A People-Centered Look at Smart Cities

By: Kristin Little

By: Kristin Little

What good is a “smart city,” if it doesn’t improve people’s lives? My involvement with urban development began before the concept of smart cities first surfaced and a recent article in The Guardian calling for a return to “dumb cities,”  prompted me to ponder the topic. 

The article’s author, Amy Fleming, referenced efforts to “weave ancient knowledge of how to live symbiotically with nature into how we shape the cities of the future, before this wisdom is lost forever.”  That approach is by no means “dumb” or incompatible with technology. In fact, respecting nature — and listening to people — is an essential element in the smartest of “smart” cities.  

From Tech-Centered to People-Centered

Usually when people talk about smart cities, they mean cities that have begun to adopt sensor technology to drive optimization of how the city operates. Typically, smart city initiatives try to make cities more sustainable, more resilient, and safer.  

The history of smart cities is a trajectory from a purely technology-centered approach to, later, a government-centered approach. For governments and technologists, however, it is becoming increasingly clear that “smart” technologies must be implemented for and with the people they are meant to serve. While many initial attempts at building smart cities have not evolved past the technology-centered phase, there is growing understanding that a people-centered approach is the future. 

Concerns about data use and cities’ ability to understand or administer the powerful systems they were launching were well-founded.  A number of critics worried that commercial interest and a technology-first approach would drive solutions that did not address the most pressing needs of cities and government, that could create technological and economic dependency on these companies’ solutions, and that at worst might empower ‘surveillance capitalism’ (rightly or wrongly, such critique has been leveraged against Sidewalk Labs’ attempt to turn part of Toronto into a smart city). Some cities rushed to implement new technologies without the proper staffing or expertise to understand or use the technology they were sold. When underdeveloped plans result in the deployment of sensors without a clear purpose or benefit, citizens rightly feel that their privacy has been invaded, sowing mistrust and de-legitimizing future efforts.

Moreover, security threats are real. Cities with thousands of IoT devices present a large attack surface, and thus a greater potential for large-scale damage from cybercrime/terrorism. Irrespective of the public’s perception of government, the fear that data might leak or systems might be hacked is a risk to the operation and reputation of smart city governments.

Fortunately, as the smart city idea has evolved, a number of city governments have learned to become more selective consumers and to drive solutions to address their needs. Through substantial experimentation with Smart City initiatives, governments have found ways to solve real-world problems of their citizens. These projects have focused on and delivered improvements to green energy delivery, telecommunications, water, waste management, payments, health, public safety, mobility, etc. Cities like Zurich, Medellin, and Barcelona are at the forefront of this development and they have shown that smart cities done right are really just a natural evolution of well-run cities serving citizens as best they can.

Singapore realized the potential of smart cities early on:

"The Singapore government's master plan shifted from "Whole of Government", to "Whole of Nation" when they recognized the need to look at how all government policies and services affect the lives of citizens, residents, and the thriving of business and social organizations." — Mei Lin Fung

In this third, “People-Centered” phase of smart cities, governments are harnessing the power of technology to engage users/citizens in real time to solve problems with and for their citizens in new ways, by creating fora for citizens to strengthen community initiatives and by soliciting live input to guide the government prioritization. There are even examples of governments investing in green projects in partnership with their citizens through crowd-funding initiatives. In this phase, technology empowers civic engagement and democracy. Initiatives in Holland, Paris and Vienna have been promising in this regard.

With substantial variation in the outcomes of “smartc city” projects, it is worth double-clicking on the drivers of failure and success.

The cause of failure and success

A lack of clarity, communication, and stakeholder consultation is partly the reason for failure and the backlash seen against smart cities.  

A common complaint, especially early on, has been that smart cities are being designed by planners focused on the optimization of the technology, and not taking into account the voices and needs of all of the stakeholders in the community. The “solutions” did not respond to the actual problems. 

Cities that have moved beyond the technology-centered phase toward people-centered solutions have chosen a more consultative approach in developing the solutions with and for their citizens. They realize that citizens, when engaged, can contribute energy and help develop more engaged resilient communities. 

Cities are starting to understand the importance of trust and transparency in the smart city development process. With stakeholder trust comes participation, more acceptance/openness, and better-selected and designed initiatives that will see more success. Some cities have created data protection committees, and carry out data privacy assessments. These assessments are then made public, so the citizens can have a fuller understanding of what is happening. Data protection is clearly important for public safety and trust as well. 

The benefits and challenges of smart cities:


  • Efficiency. ​A few of the many ways they make cities more efficient include: reducing the time it takes to find a parking place (and thus reducing congestion), helping traffic flow better, saving water from leaking pipes, helping citizens know when the subway is coming to save them time and increase ridership.
  • Help the environment. ​Some of the innovations focus on the environment, and saving resources–pavement that generates energy, smart bike riding services to reduce carbon emissions, smart LED street lights; a virtual ​twin buildingto optimize systems, artificial treesto purify the air, roofs used for ​farming​ in the city, smart trash cans, apps that foster a ​sharing​ economy, so you don’t have to buy so many gadgets.
  • Increased public safety. ​Detect and respond to fires and emergencies more quickly using, for example, heat sensors and acoustic gunshot detectors.
  • Helping citizens. ​We can keep the elderly at home longer with improved monitoring and communication systems.


  • Short lifespan of some of the technologies involved.
  • Need for new bureaucracy to manage all the technology investments — data scientists, privacy experts, machine learning experts, trained maintenance crews.
  • The technologies employed are expensive, and if not well targeted, payoff is questionable–at least in the short run. If the long run is too distant, sustainability becomes questionable. Cities can end up dependent on companies.
  • Potentially less human interaction in a smart city.
  • Some people do not benefit at all from the systems, or they could feel taken advantage of, watched. Governments could potentially use some of the technology against citizens
  • Citizens cannot opt out of data collection in a city. While one can opt out of data gathering situations, such as in the case of social media, there is no way to opt out of the smart city data collection entirely. Many cities are using the data without informing the citizens of how it is being used.
  • With so many sensors, and interconnected systems, smart cities have a larger “attack surface” than regular cities, and they are thus more vulnerable to breaches, hacks, or cyber terrorism. They could shut off power or water, or compromise the traffic systems. Several cities have been compromised by hackers demanding a ransom (e.g., ​Greenville, North Carolina; ​Imperial County, California; Stuart, Florida​; ​Cleveland, Ohio; ​Augusta, Maine; ​Lynn, Massachusetts​; and ​Cartersville, Georgia).
  • Cities struggle to fully capture the value of the data. Smart cities are generating vast amounts of data, and some teams say that they are having a hard time conducting meaningful analyses with it, in order to put it to work to optimize or connect systems.The data are hard for citizens to understand. Municipalities, like San Diego, are realizing that when you put the data out there for the public to consume, people don’t necessarily know what to do with it.

Ensuring a “People-Centered” Process for Smart City Development 

Full and consistent stakeholder consultation.This is likely the most important thing. If you don’t know what needs are, it will be an uphill battle to make smart initiatives work, and when plans do work, they may not pay off as expected.

Embracing a design thinking process. In talking with stakeholders, rather than asking them what they want, try to see what problems they have that need to be solved. They may not be able to tell you exactly what needs to be done, but you can get a sense of what their pain points are. From there you can create prototype solutions, get feedback, and continue to refine along the way.

Clear communication with users.This is another critical piece. When people do not know what is happening, they likely will assume the worst. Privacy assessments should be upfront, and shared with the public. Otherwise, the city could quickly lose the support of its citizens. Along with this, consider that many of the technologies and the data analysis piece of the picture will be new information to most people. The City of San Diego made its data public, but recognized that the public struggles to know what to do with it. The city now has a unit that addresses that. Helping stakeholders understand what is going on will help them make more informed suggestions.

Supportive networks of cities and planners.​ ​We have some cities creating living labs focused on knowledge sharing. ​In the Netherlands, Brainport has developed its Smart District, which has involved not only the city government, but the regional government, businesses, academics, and citizens in the creation of the district. The data is owned by the inhabitants, and the city has an ethical committee. Brainport will share knowledge with the whole country, and would like to start a network with other countries so they don’t have to create everything by themselves.

A focus on the root of issues.This means looking at the problems that led to the problems, essentially. If something is not working, it is not the stakeholders’ fault. It is likely that the city failed to listen to what those groups actually need or want. Likewise, don’t forget to keep looking at the causes of city problems. We can respond more quickly to gunshot noise because of new sensors, but we still need to look at how to help decrease crime rates.

A more productive and nuanced discussion

While technology can help us take great leaps, some cities might need to focus on more basic issues before diving into the smart city realm. As in international development, if teachers are absent 2⁄3 of the time, and are not given on the job training, providing computers to the classroom will not help.

Optimize for humans.​ ​Researchshows that the more interactions one has per day with strangers, the greater their sense of well being. The joy of some of the older cities is their human scale, walking streets, layers of history and variety. Think Rome. Making cities smart does not mean that we need to lose all of the human contributions and interactions of a city. 

Consider that cities have always been focused on getting smarter.Cities have evolved, and have added new technologies quite consistently–sewer systems, electricity, fire hydrants, telecommunications, etc. In some cases, the rush to become a smart city has meant that traditional planning wisdom has been left behind. We will adopt new technologies, as we always have, but let’s be smart about it. “Smart for the sake of smart” isn’t smart. Poorly thought out initiatives waste money and resources at best. They put citizens at risk at worst.

Let’s just keep people at the center, and focus on making things better.


Some resources:

  • The IMD Smart City Index 2019. In this index, “how citizens perceive the scale and impact of efforts to make their cities ‘smart’ is balanced against constructs such as ‘economic and technological aspects’ and ‘humane dimensions.’”
  • Open source city softwarewill be helpful.
  • IEEE ​Standards activities​ for smart cities. They also have a guide for planning smart cities. 
  • Here​ is a short primer to Smart Cities from IEEE that goes into a bit more detail on what they are.
  • Here​ is some information on privacy.
  • Here​ is more on the boost you get from interactions with strangers.

Kristin has over 15 years’ evaluation experience, with a focus on urban issues. She has designed and conducted field-based, mixed methods evaluations of World Bank loans and global thematic studies, examining over US$200B of investments. Most recently, she has consulted for the World Bank doing research on fostering innovation in the development context, and recommending ways the World Bank Group could be better equipped to mobilize emerging technologies for development. She has authored over thirty evaluations and papers. Major thematic evaluations include: social development, infrastructure, water, climate change/disaster vulnerability, natural disasters, and cultural heritage. She received a BA from UC Berkeley in International Development Studies, and two Master’s degrees from MIT. One in Architecture, and one in Urban Planning.

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  1. Pingback: February Update: Message from Mei Lin – People-Centered Internet

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