Proposed Saudi Arabian smart city The Line appears to have been lifted straight from a science fiction film. Stretching 170 kilometres in length across the middle of the desert, The Line features mirrored skyscrapers looming more than 500 metres tall, with flying passenger pods swooping among them.

The claims made of the planned city are nothing if not ambitious, promising “never-before-seen efficiencies in city functions”, according to its developer’s website. Among these include residents being able to satisfy all their daily needs within five minutes, zero carbon emissions, and autonomous services that use artificial intelligence.

The Line today is still just a vision, but around the world, digital technologies are opening doors to the immense possibilities that smart cities can offer.

Glimpse of the future

“Digital technology is continuing to enhance the lives of citizens and cities’ competitiveness in the evolving world order,” Chew Men Leong, President of Urban Solutions at tech and engineering group ST Engineering, told its annual conference, Innotech 2022, late last month.

This year’s Innotech conference was entitled “Digitalising a Smart, Secure and Sustainable World”. The event saw technologists discuss numerous digital technologies that will lay the foundations of the cities of tomorrow.

One such technology is 5G, which boasts higher bandwidth and faster connectivity, enabling a proliferation of Internet of Things devices throughout smart cities, and seeing tech play a larger role in critical systems that require urgent, real-time responses, such as emergency services.

It can also allow a greater proliferation of robots, which are already becoming commonplace in a number of sectors, from rehabilitation assistants in hospitals to companions for the elderly to guides in museums.

Already, cities around the world are integrating such cutting-edge technologies, with the goal of bringing people better and more convenient services.

In South Korea, the Busan Eco Delta Smart City features smart homes that come inbuilt with alarm clocks that greet you by name. Meanwhile, urban planners in Zurich can now use augmented reality to visualise buildings. In Singapore, the Punggol Digital District will have artificial intelligence-controlled lighting and elevators to improve energy efficiency.

Big Brother

Accompanying such technological advances, however, is a degree undercurrent of uncertainty and scepticism amid mounting concerns over surveillance and privacy.

“Smart cities are nothing without surveillance,” says David Murakami Wood, a Professor of Critical Surveillance and Security Studies at the University of Ottawa’s Department of Criminology. For smart cities to run efficiently, networks of sensors must collect information about almost everything one can think of, he explains.

That data can then be used to inform city planning decisions, such as whether roads need to be widened, or fed into technologies such as AI to automate certain processes. Despite the fact that such information has beneficial uses, it can also very easily be abused.

“Information is power,” Wood says. “Much can be done with that information that is good, bad, profitable and dangerous. And all of those things have to be thought about.” The problem arises when the cities investing in such systems do not properly consider such factors, and instead focus solely on positive use cases.

One way governments can help to protect people’s privacy is through regulation. The European Union, for instance, implemented its General Data Protection Regulation in 2018, requiring entities operating in the bloc’s member countries to comply with certain practices, such as seeking explicit consent to use an individual’s data for specific purposes.

Securing digital cities

The widespread collection of data comes with another concern: cybersecurity.

“As we become increasingly digital, we also become more exposed to digital risks,” Lim Min Kwang, Chief Information Officer at the Cyber Security Agency of Singapore (CSA), told Innotech 2022.

Smart cities are particularly vulnerable due to their heavy dependence on the IoT, which Wood says is often “the most undersecured set of protocols”. IoT devices are often small and made to be as cost-effective as possible, frequently rendering cybersecurity to protect them an afterthought, if it is built in at all.

In Singapore, the CSA addresses this through a cyber-certification scheme that seeks to recognise enterprises with good cybersecurity practices. Its certificates serve as “a visible label to recognise enterprises that have implemented good cybersecurity practices,” Lim told the conference. Users can then feel more secure in the knowledge that the devices they are using and putting into their homes have a base level of security that is in accordance with national guidelines.

Cities are not just for citizens

The United Nations estimates that 68 per cent of the world’s population will live in urban areas by 2050 – an additional 2.5 billion people, not all of whom will be citizens of the countries they reside in.

Yet many digital services in smart cities today are built only with citizens in mind. Take smart border control measures, for instance. Automated immigration clearance often uses facial recognition and biometric technology to expedite the process of people returning to their home countries.

For migrant workers, however, the same technologies become a means of security surveillance, Wood says.

Wood points out that there are constantly two different types of smart city technologies at play: empowering smartness that provides a good quality of life and a repressive smartness that stops others from even setting foot in certain places.

“What we really need to be thinking about is who smart cities exclude,” he says. Technology is fallible, and when it becomes a gatekeeper of cities, it can greatly impact the lives of those whom its design may not favour.

Take facial recognition technology, for example. In 2019, the US Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology published a study which found that facial recognition technology performed relatively poorly when analysing the faces of minorities such as women, people of colour, the elderly and children.

Such failures in technological infrastructure can have real and devastating impacts on people. “Some people are infrastructurally empowered, and some are infrastructurally excluded,” Wood says. Just last year, Uber drivers accused the ride-hailing application’s facial recognition software of being racist and putting them out of work, Time magazine reported.

The potential for digital technologies to do good is clear, and often undisputed. Whether in the present or in future, smart cities promise better and greener living through their embrace of cutting-edge technologies.

But will what eventually emerges from all of the developments currently unfolding be a tech-augmented marvel or an oppressively monitored dystopia? As governments continue to pursue their smart city plans, it is perhaps time to reconsider the shape of regulation that will be required and the priorities smart city planners should maintain in order to best serve all who call cities home.