Defining what makes a city "smart" is challenging, as it's not just a destination but rather a journey marked by the integration of various intelligent municipal services. These services include traffic control, energy distribution, water services, waste collection, and more, all automated and enhanced with sensors, artificial intelligence, and communication technologies. The term "smart city" is often used loosely, with politicians keen to promote even single smart services or buildings as smart cities.
Two primary forces are driving the move toward smart cities: political advantage and lobbying from tech companies. Politicians aim to improve citizens' quality of life, and smart cities can offer highly visible benefits. Meanwhile, tech firms see smart cities as a market opportunity. However, these forces also blur the concept of smart cities.
China has the most advanced smart cities, thanks to its authoritarian government's ability to impose decisions without concern for existing rules or regulations. In contrast, Western cities must navigate constitutional restrictions, consumer-based legislation, and political changes. Developing a fully integrated vision and plan for smart cities is challenging in liberal democracies, leading to a journey from point solutions to integration.
Smart cities bring several advantages, including greater efficiency, sustainability, and improved urban experiences for residents. For example, Barcelona's traffic management system considers factors like energy efficiency, traffic noise, and air quality management. However, as smart cities integrate more connected services, cybersecurity concerns grow. The increased collection of personal data, potential for cyberattacks, and challenges surrounding third-party components create complex security risks. Additionally, smart cities may infringe on personal privacy, leading to questions about who is obliged to participate in them and what information becomes public.
Ultimately, the move toward smart cities is inevitable, but it requires careful consideration to ensure technology is chosen and implemented safely. While smart cities offer significant benefits, they must be approached intelligently to avoid exacerbating security and privacy challenges.