A smart city: It’s not just about technology

There’s been a lot of talk about the ‘smart city’, and how it represents our future. The term has permeated our urban planning, government policies, and emerging technology spaces. (Pilot cities like Barcelona, Vienna, Vancouver and more are all issuing the #smartcities challenge). In fact, for most people, ’smart city’ is synonymous for “the city of the future”.

We talk about smart cities and we think: The Hyperloop. A Jetson’s fantasy. Clean, minimal aesthetic. Electric, self-driving cars. Connected, automated technology that cooks, cleans, and organises my life for me. Vertical farming. That spinning digital closet from Clueless. And funnily enough, we’re already living in the future that AT&T imagined in 1994.

Quite frankly, our cities have only gotten smarter and smarter since first settlements began. We’ve come a long way — we’ve developed governing bodies, public infrastructure such as sanitation, emergency services, medical care, and we’ve also figured out how to supply energy and utilities such as water, and heat to a large, dense population. This trajectory is naturally taking us towards the smart city as we continue to develop new and better technologies.

What a city entails (Source: IBM).

What a city entails (Source: IBM).

But it’s important to remember that designing a smart city is not only about designing technology that fits into it. A city itself, is more than just technology within it. It’s made up of a multitude of things: energy supply, sanitation procedures, police departments, fire departments, housing projects, public spaces, policy, and public works (IBM breaks this down very well).

Technology is what enables us to build smarter, more efficient processes for these aspects of city planning. What we need to do is design urban infrastructure that scales and grows as the city does. Now, it’s not about building just a smarter city, but as Y Combinator rightly put it, a better city. After all, who are we designing this city for? The people in it.