The urban metropolises of our planet are home to an abundance of stories. They are home to stories of wealth, of innovation, and of architectural marvels. They are home, too, to stories of inequality, inequity and of urban divides – places where one’s income determines the quality of the spatial environment around them. Within these stories has developed an increasing advocation for making cities “smarter”, the goal being to use data and digital technology to build more efficient and convenient urban environments.
The problem is that in many contexts, a push for smarter cities can heighten the already-existing inequity present in a place if structural urban issues are not addressed.
The definition of what exactly constitutes a smart city is varied, but they can be broadly defined as cities that aim to use data-collecting technology and modernised infrastructure to provide more efficient and convenient urban environments for a city’s residents. An example would be Yokohama’s initiative to reduce congestion and vehicular pollution by implementing an electric car-sharing service, increasing the number of electric car drivers in the Japanese city. In southeast Asia, the island of Singapore has responded to high demand for a scarce water supply by introducing NEWater – treating and purifying used water to create drinking water. Japan and Singapore, however, are relatively wealthy nations, and for nations that make up the so-called "global south", achieving smart-city status while addressing the pressing needs of the local population is a much more difficult matter, which ends up perpetuating already existing imbalances in a society.
The smart city is synonymous with a more digital city, where digital technology is deployed to control consumption and reduce carbon emissions. This digitisation – however much it is portrayed as bettering the lives of residents and making services provided by the government more accessible, in effect locks out a city’s residents who do not have access to devices such as smartphones and laptops to access certain services.
Rwanda’s capital city of Kigali, which has taken great strides in reducing pollution in its urban areas, had relatively recently drawn up plans for a “Vision City”, creating a technology-powered neighbourhood with free Wi-Fi in the town square and solar-powered street lamps. The project, however, suffers from a familiar smart city problem of not contextualising socio-economic realities, as residents were forcibly removed to make way for the project, and the houses sold in the Vision City came at the high price point of $160,000, out of reach for the everyday resident.
Adding to the general inequity of smart cities – at least in an African context is that foreign investment by for-profit technology firms in providing smart city services will leave them having too much influence in the development of African cities. A case in point is that Swedish firm Nokia, US firm Culligan, and British firm Inmarsat are all heavily involved in the Rwandan digital journey, in initiatives ranging from installing smart classrooms to installing smart water grids.
Over in the Asian continent, countries like Indonesia have seen autonomous, spontaneous public spaces disappear through the rise of rideshare app Gojek, as its algorithm obscures informal urban regions as the app operates based on the proximity of its drivers with customers. The capital of the Indonesian island of Sulawesi – Makassar City – has been gradually integrating its 2014 Smart City Plan with the implementing of telemedicine services, allowing residents to access healthcare consultancy through mobile means. While a much-needed innovation, it still caters only to those who can afford mobile phones, effectively marginalising the urban poor who would not be able to access the same services due to being less connected.
The conundrum of smart cities exacerbating inequity is not limited to nations classified as “developing”. Wealthier nations such as South Korea, have undertaken smart city projects, such as the much-discussed Songdo development. Criticised for its lack of human-centred design, Songdo City is part of the Incheon Free Economic Zone, a zone targeted to creating an urban work/live setting for well-off foreign workers. This development, then, can look ill-advised when viewed against the reality of a South Korean housing shortage and declining rate of owner-occupancy.
Smaller technological endeavours, such as Rwanda maintaining an online platform that hosts data on Rwanda’s infrastructure, planning, and geographic data, are an important step towards democratising access to information of public interest. Larger scale smart city initiatives, however, need to cater to the socio-economic needs of a city first, or at the very least, simultaneously, in order to not maintain the inequitable status quo of urban settlements.
This article is part of the ArchDaily Topic: Equity. Every month we explore a topic in-depth through articles, interviews, news, and projects. Learn more about our monthly topics. As always, at ArchDaily we welcome the contributions of our readers; if you want to submit an article or project, contact us.