, collect data through their sensors which goes into databases implementing AI and Big Data will allow an environment that can optimize our interaction and exploration as we go on and about our world, especially in urban centres and cities where the best of technological innovations come alive.
Yet from the sneak peeks of different proof of concepts that are being unveiled around the world and at trade shows, like the CES, it is becoming clear that these technologies will help eliminate extant systemic failings consequent on the finiteness of human capabilities. However, they will require an overhaul of city infrastructure as we know them, in particular, the transportation structure and road network and highways to give way for new forms of mobility that is adaptive, inclusive, using renewal energy, emitting low to zero carbon in urban spaces and where artificial intelligent agents and autonomous objects will be running things.
Shade Adepeju-Joseph
© September 2019

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