How Smart Cities can Avoid the Pitfall of Technological Utopianism

As smart cities are becoming a more prevailing trend, 95% of cities above the sub-provincial level and more than 76% of prefecture-level cities in China have proposed to build, or are currently building smart cities. According to Deloitte’s statistics, China is singled out as the country with the most intense construction of smart cities in the world, with a number of pilot projects accounting for about 50% of the total number of global smart city construction projects.

As the world’s largest testing ground for smart city construction, China’s smart city construction is now in its most challenging phase since its pilot project in 2012. To safely navigate through such a phase and to build better smart cities, it would be necessary for the Chinese authorities to correct the perception of the primary-secondary relationship between “technology” and “city”. The case of Songdo New Town in South Korea would serve as a perfect example. Since 2002, South Korea has invested USD 40 billion to build the world’s first smart city in Songdo, Incheon. Yet, the city has not been completed even to this day and some media even proclaim it to be a “Chernobyl-like ghost town”. The reason for this, in addition to the exhaustion of funds, is that Songdo New City was a city built based on the “technology first” concept in the planning process. This is the mistake of making the means the same as the goal, and now the planners are trapped in the quagmire of technological utopianism.  

It is true that technology is gradually replacing aspects of our life and that both mobile phones and the internet have become an indispensable part of our existence. But for all the advances in technology, it is unable to solve urban problems. Because smart cities are different from mobile phones and tablets, building a smart city is not merely about technology and capital, but it also involves a series of infrastructure, laws and policies, social relations, political interests and even public opinions. This means that the construction of a smart city is a project that involves a complex system which needs to be oriented towards the city as a whole through a series of processes such as overall planning, extensive links, and long-term continuous operation. It is only through such a method that the smart cities will be able to improve its ability to serve individuals, legal entities, and the government; the operational efficiency of the entire society too will be enhanced. While merely integrating some ready-made technologies and launching them in a hurry might enable a new technological utopia to be built in a short time, such a city would be as useful as a castle in the sky.

More specifically, in order to allow smart cities to be built steadily, the planners should consider starting from the four major aspects of economy, technology, mechanism, and time. Through the balancing of these four aspects, the coordination and layout of the city can be realized as a whole. While transforming the infrastructure system, changes in the social system and behavioral inertia should also be promoted, so as to prevent the construction of smart cities from unknowingly falling into technological idealism. 

First, in terms of economy, there should be a balance between short-term investment and long-term returns.

In the long run, advanced technology can reduce costs and increase efficiency as well as improve the effectiveness of urban operations. However, this will bring about extremely high costs. it is generally known for capital to be short-sighted and urban development to be slow. Compared to ordinary products, urban-changing technology has a much longer cycle, from verification, successful demonstration, to commercial application. On one hand, cities can use the PPP model, industry guidance funds, etc., to introduce social funds widely; while on the other hand, they can also introduce market services to diversify costs. Nowadays, some tech giants have gradually made various areas of the city, including parts of the government’s governance “smarter”, ranging from cashless payments, sharing economy, smart transportation, etc. It is therefore entirely possible for the market to provide smart city services in these areas. If real estate developers, park operators and city governments need any such services, they can engage with the owners of these smart technologies, which can greatly reduce the construction costs of the government and enterprises.

Second, in terms of technology, the balance between data utilization and privacy risks should be well-managed.

Over the past 10 years, with the comprehensive development of Big Data, the Internet of Things and other technologies, the threats to personal privacy and security have been escalating. It is not uncommon to find personal and family information being completely exposed on the Internet, making it easily exploited by others. How much personal privacy should we sacrifice in the pursuit of the development of smart cities then becomes an unavoidable question. A more complete regulatory framework is therefore needed to monitor the use of new technologies and data; this includes limiting data capture of the entire city to the “minimum”, and only collecting data which is absolutely necessary in order to solve existing problems without harming personal privacy and information security.

Third, in terms of mechanism, balancing between top-down and bottom-up will be indispensable.

In the development of a smart city, the government’s demands will be relatively diversified. Although enterprises have common demands in stimulating industries and employment, they will inevitably put the boundaries of social justice and public interest first. As the advocates and most direct beneficiaries of technology, enterprises will be more motivated to promote its implementation. Conversely, the public would be the most conservative and divided; even if they will be experiencing the benefits of technology, it would still be difficult to reach a consensus on major changes. After all, any change will inevitably bring inconveniences to some. Hence, in smart city projects, while top-down top-level design and overall promotion are certainly important, bottom-up market-oriented innovative research and development as well as extensive public participation are also equally necessary.

Finally, balancing the present and the future will be crucial.

Urban development is a dynamic process. The planning and design of most smart cities focuses on solving current problems without considering the fluidity of the city. While making cities smarter is certainly a trend, it should be remembered that the urban form depends not only on the packaging and driving of technology, but also on the influence of ecological and people-oriented factors. For example, there is already a phenomenon of urban shrinkage, and many cities may experience substantial population declines in the next 10, 20, and 50 years. For these cities, the planning required is completely different, as demographic changes may bring about many chain reactions or lag effects. Therefore, how to take such future factors into account is also an issue that cannot be ignored in the construction of smart cities.

Founder of Anbound Think Tank in 1993, Chan Kung is one of China’s renowned experts in information analysis. Most of Chan Kung‘s outstanding academic research activities are in economic information analysis, particularly in the area of public policy.

Fang Xiaoqi is an assistant researcher at Anbound Consulting, an independent think tank in Beijing. She obtained a master’s degree in urban issues from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. She is mainly engaged in the research of urban philosophy and urban development. Long-term tracking and analysis of issues such as urban planning and management, urban land management, smart cities and urban emergency response, and providing professional consulting on development strategies for China governments at all levels, urban planning companies and urban development agencies.