Being “Smart” Isn’t Enough, Cities Need to be Human-Centric Too

It has been an astounding time to live in, based upon what we have seen in the realm of urbanism, mobility and technology.  The past decade has brought forth a flurry of innovations that have changed the very nature of cities, how we move and how we live.  These transformations at the urban scale have been life-altering for certain, but pose a series of questions regarding their efficacy and utility on a long term scale.  The Smart Cities movement has been front and center in this debate, and while it has offered a range of conveniences to a wide sector of the population, introspection is good to have at this stage in its development and progress.  This is because the bar has been raised for expectations by a wide range of stakeholders to deliver tangible results that are outcomes-based and human-centric.

Smart Cities and Early Adoption

The history of Smart Cities actually spans over five decades, first being conceived in Los Angeles in the 1970s with the first urban big data project: “A Cluster Analysis of Los Angeles”.   Amsterdam became the first smart city prototype over 30 years later with the virtual “digital city” in 1994 and the launching of the Barcelona Smart City Expo World Congress in 2011. IBM and Cisco both played an outsized role in the development of smart city technology during this nascent time, investing billions of dollars into research and development in data, sensors and other related software and hardware applications.  The 2009 IBM Smarter Cities Campaign was one of the first corporate led efforts into this emerging space.  Further development expanded throughout the 2010s, with additional deployments in cities ranging from London to Vienna. By 2015-2016, the terminology of smart cities had become commonplace, with dozens of cities and regions competing for investment, promotion and new ventures.

Peak of Inflated Expectations

In the mid-2010s, there occurred a tipping point with regard to smart cities and their impact on society.  This was the time period that saw an influx of increasing pilots, innovation challenges, hackathons, and grant-funded programs.  The SmartColumbus project, funded in part by the US Department of Transportation, was one of the most notable examples, receiving $50 million to build a smart city operating system, mobility as a service app, autonomous shuttles, and e-charging stations.  Even more ambitious was the Google Sidewalk Toronto smart city urban redevelopment project along Lake Ontario.  This project was to create a smart urban area that improves the quality of life of its residents, also using it as a testing ground for future urban design projects and technology.  Both projects were notable in their scale, ambitions, and global reach.  It had clearly heralded an era of smart cities dominance in the urban domain.  While each of these projects promised lofty ambitions and an improved quality of life for residents, the cracks began to appear from the outset.

COVID Pandemic and Reality Check

2018-2019 could be widely considered as the peak of smart cities promotion and development, while what was to follow became uncharted territory.  The COVID pandemic, which began in early 2020 along with other market and consumer-related forces, shifted the conversation around smart cities, technology and the role of citizens.  In a new reality of social distancing, impacted mobility, macroeconomic shifts, and changes in work environments, there was a shifting mood towards technology and the role it can play for society.  What resulted was a closer scrutiny of projects and developments that were once previously championed on a broader scale.  Specifically, “tech for tech’s sake” and “solutions looking for problems” were no longer relevant in this new world we were living in.  The focus had shifted to more realistic expectations, at the ground level.  There were a range of pressing problems that cities now had to solve, and those now took priority over everything else.

Shift to Human-Centric Cities

As the dust began to settle during and post pandemic, what occurred could be nothing less than remarkable.  At first, there began a local, and then sustained global effort to rethink the form, function, and purpose of our cities.  And while this occurred, an endless series of urban design projects sprung forth initially to address some of the most pressing public health issues of the pandemic, but with a reinforced long range focus on sustainability and decarbonization. The cancellation of the Google Sidewalk Toronto project, along with the completion of the SmartColumbus initiative, both signalled a change in the political winds.  Stakeholders, including community groups, policy makers and experts, began to coalesce around the concept of promoting locally-implemented, community-level urban projects that address social, economic, and environmental issues.

Renewed Focus on Neighbourhood-Level Projects

With this new focus on human-centric urban development, a wide range of neighbourhood-level projects have taken root across the globe.  The rediscovered focus on active mobility and localism speaks to the new post-pandemic priorities.  The 15-minute city is a manifestation of this “back to basics” approach to urbanism, with an emphasis on walking and cycling.  From pop up bike lanes, to shared mobility hubs, to shared fleets to car free city centers, the menu of options that cities could now choose from were unheard of just a few years earlier.  Clearly, this clarity on how cities should function for all users was a positive shift in the dialogue regarding how to repurpose the built environment to be more equitable and accessible for all.

Conclusion

The smart cities movement brought much hope for the transformation of our communities and regions.  Over the course of five decades, a range of innovations were brought forth that improved the quality of life for many in society.  However, as with any new innovation and development, the complexity of cities as living organisms brought many concepts back to reality.  The COVID pandemic only accelerated that process, with a renewed focus on local, human-centric development.  However, this opportunity for smart cities going forward is to leverage the billions of dollars in investment and innovation in technologies ranging from AI & machine learning to combined mobility to digital infrastructure user experiences at the city level to address an infinite number of concrete use cases that improve the social, economic, and environmental health of cities and regions.  Urban stakeholders now demand better outcomes from governments and the private sector, and now is the time to leverage positive human capital for a bright future.

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