Urban Transformation

Smart cities must pay more attention to the people who live in them

The sun peaks through the clouds above the East River as seen from the Empire State Building in New York City, U.S., February 14, 2019

How to build a bright urban future. Image: REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

Viktor Weber
Founder & Director, Future Real Estate Institute
Our Impact
What's the World Economic Forum doing to accelerate action on Urban Transformation?
The Big Picture
Explore and monitor how The Digital Economy is affecting economies, industries and global issues
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale
Stay up to date:

The Digital Economy

Around 68% of the global population might live in urban areas by 2050. Smart cities will likely be a part of this future, promising to make our lives more convenient, more secure and more sustainable.

Mostly, the stakeholders of smart city projects are politicians, consultants, academics and tech companies. However, the most important group of stakeholders is often missing: the ordinary citizens that will have to live in these transformed cities.

In consequence, strategies and projects focus too much on technology and not enough on cities’ inhabitants. This issue has been raised before in academia and has been answered with frameworks and standards such as the Boston Smart City Playbook or the BSI Smart City Standards.

Yet research has shown that there are still shortcomings and contradictions regarding true inhabitant-centricity. In light of the fact that inhabitant-centricity and citizen engagement are deciding success factors for any smart city transformation, it becomes vital to put inhabitants first.


Otherwise cities might invest significantly into services that its people will neither use nor want. If decision-makers do not change the current trajectory, we will see more protests similar to the ones in Toronto this year.

How could this happen?

The smart city market is rapidly growing to a predicted volume of $158 billion in 2022 and many interested groups hope to profit from that. It is not just lucrative for tech-companies to develop the hardware and software, but also to offer additional services. Among other things, most cities are not capable of handling the newly acquired influx of data, inferring meaningful insights or monetising it, which is why city governments look for help in the private sector. Due to a lack of skilled IT personnel, cybersecurity is also often outsourced.

Owing to the popularity of smart cities, political decision-makers can use smart city projects for branding while stimulating investments. Unfortunately, there is a huge technology-knowledge gap in politics, inhibiting the development of reasonable strategies. The lack of knowledge is compensated for by seeking assistance from third parties that might have their own agenda.

This dependence on the private sector induces a positive reinforcement of close collaboration between city governments and businesses, leading to even more exclusion of normal citizens.

False incentives from smart city rankings

Analysing the methodologies and measured indicators of the smart city rankings that have gained attention in the media, it becomes obvious that inhabitant-centricity and citizen engagement only play a minor role.

The IESE Cities in Motion Index (CIMI) 2018 presented a well-designed ranking of cities, and stated that collaboration (between, for example, residents and administration, public-private-partnerships and between cities) is critical for success, yet did not take into account any parameters for inhabitant-centricity and citizen-engagement when determining their ranking.

Easy Park’s Smart City Index 2017 used election turnout as proxy for citizen participation, which does not necessarily translate in a more democratic and inhabitant-centric smart city. A more recent ranking by the Eden Strategy Institute included people-centricity as one of 10 equally weighted parameters, defining it as a people-first approach without answering how it could be quantitatively measured.

The logical consequence of a people-first approach would have been to mirror the importance in the overall weighing for the total score, which did not happen. Some rankings did use political participation as proxy for citizen engagement in smart city projects. However, depending on the political system, many city officials that are involved in smart city projects are not democratically elected but simply public officials, which limits the significance of the used parameter. And since those rankings are often quoted in the media and used by cities for marketing purposes, this has a self-reinforcing effect.

Smart city rankings should start to research and use indicators such as the existence of a digital co-collaboration platform, means of offline engagement (a dedicated office, door-to-door and phone surveys, for example), percentage of surveyed city population, community representatives in steering committees, incorporation of continuous citizen-feedback, number of public events, free digital literacy education, the possibility to opt-out of data-collection, ratio of bottom-up versus top-down initiated projects, transparent communication and transparency regarding contracting to commercial-partners (such as data usage or monetisation).

Furthermore, smart city rankings should attribute a relatively higher weight to the inhabitant-centricity indicator, when building a total score. When not reflecting the importance of inhabitant-centricity in rankings, it sets false incentives and misleading examples for future smart city projects.


How to become inhabitant-centric

The city of Montreal engaged its citizens through four surveys, meetings and a dedicated phone-line in order to inform their smart city goals and collect ideas. In total the city collected qualitative survey data from 7601 residents, which equals less than 0.0045% of the city’s population. It becomes obvious that a non-representative share of the population might have impacted the life of all inhabitants. Hence, we need a more scientifically representative data collection. Adding to this, feedback and idea generation from citizens should be continuously incentivised and gathered, not just at certain project stages.

Montreal’s dedicated phone-line led to more than a million data-points which revealed the wishes and problems of its citizens. They predominantly addressed roads, parks, garbage pickups or streetlights. While technologists discuss artificial intelligence, data analytics, sensors, robotics or blockchain in the context of a smart city, inhabitants seem to define a smart city with less of a focus on tech. Hence, it is important to establish common ground when it comes to the definition of a smart city and to educate citizens about digital technologies. Vice versa, smart city steering committees have to better incorporate the problems, wishes and needs of their inhabitants.

Cities like Stockholm, Reykjavik, Amsterdam and Copenhagen have suggestion platforms linked on their website or offer apps through which inhabitants can provide information about the city’s infrastructure and environment. Yet these communication tools tend to exclude non-digitally-savvy people like the elderly or simply less-informed inhabitants, which leads to a digital bias. People that are digital-savvy and interested might contribute disproportionately to a smart city strategy. Hence, we also need home visits and dedicated offline touching points that are communicated in local newspapers and letters. Citizens should also have continuously offline and online access to a voting system for project proposals, selection and funding.

In order to close the technological knowledge gap in steering committees, governments should also invest in full-time personnel who can initiate and manage smart city projects. It should be a diverse team of engineers, computer scientists, statisticians, biologists, psychologists, social scientists, lawyers, civil engineers, health professionals, teachers and others that could create a balanced and expert smart city council. Such a multi-disciplined team would be less dependent on external consultants and corporate partners, which would allow a closer and less-biased dialogue with the inhabitants.

Have you read?

Plea for inhabitant-centricity

I plea that decision-makers of smart city projects should include a representative group of their city’s inhabitants into their ideation, strategy development and project implementation. It should conduct extensive surveys, focus groups and interviews, have an offline as well as online open-innovation hub with a democratic and transparent voting system. Projects that receive high approval rates and are deemed feasible by experts, should be co-developed with a tight feedback loop from the public. Adding to this, communication should be transparent and the interdisciplinary steering committee should be approachable.

Cities should provide digital education and create awareness in order to make every inhabitant understand how a smart city is defined and the implications it could have - such as sustainability, security, costs and privacy, for example. Business partners should be selected transparently not just according to price, but to data usage, security, maintenance and sustainability alongside other metrics.

Ultimately, cities are built for generations of people and not the commercial interests of companies or ambitious politicians who wish to leave their mark. Even though a city might market itself as smart or use innovative technologies, it would still be dumb if it neglects its people and its environment.

In order to fulfil the promise of a bright urban future, we have to rethink how we design smart cities and truly follow the strategy: Inhabitants first!

Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Urban TransformationFourth Industrial Revolution
World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.

4 practical solutions to the world's spiraling housing crisis

Michael Purton

June 10, 2024

About Us



Partners & Members

  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum