What makes a sustainable city and what are the goals governments need to set to make the concept a reality? A sustainable city means more livable buildings, healthier workplaces, less environmental harm, efficient operations, and above all, happier residents. Technology will power the transition to smarter cities where less waste is produced and the overall standard of living for people is maximized.

Asia is leading the way towards smarter cities. For example in Beijing, they are testing a 23-foot air purifier that will go a long way to improve the quality of air in one of the world’s least livable cities. Air quality is important, but organizing and planning how a city operates with data and electronic sensors will prevent further deterioration. Imagine you could monitor the flow of traffic in real time and offer better decision making options for residents? If you could nudge people to make better decisions like leaving their car at home on days that are expected to be busier than usual you could improve traffic congestion.

However, there are challenges that governments must overcome. First, technology cannot dictate the changes that are required; they must flow from social, policy, and organizational changes that reflect residents’ needs. The danger is if Google and other big corporations are allowed to have free reign and introduce technology that furthers their business interests they will leave the needs of the people as an afterthought.

Smart cities can improve the efficiency of public services by streamlining the activities and responsibilities of public servants. One example of this is allowing passengers to scan their phone when they enter the bus; this reduces the cost of administering the fare payment system.

The environment will benefit too. In cities like Chicago, they have installed sensors on city lamps that can capture sound levels, temperature, and traffic. With this data, they can monitor the health of the city and pinpoint ways to drive efficiency.

Importantly, the standard of living will rise in a smart city. To help in this pursuit, there could be a way to track residents’ health and happiness. In some airports, you may have noticed a button to give your feedback to the airport. Usually, the options are unhappy, happy, or very happy. It might be a case in the future that these buttons are setup for wireless feedback throughout the city. With a swipe, people can enter their satisfaction level and governments could monitor this data to try and analyse what went wrong or what is going well around different parts of the city and at different times of the day.

Winner and Losers

Nobody ever said capitalism was fair. In fact, smart cities have come under criticism by social activists who envisage future cities as becoming more deeply divided; the larger chasm opened by new technology. Further inequality could be fostered as less economically productive neighbourhoods will be the last to get new technology. It is likely that central business districts will be the early adopters, followed by wealthy suburbs, and critics estimate that poor areas will be left behind. Indeed, the reality of smart cities falls well short of our lofty expectations. For instance, the Songdo City Development in South Korea heralded as a high-tech utopia is an outright failure and still remains a work in progress ten years after it began.

The learning point from Songdo City and other unsuccessful sustainable city projects is that projects must be transparent and have the aim of improving the public life of residents. Smart city innovation is a political process where residents must hold those in power accountable. The mission should remain simply to improve the lives of residents, and not only to make government services more efficient.

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