We must bring the citizens to the heart of European smart city thinking, not focus on the interests of global behemoths or political aspirations.
The images associated with smart cities are typically technology-driven. Over the past decades, especially private companies have been largely at the forefront of boosting smart city development and technology through their projects. Meanwhile, public organisations, municipalities, and cities have struggled with scarce resources.
Understanding the residents’ needs and improving the quality of life has been a secondary objective in the technology-centred development of smart cities. As a result, the so-called Chinese model and the Silicon Valley model have become the world’s leading smart city models.
China’s smart city solutions respond to the challenges of rapid urbanisation by, for example, facilitating traffic congestion, mobile payments, and deliveries. The aim is to not only improve the lives of the citizens but also to monitor and control them to strengthen internal security. The government collects data from its citizens, for example, through surveillance cameras and mobile phones. In this model, the smart city primarily serves the interests of the government.
The Chinese model and the Silicon Valley model have become the world’s leading smart city models.
The North American Silicon Valley model is backed by major technology companies, such as Amazon, Apple, and Google. In this model, smart city development is a way to bring competitive advantage to companies through accessing the data of city residents. Improving the living environment in growing cities is a secondary goal. The Silicon Valley model can be considered to be an example of Shoshana Zuboff’s surveillance capitalism.
Europe, on the contrary, is lagging in the global competition. In addition to the Chinese and Silicon Valley models, we need a European, people-centred smart city model.
Nordic cities are a great starting point for creating a European smart city model. The strengths of Nordic societies have traditionally been high-quality public services and their extensive register data, strong trust in public organisations, transparency in decision-making, active citizenship, and respect for privacy.
Municipalities and cities also have broad authority in the Nordic countries compared to the rest of the world. They are an essential part of people’s lives because of providing a major part of vital public services, having extensive data registers and the ability to influence the principles of data ownership and data rights.
The Nordic cities now have the opportunity to create the core of a European, globally attractive, and fair smart city model that does not focus on the interests of global behemoths or political aspirations.
Smart cities must be visible in people’s lives in a way that is understandable and meaningful, so that people benefit directly from its solutions and the use of their data. The Nordic cities must bring the citizens to the heart of European smart city thinking.
Maria Malho works as a consultant for the Nordic think tank Demos Helsinki. Demos Helsinki is working with the four largest cities in Finland to develop the Nordic Smart City Model. The column has been published in Tutkain Magazine (4/2019).