Today’s Smart Cities Design: Where is our collective Right to the City?

 This article is about the “one voice” smart cities. It is about the cities we live in, the cities of the future and the people who make decisions about them, and the impact that excluding women and diversity from the debate will have in cities and in our world.

The Right to the City

Starting up my research in smart cities over 6 years ago, I never gave much thought to anything other than the tidal wave of “change” and “smartness” that you hear about in the news, in the press, in books, and mostly in conferences. Generally, smart cities is interpreted as intelligent responses to the challenges brought up by urbanisation. Edward Glaeser, one of the most renowned economists, argues that cities make people richer, smarter, greener, healthier and happier. In pursuit of these benefits every day nearly 180,000 people are moving into cities, and creating more than 60 million new urban dwellers every year. Whereas in early 20th century only 13% of the world’s population lived in cities, this ratio amplified to 29% in 1950, to 50% in 2009, and is expected to reach 70% by 2050.

Urbanisation can bring new opportunities, particularly in relation to employment and participation in organised groups. However, it also brings many challenges. The current unprecedented speed in urbanisation in cities has been often accompanied by the aggravation of many challenges associated urban living in terms of law and order, health, safety and security, mobility, waste disposal, housing, utilities, education, transportation, and delivery basic public services. Such challenges and complications have motivated policymakers to seek balances between industrialization, economic development, urban growth, geographic sprawl and environmental necessities to create smarter and more sustainable cities.

Digital technologies offer a new wave of opportunities to mitigate some of these impacts and create a balance between social, environmental and economic opportunities that will be delivered through smart city planning, design, and construction. It is indeed a very exciting time, and many people are all energised with the huge potential that smart cities can bring to us. We hear stories about the smart cars, 5G connections, wearable devices, high definition walls showing off Twitter trending topics, smart toasters and heaters that will work at the time someone defines, smart umbrellas that will let you know when you will need them, etc.

However, to me smart cities is a potential dangerous title as it seems it is not necessarily something that is going to do the world tremendous amounts of good. We have a society that is stratified, and it is pretty obvious that those kinds of things are probably only going to be available, at least in the long run, for a very privileged few. The main reason for this is that smart cities have been mainly designed as centralized top-down projects led by corporations, which put municipalities under pressure to deploy their projects and in which citizens appear at best as consumers.

I truly believe that the promise of smart cities is really tremendous if it is targeted to all and if that hear the voices of all.

After analysing all the many components and definitions of smart cities, I begun asking nothing more than two simple questions.

1.     Who are the people included in the conversation and who are making the decisions about our future?

2.     If we are unable to make this benefit all of society, is it really worth at all?

Smart Cities to Whom?

For what I have discovered so far has changed the way I think about the smart cities, and my hope is that it might just do the same for you.We see people mentioning machine learning, deep learning, blockchain, wiring up schools, designing Internet of Things and data platforms so can have access to the world of information. Plugging in and giving access to useful and harmonised information and urban services is something that we really should do, however, there is a much bigger question out there that is what does the access to it will look like? How will society be using it?

We are seriously having the idea of “smart cities” moved ruthlessly towards a way of design that really mainly takes into account a singular point of view. Having access to “smart things” that have been designed without all society in mind and that is not relevant to the lives of all the people around us is not providing access at all. How can people be given access to information or to advanced technologies without the knowledge to use them, and beyond that, without understanding what is behind it? The knowledge economy and smart cities together have a huge potential but who is going to participate in and drive that economy? Is it really going to be everybody out there beyond an elite group?

The simple reality is that smart cities have the capability of providing benefits for everybody only when it is created by everybody. Different views yield positive economic and social results, and avoid smart cities developments being designed by a singular perspective. Diversity and inclusion has been proven to be crucial to both business and societal success. This is no longer a morality agenda, rather, it is a prosperity agenda.

It seems to me that until everybody is seating at the table and driving the design and decision process about the future of our cities we will not fulfill this tremendous potential.

“The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city. The freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is one of the most precious yet most neglectedof our human rights”

David Harvey, 2008

The Process of Change

The process of urban transformation depends upon the exercise of a collective power rather than individual, hence making and remaking cities is a right that belongs to every person. Harvey claims the right to make and remake cities is the most neglected of our human rights. To me, he is right. When we look into the right to make and remake cities, we see that current power structures fail to take into account the diversity and equality aspects needed to ensure urban inhabitants enjoy the most access and influence in shaping their cities.

To me, the simple reality is that more people involved in the smart cities conversation will create more impact, will accelerate technology change and adoption, and will change the world. We have to adopt a new leadership pattern and smart cities design: the middle-out approach: Joining top-down initiatives coming from governments and industry providers with the bottom-up approaches coming from community-led initiatives. This is what Jacobs called “self-organization”—the capacity of decentralised actors to organize themselves into something greater than the sum of their parts without any direction from above. In the smart cities context, the top down approaches put into places the arrangements to facilitate the bottom-up approaches to flourish and prosper in the long term.

We can start this process of change you’ve got to get out and walk, you’ve got to get out and ask, and mostly important: you’ve got to get out and listen.

No one can find what will work for our cities by looking at the boulevards of Paris, as the City Beautiful people did; and they can’t find it by looking at suburban garden cities, manipulating scale models, or inventing dream cities.

You’ve got to get out and walk.


Reasoning about the following 3 questions can help us to start this process of change.

1. How could we include more voices in the smart cities conversation and how much value can they bring?

As recently as 2000, there was a very limited number of conferences and events devoted to the topic of smart cities, and very few people were involved in discussions and research on the topic. Today, a simple search on Google Scholar can bring you over 32,300 results of research bearing the keyword “smart cities”. As a response to this growing research in smart cities, the number of conferences covering the topic has grown significantly over the past years. Such gatherings aim to bring “beautiful minds and leaders” together to set the tone on what a smart city should look like, its components, impacts, priorities and the decisions governments should make about it. Building platforms for the voices of the people creating, designing and being affected by smart cities is a very good approach. However, we have to ask ourselves the following question: Who are invited to take part into this conversation?

The figure below illustrates the analysis of 30 global conferences in smart cities / digital economy. Out of nearly 1400 speakers, less than 300 are women – 20% of all the speakers. Observe that this pattern of exclusion takes place in all continents. The only conference to have 50/50 participation is the ODI Summit 2016 (shown in orange at the center). When we look at keynoting sessions, women make up as little as 12% of the speakers. I find it difficult to understand why women – who make as much as half of the population in most of these countries – are not invited to take part in the conversation?


Calling such platforms “smart cities conference” and only listening to one single voice really denigrates the true meaning of the word smart. The issue is that global smart cities platforms are gradually becoming a place where mainly single perspectives are considered and in whatever conditions they decide. At the end, the final solutions come back to the society. We, as a society, end up accepting them without thinking about it. Particularly where there is not enough female and minorities providing input in the decision-making.

What it means is that the people at the top of the value chain of the “smart cities” solutions get to choose which services should be improved, implemented and prioritised. Barriers hindering the accessibility to city services, digital technologies and public spaces are often experienced by women and those with inferior life standards, as they have fewer choices about services delivered to them and the spaces they frequent. Men occupy – disproportionately – the majority of positions of physical, political and economic power and can either dismiss or take action to address women’s experiences of violence.

Widening the gap between the “digitally privileged” and the not so fortunate makes the enjoyment of the smart city and what it has to offer to citizens the privilege of a small proportion of the population, and only a distant dream for others whose rights, needs, expectations, and inclusion are not taken into account.

We, as individuals with “rights to the city”, should push for conference / committees / events organisers to build platforms for all voices to be heard. Let’s have a healthy debate about the needs of our cities, and that includes involving all the people in discussions and decision-making process. We shall also pay more attention to all the research going on outside organisational boundaries: look for research about how women influence urban design and development, how to address the needs of people who are visually impaired (Cities Unlocked), how to make the city more accessible to disabled and senior citizens.?

The most interesting part is that most of the technology needed and used to create smart cities was created and conceptualised by women.


2. If the direction of smart cities were more aligned to the perspectives and needs of  all society, how would the world be different? How would public spaces change if we all built it together? How would education change if we all could influence it? Would we move towards safer spaces in change for smart toasters?

Existing policies and proposed smart cities solutions aimed to improve safety, security, transportation, housing are lacking gender-sensitive perspectives. When it comes to city planning, what is considered violence or insecurity in urban spaces? Who has the power to make decisions about safety and security, and whose safety do those in power take into consideration? Kamphuis et al. (2008) found that residents with lower socio-economic status, older people and women were more likely to report their neighbourhood as unsafe and unattractive, both elements associated with lower physical activity which can cause them to become sedentary and have their health undermined.

Very often, the challenges faced by women in cities are interpreted or excused as women’s fault, rather than the result of urban design that fails to take into account security concerns from all the citizens. For example, such violence may be excused on the basis of a woman’s choice of dress or her decision to travel alone at night and where there are poor lighting. However, simple and low-cost actions such as fixing poor lighting in streets can make a huge difference to women’s and vulnerable people’s safety.

Alice Taylor report argues “urban men and women experience violence differently. They also experience and perceive protection and safety differently. Analysing these differences is a central first step to guaranteeing women’s rights to freedom from violence or the threat of violence in urban areas. Gender is a key dimension of diversity, inequality and power structures in the city and analysing gender impacts is central to informing programmes and policies that reflect women’s realities and to promoting women’s right to the city”. 

Women, young people, senior citizens, disabled people, vulnerable people (including the poor, refugees, victim of trafficking) concerns regarding safety and security (including causalities, violence)  restricts their movement, limiting their full enjoyment of public spaces and movement from their homes to public or other private spaces.

The situation that these voiceless groups are globally is a tremendous challenges to us. We need things to be changed from bottom up.

3. If we all had the same impact and representation in the design of smart cities, how smart cities priorities and vision would change?

Smart cities are really something big, and I cannot think of anything more exciting and will have more potential to make impact.

Instead of infusing technologies and “smart things” in cities and ask people to go and figure out how to make use of them, we should build things based on their input. We should firstly hear what they need and deliver solutions with their specific community in mind.

What will excite people to be part of smart cities conversation is them knowing that they will not be driving changes that are disconnected from the world, but rather something that is very connected to their own communities and lives. They can bring their own selves to this design, and their full sense of what a smart city should be and should look like, and their own perspective on the decisions of how technology should shape their cities.

A one-size-fits all approach is very unlikely to work. Cities have different requirements, citizen’s expectations and readiness to technologies, and political and cultural arrangements in place. I do believe that by doing so we will attract more people to give innovative ideas, identify important aspects which were being overlooked, and bring the community together to be part of the creation of the technology that is changing the world.

Our Collective Right to Make and Remake “Smarter Cities”

Only with full participation of all of society in the design and planning of cities, that we will achieve the full potential of smart cities. Including everybody in the decisions about our cities will be good for innovation, economy, technology, and all of society.

If we are looking for long-term sustainability and economic growth, and well-being of our lives and the lives of the future generation in the cities of the future, we have to change.

I think this can be the beginning of a turning point, not just for the way we think about smart cities, for a new way of engaging society and ensuring the smart cities promises are delivered to all.

Let’s look at smart cities as not a commodity to be speculated on and serve a selected group, but as the very basis of our life as a society that is inclusive and fair, and that hear the many voices of people around the cities.

What I notice today is that it is quite hard to criticise a system for not being socially and gender inclusive, and that is specially because the privileged people seating at the table and making decisions too often hold the people they have chosen to neglect accountable for the insecurity, violence as discussed in Women and the city – ActionAid, and – I argue – digital divide they experience.

The floor Is Ours

I truly believe that the lack of diversity in smart cities conversation creates a negative effect across all aspects of life.

Smart Cities is too significant, and has too much impact and effect on thousands and millions of peoples living in around the world. I hope this will be a turning point in a new chapter in smart cities, where the human and social capital of cities come first, and when together as a community, we begin to make a real change as we remember that everything around us, every piece of technology around us, can be used to either include or exclude.

In the midst of all the challenges facing our cities today, for all the problems that feel beyond our control, maybe we could start here, including all voices in the smart cities conversation and design.

Source: Today’s Smart Cities Design: Where is our collective Right to the City? | Smart City Research

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