What is a Smart City? Since the concept gained widespread prominence in the aughts, its definition has been ever-evolving—and elusive. That’s in no small part because of the staggering pace at which technology has developed: Broadband was cutting edge at the turn of the century while today we live in an age of big data and the internet of things. In its 2018 report, “Smart Cities: Digital Solutions for a More Livable Future,” McKinsey Global Institute defines smart cities as places that “put data and digital technology to work with the goal of improving the quality of life.” Imagine countless sensors tracking building performance, traffic conditions, city services, and citizen and pedestrian preferences, creating an endless stream of information that can help make urban living more productive, cost-effective, and sustainable.

At least that’s the utopian vision. Very few ground-up projects have actually been built, and the ones that have, for the most part, have fallen well short of those ambitious aims. Consider Songdo, in South Korea, which sports serious technological efficiencies but has been disparaged by critics as characterless. What makes a city smart can’t be defined solely by its tech. How do you measure a city’s soul, the kind of urbanism that Jane Jacobs espoused, with lively neighborhoods and sidewalks and gathering places that encourage serendipitous encounters among its residents?

Songdo, South Korea
Chanchai Songdo, South Korea

At a 2014 European Union conference about smart cities in Brussels, Rem Koolhaas, Hon. FAIA, took the stage after several gurus had already presented. “I had a sinking feeling as I was listening to the talks by these prominent figures in the field of smart cities because the city used to be the domain of the architect, and now, frankly, they have made it their domain. This transfer of authority has been achieved in a clever way by calling their city smart—and by calling it smart, our city”—i.e., the city of the architect—“is condemned to being stupid.” He continued: “Because the smart city movement has been apolitical in its declarations, we also have to ask about the politics behind the improvements on offer.” Caveat emptor.

Mega-corporations such as GE, Intel, and AT&T have been charging headlong into the arena, and no wonder: A March 2018 report estimated that the smart city market will grow to $2.57 trillion by 2025. Will their visions verge more on utopia or dystopia? The rise of a certain type of smart city—let’s call it the sensor city—could certainly be a formula for cleanliness and efficiency, but it could also lead to an exacerbation of inequality, expansion of state and corporate surveillance, and further erosion of privacy. Engaged citizens are pushing back, lobbying for a more inclusive, ground-up approach to the integration of technology with city building and management—one that respects individual rights, civic life, and the public purse.

Given that the majority of the world’s population now lives in urban areas, how the smart city movement evolves will have untold significance for how we will live in the not-so-distant future. In the following stories, which include case studies, a debate between leading visionaries, and other shorter items, we attempt to separate hype from reality, and demonstrate the key roles architects can play in this promising but ill-defined, and potentially even nefarious, landscape.

Rob Z.