Smart City Trends: Should We Be Concerned About Privacy

As we move into the third decade of the 21st century, smart city developments are starting to make real differences in our urban environments. Whether it is matters of convenience, environmental footprints, safety, or the myriad other aspects of life, intelligent design and systems for smarter living are set to overhaul our existing infrastructures.

While the multiple benefits of smart cities receive a lot of media attention, there are troubling privacy concerns that get rather less air time. Here, we examine the rise of smart cities across the world and consider what makes them tick, we also look into why we need to attend to matters of privacy as a primary focus, and what citizens can do if they wish to opt-out — and just how possible this is.

But first, what exactly is a smart city?

What is a Smart City?

Because so many different technologies are in use in global smart cities, because these technologies may differ from city to city, and because each city and its inhabitants’ conception of a smart city varies, there is no universal definition of “smart city” as a term.

There is, however, a common understanding that a smart city is one that utilizes technology to support infrastructure and systems. TechRepublic’s useful definition is as follows: “smart cities utilize IoT sensors, actuators, and technology to connect components across the city. This connects every layer of a city, from the air to the street to [the] underground.”

Scholars have differing views of what a smart city entails, some, such as Mark Deakin, a Professor of Built Environment at Edinburgh Napier University in Scotland, UK, define smart cities by whom they benefit. Deakin believes that a smart city is one that not only utilizes the latest Internet of Things (IoT) and information and communication technologies (ICT) but one that does so for its citizens’ greater happiness, that is, smart cities have a positive effect on the community as a whole.

Others place their focus on the environment as a prime motivating factor for smart city developments. Noticing a lack of sustainability focus in some developments, several scholars differentiate between smart cities and smart sustainable cities, with the latter being the preferred outcome.

Ultimately though, and for the purposes of this article, we can broadly define a smart city as one that uses IoT and ICT technologies in a way that makes life greener, safer, and more convenient.

Do We Need Smart Cities?

Given the privacy concerns that smart cities prompt (which we’ll delve more into later), it’s tempting to ask whether we even need smart cities. The answer is yes and no, for several interconnected reasons.

Firstly, the world’s population is increasing, according to the United Nations (UN), the global population is poised to hit 9.7 billion people in 2050. This is in accordance with population growth rates as seen throughout the 20th century and into the 21st.

Secondly, urbanization, the process of people slowly moving from less-populated country areas to more highly populated cities and towns, is also steadily increasing. The UN also notes that 2.5 billion more people will move to urban areas by 2050 and the percentage of the world’s population living in cities could reach 68%.

Megacities such as Tokyo, New Delhi, Cairo, and Mumbai house around 20 to 37 million people in each, and these figures are expected to grow throughout the next 50 years. Couple this with the rate of urbanization and you begin to see why smart solutions are needed. So many people mean an increased need for tailor-made solutions and living optimizations that take the pressure off traditional infrastructures and systems.

If we were able to halt urbanization and population growth, there would be less need for smart cities. However, this is akin to trying to herd cats — ultimately futile and a waste of resources that could be much better spent elsewhere.

Finally, cities are important, today, as they have since the very beginnings of civilizations around the world, cities provide the economic centers needed for businesses and, by extension, citizens and the nation as a whole, to thrive.

The Aims Of A Smart City

Smart cities are cities that use technology and data to:

  • Streamline processes and save on human resources through the increased use of machine learning and AI.
  • Make data-driven decisions that enable actionable steps.
  • Ensure physical resources such as electricity and water are not wasted or used unnecessarily.
  • Make sure that citizens are kept as safe as possible.
  • Provide citizens with systems that make their lives easier and more convenient.
  • Reduce the city’s overall impact on the environment — both urban and further afield.
  • Make a switch to renewable resources whenever possible.

Many of these aims are interconnected. For example, a real-time public transportation service that responds to the actual needs of citizens and delivers services when required means people will be less likely to take a car, which in turn reduces traffic and congestion and results in fewer fossil fuel emissions.

Likewise, street lights that switch on only when there is activity (a technology already in use in many places) mean less power is being used. This might seem like a small change, but it can have a huge impact. Did you know that lighting uses a whopping 19 percent of the world’s total electricity use?

Smart city developments make significant changes to these six broad aspects of city life:

  1. Infrastructure

Public infrastructure includes such things as lighting, which we mentioned above.

  1. Utilities

Utilities broadly encompass water, gas, waste management, and electricity systems, and how the resources are delivered to citizens.

  1. Buildings

Optimized buildings can make a big difference to a city. Things such as ventilation, insulation, heating, and cooling systems can be designed for maximum comfort and minimal energy spend.

  1. Transport

Transport includes public transportation in all its guises alongside roads for drivers and dedicated lanes for cyclists and walkers.

  1. Environment

Smart sustainable cities are those that minimize non-renewable energy expenditure and take steps to actively clean up their urban sphere, such as by cutting carbon emissions dramatically and monitoring air quality to mitigate the risk of predominantly human-induced environmental disasters, such as acid rain.

  1. Life

Citizens will have access to systems that make their lives in the city easier and safer.

Worldwide Smart City Exemplars

Across the world, many cities are putting smart systems into place and utilizing many of the benefits of today’s intuitive ICT and IoT technologies. Here are two of the cities considered exemplars in the global community:


Singapore is considered to be the smartest city in the world. In 2020, it took number-one place in IMD’s Smart City Index.

The city offers up some impressive smart credentials, including its forward-thinking healthcare and wellness goals. Health City Novena is a masterplan for community-centric health. Standard infrastructure such as pedestrian walkways, outdoor recreation spaces, and even car parks are in place to both bolster and complement the citizen-patient experience. The thinking here is that healthy citizens leads to a healthier community and, by extension, city.

It’s not only about physical health though, Singapore residents rarely have to worry about housing. In fact, Singapore’s Housing Development Board (HDB) offers all city dwellers free public housing if they need it. And government-supplied housing here is more a second-thought apartment, it encompasses community areas that integrate liveability and sustainability.

In terms of IoT technology in use, Singapore’s city planners and engineers have dubbed the nation’s IoT sensor and interconnectivity plan the E3A: Everyone, Everything, Everywhere, All the Time. Singapore plans to monitor all happenings in order to collect data and make decisions that ultimately benefit its citizens. The E3A is backed up by the Smart Nation Platform (SNP) and the Heterogeneous Network (HetNet).


Under former mayor and current Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, London launched an ambitious smart city plan that saw it climb up the smartness rankings. These initiatives, called Smarter London Together, are in place to make London “the smartest city in the world”. Focusing on user-centric designs, mass data sharing, increased connectivity, better digital literacies, and greater collaboration between the private and public services sectors.

London’s growing population put great pressure on its transport, healthcare, energy, and pollution management sectors. To mitigate the pressure, the city turned to smart-city solutions and is constantly developing projects in collaboration with startups and academics.

For example, the Connected Cities Institute supports user-centered technology research and implementations, such as London Living Labs. In the Living Labs project, scientists are performing air and water quality tests in Hyde Park thanks to a network of wireless sensors.

The Transport for London platform meanwhile, means residents can plan their journey via multi-modal smart mobility. From this one platform users can hire bikes, take a cable car trip, top-up their Oyster cards, and much more.

London’s Metropolitan Police have also tried a facial-recognition camera system that can identify wanted suspects and feed the information back to law enforcement in real-time.

How Do Smart Cities Work?

To function effectively and make the kind of data-driven decisions that actually lead to intelligent and sustainable changes and systems, smart cities need data, in fact, they need a lot of it. Whether it’s how much electricity your household uses between 4 pm and 5 pm, or how fast you walk along a given sidewalk, and even your parking habits, a smart city would like to know everything it can.

We mentioned Singapore’s E3A plan before, and it’s an apt description of what data a smart city needs; information on everyone, everywhere, everything, all the time. Vast networks of IoT sensors can monitor traffic, air quality, parking space availability, and much more. The data are then fed back into data banks where machine learning and AI-driven technologies can sort them into usable statistics faster than any human.

Once statistics and information is compiled and analyzed, plans to cut down on energy and optimize traffic flow, for example, can be enacted. Automated systems and processes also take a lot of the legwork out of routine policing and other regulatory matters. In Shenzhen, China, for example, authorities use facial recognition technology to name and shame jaywalkers, who are also fined instantaneously.

Why Privacy Matters

At this point, you might be thinking that it sounds a little Orwellian, almost like Big Brother just became real. If so, you’re not alone. Commentators and critics alike have pointed out that this is an abuse of the already questionable Social Credit system. It’s wrong, however, to assume that China is alone in privacy rights abuses.

Plenty of people in London objected strongly to the live facial recognition cameras, and in New Zealand, an investigation was launched after it became apparent that the police had rolled out the same technology without the go-ahead from the Privacy Commissioner.

And in North America, Toronto’s collaboration with Google sister company Sidewalk Labs was rocked by one of the lead privacy experts quitting her job mid-development. Dr. Anne Cavoukian cited ongoing privacy concerns, stating that she’d imagined a smart city of privacy, ‘as opposed to a smart city of surveillance’.

It transpired that third-party companies had access to citizens’ data — data that could potentially be used for targeted advertising purposes, for example.

Here we find the crux of the privacy issue with smart cities: data control and use. Notably, who can see my data, who can use it, and who, if anyone, is it being sold to? That data may be something as benign as how fast you walk down a pavement, or it may be as identifiable as your car’s make, model, year, and average speeds in the city.

Furthermore, the mass data needed by smart cities and their vast networks of sensors aren’t always something citizens can opt-out of. There is, for example, no way to avoid smart cameras in your favorite park. Being watched all the time is a big price to pay for smarter cities. Sure, you can safeguard your privacy with a VPN when you’re online, but in the physical realm, there’s little you can do.

In the excitement about smart cities, there seems to be too little attention paid to privacy and our rights to not be monitored in a surveillance state. Smart city developments must keep privacy at the fore if they are truly smart and if, as some scholars have suggested, smart cities are those that benefit their residents, surveillance should be kept to an absolute minimum. Data should be depersonalized as soon as it is collected and third-parties should be denied access.

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