A SmartCity is one where the public-private will converges into a territorial vision and a strategy of action aimed at transforming the city and its citizens into a conscious, informed, collaborative and innovative ecosystem that optimizes its resources through technologies and behavioral changes that, on one hand, improve the quality of life of its inhabitants; and on the other, contribute to the mitigation of climate change.
SmartCity definition is complex, as are technologies and social and economic processes that should be included for it to become a reality.
Let’s go for part. In general, cities consist of a living system, material and human, with a hierarchical governance and a normative body developed to facilitate and protect citizens and their interrelationships. Authorities are responsible for overseeing the design and implementation of regulatory body in force, as well as the delivery of basic services to citizens, with special attention to those who are less favoured. Until now, these are centralized systems whose leadership and good functioning depend on their performance, which is reflected in the trust that citizens have in them.
However, social, technological, economic and environmental evolution of the planet we inhabit has led to important changes in basic assumptions on which cities have been built. Firstly, and for many reasons, inhabitants of Earth have grown from 310 million to 7000 million between 1750 and 2011, of which 54% live in cities, which leads to questions about the future ability to provide this population with basic elements such as water, energy and food if underlying infrastructures and systems have not been updated at the necessary pace.
The advancement of science and technology has placed at people’ disposal countless services and products that have unusually changed their behavior. Communications have reduced distances and increased the diffusion of knowledge, rendering obsolete the educational and labor systems that had been known until now.
This same dissemination of knowledge and information has shown that centralized powers in the administration of cities and their laws have not always been guided by the common good but, many times, by personal interests of those who hold that power, leading to social, environmental and economic conflicts whose victims are the same citizens, deteriorating trust in former leaders and visionaries.
So far, social market economy, which has shown advantages over the competing model of communism, is also showing its shortcomings mainly when social and environmental costs of production are not included in the price system. In this way, economic growth has gone hand in hand with the destruction of environment and the increase of temperatures in our planet, inducing natural catastrophes for which cities are not prepared either.
This economic model, which does not consider positive or negative externalities in its price system and which is based on competition, will always have winners and losers. The reality is, that nowadays there are very few winners, many losers and a huge difference between profits and losses. The richest 1% of the world, those with assets over US$1 million, owns 45% of world’s total wealth. This is evident in the streets of some cities, both in developed and developing countries, which show a growing number of homeless and informal businesses.
On the other hand, a large number of citizens who follow the model imposed by the First Industrial Revolution have developed an individualistic, work-centered lifestyle that depends on large corporations, which provides them with insufficient income to buy all consumption goods that the same system invites to possess to achieve an illusion of happiness.
Embedded in this dynamic of working to maintain the standard of living, citizens have forgotten to develop and use those basic skills and characteristics that differentiate human beings from other living creatures on the planet, such as dialogue and collaboration for shared purposes. Personal connection and exchange, the use of public space and the care of cultural identity are issues of the past in many of today’s cities. Actually, we can observe cities that have been designed and planned for car journeys, perhaps the most disruptive invention of the 19th century, whose proliferation is still a fact.
The most important pillar of this way of life is energy consumption. During the first industrial revolution, coal was the source of energy and then it was replaced, in the Second Industrial Revolution (in middle and end of 19th century), by oil and gas, which fed new inventions, such as internal combustion engine, which power cars and, later, aircrafts.
The advent of electricity was decisive, as it was a way of storing and transporting energy in a refined and standardized way, facilitating to a great extent its consumption. Nowadays, it is impossible to think of a minimally developed economy without electricity to develop the most basic and routine activities in cities.
But these energy sources, in addition to being highly polluting and having a harmful impact on people’s health, are also non-renewable and their reserves are coming to an end, reasons that led researchers since the 1970s to develop new clean and renewable sources capable of providing electricity to the increasingly inhabited cities of the world.
And it adds up and goes on. We live in a time of transition, between a known history and an unknown one. Between a small group that has made significant profits from the system and a much larger group that is increasingly impoverished. Between centralized authorities who are installed and empowered and a massive number of citizens who, thanks to technology, are observing a decision-making process where they have little influence even though they are supposed to be the object of those decisions. Between social chaos and political indifference. Between distrust and individualism.
In this scenario the concept of SmartCity breaks through. When even the old paradigms are still entrenched in society and technology tells us that it is time to think again how we want to live and preserve the planet we inhabit for our better welfare.
The challenge is immense, and tasks are multiple. But how to do it? It is then when the definition given at the beginning of this article makes sense. It is necessary to replace competition by collaboration. It is necessary to develop the art of dialogue among all social groups in order to agree on common objectives. It is essential to educate, raise awareness, generate new patterns of behaviour that seek to improve health, communication and creativity with a new economic system that considers all impacts of production on sustainability. And it is unavoidable to use all available technological means for the benefit and use of human beings.