Op-Ed: What exactly is the smart city?

Posted Nov 1, 2018 by Tim Sandle
The term 'smart city' is a buzz term used widely in the news, and one that’s increasingly moving from tech pages to news pages. But what is the smart city? Will it change your life? And what are the risks?
View of downtown Vancouver from the Lookout at Harbour Centre building.
View of downtown Vancouver from the Lookout at Harbour Centre building.
MagnusL3D (CC BY-SA 3.0)
The smart city once stood as something for the sophisticated urbanites, be that tech savvy GenXer or entrepreneurial millennial. But now the concept – as a practical reality - is set to become more commonplace, making your life easier on one level but meaning your data is accessible to more organizations on the other.
The smart city concept is a wide ranging one. It is about using advances in technology to address the concerns of urban living, such as solving traffic congestion, reducing accidents, creating safer streets for pedestrians, and lowering crime rates. The concept is also about improving access to a wider stream of information, through an "always on" approach for public information and wider connectivity. There are also environmental issues that can be resolved, through smart grids that manage electricity supply in ways that avoid wasted power, collecting data from a sensor array. Furthermore, with green living, there are added innovations like a network of charge points for electric vehicles.
Electric car batteries may soon become more affordable to consumers
Electric car batteries may soon become more affordable to consumers
Frank Hebbert via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
If smart cities are all about urban living, then this also connects with how most people are living their lives. The United Nations estimates that 55 percent of the global population live in urban areas, and this is a figure that is expected to continue to rise, perhaps hitting 68 percent by 2050.
To realize the smart city concept there are key challenges and questions to resolve. Pressing challenges include connecting physical and digital infrastructure. Immediate questions include tackling security risks and privacy infringements.
Florida Power & Light Company
With security, the more technology that is interconnected the more opportunities it follows there are for security risks. At the individual level these risks take the firm of malware, email scams, and phishing. At the wider level, the city itself could be subject to jamming, hacking or disruption. Concern, for example, has been expressed in relation to the security afforded to smart grids.
On a worst-case scale the smart city becomes the integrated network that could be brought crashing down by a rogue state or crime organization (notably the smart city presents a huge attack surface). Such scenarios would not only knock out the benefits if the smart city, they could send progress backwards by wiping out all communication, allowing data to be erased, cause mass traffic disruption, cut power, or disrupt food distribution.
Take one specific example. In 2018 Atlanta's judicial system went down through a candidate attack which prevented any legal case from being progressed for several days. This was due to a hacker group called SamSam, who were, at the time of writing, never identified.
A smart home of the future?
A smart home of the future?
Whether such risks are due to the limitations of the technology is the failure if municipalities to adequately test them is a matter of conjecture. Some argue that the smart city's reliance upon machine to machine (M2M) communication can cascade error, in the absence of a human check. Yet to add a human check reduces the advantages of automation that M2M systems promise. Another way to address this problem is to have back-up systems in place.
The other concern with the smart city is data privacy, and to the extent individuals are willing to pass on their data to organizations in return for services, such as continued access to Wi-Fi for data (and soon, device charging). This opens up philosophical questions, such as who us to decide which data is relevant and what data constitutes a privacy issue? Am I happy for my smartphone to exchange data about air temperature with a network? Sure. How about my shopping habits? Perhaps, if there are some discount vouchers at stake. My date of birth? Well, no.
File photo: Home of the future.
File photo: Home of the future.
Flickr / andrewarchy (CC BY 2.0)
These questions mean the smart city needs a framework for data privacy and an ethical code. Can technology companies provide this? They will try, but I'm not sure current records give a sufficient measure of confidence. Government regulation could be the answer, but this depends on the political makeup of the government and the degree to which it is open to influence by fractional interests.
Overall the smart city concept is a step forward in the way we socially construct the world. At a low cost it helps to open up services to the many and it will become part of democratic values. But it needs to be planned, joined up, safe, and regulated.