Smart cities have a big future - if people are smart, too


The idea of the city dates back almost 10,000 years. About 2,000 years ago, Alexandria and Rome might have been the first to be home to a million people. Alexandria, of course, was home to the ancient world’s most famous library; founded around 283 BCE, it sought to “collect all the books in the world.” Rome was known for the creation of civil law and of institutions that could execute major infrastructure projects as roads, bridges, and aqueducts with an efficiency and flair that many modern cities can only envy. In short, Alexandria and Rome were both smart—and that intelligence was critical to their development.

Well, the more things change ……

Today the idea of “smart cities” is as compelling as ever. Only the form is different: Instead of the scrolls of Alexandria (see image above), think digital technologies.  That is one of the points of a recent report by the McKinsey Global Institute, “Smart cities: Digital solutions for a more livable future.” These technologies, the authors argue, are not just about efficiency, although of course that is part of their appeal. Instead, bolstered by the emergence of the smartphone—the new “keys to the city,” say the authors—digital capabilities are already improving productivity, safety, health, crime, transportation, and pollution, and there is considerable room for further improvement. For the past decade and more, cities around the world have been experimenting with smart technologies in different sectors, most often in regard to mobility. In the next decade, the opportunity is there to pull it all together and create entire urban systems, infused with technological savvy, that simply make daily life better.

The report looked at 50 cities around the world, at all stages of development. Here are some of the major ways that smart cities are using new technologies.

Mobility: The most interesting thing in this regard is how many new services, such as ride-sharing, e-hailing, and navigation, have required no public investment. Other innovations, of course, such as digital payment systems, intelligent traffic signals, and real-time transit information, were largely the domain of the public sector; moreover, there is certainly a role for regulation to deal with the negative consequences of these private-sector efforts. Significant opportunities remain in predictive maintenance, and it will also be interesting to see if congestion pricing begins to spread.

Governance and economic development: Cities everywhere have begun putting information online, and to offer ways to respond to residents’ queries and complaints. The bigger opportunity is to use intelligent technologies to promote systemic reform in areas like education, retraining, and infrastructure development. Moreover, when MGI surveyed users, e-government services recorded low levels of satisfaction. This matters because there does appear to be a virtuous circle. In cities where residents are happier, as in much of Asia, usage is higher, which makes cities smarter and the technologies more efficient, which means residents are satisfied … and so on.

Health care: North America is ahead in this regard by a comfortable margin, and Africa, which needs it most, is trailing badly. Environmental sensors to measure air quality and the like are generally common—but often their warnings go ignored, an example of how being smart (in the sense of having data) is not the same thing as being wise (dealing with the problem). Infectious disease surveillance and the better use of data to target health interventions are other areas where there could be very positive outcomes at relatively low cost. Telemedicine options could help many patients with minor or routine complaints; that would cut costs and keep people out of hospitals. Only 9 of the 50 cities in the MGI report, though, offered telemedicine at scale.

Security and crime: This is an area where poorer cities, including Rio and Cape Town, have been particularly interested and are at or near the lead. Common practices include crime-mapping, body cameras, and systems to hasten the dispatch of first responders, such as ambulances and fire fighters. In the future, there is great potential to use data to improve predictive policing, crowd management, and even gunshot detection.

Who benefits?

All in all, MGI found that effective use of smart technologies can improve emergency response times and reduce water consumption by as much as 30 percent; cut commutes by 20 percent; lower greenhouse gas emissions by 15 percent; and cut fatalities (from crime, fire, and vehicles) by 10 percent. The benefits, then, are wide—in terms of touching a large percentage of residents—and fairly deep, in terms of their consequences.

Rich cities with an established high-tech infrastructure naturally have a head start; they have good communication networks and a high degree of smart-phone use, which is essential to generate useful data and to deploy apps. Copenhagen has a solutions lab devoted to rolling out smart-city solutions; Singapore’s Smart Nation initiative aims engage residents and use tech to improve living standards; New York is deploying technology across the board.

But smart technologies can also help poorer countries to leapfrog the status quo, just as mobile phones helped them to leapfrog landlines, with profoundly positive effects.

  • The capital of Rwanda, Kigali, is building a tech-enabled district, Vision City, which will have free Wi-Fi, solar-powered streetlights and mobile networks, and high-tech housing. Other African countries, including Ghana and Nigeria, also have smart-city initiatives.
  • Mexico’s Laboratorio para la Cuidad created an app that mapped the routes of the vans known as paseros that move some 14 million people a day. It did so by creating a competitive game, Mapaton, in which thousands of riders compiled data on their routes.
  • India is using geolocation codes to provide addresses for residents of informal settlements. This gives them a legal identity that enables them to get the country’s new biometric identification cards, which allows them access to social services, voting cards, ration cards, and more. India has announced plans to create 100 smart cities. One, known as Dholerais being built.

Smartness and its limits

By 2050, the world’s cities could add as many as 2.5 billion more people, almost all of them in Africa and Asia, according to MGI. With so much urban infrastructure already under pressure, the need to do better is obvious. And there’s the rub. Smart technologies can make good or even not-too-bad city government better; it cannot make bad ones good. There needs to be assets—most importantly of the human and institutional kind—to form a foundation.

And while digital tools can inform policymakers, they cannot make policy; indeed, they could accelerate the adoption and expansion of bad choices. Digitization is no substitute for committed people and basic competence. And this is not just a developing country problem by any means. New York has a large number of smart-city apps, but that hasn’t guaranteed basic maintenance of public housing; federal authorities recently criticized the city housing authorities for “management dysfunction and organizational failure.”

Moreover, some problems don’t need sophisticated solutions, which might even be a distraction from dealing with pressing day-to-day needs of their residents. Ultimately, a fully automated underground rail system would be great for Cairo. For now, traffic lights and pedestrian bridges may be a higher—albeit rather unexciting—priority (see image below of Egyptian pedestrians trying to cross a street).

And just because there are smart options out there, that doesn’t mean that they will be used. India, for example, might have the world’s most urgent need for mobility solutions, but is far from the lead in deploying them. Boston has an app, StreetBump, that crowdsources information on potholes. But that does not get them filled. As the MGI report notes, “Becoming a smart city is not a goal but a means to an end.” The end is to optimize spaces and services for billions of people; it’s not about creating cool apps, but real-life applications. In short, while intelligent technologies can help to make cities smarter, the human factor—as always—matters most.