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Published on 5 de October, 2016 at Cities and Regions

Fearing Technology? The smart city vs democracy city debate

By Pol Solà
3 min read

A vivid debate exists about the role of massive IT applied to city management. City planners, local authorities, researchers, journalists, tech companies and IT experts discuss on the so called smart city vs democracy city debate.

With the coming of ubiquitous and affordable wireless broadband along with the embedding of computerised sensors into the city, some argue that day to day life will be improved for the ordinary citizen. That would be a better living through data. Conversely, some others see a kind of digital panopticon where citizens unconsciously provide private companies with data that can be monetized for its own benefit.

The roots of this opposite vision can be traced back to the old concern that new technology developments create and to the traditional issue of power distribution within society. The concept of “smart city” entails such a deep question, and therefore it has created an uprising debate that is both appropriate and sometimes passionate.


Pro and cons

Some of the reasons supporting each vision could be:

  • Smart city as such is a concept invented and introduced by big tech companies hopping to benefit from big municipal contracts
  • IT applied to urban services through the internet of things enables efficiency and makes life easier through urban services such as the bike-sharing stations management, lamp posts energy consumption, car parking access, intelligent traffic management, waste management optimization and so forth
  • Smart city concept needs a redefinition in the sense of a more citizen-led approach, building the smart city collectively, on a bottom up basis. It must be avoided the risk to the city to become an arena of permanent surveillance and data access out of the democratic control
  • Technology advancement cannot be stopped by means of a revisited XXI Century Luddite vision opposed to computerisation or new technologies. Furthermore, smart city enables open data initiatives like emergency plans simulation, crowd management and new urban services implementation. The Big Brother simply doesn’t exist, to put it easy
  • It can be taken for sure that technology goes wrong, software crashes and accidents will happen. What if at the end the smart city is ruled by a control panel in an operation centre?

As a conclusion, some see the smart city as an opportunity that can be harnessed by municipal administrators to achieve unprecedented levels of efficiency, security, convenience and sustainability. Others see the smart city concept as a set of ideas that cannot serve the interests of the people who live in it because it threatens democracy.

The case of Barcelona. Debating while losing positions?

A couple of years ago Barcelona was placed among the London, New York and San Francisco as one of the world creative smart cities. In 2015, Barcelona was nominated as Global Smart City by the Juniper Research ranking, ahead of New York and London. After the local elections held in May 2015, the new Mayor and its political team seems to have halted the former smart city vision. Some important urban developments linked to tech companies have been delayed and international presence seems to be blurred since Barcelona did not attend to the Smart City Expo hold in Puebla (Mexico) in February 2016. Why?

It seems clear that Barcelona local authorities have been trapped in the “smart city vs democracy city “debate, since they opt for the redefinition of goals and contents of the smart city concept promoted by the former local authorities. The new ideas are now “smart citizen” and “democracy city”, two concepts that still lack definition and real implementation through public policies. Maybe it will be helpful to invite to those involved in the definition of a true public policy on the subject to have a closer look to our related last post.

Wait and see what happens in the next Smart City Expo World Congress to be held in Barcelona next November.

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