Every year, 31 October is observed as World Cities Day. The theme for 2019, Changing the world: innovations and better life for future generations, invites us to explore how innovation, new information and digital technologies - as well as artificial intelligence applied to cities - are reshaping urban planning, policies, procurement, governance and local public services.

Every year, 31 October is observed as World Cities Day, designated by the United Nations General Assembly’s resolution 68/239 to raise public awareness on the many challenges of rapid urbanization, social inclusion and local economic development.

The 2019 theme, Changing the world: innovations and better life for future generations, invites us to explore how innovation, new information and digital technologies - as well as artificial intelligence applied to cities - are reshaping urban planning, policies, procurement, governance and local public services.

While the UN see digital technologies are an opportunity to enhance service effectiveness and access, foster inclusion and improve the lives of local communities, they recognise the risks of deepening inequalities and exclusion by building on existing divides.

For PSI, nothing epitomizes this dilemma more than the concept of “smart cities”, a catchword gone viral in urban policies and local government settings.

Smart cities” generally relates an integrated approach to the digitalization of urban and local government services through technologies such as digital devices sensors, cameras, data collection and processing software to maximize resource efficiency, including:

  • motion sensors for public lighting and water fountains;

  • waste collection service routes following “smart bin” calls;

  • traffic control regulation based on circulation density.

These same technologies are also used to predict crime through “hot spots maps” or to anticipate emergencies and disasters based on rainfall forecasts.

“Smart city” also refers to ways to enhance people’s inclusion and access to local public services - as it contributes to shaping and improving shaping urban social and environmental policies through participatory interactions between local authorities and citizens/service users facilitated by online surveys, mobile consultations apps, digital feedback systems, and free wi-fi service access in public spaces.

“Public-led” vs. “corporate-led”

While smart city technologies carry a promising potential for social inclusion and people participation in local public services, urban policies and governance, a recently launched PSI report “Digitalization and public services: a labour perspective” - whose full version is released today - finds that what makes the difference between whether smart cities work for people or not is whether they are “public-led” vs. “corporate-led”.

The report finds that “evidence drawn from smart city programmes in developing countries shows that underneath the glossy promise of making cities clean and ‘intelligent’, they are principally a tool to attract foreign direct investment for technology-driven PPPs and privatisation in local public services".

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

India’s 100 selected “smart cities” and Kenya’s Konza Technopolis and Silicon Savannah projects have created enclaves of high investment, information and communications technologies and ‘smart’ services that attract corporate and private investment to cities.

The downside of this approach has been the expulsion of low-income groups to city peripheries and forced slum clearings, coupled with a generalised increase in user access charges for essential services like water. Real estate prices of gentrified “smart” neighbourhoods have become inaccessible to locals.

Poster: World Cities Day 2019 - Smart cities: for people or for profit?

“Smart cities” generally relates an integrated approach to the digitalization of urban and local government services through technologies such as digital devices sensors, cameras, data collection and processing software to maximize resource efficiency.

A different approach has been taken by Barcelona, Spain, where the “smart city” approach is public-led. Here the local authorities’ strategy aims at using digital technologies in the city services to:

  • improve dwellers’ social, living and working conditions;

  • pursue social and environmental goals;

  • facilitate the democratic participation and inclusion of citizens and service users; and

  • promote digital commons and sovereignty, attempting to establish a local governance system for the fair and ethical use of citizens’ and public service users’ data.

Ultimately, what will make the difference between smart cities that work for people and those primarily geared at generating private gains are the goals set by public authorities when designing urban digitalization programmes.

The former approach includes enshrining governance and participation mechanisms that permit to stay in control of smart city technologies and use them to meet social and environmental objectives in the public interest. This necessarily encompasses clear rules and indicators for the respect of human and workers’ rights and ensure that people can have an opportunity to shape and hold accountable authorities and corporate actors for their urban and local services.

On 31 October 2019, PSI’s message, therefore, is: “Smart Cities must be for people, not for profit”.

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