From Star Wars’ CGI monstrosities to the high-tech trailer parks of Ready Player One, popular culture regularly tries to predict the cities of the future. Yet the real cities of the future may already be here. Gunshot detectors on street corners, intelligent electricity grids capable to optimizing power use, and smart traffic lights tackling congestion already feature prominently everywhere from the United States’ sprawling metropolises to nascent communities in sub-Saharan Africa. But for all the benefits that smart cities promise—faster travel, better safety, and cost savings—they also promise to displace the world’s worst off in the process.
While some components of the smart city, such as gunshot detectors, do not require extensive infrastructure changes and are thus implemented relatively easily, large projects like intelligent electricity systems incur significant costs and barriers to adoption, such as mutually incompatible standards. And while current cities face significant implementation problems due to entrenched “dumb” infrastructure, new cities are already being constructed based from the ground up on smart technology. For example, the UAE is in the process of constructing Masdar, a smart, zero-waste city on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi, while South Korea has built the city of Songdo around its largest airport. Though both projects remain unfinished and have yet to meet their ambitious goals, it is clear that the next decades will bring significant numbers of smart infrastructure projects in both the developed and developing world. Parts of sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, have already begun smart city projects designed to coincide with trends of growing urbanization.
Sadly, it is unclear if smart cities are indeed an efficient allocation of capital in these countries. While these projects are often aimed at attracting foreign investment by creating an image of modernization, they may also trade off with government spending in other areas, such as building traditional infrastructure to connect rural areas with the most impoverished. This is especially problematic because there is no promise that urban investments spill over to benefit the rural poor. For example, China, while one of the most successful poverty-reduction stories of recent decades, has seen rapidly rising income inequality between its urban and rural populations, owing to the latter’s continued deprival of critical infrastructure and basic services. In the United States, massive urban redevelopment projects in places like Chicago have done little to address rampant violent crime in nearby regions. The reason is simple: investment is often self-perpetuating, flowing into regions with the greatest potential for growth and leaving less attractive areas behind. And while smart cities aim to urbanize the rural poor and thus provide better employment opportunities, complex infrastructure can only reduce poverty if the poor have access to it. Due to these inequalities, former CFO of the city of Cape Town Philip Van Ryneveld writes, “the cost of maintaining infrastructure … could actually be higher than the benefits resulting from the project.”
More concerningly, the kinds of massive smart city development pursued by many developing nations may exclude the poor altogether. As Newcastle University professor Robert Hollands writes, since they are sponsored primarily by the richest segments of society, large-scale smart infrastructure initiatives fail to consider “serious […] problems like poverty, inequality and discrimination.” The example of India’s smart cities project is a concerning precedent. The private corporations responsible for developing much of the land have benefited from government efforts to loosen eminent domain laws, allowing them to force local farmers off their land. In turn, commercial development of this land will create few housing units, spend a full 70 percent of its budget on land occupied by just 4 percent of the population, and force tens of thousands of the urban poor into slums. In Rwanda, where the city of Kigali is the site of a new smart city initiative, its builders project that homes will cost nearly two hundred thousand dollars, in a region where the average income is just two hundred dollars per month. It is little surprise, then, that critics have labeled these projects a “social apartheid”—smart public transit, waste disposal, and policing seem largely projects made by and for the rich.
Of course, many smart city advocates promise that their growth will trickle down to the poor as well, creating jobs and eventually becoming less costly due to economies of scale.
Even if development is equitable, however, other inequalities deny access to smart cities to the poor as well. Any applications that require households to be Internet-connected or have smartphones, for instance, leaves behind the vast numbers of the poor who do not have access to these technologies. And there is no promise that the kinds of jobs created by smart city development will be those accessible to the poor, rather than high-skilled jobs that will still indirectly raise prices and decrease affordability. As The Atlantic’s Bruce Sterling concludes, “Digital stardust won’t magically make future cities more affordable.”
Despite these drawbacks, smart cities may still bring substantial benefits to poor populations. The massive infrastructure investments required to sustain smart cities may also provide the room to build more reliable power grids or expand the Internet, both of which are critical components of economic growth for the poor. And provided development eventually reaches the poor, the ability to sustain higher urban populations, such as through more efficient transit systems that make it more feasible to commute in and out of cities, may provide benefits similar to the rapid urbanization that brought jobs and growth to millions during the industrialization of the 20th century.
All this, however, still depends on growth being equitable and well-targeted, characteristics that can hardly describe current smart city projects. As cities become more connected, non-urban regions will only become more excluded than ever. As Ellis Talton and Remington Tonar, founders of the infrastructure research group StateOf explain, infrastructure projects connecting urban economic centers systematically “pass over rural and suburban areas, viewing them as unimportant stretches of land that slow progress.” Rather, they explain, we should focus on building interconnected “smart regions,” expanding public transit systems to suburban and rural populations to reduce commute times and increase access to affordable housing. Yet these efforts may fail as well, as they further that “citizens in rural areas and … wealthy suburbs actively resist new mass transit developments, viewing them as a threat to their way of life,” much like the American phenomenon of “white flight” in the late 20th century, where increasing desegregation and economic integration led affluent families to move to the suburbs.
The solutions to unequal development seem as intuitive and as unrealistic as the solution to all other forms of inequality: poor communities must have a voice in smart city projects, and care must be taken to avoid actions that actively displace them or price them out of accessing the benefits of the burgeoning Internet of Things. Without these precautions, developed and developing countries alike may soon find their communities more stratified than ever, with only a select elite reaping the benefits of huge public works projects funded at the expense of the least well off.