Smart Cities: Why a Technological Approach isn’t the ‘Smartest’ Approach

The citizens the smart city claims to serve are treated like infants. We are fed cute icons of urban life, integrated with harmless devices, cohering into pleasant diagrams in which citizens and business are surrounded by more and more circles of service that create bubbles of control. Why do smart cities offer only improvement? Where is the possibility of transgression? And rather than discarding urban intelligence accumulated over centuries, we must explore how to what is today considered “smart” with previous eras of knowledge – Reem Koolhaas [12]

‘Smart city’ is a very broad term. If you went into the CBD and asked the general public what they thought it meant you’d probably get an array of answers from autonomous cars that navigate the streets flawlessly to cameras that track your every move. Deakin defines a Smart city as “one that utilises Information and Communications Technology to meet the demands of the market (the citizens of the city), and that community involvement in the process is necessary for a Smart city”. [1] I chose this definition as it places emphasis on the citizens and the community as the main beneficiaries of the ‘smart’ city rather portraying technology as the ultimate solution.

Looking back at history we can see how too much of an emphasis on technology and faith in scientific reasoning lead to undesired approaches. The ‘High Modernism’ approach of architect Le Corbusier’s and his Radiant city (1933) lead to the development of a plan which strove to be an ideal city solution to improve quality of life and ‘had taken into account nothing but human truth’[2]. He believed it was the most optimum solution, devised without the influence from politicians, law or even the public [3]. It was a technologist/functionalist point of view, void of input from the people he saw occupying it. Although the project was never realised it’s a relative ‘smart city ideal’ of the machine age and both directly and indirectly influenced what can be considered controversial ‘failed’ projects. Lucio Costa and Oscar Neimeyers new capitol Brasilia failed to achieve its intentions to create an ideal city, lacking the robust character and social fabric of predecessor Rio De Jainero [4]. More modern day examples include Foster and Partner’s Masdar in Abu Dhabi [5], Songdo in South Korea and Sidewalk labs Toronto Project [6].


Fig. 1 The Sustainable Smart City Of Masdar


For existing cities the implementation of smart technology through the use of big data, machine learning and the Internet Of Things can shape our cities for the better but only if they’re paired with the desire to truly improve the life of it’s citizens. One of the biggest topics is the implementation of Autonomous vehicles and how they will shape the future of transport. MIT’s Sensable city lab simulated how intersections could be virtually ‘eliminated’ and traffic congestion significantly reduced [7]. From a purely technological point of view this is an undeniably efficient utopia, on demand accessible transport interconnected in real-time to optimise traffic flow. However this is a pigeon holed view a person (or multi billion dollar tech companies with invested interests) holds, a simple fix for a much more complicated problem, set out to potentially fail at what it claims to achieve.  AV’s have the potential to dramatically improve safety by eliminating human error on the road [8] but improvements in efficiency, sustainability and congestion are misinterpreted as fact. Looking back it has been seen that attempts to improve efficiency on the road to improve congestion have only been met with induced additional demand, not achieving the goals they set to achieve [9]. If this new AV age allowed people to sit back and spend time on work or leisure what problem then would society have in taking longer drives and increased commute times? This has the potential to negate any sustainability or efficiency gained and can lead to the justification of the increased urban sprawl or even neglect of improving the public transit system [10]. Implementing AV’s though a purely technological point of view could lead society down the same path the motor age did, where the structure and social dynamic of cities completely changed to accommodate the automobile.


Fig. 2: Autonomous Traffic Flow by MIT Senseable City Labs


AV’s are only a grain in the sand on a beach of technology being presented to city planners as solutions to solve about every problem a city has, all with their own benefits and detriments. Technology can often be misconceived to be an end all solution by simplifying complex social and political problems faced in the development of the ‘Smart City’. Properly informed bodies, including architects, working together alongside the local community and well planned policies, such as the Boston Smart City Playbook [11], will help develop cities that focus on people rather than being engineered by technology.



  1. Deakin, Mark. From intelligent to smart cities. In Deakin, Mark, Smart Cities: Governing, Modelling and Analysing the Transition. Taylor and Francis. 28-08-2013
  2. Le Corbusier. The Radiant City: Elements of a Doctrine of Urbanism to Be Used as the Basis of Our Machine-Age Civilization. New York: Orion Press. 1964
  3. James Holston, The Modernist City: An Anthropological Critique of Brasília. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989
  4. ibid
  5. Evans, James. Schilwa, Gabriele. Luke, Katherine. Evan, James. Raven, Rob. Karvonen, Andrew. The Glorious Failure of the Experimental City (Chaper in The Experimental City 218-235). Routledge, 2018.
  6. Green, Ben. The smart enough city: lessons from the past and a framework for the future. MITPress. 30 March 2019.
  7. Senseable City Lab. “DriveWAVE by MIT SENSEable City Lab”. 2015.
  8. Green, Ben. The Livable City: The Limit and Dangers of New Technology (Chapter 2 in The Smart Enough City). MITPress. 30-03-2019.
  9. Duranton, Gilles. Turner, Matthew. The Fundamental Law of Road Congestion: Evidence from US Cities, American Economic Review101, no. 6. 2011.
  10. Green, Ben. The Livable City: The Limit and Dangers of New Technology (Chapter 2 in The Smart Enough City). MITPress. 30 March 2019.
  11. Boston, City of, Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics. “Boston Smart City Playbook” (2016).
  12. Reem Koolhaas. My thoughts on the smart city. Digital Minds for a New Europe, European Comission. 24-09-2014.

Header: Artusse, Francois. The Importance of Smart Cities. Medium. 13-04-2018

Fig 1. Borgen Magazine. Masdar City Focuses on sustainability but excludes the poor. Borgen Magazine. 24-07-2014.

Fig. 2 Senseable City Lab. “DriveWAVE by MIT SENSEable City Lab”. 2015.