What’s in the smart city for the technophobic?


Digital technologies are a major vector for the transformation of our lives: they change the way we access information, the way we communicate with one another, the way we consume -be it virtual content or physical goods-, the way we interact with our environment… They are also changing our cities, being enablers for Smart Cities.

Numerous public services already rely on digital technologies: you can pay your taxes or your parking fee with your mobile phone, search routes for public transports, and even sometimes give your opinion to the local government regarding specific urban projects. And in the future, digital technologies will be key for an ever increasing number of new services or new ways to live in the city: telecommuting, smart cars, smart buildings, improved garbage collection…

Yet, some people still don’t have access to digital devices and connections, intentionally or not. Elderly people are often mentioned as a population who may suffer from a new kind of digital divide in smart cities, but they are not the only ones:

  • Some people are reluctant to put their trust in digital companies such as Apple or Google, and are not equipped with personal devices such as smartphones or wearables;
  • Low-income populations are also under-equipped regarding smart devices and mobile broadband connections;
  • In some countries, recently arrived immigrants may also miss out on the opportunities of Smart Cities because of the lack of devices or connections.

We often hear that smart cities can’t exist without smart citizens, but can non-smart citizens live in a Smart City and benefit from it? A new kind of digital divide may rise with Smart Cities, between those who can and want to access innovative services, and those who can’t or won’t. And while developing municipal WiFi networks helps, it won't be sufficient to solve all digital divide issues.

As time goes by, the consequences of this digital divide for the ‘non-smart’ citizens are to become only greater: not only digital services deliver more value for the end user, but they sometimes allow for savings too. Some insurance companies have already started giving their customers discounts if they use fitness trackers, and more discounts on various services will likely be offered to smartphone users in exchange of personal data or viewing ads. In households, connected thermostats and energy platforms enable energy savings, providing further financial gains for the users.

Smart cities are however not just about implementing the latest technology. Making the way we live more sustainable, spurring innovation to improve the daily life of citizens, increasing efficiency of public services… Surely these goals can rely on digital innovation, but technology should just be seen as a tool rather than a purpose.

And while some citizens will miss out on some benefits of the Smart Cities due to a lack of device or connection, they will still benefit from other aspects. The mere fact that other citizens use smartphones to pay for their parking fees or search for public transport routes already brings gains, by freeing up resources (roads, parking meters…). Also, other smart services don’t require the citizen to be equipped with specific devices: optimization of street lighting or garbage collection, sensor networks to monitor natural hazards or water leakages… The greater efficiency of public services doesn’t necessarily rely on a digital link with the citizen in these cases, unlike other projects such as ones aiming for a broader participation of citizens.

So what should cities do about this new digital divide? Some may think that it will resolve itself as smartphone penetration increases, but with a faster than ever pace of innovation, chances are slower or non-adopters will always be part of the landscape. What first comes to mind is that smart services should enhance the city, and not make it harder to live for the tech-unsavvy. For example, digital payment systems should always leave room for traditional booths or meters, and not completely replace them. Connected street furniture can also compensate –to a certain extent– for the lack of smart devices, by letting users access information or services. But in other cases, a change in the legal framework may be required to make sure households are equipped with smart devices, such as smart meters or connected fire alarms, if deemed necessary for the common good.

All in all, the question of digital divide is still relevant, and will even more be so as smart services are implemented. Cities should anticipate this matter when considering a project, to be as inclusive as possible.