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Smart city: an extremely attractive solution between innovation and challenges

Aggiornamento: 16 ago 2023

Among the many topics covered in the World Cities Report 2022, the “Innovation and Technology: Towards Knowledge-Based Urban Futures” section focuses on the concept of a “smart city.” The urban environment plays a determinant role as cities are expected to steer innovation towards the sustainability transition and use it to tackle urban challenges. In this perspective, smart cities intend to recognize and utilize opportunities to act as platforms for innovation. Many municipal administrations already have chosen to adopt a smart city agenda to provide a strategic direction for urban development.

Future cities are meant to be places of innovation through the investment in digital best practices capable of contributing to increased well-being in urban areas as well as in social innovation to create better social outcomes and to provide services for disadvantaged communities and in public sector ones to bring the interests of diverse local communities forward.

If linked with smart cities, these advancing policies tend to be more beneficial when they are localized and inclusive. Among the forms of practice that can be envisaged to hit the prefigured targets, worth mentioning is the alignment of innovation policies to grand societal challenges (such as climate change, pollution, poverty, and inequalities), the support provided to urban agglomeration, the creation of a conducive environment for technology and entrepreneurial start-up companies and support facilities for the establishment of partnerships with several different actors inside and outside of the public sector.

Despite all the positive sides of smart cities’ innovation, several initiatives have faced significant criticism, particularly highlighting the risk of an excessively technological approach to innovation without due regard to diverse urban and social contexts. Given the existing risks, decision-makers need to deal with four main challenges related to smart cities’ innovation in promoting their initiatives.

First, it is essential to respect city-specific contexts to avoid being detached from reality and develop a hyper-efficient urban environment. Secondly, decision-makers should adopt a people-centered perspective, emphasizing that smart cities would explicitly serve the interests of citizens while giving them an active role in the organization and implementation of innovative tools. Another risk related to smart cities is the assumption according to which this model can be suitable for, and therefore superimposed on, cities in developing countries and eventually provincialize them. Careful evaluations must be first drafted and discussed before proceeding to a top-down implementation. Finally, it is crucial to ensure environmental sustainability. Indeed, the environmental costs of smart city projects are frequently overlooked, especially when there is growing evidence that technological innovations may be carbon-intensive and environmentally damaging. Unfortunately, this is a luxury we cannot afford given the state of our planet.

In a few words: smart cities are increasingly becoming desirable solutions to several future challenges. However, it is fundamental to deal with innovation challenges and prevent these risks from increasing to unproportional unbearable consequences.

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