Digital Cities - Potential or Risk for Sustainable Development?

Carlo Ratti, Carlo Ratti Associati, SENSEable City Lab, MIT; Shivani Chaudhry, Habitat International Coalition - South Asia Program;


Moderator: Ina Schieferdecker, WBGU, Fraunhofer Institute for Open Communication Systems FOKUS 

The spread of information and communication technologies, which has accelerated since the beginning of the 21st century, is one of the most important global trends. There is no doubt that the emerging ‘digital age’ will have a huge impact on the way cities and city dwellers‘ quality of life will develop. Whether all forms of urban digitization will contribute to people-oriented and sustainable urban development is, however, controversial.

Up to now, the ‘smart city’ rhetoric often promises an urban utopia in which the urban citizen enjoys the full range of technological support: self-driving electric cars take you to the next train station, drop you there and then drive themselves off to park and recharge. A person who has a heart attack can be rescued by sending a drone equipped with a defibrillator long before an ambulance arrives. Multi- functional street lighting switches on only when a person or a car is passing by; it can be simultaneously used for recharging electric cars and provides wireless internet access. Cities will be built using architecture that senses and responds.

Other people are critical as to whether the digital city will be able to solve fundamental problems of urban life, such as access to adequate and affordable housing, a functioning public transport system, avoidance of air pollution, or access to open public or green spaces. Some argue that smart cities, especially in developing countries and emerging economies, might become enclaves that keep out the poor; even public funds are being spent on gated ‘privatopias’ instead of on low-cost housing and basic services. In this sense, digitization can aggravate the urban divide. Furthermore, issues such as privacy, data governance and security are often also ignored by governments and civil society.

Although we don’t know where the digital future will take humanity, we urgently need to discuss how we can steer the digitization of cities in a way that leaves no one behind and supports the transformation towards sustainability.



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