After the 2008 financial crisis, a new approach to urbanism and service delivery began to take root worldwide. With advancements in technology, city planners devised new ways to monitor the needs of urban residents and use technology to deliver services. By deploying the Internet of Things across myriad tasks of urban management, the “smart city” was born. More than a decade later, the smart city revolution has become commonplace in the world’s leading cities. Yet, the concept appears to have been more of a branding coup than a total revolution in urbanism.
The use of technology to ease urban life is nothing new in cities. Since the first cities more than 6,000 years ago, humans have continuously looked for ways to improve the daily grind of everyday life with technology. With the advent of the smartphone, city planners have been able to collect massive pools of data and better understand what residents need. As a surveillance technology, the smartphone is unrivaled in human history for the sheer amount of information it collects about individuals. This data gives city planners radically new insights into how the urban environment is used and where resources should be allocated.
Smart city branding, however, tends to focus on individual ease instead of monitoring of data. In cities like Dubai and Singapore, residents use smartphone applications to interact with city services as municipal offices move away from paper in official transactions. Residents can use smartphone applications to report service outages, pay fines, and more. Smart city marketers envision a future where residents never have to visit a physical city office to conduct business, and resources are automatically allocated based on demand.
Over the past decade, many cities worldwide have adopted varying degrees of the smart city approach. Even in cities like Cape Town, residents can handle many issues through smartphones or online. The model of a truly innovative smart city is changing. Saudi Arabia’s planned city NEOM on the Red Sea coast promises to weave technology into virtually every aspect of the urban environment.
On the other side of the world, a group of leading technology investors in California want to build their own city from scratch and test the smart city concept to solve urban problems. California Forever is a project backed by Silicon Valley billionaires Reid Hoffman, Laurene Powell Jobs, and Marc Andreessen, with plans to build a “dream city” in Northern California. The project has already acquired vast tracts of land and promises to create a future smart city with the latest in solar power, security, and quality of life.
These investors are responding to the severe decline of Californian cities. From San Francisco to San Diego, Californian cities have been unable to curb rising crime and homelessness. The tech backers of California Forever are punting on the smart city concept of a controlled environment maintained by the latest surveillance technology to provide an alternative to California’s increasingly dangerous urban areas.
This makes sense. At their core, smart cities are typified by monitoring architecture built into the urban environment. But the public narrative has always been something softer. To fully appreciate this dichotomy, we must consider how emerging markets have transformed over the last two decades. In the middle of the 2000s, investors began looking for new markets with great returns. Thanks to globalization, cheap money due to low-interest rates, and a rising young population, emerging market countries, mainly in the Global South, became investor hotspots. A new narrative developed that justified and accelerated new investor sentiment. Namely, technology and growing youth populations were pointing towards a historic transformation of the global economy. The future was in emerging markets.
Technically, this wasn’t wrong. Technology has enabled knowledge workers worldwide to have more access to markets. Many cities across the emerging world have growing youth populations that enjoy many more opportunities than their parents. Cities like Dubai have become new nexus points of innovation, bringing diverse populations of people together. The narrative has broken down in recent years as high interest rates have dried up the cheap money fueling this exuberance. Yet, some emerging market countries have truly come into their own.
The smart city narrative remains vital to the emerging market narrative. Using a smartphone to pay a parking ticket is branded by many city officials as a demonstration of technology’s promise to make life easier. It removes a hurdle of bureaucracy so often associated with the legacy of colonialism in some emerging market countries.
Now that these developments have become commonplace worldwide, the narrative needs to shift. The rise of artificial intelligence is one area that will change how we think about cities. Thanks to the large amounts of data cities have collected over the past decade; AI systems can be deployed to predict and handle resource allocation. The seamless experience the smart city vision promises can be more easily carried out with AI.
The dream of a truly smart city isn’t over. As long as humans live in cities, there will be a drive to improve the urban environment. The branding of smart cities in relation to the growth of emerging markets has likely seen its best days and will change as new technology gives planners more options. As such, an important chapter in the history of urbanism is about to close as another one opens.
Joseph Dana is a writer based in South Africa and the Middle East. He has reported from Jerusalem, Ramallah, Cairo, Istanbul, and Abu Dhabi. He was formerly editor-in-chief of emerge85, a media project based in Abu Dhabi exploring change in emerging markets. Twitter: @ibnezra