A smart city is not automatically an equitable city unless its leaders take care to make it so. Some critics assert that the entire push to make cities smart is mainly about making life more convenient for the affluent. Young and digital-savvy populations are natural users of these technologies, but older and poorer demographic groups on the wrong side of the digital divide may be left out of the benefits—and left feeling that they have little say in the direction their city is taking. But cities cannot be truly smart without broad adoption. Being inclusive is not only a social goal but also a driver of results, since the benefits of smart systems multiply as more people use them.
If a city is able to capitalize on its reputation for smartness, there may also be a risk that gentrification will push out some existing residents. But cities have to serve the entirety of their populations. The needs of marginalized groups and disadvantaged neighbourhoods should be on the agenda when cities choose which applications and programs to pursue. Initiatives to increase digital literacy and improve the penetration and affordability of internet access and smart phones are also important to ensuring access to the benefits of smart city solutions.
Some cities are partnering with private- and social sector players to deploy applications specifically designed to level the playing field for the most vulnerable. It is now possible to use data to reach out to people who may be eligible for social services but might otherwise fall through the cracks for a variety of reasons. Immigrants, who predominantly settle in major cities when they move to a new country, often fall into this category due to language barriers and a lack of familiarity with available government services.
Technology can help to bridge the language gap and connect immigrants with the information and assistance they need to integrate successfully.
New York City’s new Public Engagement Unit uses integrated, interagency data platforms and mobile apps to coordinate door-to-door outreach to residents who may be in need of assistance but not being currently reached by government services. California’s Santa Clara County recently partnered with the Economic Roundtable to release a predictive analytics tool for identifying homeless individuals who are expected to be in greatest distress and likely to use public services frequently so they can be prioritized for shelter and services.
A Dublin-based social enterprise, Addressing the Unaddressed, has used geo-location codes to provide addresses for more than 20,000 dwellings in 13 informal settlements in Kolkata, giving residents a legal identity that enables access to biometric identification cards linked to social services, voting cards, ration cards, and more. It has even worked with local councillors to update data on local wards, given location codes to amenities like water supply points and toilets to understand service provision gaps, and successfully petitioned Google Maps to include slum lanes in its mapping and navigation.
Smart technologies can also be used to help people with disabilities navigate the urban environment. In Singapore, the Green Man+ initiative allows someone with a senior or disability concession card to tap the card on a reader so that signals give them more time to cross at crosswalks. The Wayfindr app helps visually impaired travellers navigate the London Underground transit network. It accesses their location on their smart phones and gives them precise audio instructions to find their way on twisting pathways and escalators.There is an exciting opportunity to use technology to serve the elderly—an area that is ripe for more public- and private-sector innovation.
Social media networks, video chats, and even virtual reality can help keep seniors more connected, perhaps drawing them into programs such as mentoring and tutoring that can build cross-generational bonds. Specialized e-career platforms may be able to match retirees with opportunities to utilize their skills. Applications such as remote patient monitoring, telemedicine, and specialized e-hailing and on-demand services may help more seniors age at home.