Rise of Technology

In a remarkably short time, the smartphone has dramatically transformed how we interact with our environment and ourselves. 


The influence of technology doesn’t have to manifest in unhealthy habits. In fact, personal technology when used in conjunction with the urban environment can help build a healthy society. Take fitness trackers.  

These smart devices have advanced features that track and encourage healthy behaviour. When put in conjunction with medical aid schemes and city-wide initiatives to boost healthy living, the results can be profound. Insurance providers in South Africa, for example, have become large distributors of fitness trackers thanks to an initiative that subsidizes the cost of trackers if members reach a certain level of fitness. These programs have been wildly successful and demonstrate how technology can help get people moving instead of contributing to a sedentary lifestyle.[1]Through co-operation between healthcare providers and city officials, such initiatives could have dramatic effects in a city like Dubai. 

Little more than a decade ago, few would have thought that we would have the ability to hail a taxi, order food, buy electronics, and open our front door with a small device carried around in our pockets. In a remarkably short time, the smartphone has dramatically transformed how we interact with our environment and ourselves. 

The contemporary appeal of urbanism as a topic of debate and interest is largely due to the rise of technology. The explosion of internet connectivity has made life remarkably easier for billions 
of people around the world. From sub-Saharan Africa to South-East Asia, people are able to connect, bank, live, and communicate in incredible new ways thanks to the rise of the internet. 

Then there is the use of technology to improve the city. These trends have coalesced around the catch-all term “smart cities”, which conveys the drive to use data, automation, high-speed connectivity, and artificial intelligence to make cities more connected, liveable, and sustainable. While the term is thrown around urbanist and mainstream circles quite a bit these days, it is important to note there is not one agreed upon definition of the term.

Silicon Valley has embraced the ethos of smart cities with open arms. Through various challenges with city governments around the world and with their own smart projects, these companies see technology and more specifically data as the missing ingredient in creating healthier, more efficient urban environments.[2]

From a city planning standpoint, the pivot towards smart cities has transformed the way authorities obtain information about residents and determine how best to allocate resources. For residents, access to cheap and fast internet is critical for participation in the city ecosystem as more services are moved online. Just as highways created spaces of exclusion for minorities, the placement of internet infrastructure can create pockets of digital exclusion.

This is a new field that is fraught with unknown challenges. Take India’s relationship to tech on the national level as an example. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP party came to power in 2014, it promised to build 100 smart cities across the country to launch India into a new digital future. The problem was how to prepare millions of Indians for smart citizenship. 

The link between smart city governance and human-centric urbanism is multifaceted and critical. Smart city platforms will increasingly dictate how resources are utilized in human-centric urban plans. As such, residents must “buy in” to these platforms to a degree in order to allow for human-centric urbanism to reach its full potential. India, in this case, is an important example of the progress taking place in this field. 

While an increasing number of Indians are using smartphones, there are still huge numbers of people who have not embraced cashless payments and e-governance. Digital identification is a critical part of this challenge. If citizens and residents are not able to obtain digital forms of ID, they could be excluded from city services for everything from disaster response assistance to voting. Digital inclusion is about more than smartphone access.

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The construction of 5G connectivity infrastructure is another example of how the push towards digital cities is creating pockets of exclusion. Where cities choose to create new internet infrastructure will have an enormous impact on who has access to the means of production in the modern economy. It is unlikely that cities will invest in significant infrastructure resources in low-income areas. As such, the patterns of exclusion that resulted in low-income areas in the first place are only set to continue in the digital city. Some cities are trying to fight these trends. New York City, for example, has been transforming old phone booths into free Wi-Fi hotspots in a bid to bring the internet to more residents. But ingrained patterns are difficult 
to break, even with the promise of smart cities.[3]

The research group IHS identified 21 cities that met their smart city criteria in 2013, and predict that number will more than quadruple to 88 smart cities by 2025. But as cities of all sizes begin adapting smart technologies, more liberal estimates suggest the number of active smart city projects in 2017 approached 10 times that number. In their 2017 Smart City Tracker report, Navigant Research identified at least 250 smart city projects in 178 cities worldwide. The real number of smart city initiatives is likely higher still. 

A study commissioned by the European Union in 2014 to map smart city projects in Europe identified 240 cities from 28 European countries that were implementing or had proposed smart city initiatives.
In 2016, 36 cities from 12 European countries applied for the 2016 European Capital of Innovation Award, part of Horizon 2020, the EU’s research and innovation program. Amsterdam, Berlin, Eindhoven, Glasgow, Milan, Oxford, Paris, Turin, and Vienna were shortlisted – Barcelona won in 2015. European cities have consistently been ranked among the smartest in the world.

As part of this transformation, technology, good governance, and a willingness to embrace innovations in the field of urbanism have been used interchangeably to ensure a better quality of life in some places. Cities are manifestations of life that can reflect our best intentions, darkest fears, and unhealthiest habits. Like human beings, they can change and adapt with the right guidance. With a human-centric approach, contemporary urbanism can focus on modern challenges such as health, aging, and design solutions to overcome these challenges with intelligent use of advanced technologies. 


[1] Cameron, Jackie. “Healthy Living Focus Boosts Profits for Apple Watch Seller Discovery” Biznews, 6/9/2016, 
https://www.biznews.com/sa-investing/2016/09/06/healthy-living-focus-boosts-profits-for-apple-watch-seller-discovery-annual-results nking-our-cities-to-fight-obesity

[2] Mattern, Shannon. “A City is Not a Computer” Places Journal, February 2017, https://placesjournal.org/article/a-city-is-not-a-computer/?gclid=Cj0KCQiAjszhBRDgARIsAH8KgveaCNAGcfe1InKpuSEaWLvyv_Xu4CpofQU4osxpzEcwOYygkwYLt8waAs-gEALw_wcB&cn-reloaded=1

[3] Montgomery, Charles. Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design. New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2013.