Reading: What is a Smart City?

What is a Smart City?

More than half of the world population lives in cities, and this will increase to two-thirds by 2050. Cities contribute to four-fifths of global GDP, and are key to secure an inclusive, safe, productive, sustainable, and resilient future for humanity.

Since the 1990s, literature has started examining the many ways in which the use of digital technology (including big data, artificial intelligence, sensors, etc.) is reshaping the politics, economy, culture, social relations, and functioning of cities. Concepts such as ‘wired cities’, ‘city as bits’, ‘computable city’, ‘cyber cities’, ‘digital cities’ and ‘networked cities’ have started to appear. In the last ten years or so, the concept of Smart City has gained ground, bringing together the technological and social dimensions in how the city functions, or should function.

smart city

Figure 1. A typical image of a smart city (Source:

What is a Smart City? Certainly, a city that incorporates digital technology into existing government activities. Well, this includes almost every city in some way... So, what more? Typical activities of Smart Cities include participatory government, ICT usage, digital inclusion, public-private partnerships, attention to human and social capital, and environmental sustainability. Ultimately, a Smart City is a city which integrates digital technology to meet the needs of its citizens and to engage them in the city’s decision-making. There are many examples of cities that have used digital technology for the benefit of their citizens. These and have been widely analysed and discussed, for example by the Smart Cities Council.

Indeed, appropriate use of digital technologies could make our cities more sustainable, equitable, effective, and innovative. Still, we should not forget to look at the “dark side” of the Smart City discourse. As noted by Kitchin et al. [1], the concept of Smart City has been criticised for a number of valid reasons: it takes a technological solutionist approach, it enables technocratic forms of governance, it promotes privatisation of city service, it prioritises investments of vested interests, it can reinforce inequalities, and it produces a number of ethical concerns relating to surveillance, profiling and data privacy. 

In a nutshell, Smart Cities represent both a great development in terms of democratic government and a return to technocratic approaches to planning and development that can potentially downplay the importance of public engagement, equity, and transparency. How do we make sure that they develop as we all want?


[1] Kitchin, R., Cardullo, P., & Di Feliciantonio, C. (2018, October 19). Citizenship, Justice and the Right to the Smart City.  

Last modified: Wednesday, 15 June 2022, 12:08 PM