Redefining Smart Cities – Technocentric to People-Centric Models

Cities are becoming more homogenous and losing identity
Redefining Smart Cities – Technocentric to People-Centric Models
Shameel Muhammed, Associate Professor at Heriot-Watt University Dubai

Today every electronic device or digital service is often attributed as ‘Smart’. Given the commonality of this term, it almost seems like it is easy to be smart.

Cities are not an exception in this space. In his 2017 research paper, ‘Will the real smart city please stand up?’ Robert G Hollands highlights the World Forum on Smart Cities, having suggested that around 50000 cities and towns worldwide would leap into smart city initiatives by the end of the decade. In comparison, the 2023 Smart City Index, a global smart city benchmarking framework,  has surveyed 141 cities worldwide.

Access to open data and city statistics is essential for cities to be globally identified as smart cities in such forums. The global number of smart cities is certainly increasing profoundly as adapting these policies improves these cities’ economic and financial competitiveness.

Although there are well-established smart cities globally, smart city experts agree that there is no clear definition of a smart city. A conventional and globally aligned definition is technocentric, where civic systems and services are optimized through digital solutions, increasing city resources and infrastructure efficiency. The 2021 Smart City Index report describes a smart city as an urban environment that applies technology to enhance the benefits while diminishing the shortcoming of urbanization for its citizens.

Smart cities

Smart cities today rely on urban big data and the Internet of Things (IoT) to facilitate decision-making based on data, which is supported by algorithms and more recently, Artificial Intelligence. While smart city technologies have advanced significantly and improved the city’s efficiency, we are parallelly witnessing cities becoming more homogenous and losing identity, which was already a concern due to globalization.

Read: Abu Dhabi named smartest city in MENA region

Smart city models have begun to move away from being limited to technocentric,  enabling tailor-made smart city initiatives driven by the strengths of its soft infrastructure – its people. The shift towards people-centric models is evident in forums such as the World Competitiveness Center by the IMD group. In their recently published Smart City Index 2023, the benchmarking indicators offer a balanced focus on the smart city’s economic, technological, and humane dimensions.

As per this report, Abu Dhabi and Dubai are the only two cities from the MENA region that are within the first top 20 smart cities of the world. Much of the credit goes to the UAE government’s forward vision and its ambition of being one of the most liveable cities globally and in the region. Amongst several initiatives,   the Happiness Agenda and the Dubai Paperless Strategy by Digital Dubai of Dubai are key initiatives that align with people-centric smart city models. Citizens and residents of Dubai also have access to data from several public sector entities through the Dubai Pulse portal. With adequate training, these tools and data sets can empower city dwellers on many fronts improving prosperity, inclusivity, quality of living, and overall happiness.

The new people-centric smart city model is designed with smart citizens at its center. While access to smart city technology and open data are the initial first step for any smart city, it is essential that a smart city equally invests in educating its city dwellers on how to understand and use these tools for their benefit. Round-the-year community programs comprising smart city workshops, hackathons, and seminars are essential for the success of people-centric smart city models. The community programs could lead to collaborative relationships that lead to innovation and new approaches, which could perhaps be a better alternative to technology and communication infrastructure that is often expensive.

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