If ‘smart’ is the solution, what exactly is the problem?

Most adepts of the smart city-idea suggest a tight link between technology and the wellbeing of the citizens, symbolizing a new kind of technology-led urban utopia. They promise the solution to many urban problems, including crime, traffic congestion, inefficient services and economic stagnation, or a healthy life for all. 

Siemens makes the strongest and most explicit statement of the philosophical underpinnings of the smart-city: Several decades from now cities will have countless autonomous, intelligently functioning IT systems that will have perfect knowledge of users’ habits and energy consumption and provide optimum service…The goal of such a city is to optimally regulate and control resources by means of autonomous IT systems[1].

It is unmistakably that business leaders, having in mind a multi-billion smart city technologies market overstate the benefits of technology, despite many examples that prove otherwise. Therefore, according to The Economist it is not surprising that a ‘techlash’ is underway: The monopolistic dominance of behemoths like Google, Amazon and Facebook and their treatment of sensitive data, the lack of transparency and accountability of algorithm-based decision making, the aversion of the gig economy are major drivers.  

Neglecting the human component is by far the worst mistake any aspiring smart city can make. If these future smart cities aim for efficiency, they just cannot be planned without the community. Robert Holland wrote: The real smart city has to begin to think with its collective social and political brain, rather than through its technological tools….. It is made up of myriads of initiatives where technology is used to empower community networks, to monitor equal access to urban infrastructures or scale up new forms of sustainable living

A human-centric turn of the smart city narrative starts from the problems that citizens and their representatives experience. Then possible solutions are discussed and finally these solutions are specified, the role of technology included. 

This post is based on the new e-book Better cities, the contribution of digital technology.  Interested? Download the book here for free (90 pages)


Hardcore: Technology-centered approaches

1. Ten years of smart city technology marketing

2. Scare off the monster behind the curtain: Big Tech’s monopoly

Towards a humancentric approach

3. A smart city, this is how you do it

4. Digital social innovation: For the social good

Misunderstanding the use of data

5. Digital twins

6. Artificial intelligence

Embedding digitization in urban policy

7. The steps to urban governance

8. Guidelines for a responsible digitization policy

9. A closer look at the digitization agenda of Amsterdam

10. Forging beneficial cooperation with technology companies


11. Government: How digital tools help residents regaining power?

12. Mobility: Will MaaS reduce the use of cars?

13. Energy: Smart grids – where social and digital innovation meet

14. Healthcare: Opportunities and risks of digitization

Wrapping up: Better cities and technology

15. Two 100 city missions: India and Europe

Epilogue: Beyond the Smart City

[1] Cited in: Adam Greenfeld: Against the smart city. A pamphlet