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September 8, 2022

Putting the smarts into smart cities

Smart cities now see technology not as the goal but as an enabler for high-quality public services, inclusion and economic opportunity.

Toronto and Google broke up, and it wasn’t pretty (these things never are). Who dumped whom remains in question.

In 2017, the city announced that Sidewalk Labs, the urban innovation arm of Alphabet (née Google), had submitted the winning proposal for the massive development of 2,000 acres along Toronto’s Lake Ontario shore.

“Sidewalk’s big idea was flashy new tech,” this MIT Technology Review piece says. The area was envisioned to become a hub for an “optimized urban experience featuring robo-taxis, heated sidewalks, autonomous garbage collection and an extensive digital layer to monitor everything from street crossings to park bench usage.”

Public outrage ensued. Sidewalk bailed out of the project in 2020, citing the pandemic. But make no mistake: From the start, residents were up in arms over the developer’s tech über alles approach and insufficient attention to citizens’ privacy.

In February, the city announced plans for a far different vision: “800 affordable apartments, a two-acre forest, a rooftop farm, a new arts venue focused on indigenous culture, and a pledge to be zero-carbon.”

While Toronto’s shift is unusually dramatic, it exemplifies a common evolution in the smart city concept. Early on, as GCN notes, “Cities often started with a technology, a platform and the goal of gaining knowledge, whether that was on vehicle traffic, congestion or crime.” This has evolved, though.

As in Toronto, the focus has embraced a much broader definition of success: quality of life, diversity and sustainability, with technology sitting quietly in the background as an enabler. Where early smart cities used tech to target issues like a few notorious traffic problem areas, the new philosophy seeks goals like an overall reduction in the region’s carbon footprint.

The Cognizant take

It’s essential to think beyond tech toys and factor in inclusivity, sustainability and a holistic approach to smart cities. As we noted in this report, the pandemic highlighted the need for cities to reprioritize how, why and where they direct their smart-city technology investments.

The crisis triggered introspection among smart-city leaders, who began to think about incorporating the concerns of their key stakeholders (residents, businesses and visitors). As we note in the report, this means delivering high-quality public services to the entire population, prioritizing inclusion and enabling economic opportunities.

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