JUST SMART CITIES

Julia Azevedo Moretti

PhD candidate in Law at the University of São Paulo

As the discussion about smart cities gains ground, it is fundamental to find answers to the following questions: what it means to be a smart city and whether the increase in technology use will be able to create fairer cities, especially in the global south with its context extreme urban inequalities.

Favela Paraisópolis, São Paulo, Brazil. Photo by Vilar Rodrigo, Wikimedia Commons.

A smart city should be more than a simple digital transformation of cities or the use of technological solutions for (old) urban challenges. Professor Peter Spink [1] reminds us of the meanings for the word smart: to be intelligent and have the ability to face problems in a fast and efficient manner or, in a figurative way, to be fashionable and good looking. The sense of efficiency was already present in the concept of global cities, meaning that cities ought to be competitive and demand public and private investments to create urban spaces that are flexible, innovative, and efficient in a globalized world. An idea that has often come together with measures to clean the cities, make them beautiful and attractable, in sum, a smart looking space. So what’s new in the concept of smart cities?
Is a smart city just a smart looking space?
Foto by Takashi Watanabe
In the intersection of a digital revolution in an urbanizing world (and its global cities) the concept of smart cities emerges, urging the use of competencies and technological solutions to solve matters efficiently, but without neglecting the most complex and severe problems of our times. In that sense, the concept of smart cities adds an instrumental dimension (use of technology, information technology, the big data, and its connectivity) as well as a teleological dimension usually associating the use of such technology with the purpose of promoting a collaborative society towards a more sustainable development.
In sum, a smart city should be able to use technology in all aspects of urban management as means to achieve better live conditions leveraged by interconnected networks that express collaborative relations in economic, political and social terms.

Many UN documents talk about the city of the 21st century as a more human city. When the concept of smart city is brought to fore, ideas related to the use of digital technology in order to improve living conditions, enhance efficiency and competitiveness as well as assist various needs with an intergenerational concern are highlighted.

In fact, the UN associates the idea of smart cities with the dimension of sustainability and SDG 11, claiming a smart (and sustainable) city to be “an innovative city that uses ICTs and other means to improve quality of life, efficiency of urban operation and services, and competitiveness, while ensuring that it meets the needs of present and future generations with respect to economic, social, environmental as well as cultural aspects”
Many UN documents talk about the city of the 21st century as a more human city. When the concept of smart city is brought to fore, ideas related to the use of digital technology in order to improve living conditions, enhance efficiency and competitiveness as well as assist various needs with an intergenerational concern are highlighted.

In fact, the UN associates the idea of smart cities with the dimension of sustainability and SDG 11, claiming a smart (and sustainable) city to be “an innovative city that uses ICTs and other means to improve quality of life, efficiency of urban operation and services, and competitiveness, while ensuring that it meets the needs of present and future generations with respect to economic, social, environmental as well as cultural aspects” [2]

But usually the problems a city faces are permeated with issues of inequality and vulnerability. Especially when one considers that urbanization is rapidly increasing in the global south. It is estimated that in 2018, 55.3% of the global population were living in cities; and the urban population is expected to increase by 60% until 2030 [3]. Megacities with more than 10 million inhabitants will arise basically in Africa, Asia and Latin America. And Latin American megacities, despite reducing their growth rate and loosing positions in the rank of the world’s biggest cities, still put the region on the map with the largest concentration of population living in megacities: 14.2% of the population in Latin America live in cities with more than 10 million inhabitants. It is unnecessary to state the challenges faced in terms of urban management when it comes to a megacity: metropolitan areas usually suffer with profound imbalances and deficiencies to satisfy all kinds of needs and are also subject to systemic risk, present in everyday life, and so have they been for a long time.

14.2% of the population in Latin America live in cities with more than 10 million inhabitants



That brings us to the second question posed in the beginning: whether cities have been able to combine high technology in such a way as to not only increase efficiency but also contribute to decrease of inequality and vulnerability? In order to address that matter, two points seem very import: unequal distribution of connectivity; new risks that emerge overlapping preexisting vulnerabilities.

In terms of connectivity, it is undeniable that there has been global exponential increase in the use of the internet, especially through its access by mobile phones, as shown in the World Bank data. [4]

Nevertheless, the same data shows that access to the internet is not equally distributed throughout the world: while Germany has a 90% access rate (2020), Brazil has 74% (2019), India has 41% and Cameroon has 34% (2019). Furthermore, one has to consider the significant interurban inequalities. Take São Paulo, Brazil, as an example: the 4th largest city in the world, with 24 million cell phones (twice its population), but which cell phone antennas are not evenly distributed throughout the city territory and the disparities between wealthy neighborhoods and peripheral areas create a profound digital exclusion [5] . In other words, urban inequalities are reproduced when it comes to new technology, especially when the decision about location of urban infrastructure is made on the bases of consumption capacity and not in terms of universal access.

Secondly, unprecedented urban risks emerge with the rise of smart cities. Indeed, smart cities were designed to respond to urban uncertainties and deficits in urban services through the efficient management with the use of technology, but they bring a contradictory situation: new vulnerabilities and insecurities are created, a paradox that is either ignored or addressed through a mitigation approach via technology [6].

Thus, new dimensions of inequalities and vulnerabilities arise with smart cities overlapping with pre-existing ones making it necessary to deal with past, present, and future challenges at once. In cities at the global south, risks associated with basic issues such as sanitation have not yet been addressed, but it is already necessary to deal with digital risks and an increasing deterritorialization, which can create a smokescreen over environmental injustices and its socio-spatial projection.

Smart environment, smart mobility, smart living, smart people (education aspect), smart economy, smart governance - usually appointed as dimensions of a smart city - will they actually help to overcome historical inequalities that are entrenched in the territory; or will they become just good looking on the outside, with the persistent idea of a smart looking space? Therefore, the agenda should be to promote just smart cities.

Julia Azevedo Moretti

P.hD. Candidate at Law School - University of São Paulo

Julia Azevedo Moretti has a master degree (LLM) in Urban Law by the Law School of the São Paulo Catholic University (PUC/SP) and a master degree (MSc) in Environment and Sustainable Development by the Development Planning Unit - DPU/UCL. Is currently undertaking her PhD in Law at the University of São Paulo. Lawyer, Lecturer and Teaching Assistant ministering classes in Contract Law and Human Rights. Contact info: jamoretti@usp.br; moretti.julia@gmail.com

Footnotes:


  1. Cunha, M. A. et al (2016) Smart cities : transformação digital de cidades. Burgos. – São Paulo: Programa Gestão Pública e Cidadania, pp.9. Available at <https://bibliotecadigital.fgv.br/dspace/handle/10438/18386>
  2. Definition available on the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) website. Available at <https://unece.org/housing/sustainable-smart-cities>
  3. UN - United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2018). The World’s Cities in 2018—Data Booklet. Available at <https://www.un.org/en/events/citiesday/assets/pdf/the_worlds_cities_in_2018_data_booklet.pdf >
  4. World Bank (n.d.). Individuals using the internet. Available at <https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/IT.NET.USER.ZS>
  5. As an example, one neighborhood called Itaim Bibi that is located in one of the most valuable parts of the city has 1 antenna per 191 inhabitants while the neighborhood of Cidade Tiradentes, in the periphery, has 1 antenna per 8,135 inhabitants. ITIKAWA, L. (2021) O Céu e o Inferno do acesso às informações por antena e implicações sobre a cidadania e a gestão urbana. Available at < http://www.iea.usp.br/pesquisa/projetos-institucionais/usp-cidades-globais/artigos-digitais/acesso-informacoes-por-antena>.
  6. KITCHIN, R.; DODGE, M. (2019). “ The (In)Security of Smart Cities: Vulnerabilities, Risks, Mitigation, and Prevention” in Journal of Urban Technology, vol. 26, nº 2, pp. 47-65
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