Who wants to live in smart cities?

Chronicle by Jamil Khan Associate Professor of Environmental and Energy Systems, Lund University

“A smart city is a city with open senses. With its sensors it can see, hear, feel, smell and taste digital information that contributes to a more considerate, efficient, safe and sustainable society.”

This may sound as if it was taken from Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World: the smart city that is everywhere, sees everything and takes care of us as citizens without us even noticing or asking for it, and where technology is like a living creature. Actually, the quote is from an environmental consultancy firm that offers services related to smart cities.

SMART CITIES are a popular concept in today’s research as well as among policy makers and in business. In the narrow sense, smart cities refers to an increasing degree of digitisation of city infrastructure, which means that information can be collected, stored and exchanged quickly and in large quantities. Increased digitisation offers new opportunities in the form of more efficient heating of buildings, opportunities for real-time planning of public transportation based on the number of travellers, smart electricity grids that make sure that dishwashers and washing machines are only used when the electricity consumption in the country is low, and street lights that turn on as people approach them. The smart city evokes the promise of more efficient and sustainable solutions and commercial hopes for new products, services and markets.

“Smart cities are a popular concept in today’s research.”

AS LONG AS THE CONCEPT of smart cities is used in this limited sense, it is relatively unproblematic. It is then a matter of the technical possibilities offered by the increasingly digitised city, and how these can be applied in various areas of society. However, there is also a tendency to use the concept in a normative sense where ‘smart’ is also interpreted to mean environmentally friendly, good and desirable. This is more problematic. The ‘smart inclusive city’ and the ‘smart sustainable city’ are examples of such uses. Giving the concept such a positive value signals that the smart city, i.e. increasing digitisation, by definition includes solutions for social injustices, environmental problems, and more.

Smart cities undoubtedly generate many new opportunities. However, smart cities are not necessarily vibrant and welcoming cities to live in, or socially just for that matter. These things require other objectives and priorities. They require social investments and an ambitious environmental programme. They require culture and subculture. They require human interaction and a bustling city life. By referring to smart sustainable and smart inclusive cities, we risk reducing these issues to the technical challenges that are optimally solved using technical solutions, when in fact, fundamentally, it is about policy issues with built-in conflicts.

WE HAVE TO APPROACH the issue from the right angle. The first question has to be how we want to create a sustainable and socially just city; after that, we can investigate how technology be of help. Smart cities and increased digitisation should never be considered an end in itself but as a means to achieve other goals.

Photo: Kennet Ruona


Research at Lund University on Smart Cities


Future by Lund (in Swedish)

Delba 2050 (in Swedish)

Urban Magma

Urban arena

Climate kick

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