Smart city projects have already seen a lot of criticism for being too technology driven. Writer and urbanist Adam Greenfield, for example, explains the unprecedented dominance of technology businesses – or commercial actors, as he calls them – such as Microsoft, Cisco and Siemens in shaping the future of our cities with the following analogy:

“It is as if the foundational works of twentieth-century urbanist thought had been collectively authored by United States Steel, General Motors, the Otis Elevator Company and Bell Telephone rather than [Swiss-French architect and urban planner] Le Corbusier and [American-Canadian journalist, theorist and activist] Jane Jacobs.”

The smart city megaprojects of the past two decades, such as Songdo in South Korea and Masdar in Abu Dhabi, are yet to come to fruition – the latter is still stuck in phase two – and are widely considered flawed endeavours that have failed to deliver. They both demonstrate the difficulties of designing a city from scratch without factoring in the vagaries of human behaviour and organic urban development, and how it can leave people feeling cold. Although she was appreciative of the technology, 35-year-old Lee Mi-Jung, who followed her husband to Songdo, for example, complained to Bloomberg City Lab about “the lack of human warmth from neighbourhood interactions,” and feeling “something cold,” thanks to the lack of a vibrant local community.

The more recent example of a rolled-back project, Google’s Sidewalk Lab in Toronto, is another example of how important the involvement of citizens and other stakeholders is in smart city developments.

Up until recently, the criteria for measuring the success of smart cities – the amount of technology deployed and the talent the city could attract as a result – have also reflected the values and interests of big technological corporations.

To be sure, tech companies can bring a lot to the table when it comes to solving persisting problems of the metropolis. But the solutions they offer to municipal governance shouldn’t blind us to analogous solutions and alternative approaches that, although less sexy, may bring just as much positive change in citizens’ lives.

Smart cities during and after the pandemic

The pandemic has been gruelling, but it has also provided opportunities to rethink smart city design. In India, for example, Integrated Command and Control Centres (ICCCs) have been converted into Covid war rooms, and GIS (Geographic Information System)-based tracking has been leveraged to enforce social distancing.

But, sadly, converting smart city dashboards into pandemic surveillance systems won’t by itself make smart cities stand out as the most resilient locations to pandemics.

Even in countries that have maintained impressively high suppression of the virus such as China or New Zealand, or Singapore, the city-state at the forefront of the smart city league, the clever use of smart technologies was just one of the multi-pronged approach to pandemic management, with capitalising on previous epidemic experience and timely closing of national borders playing equally seminal roles.

This is not to say that the world hasn’t witnessed any smart projects implemented in densely populated areas to fight and monitor Covid, even if they are not smart city projects per se. One of the most interesting examples is also a fairly mundane one: urban waste-water monitoring.

Waste-water-based epidemiology is a relatively new approach to monitoring the health of larger communities, and a similar approach has been used to identify and manage the polio virus and mass drug abuse in urban areas.

When scientists provided evidence that people infected with SARS-CoV-2 shed viral RNA through their faeces within just a few days after getting infected, sewage monitoring started – first in the Netherlands, with several other countries following in its steps.

Since then, new technologies have been invented to make the laborious and multi-sensory process of creating samples faster and more efficient. A group of scientists at the University of San Diego School of Medicine, for example, have developed liquid-handling robots to automate the otherwise time-consuming waste-concentration stage.

Even though it lacks the glamour of other such endeavours, waste-water monitoring is the ideal, universally adoptable smart city project. It works invisibly, in the background or underbelly of the city without intruding into citizens’ lives. While waste management experts and virologists are busy keeping an eye out for any potential surges and new variants, citizens can go about their business without being on alert all the time. And as monitoring takes place in communities, ranging from campuses to whole cities, there is no personally identifiable information involved, meaning privacy and data protection concerns which thwart so many western smart city projects are absent.

Criticism that the technology will only be effective in urban communities and doesn’t respond to genuine needs holds no water either. Although China’s response to the pandemic – a Covid-proof built-from-scratch smart city – is already in the works in Xiong’an, near Beijing, enabling life in lockdowns with huge balconies and communal work areas, greenhouses and drone terraces, smart solutions addressing burning problems in a discreet, non-intrusive way are more likely to have post-Covid mass appeal.

GIS- a computer system for capturing, storing, checking, and displaying in layers various data related to positions on the Earth’s surface, which can help individuals and organizations better understand spatial patterns and relationships.

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