Who are smart cities initiatives actually benefiting?

A new project by the University of Calgary will see a team of researchers compare smart city projects from various continents to try and define their characteristics and benefits.

An article in university newspaper The Gauntlet profiled the new smart city project taking place in the western Canadian province of Alberta.

The initiative is a component of the university’s Eyes High research strategy that will see academics compare smart city projects in Asia, Europe, Africa and the Americas.

With almost every municipality claiming some form of smart urban strategy, the concept of a smart city is something that is interpreted and applied in myriad ways around the world. And so the project was launched to provide some welcome clarity and concrete definitions in the amorphous smart city space.

“Some [approaches] are very top-down and are about controlling populations in the interest of others. Others may be bottom-up, where citizens have a lot of input and the initiatives are about enhancing participation,” said University of Calgary professor Byron Miller.

He cited the example of the top-down approach taken by Rio de Janeiro during the recent Olympics. There the government set up surveillance camera monitoring centers that enabled the collaboration of multiple civic departments.

Is Big Brother benefitting?

But such extensive surveillance raises concerns about monitoring of the public and related data collection.

“One of the approaches to smart cities would be to make data much more transparent, widely available and accessible,” said Miller. “Other approaches are about controlling data and using it as a means of social surveillance and control.”

“You may have digital technologies in common but it’s a question of how they’re employed and in whose interest.”

This raises a key question that the Calgary researchers hope to shed light on: who exactly is benefiting from smart city projects?

“Urban politics, public participation, various types of social fields — all are impacted by smart city initiatives, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is figure out which approaches have brought benefits.”

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