6 Common Reasons Why Smart Cities Fail

Published Categorized as Infrastructure
Smart Cities

Smart cities are often touted as the future of modern society, where technology is meant to work seamlessly within our lives to make life easier, faster, and more interconnected. Smart cities, however, face numerous problems that often make them fail.

Here are the reasons why smart cities fail:

  1. Invasion of privacy
  2. Power consumption
  3. Data security
  4. Public education
  5. Social discrimination
  6. Funding

In this article, we’ll be covering what smart city means in detail and what problems smart cities face that make them fail.

What Is a Smart City?

‘Smart city’ is a term veiled in equal parts enthusiasm for the future and mystery for its vague premise. You may have heard political or business leaders talking about building smart cities, but without any specific details.

There’s no singular definition for a smart city, but generally, a smart city uses cutting-edge technology, internet connectivity, and data collection to make city systems run smoothly and optimize how citizens live on a day-to-day basis.

The goal is to solve age-old urban problems as well as emerging problems. Another goal is to promote social and economic equality amongst all demographics.

Smart cities often use a complex array of sensors, for example, to collect traffic and public transportation data. A system will analyze this data and make changes that optimize how the system works – like ‘smart’ or ‘intelligent’ traffic lights that can detect emergency vehicles, navigation systems, and bus/rail systems that better serve citizens.

Reasons Why Smart Cities Fail

On paper, smart cities sound like a great idea that will bring society closer together while using technology to solve previously difficult problems. In reality, there are several problems that these cities face. Before smart cities can reach their full potential, they’ll need to account for and address these very real hurdles.

1. Invasion of Privacy

A primary tenet of smart cities is collecting data to improve city systems and citizens’ lives. With cameras on every corner and sensors everywhere, there’s almost no facet of life that goes unrecorded. While, in theory, this data improves the quality of life, social activists have concerns that such data collection and surveillance will lead to the creation of a 1984-esque police state.

Even without those concerns, such accumulation of data could prove attractive to malicious hackers. With most aspects of life monitored, that much data in the wrong hands could have disastrous consequences.

2. Power Consumption

Currently, most sensors in smart cities are powered by battery systems. With the vast number of sensors necessary to create an efficient smart city, it’s difficult and sometimes impractical to manufacture the batteries they need. In addition to manufacturing concerns, replacing the batteries of these sensors could prove troublesome at best.

Using ubiquitous fossil fuel-based power for these systems is inefficient and bad for the environment. However, advances in renewable energy seem promising: South Korean companies are working on systems that use solar power for smart city sensors.

While individual sensors take a minuscule amount of power to work, the large number that smart cities rely on makes solar more viable than batteries.

3. Data Security

As the internet becomes more and more a part of everyday life, data security remains a big concern. With the level of interconnectedness that smart cities propose, hackers could access many vulnerable points to steal valuable and vital data.

Cybercriminals constantly create new malware and ransomware designed to steal data they can sell or otherwise make use of for other crimes.

Suppose an entire city or significant portions of a city rely on the internet to function. In that case, it’s possible that criminals could design viruses to cripple or outright destroy entire parts of a city’s systems. Imagine what would happen if a hacker could completely disable New York’s extensive subway system: outright chaos.

Another example is the digitalization of records. How would a city government go about their work if, for example, all their records were digital and the system was shut down by cybercriminals? Before you dismiss that as a theoretical possibility, it’s already happened in Del Rio, Texas. They had to switch to pen and paper and had no access to digital records.

As civilization becomes more and more connected via the internet, data security will remain a big problem. There’s no quick fix for security concerns, unlike power concerns where solar energy may solve it soon.

4. Public Education

What good are billions of dollars to develop and implement smart systems within a city if the populace is unaware of how to make use of them?

Many systems within smart cities rely on citizen participation, and they’re crippled when a large chunk of people aren’t aware of changes or how to use them. Tech illiteracy is another very real problem among older people and in developing countries.

In the UK, for example, less than a quarter of people surveyed even knew the term ‘smart city.’ If they don’t even know what a smart city is, they certainly aren’t making use of any related systems.

Low participation means that the system won’t work as intended, leading people in the future to say, “Oh, smart cities don’t work.” This threatens the future of smart city-related research and innovation, making future adoption of smart city principles low.

5. Social Discrimination

In any system that relies on data, the system is only as good as the data. If historical data is used by smart city systems, for example, that system could be tainted by overt or covert discrimination.

One example of this is a facial recognition system developed at MIT, which had a staggering error rate of 34.7% when it came to recognizing African-American female faces, vs. a 0.8% error rate when recognizing light-skinned male faces.

Were the creators racist? Not necessarily. It was more likely that the creators simply didn’t involve female people of color in their research and development.

These oversights threaten the integrity of smart cities, which ideally would function the same way for everybody. Law enforcement records from places and eras that discriminated against people of color could cause systems to discriminate further.

This opens up a big can of worms: if data is flawed, you need better data. This means further research is necessary, which requires funding and time. Throwing out existing data can be very costly.

Finally, if someone suffered as a result of flawed smart city systems, who would be held responsible? The people who designed the systems, the origin of the data, or…? Anyone who suffered negative consequences would have little recourse.

6. Funding

As with most things, money is a big issue with smart cities. The research required to determine how smart systems would best work for a specific city and the implementation of smart systems…well, it isn’t cheap. Billions of dollars are dumped into smart city innovation, and that’s just to install the infrastructure.

Just consider how many sensors need to be installed and how they’ll be connected. And don’t forget that every single sensor needs high-speed internet access at all times to work as intended.

The cost of such a project is significant, and ironically, funding becomes difficult to come by when investors become aware of the other issues described above.

We haven’t even touched on the maintenance of smart city systems yet – the power systems, hardware, and software of all systems require regular care. Components wear out (engineers) and software needs updates (programmers), making maintenance an important consideration.


By Giovanni Valle

Giovanni Valle is a licensed architect and LEED-accredited professional and is certified by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB). He is the author and managing editor of various digital publications, including BuilderSpace, Your Own Architect, and Interiors Place.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *