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We need to talk about smart cities

If we don’t tell the smart city story better, we are set to see a backlash and technology’s benefits may not be realised at all, says SmartCitiesWorld editor, Sarah Wray.

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People often say that the best technology is invisible, but is that really true in smart cities?

We need to open up more about smart cities or face a potential backlash.

When I told friends and family about my new role as editor of SmartCitiesWorld, I was mainly met with polite smiles but blank looks – and some of those people work for city councils.

When I explained a little more about the topic, things didn’t improve massively. Some sympathetic nods, a couple of intrigued questions and more than a few ‘Big Brother’ comments.

Of course, the smartphone searches came out and local friends were surprised to learn that our own city was recently pegged as one of the smartest cities in the UK. Baffled looks all round – and I can understand why.

Heard of but rarely seen

When I talk to city leaders they almost always tell me how important citizen engagement is, and that people are central to smart cities. I wholeheartedly believe the theory. And yet…

When I buy or download something online or share my details in-store, I will typically then hear from that company more often than I do from some members of my own family. Not once have I heard from my city council about our apparently noteworthy smart city initiative – I know nothing about it. I don’t think that’s isolated to where I live.

I have been lucky enough to visit some of the cities noted as among the smartest in the world – London, Barcelona, New York and Nice, for example – but I have never been told anything about the technology working around me, what it’s doing, the data it is collecting and, most importantly – why. And let’s face it, I haven’t always enjoyed the slick experiences that it’s supposed to drive either.

People often say that the best technology is invisible. Personally, I wonder if that’s really true in smart cities. I think we need to open up a lot more and shine a much better light on some of these huge changes that are underway, and soon.

Should it really be the case that you need to be a specialist or working in the tech industry to be aware of them?

Opening up the debate


If I sound cynical about smart cities, I’m not. I’m an optimist and to me, the topic is fascinating because it’s where technology really comes to life and where we should see tangible examples of its real impact on our lives. I am interested in the subject not only as a technology writer but as a citizen too.

It’s an enticing time to be working in the industry as it feels like we’re reaching a tipping point, both in terms of smart city adoption and the need for more public debate about it. High-profile media stories around the potential negative consequences of AI, job losses due to automation, fatalities and self-driving cars, misuse of data and more are pushing core smart city topics front and centre.

I think there are more positive smart cities stories to tell than we are hearing right now. There are also just as many fascinating, and not always comfortable, debates to be had about where we are headed with smart cities, why and how we are going to get there.

I hope SmartCitiesWorld can be a forum to discuss these issues, and that you’ll get in touch to tell me more about what’s happening in your city or company. I’d love to hear about not just the technology but examples of the difference it’s making to people’s lives, the challenges you face and the topics you think we need to collectively discuss.

 

Sarah Wray

Editor, SmartCitiesWorld

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