Smart Cities – Integrating Technology, Community, and Nature

The digital era has arrived, and with it the digital transformation of cities and communities. Almost anything in life can take place in a virtual world today. Though this digital era started only two decades ago, it has been accelerating at an unprecedented pace. Big data, the Internet of Things, and artificial intelligence are spurring a digital revolution, changing entire societies, economies, and the built environment.

Smart Cities Integrate Tech, Community, Nature

The concept of "smart cities" is a development of this era. It includes not just the operation of a city and related processes, systems, and communication streams, but also the processes planners use to make plans for a city, collect and use data, and implement their plans.

For many planners, "smart city" is just a buzzword that does not connect with their community goals and is not part of their vision or toolkit. This is something that needs to change. The question is not whether planners should plan for smart cities, but rather how they can do so in equitable and sustainable ways.

APA's latest PAS Report No. 599, Smart Cities: Integrating Technology, Community, and Nature,  defines the ideal and truly smart city:

A smart city equitably integrates technology, community, and nature to enhance its livability, sustainability, and resilience, while fostering innovation, collaboration, and participatory co-creation.

"Smart" is not just a fancy label for big cities that deploy high-tech solutions. The purpose of a smart city should not be the implementation of smart technology for technology's sake. Rather, a smart city should deploy technological innovations thoughtfully and efficiently to resolve existing and future challenges. It should take advantage of technological progress to create great communities for all while protecting the environment, mitigating climate change, and considering future generations, independent of the size of the city or community.

Planning For and With Smart Cities

This PAS Report guides practitioners on how to plan for smart cities and how to plan with smart cities. The concept of planning for smart cities emphasizes the importance of a people-centric planning process that integrates technological innovation as a solution to a variety of community challenges. The concept of planning with smart cities focuses on the use of smart city applications as planning tools that enable planners to collect real-time data, allow for more agility, and provide the ability to act, make corrections, and adjust in real-time.

It is especially important to integrate planning principles and ethics into the ways smart cities are being developed. Too many examples exist where new technologies result in inequalities in society. For example, digitalization leaves behind people who don't have access to the internet or can't afford connected devices. Access to transportation systems such as transportation network companies, shared bicycles, or shared scooters requires a credit card and a smartphone and therefore excludes unbanked people, the very young, and potentially the very old, among other population groups. Smart city solutions must be implemented equitably to solve problems holistically.

Many existing inequalities related to the use of technology could have been avoided if diversity, equity, and inclusion had been part of the implementation process. This is where the role of the planner comes in. If planners do not learn about the technologies that tech companies implement in their communities, they will not be able to facilitate equitable deployment. Thus, they risk creating additional inequalities in the future or missing out on opportunities that could have improved the community or resolved existing issues.

Planners Bridge Tech and Community for Innovation

Planners should see themselves as the connectors between community members and technological possibilities, embracing meaningful innovation. Partnerships and collaboration with the tech sector instead of competition or conflict are imperative to generate innovative solutions that are beneficial and valuable to all individuals within a community. The planner provides the vision and goals, while the technology expert provides the path to achieve them. Problems must be defined first, and the technology must provide the path to get to solutions.

The world around us is changing, providing opportunities and challenges like never before — and the planning profession needs to evolve with these changes. This may mean adding new processes, tools, and planning competencies as laid out in this PAS Report; it may also mean a reinvention of what planners do and what their roles are supposed to be. But the goal of planning will remain the same: the creation of great communities for everyone. Achieving this goal will require a continuous commitment to learning, a willingness to innovate and adapt, the ability to build trust and gain an understanding of the community and its individuals' needs, and openness to collaborate with all stakeholders to evolve and thrive.

Planners should embrace the opportunity to create smart cities to benefit community members, improve local government operations, correct planning mistakes from the past, and shape a better future. Only in a climate that fosters innovation, collaboration, and participatory co-creation will smart cities live up to the promises they offer of livability, sustainability, and resilience for all.  

Top image: IKE interactive kiosk and wifi hotspot in Miami's Wynwood neighborhood displays real-time multimodal transit options, directories of nearby businesses and events, and community alerts (Chris Carter)

Petra Hurtado, PhD, is APA's research director.

December 8, 2021

By Petra Hurtado, PhD