Smart cities need to make sure they don't leave people behind

A view of the Visakhapatnam coastline in Andhra Pradesh, India. Photo by: Ravikiran Rao / CC BY-SA

Smart cities have the potential to create major benefits for city dwellers in developing countries, but only if urban planners combine “low-tech” innovations with “high-tech” ones, continue to build large capital infrastructure, and ensure people are at the center of design, John Bachmann of multinational engineering company AECOM, told Devex.

He argued that smart cities should be seen as a tool for greater equity, and planners need to ensure that people with less access to technology are not left behind.

Making cities “smart” is a key trend on the development scene, especially following last October’s United Nation’s Habitat III conference, which resulted in a set of global guidelines for sustainable urban development known as the New Urban Agenda. The guidelines were accepted by more than 170 countries at the summit in Quito, Ecuador.

A smart city is a model of urban design that integrates approaches in information and communication technology and the internet of things to build cities that run more sustainably and efficiently. For example, sensors might be installed in parking spaces to monitor availability; or smart highways might use sensors and video to monitor traffic and weather, alerting drivers to warning signals and diversions.

This new approach to urban design can be used to retrofit existing cities and to design new ones, the majority of which are cropping up in developing countries as a way to jolt their economies and attract greater foreign investment.

AECOM has accrued much experience in the smart cities space and is drawing up the masterplan and smart infrastructure project plans for the Visakhapatnam (Vizag) Smart City in Andhra Pradesh, India. The city forms part of the country’s smart city challenge program, initiated by the government in partnership with Bloomberg.

Devex spoke to AECOM’s resident expert on smart cities, John Bachmann, who stressed the importance of the movement: “Smart cities are of enormous relevance in developing countries where there is a huge infrastructure deficit and existing infrastructure systems aren’t even close to satisfying the needs of citizens,” he said.

He told Devex that some of the key benefits include greater efficiency and accountability — but warned against an over-reliance on technology.

Sensors can lead to efficiency gains

Smart city technology can create “huge efficiency jumps” in water systems, for example, by using sensors to track the flow of water, locate leakage points and identify where water is being siphoned off illegally, Bachmann said. Once identified, these problems can be targeted with specific interventions and create huge cost benefit ratios by making the water system run more efficiently, he added.

While Bachmann warned that such approaches should not be seen as a “panacea,” nor as a substitute for large capital projects, he said that using internet of things technologies, such as sensors, can also make developers more efficient by preventing overbuilding, using a  “peak shaving” approach. He explained that while traditional infrastructure development involved predicting the demand and then building a system to meet that demand, with smart city technologies it is easier to measure actual consumption and then build accordingly.  

“Transport infrastructure for example: people drive at different times and so if cities can incentivize people to drive at nonpeak times then you need less wide roads. This isn’t a new idea but one which can be more effective with sensors and other smart city technologies,” according to Bachmann.

“We do need to focus on technology, it’s a fundamental part of smart cities, but it’s not the whole answer,” he said.

Need for low-tech as well as high-tech interventions

While Bachmann sees massive potential for smart cities to improve the lives of city dwellers in developing countries, he warns against an over-reliance on technology, which could exclude the 4 billion people worldwide who do not have access to the internet.

“In Vizag, only 30 percent of the population are online, so you need to have low-tech as well as high-tech solutions. For example, [you could] have bus tracking information displayed at bus stops and kiosks so people without smartphones can access it,” he said.

The internet of things can and should increase accountability and equity in service provision within cities

A challenge linked to over-reliance on technology is that the smart city could appear “flashy” and “elitist,” as opposed to a tool to promote equity and accountability. For Bachmann, smart city technologies — such as sensors, which create greater system monitoring capabilities — are about enabling the customer to “look into the system.” This should lead to “accountability and stakeholder input.”

“Smart cities should be promoted as people centric and as a tool for equilibrium and equity, not an end in itself,” he said.

Over six weeks, Devex and our partners will explore what it takes to build a successful smart city, how climate resilient and environmentally friendly infrastructure and technologies are being implemented, and how actors in the global development community are working together toward common goals and engaging local communities in an inclusive way. Join us as we examine what it takes to create our smart cities of the future by tagging #SmartCities and @Devex.

About the author

  • Edwards sopie

    Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a Reporter for Devex based in London covering global development news including global education, water and sanitation, innovative financing, the environment along with other topics. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.