Between technology and sustainability

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Today there is much talk of smart and sustainable cities, but until a few years ago the concept seemed part of science fiction literature. What exactly are these cities?

Both the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and various United Nations agencies have developed a definition of what smart and sustainable cities mean. The fundamental idea is that these are spaces based on efficiency and well-being that use technology as a fundamental tool to improve the living conditions of the citizenry. In this type of city an interactive relationship is established between citizens. It is about cities promoting innovative cooperative forms and making space communicated and monitored efficiently. In smart and sustainable cities, it is central to share goods and services, as well as to pay particular attention to environmental policies.

But what is the basis of smart cities? Is its ultimate foundation technology or sustainability?

Technology must be understood as a tool. That is why we must always stress that an intelligent city must be a sustainable city and not just a technological one. This concept, which was previously not seen as a priority, is moving forward. Central issues such as garbage (which did not differ in any way) have become, for example, a central axis. I must tell you that all these issues are changing the priorities of public administrators. Today, the promotion of technologies aims to improve the quality of life of citizens without being at odds with the criteria of urban sustainability. It is true that until a while ago, there used to be a purely technological conception of the intelligent city. It was basically believed that all problems could be solved through technology but without taking into account other factors. This is not so. Technology is just a tool, but the real center is the citizen. Of course, new technologies will enable us to improve many things, but we must make ethical considerations. First of all, we need to think about replacing some types of jobs that might be affected by this technology. This is a social problem as these people will be seen outside the labour scheme. We therefore improve the quality of production and speed up a fourth industrial revolution that will positively affect cities, but at the same time there is conflict as many citizens will be affected by the process.

The context it describes presents serious challenges. How can a smart city help social welfare in this context?

Well, in this matter there must be a conscience on the part of public administrators. In various cities it has been put as a priority the development of systems of transport with high-technology, which allows to improve the conditions of the passengers and the citizens who use these services for work. This results in quality of life. The so-called” Intelligent Transport Systems ” operating in different countries of the European Union, but also in Latin American countries such as Mexico and Colombia, even contribute to improving the environmental situation of cities.

In other words, there are also cities where security mechanisms with cameras have been put in place to prevent crime and harassment. Women, for example, are highly exposed to street hazards and this is one of the challenges of smart cities.

On the latter issue, which is linked to the vulnerability of women in these macho and patriarchal societies and also to the security problems linked to crime, an alternative vision can also be presented. Do we not run the risk of living in control societies from the massive use of such surveillance technologies?

Actually I think the danger of “Big Brother” is always. But we don’t have to forget that we are the same citizens that we have Facebook and Twitter. The citizen just squeezes ok. Accept the terms. Do we really wonder what happens to our information on Facebook or WhatsApp? The problem, therefore, also lies with us. I believe that risks always exist, but in order to avoid them, it is necessary to commit active citizenship and education both on rights and on technologies. Clearly, political actors also have an important responsibility here. You must understand that none of us want to live in a society like the one portrayed by George Orwell in his 1984 novel.

Beyond that point, however, there is another critical approach that is often made to smart cities. It refers to the fact that these cities can be prey to the mechanisms of the market since the technologies are carried out by private companies whose ultimate vocation is profit. Can the morphology and sense of the cities be modified more by commercial appetites than by the will of the citizens?

I think we need to make an important point here. There are cities that have started to become smarter –and therefore committed themselves to projects with some companies— but did not think strictly about the needs of citizens. However, almost all those who made that path corrected the course. Today, it is very rare for cities to commit to projects that are very large. They tend to prefer smaller, more focused projects to solve a particular problem.

That is, they develop something specific for a specific problem.

Exactly. And it must be stressed that always when developing projects within a city to make it a smarter space, a holistic vision must be taken into account. It is the duty of public administrators to promote a strategy that combines the different problems and desires of citizens with different solutions.

In which cities do such processes take place?

I can give two examples which are extreme. The first is Dubai, a city in which everything seems to us to be simple because they have money and because it is newly built. However, to think in this way is a mistake. Only now, for example, are they developing and building “energetically sustainable” buildings very different from those they previously had. On the other hand, ITU technical indicators showed that there was poor water management in Dubai. The city, however, had projects in place for much less important issues such as the use of “electronic currencies” for financial transactions. By showing them the indicators, the priority shifted and efforts towards the water issue shifted.

The other example is that of Manizales, a Colombian municipality with a very difficult geopolitical history. There are very important advances taking place from the application of technologies to some key aspects of the city. Just to mention one project, Manizales uses a smart and digitalized traffic signaling system that prevents accidents. This city is succeeding in improving the lives of citizens with new technologies and citizens recognize it.

There’s something that needs to be clear. There are no ten policies that all cities have to implement to become smart and sustainable. Each city needs its own policies and its own developments according to its problems and challenges.

And what would a community approach be like?

Since each community and region is different, diverse strategy systems are required. The main thing is to understand that it is not a matter of solving the needs of each site in isolation. Think of the space as a whole. That is why the concept of smart and sustainable cities must also be applied to rural communities. It is important to recreate an environment in which the citizen is not obliged to move. The idea should be to favor the already established environments and social ties so that if people decide to move to a city, they do so out of desire and not out of obligation. This obviously involves a political decision.

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