June 3, 2016 Djuan Coleon

Do Smart Cities Equal Empowered Citizens?

What is the smart city movement and why is there such a push around the globe for “smart cities”?  A smart city is one that has digital technology embedded across all city functions.  This technology also utilizes the Internet of Things (IoT), which refers to the ever-growing network of physical objects that feature an IP address for internet connectivity, and the communication that occurs between these objects and other Internet-enabled devices and systems.

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We so much technology, big data and connectivity being integrated into existing infrastructure in our cities. It is easy for the citizens to get lost in the sea of change. We have to come up with better ways to engage the public and get them involved at every stage of the process. What good is a smart city where LEDs are communicating, our appliances are connected and the people are out of the loop?



Technology and managed data  across all platforms to include  government services, transport, traffic management, energy, health care, water and waste. Everything is connected to your LED street lights to sensors in parking spaces connected to an app. Why is there this movement to manage all these systems and functions in our cities? Well, people are moving back to the city, the world is becoming increasingly urban. More than 50% of the world’s population lives in the city versus the suburbs.  As much as a 3 million people are moving to cities every week according to City Metric.  People are moving back to cities for several reasons, better jobs, hospitals healthcare and educational opportunities, conveniences to services to name a few. Young Professionals, Millennials and Baby Boomers are the biggest groups moving back into the cities. How will “Smart Cities” be able to meet the needs of these different groups of people? Also we must consider the residents who never left the city, many who are living below the poverty line. How do we empower the poor into the these new technological and data driven cities? How do we balance smart growth and gentrification that often leads to long time residents being displaced? A example of this problem is New Orleans.    


“10 years after Katrina, New Orleans is one of the fastest growing cities in the US, and a key driver of this growth has been an influx of millennials. The city has seen a 5 percent rise in its millennial population since 2010, a number that beats out most any other city in America including the typical young professional hubs like New York, San Francisco and Boston.” – Josh Schukman Causecast Blog  

Smart Cities attract professionals with disposable income like Eddie McDonald, an IT professional from Dallas, Texas who relocated to New Orleans and was able to buy a house and get loans to refurbish the house. Juxtapose this with people who have been displaced by Katrina and still have not been able to move back or rebuild there house in the same neighborhoods where the “rebuilding” is happening. Long time residents are unable to secure loans to rebuild their homes.


“M.A. Sheehan, director of the House the 9 program at the Lower 9th Ward Homeownership Association, knows of about 700 people who owned homes in the Lower Ninth Ward that got Road Home funding but didn’t have enough to fully rebuild and return home. “We have hundreds of families who still want to come back because they have such a strong attachment to this place,” she said. “And also because they were homeowners here, they can’t afford to buy a whole new house somewhere else. This place is where they can reestablish themselves as homeowners.” – Bryce Covert Think Progress 

At the macro level the Smart Cities Movement is exciting. The expectation of millions of new people coming into a city puts an ever increasing need for cities to be more diligent in the areas of resource management and efficiency.  The city of Atlanta is expected to add 2.5 million new people by the next 25 years bringing the metro area to over 8 million people according to the Atlanta Regional Commission. Yet Atlanta has the largest income disparity out of any city in America for the second year in a row according to the Brookings Institute.

“The study looks at households in the 95th percentile of income — which in Atlanta averages out to about $288,000 — compared against what the 20th percent of households receive for their paychecks — a little less than $15,000 on average. According to the findings, which are based on data from the 2013 American Community Survey, the city’s income inequality levels are more than twice the national average.” Max Blau, Creative Loafing 

As we rush to embrace new technology and big data to manage these growing cities we must not allow the “glitches” in technology be that the most vulnerable populations fall through the cracks in the system.  We have to find ways to educate and empower citizens on these changes and how they can benefit, to me that is “Smart”. We don’t want people to “drop out” of a Smart City because the curriculum is too advanced. What I mean is I remember when I was in college taking a high level math course. The information being presented was overwhelming and once you fall behind in the class you eventually drop the class. Smart cities should not just make smarter citizens but creatively empower citizens as well even the most vulnerable populations.


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