The Benefits and Drawbacks of Smarter Cities

By [ISA Internationales Stadtbauatelier] (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (], via Wikimedia Commons

By: Dipak Krishnan, Contributor


To analyze the benefits and drawbacks of implementing smarter cities, a certain analytical framework must be employed. Are smart cities making “old” business processes more effective through use of existing data in novel ways? Second, are they creating new services and processes through collecting and leveraging new data via sensors and technology? More importantly, what even is a smart city? 

A smart city is one that leverages existing and new infrastructure and technologies to enable the development and deployment of efficient and effective solutions or services for citizens, businesses and governing agencies.

Smart cities leverage existing infrastructure to make processes more effective. In New York, combining data from 19 agencies to help building inspectors improve prediction of fire safety features the use of existing data in novel ways to support an existing process. In Dublin, integrating new GPS data from public transit vehicles with existing timetables to provide citizens with a real time transit schedule is the case of creating a new service with new sensor data and technology. The service enables citizens to reduce wasted time and to place greater trust in a more transparent transit system. In Chicago, using GPS to locate snowplows enables citizens to make citywide transportation more effective. From a purely technological viewpoint, these examples in both categories rely on information technology to support data integration from existing stand-alone systems, or integration of data feeds from sensors such as GPS.

Smart cities have significant economic benefits. They make transportation more efficient, and thus increase labor productivity. More impressively, cities that invest in smart-grid technology and infrastructure, called “connected cities,” experience an annual GDP growth rate that is 0.7 percent higher, an unemployment rate that is a full percentage point lower, and office occupancy rates 2.5 percent higher than less advanced cities. Smart infrastructure is cost-effective over a long-term.

Economic gains are readily procured from implementations of temperature and air quality sensors, variable speed drives and robots, as well as smart meters and intensity and color controlled LED lighting which cut waste at its source. If cities deploy sensors such as smart meters, and that infrastructure inspires new innovations in energy management, it could be majorly impactful in two ways. Firstly, the city will become more sustainable. New innovations will be developed to update the current infrastructure. Secondly, the money that citizens save in wasteful energy use will generate surpluses, increasing discretionary spending.

In essence, the benefits of smart cities can be distilled to one underlying principle: done right, information technology and big data enable services and business processes make our lives better. However, a greater reliance on technology has its drawbacks.

Interconnectivity can provide benefits of greater communication, but can also lead to cascading failures. If an intruder or a hacker gains access to the core systems of the tech-reliant city (e.g., the electric grid or surveillance systems used by police), it can result in either city services being shut down or personal information being released. Rossant of The Architect’s Newspaper notes that big data can be a weapon for oppressors to use to subjugate their people. There is a double-edged nature of smart cities and big data; it has potential to enact real progress but also to wreak havoc. It all depends on those who use the data and to what ends they pursue.

As they are envisioned currently, Smart Cities have immense potential, but to realize their potential, governmental framework and economic models have to be developed first. In other words, the media, economists, and some governments present smart cities as a technological problem to which a technical solution can be devised. I believe this is wrong. As the Brookings Institution notes, “developing a focused, forward-looking economic vision that targets long-term productivity, inclusivity, and resiliency is the first step in making cities smarter.” Devising smart technological solutions to political and economic solutions will lend a purpose to the use of this technology, making citizens’ lives more effective.

Secondly, I think the issue of security is one that engineers behind smart cities need to solve. Clearly, we have the capability to harness data in a way that can make citizens safer. Although we can decrease police response time, and create apps that allow citizens to travel safely, the network itself can never be fully secured. Until society views technology as a tool to achieve a greater future instead of a cure-all to endemic problems, smart cities will not reach their full potential.

Dipak likes smart cities. Do you like traditional cities? Want to challenge this article? Reach out to Dipak via the comment section below.