How to design smart cities that enable urban populations to thrive

A more sustainable and intersectional approach to smart city design is fundamental to improving the quality of life for all citizens

Technology is rapidly transforming the way our cities operate and how we live within them, with increasingly sophisticated machines and algorithms adding layers of intelligence once only thought possible in science fiction.

But smart cities are not about innovating for the sake of innovation. They are about providing solutions to some of our biggest issues in society, from public health, safety and wellbeing to sustainability, biodiversity and social equity. Fundamentally, they are about improving the quality of life for all citizens and societies as a whole.

With almost 70% of the global population expected to live in urban areas by 2050 and living for longer, smart cities must be designed to be inclusive, accessible and resilient to the myriad challenges our planet faces.

Technology has an instrumental role to play but a whole-system approach that also takes into account the built environment, natural world and the diversity of city dwellers is needed for people, cities and societies to thrive.

Faced with a potentially turbulent future, urban planners are increasingly advocating a more sustainable approach.

“That means the planning of housing, employment and services addresses the need for net-zero development and resilience to climate change, while delivering quality places and green spaces, community infrastructure and job opportunities where people live,” says Edinburgh City Council’s head of placemaking and mobility, Daisy Narayanan.

This is the cornerstone of the 20-minute neighbourhood and 15-minute city approaches, which are becoming a key focus area for governments, organisations and communities across the world. The concept is that everyone can meet most of their daily needs within a short walk, wheel or cycle from their home.

 “We need this level of ambition to achieve a significant shift away from longer journeys to active travel and meet our net-zero carbon target by 2030,” says Narayanan. “But it is also about creating more social, inclusive and accessible places by improving access to quality services and empowering local communities.”

Can smart cities address the cost-of-living crisis?

Amid the global cost of living crisis and likely post-Covid recession, the affordability of cities has become paramount to their liveability. The latest global Smart Cities Index cites access to affordable housing as the most urgent matter for cities worldwide, with citizens ranking it above unemployment, public transport and pollution.

Active Building Centre increasingly works with social housing providers to help them design buildings that create ‘energy-positive’ communities. Its CEO, Dan Cook, thinks a wide range of housing types is “fundamental for all the critical people you need to make a city function”. 

Through the intelligent integration of different renewable energy technologies, ‘active buildings’ can generate and store renewable electricity to meet their own needs and redistribute the surplus to other buildings and back into the grid. Their ability to reduce energy consumption and lower fuel bills, while supporting people to have more control of their energy supply, is a tangible solution to reducing cost-of-living pressures and improving affordability in the longer term. 

Many of these technologies already exist. Cook says the onus is on local governments and the building sector to make them mainstream and ensure that supply chains are in place to scale up.

With urbanisation increasing the diversity of city populations and adding new complexities, smart cities need to be designed responsibly to avoid embedding existing inequalities and widening divides.

Dr Jo Morrison is director of research and innovation at digital agency Calvium. She thinks that a truly accessible and inclusive smart city is one that “embraces a thoughtful, ethical and intersectional approach across the system”.

“We can’t create accessible smart cities just by rolling out the tech. We have to get to grips with the city as a whole – for example, its existing structures of discrimination,” she says, emphasising the importance of building smart systems on “responsible data inputs” that minimise the risk of causing harm to citizens.

Creating more inclusive urban areas

While key factors such as race, age and gender must be considered, the design process must also seek to engage and empower difficult-to-reach population groups such as disabled people, migrants and people experiencing poverty and social exclusion.

Citizens’ Assemblies are integral to the democratic development of smart city solutions, ensuring a wide range of viewpoints in the decision-making process. When Berlin recently launched the selection process for its first Citizens’ Assembly for climate change, it used an algorithm to choose 100 citizens at random based on criteria including age, gender, education and migration experience to ensure the committee mirrored the city’s population as closely as possible.

Working with communities to help shape proposals through a robust engagement process is “absolutely key” to improving the lives of all citizens, says Narayanan, with technology such as virtual reality playing a significant role in allowing communities to experience what enhanced areas might look like. 

“Building these stronger relationships to support local economies and target resources where they’re needed should empower communities, helping them to create their own solutions for the delivery of the services they need and promote community wealth building,” says Narayanan. 

“This will help to build a longer-term, self-sustaining legacy to ensure the right principles continue at the core of local development for future generations.”

Ultimately, for smart cities to unlock their potential to create more inclusive, equitable and enjoyable places for people to live, they must be built on foundations that place the needs of their citizens above everything else.