2.1 Introduction

According to the World Bank, cities are home to roughly 55% of the world’s population and account for more than 80% of its Gross Domestic Product (2020). It is projected that by 2030, about “752 million people will live in cities with at least 10 million inhabitants” (United Nations 2017, p. 3). Cities are therefore not only of central importance to the economy, but also have a critical impact on the environmental, political, and social lives of the individuals who inhabit them (World Bank 2020). Realizing the potential to improve people’s lives along these axes, governments around the world have, for the last couple of decades, been looking to leverage various “smart city” initiatives to meet these goals. (IMD World Competitiveness 2020; People’s Republic of China, nd).

Smart city initiatives are diverse and span across various industries. These initiatives can include opportunities to increase food security with urban community farming. Cities can target climate change through the implementation of smart mobility and smart grids, expansion of green spaces, and through the creation of 15-min city neighbourhoods. Smart city initiatives can also aim to increase access to services for citizens and civic participation (UN Economist Network 2020, pp. 12, 89). In addition to helping municipalities, provinces, and states benefit citizens, it has been suggested that smart cities can help countries work toward achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) (Alisjahbana 2019). Smart cities have been identified as an opportunity to work toward attaining SDG 11, making “cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable” (IISD 2018) in addition to contributing to other SDGs.Footnote 1

Smart city governance is a vast topic that encompasses numerous facets and elements. Given that in many cases, technology has been seen as the main enabler of smart city development, policymakers have been grappling with issues around governance within this environment (UN Report 2020, p. 89). While there are practical reasons for governments and citizens to encourage the development of smart cities, there are also regulatory, legal, policy, and ethical challenges that may limit these benefits or prevent them from being realized at all. (World Economic Forum 2020).Footnote 2 Recognizing the opportunities to leverage smart city initiatives, stakeholders have been keen to help smart cities realize their fullest potential while navigating these challenges (World Economic Forum 2019).Footnote 3 One such initiative is the G20 Global Smart Cities Alliance, which aims to “lead a new global effort to establish universal norms and guidelines for implementation of smart city technology” and to create a roadmap for cities to leverage policy and regulatory toolboxes for smart cities (World Economic Forum 2019).

It is difficult to know how many smart cities currently exist or are in development, as there are initiatives stemming across all continents (IMDWCC 2020). The earliest examples of smart cities have been said to include those in Europe, including Amsterdam and Barcelona. However, there has also been an increase in the growth and planning of smart cities in Asia. The key focus of this special series is smart cities in Asian countries, and while specific examples will be discussed throughout, many of the concepts, contentions, and challenges are universal and can apply to smart city initiatives across the world.

Given the vastness of this topic, this introductory note will provide an overview of the importance, approaches, and governance challenges associated with smart cities for the purpose of setting the stage for the chapters that follow. It is meant to provide a framework to conceptualize some of the issues and topics related to smart cities’ governance. Part 2 provides a brief overview of the uptake of smart cities across Asian countries. Part 3 describes the various approaches in defining smart cities, developing them, and qualifying them to demonstrate that development and governance are not a one-size-fits-all approach (van Eerd 2020). Part 4 will then illustrate several common considerations and challenges relating to smart city governance, which include privacy, security, and public–private partnerships.

2.2 Adoption of Smart Cities: Focus on Asia

Smart cities play a significant role in Asia, as urbanization continues to increase rapidly. According to UN Habitat’s World Cities Report 2020, it is estimated that, “[n]inety-six per cent of urban growth will occur in the less developed regions of East Asia, South Asia and Africa with three countries—India, China and Nigeria—accounting for 35 per cent of the total increase in global urban population from 2018 to 2050” (2020, p. 11). It is expected that during this time, India and China will increase by 416 and 255 million people respectively (UN Habitat 2020, p. 11) and that in China, there will be “221 cities with more than 1 million inhabitants” by 2025 (van Eerd 2020, p. 14).

Based on this anticipated increase and growth, it is unsurprising that smart cities are being embraced as a strategic opportunity for countries in this region. (Ludher et al. 2018).Footnote 4 New cities in China, India, and Korea are already being developed with networks that “interweave electricity, water, waste and gas systems,” enhancing data generation and collection, which in turn helps monitor resources (OECD 2020a, b, p. 14). In 2020 it was revealed that there were over 500 smart cities being developed in China alone (Chandran 2020).

The Organisation for Economic Coordination and Development (OECD) reported that countries across Asia have developed their own “smart city strategy” (van Eerd 2020, p. 14). This is important to note, because it has been suggested that until now, much of the literature and research about smart city initiatives have been conducted through the lens of Western narratives, where there is greater participation by citizens and local governments. In the context of Asia, national governments play an important role and can often be seen as “the main actor, actively promoting and planning smart cities in many cases” (Joo and Tan 2020, p. 6). This can be seen in several jurisdictions such as in China (People’s Republic of China 2016), Korea (Hwang 2020, p. 86), and Japan (Yarime 2020).

In the context of emerging Asian cities (Matsumoto et al. 2019, p. 4),Footnote 5 reportedly six out of 12 countries, including China, Singapore, and Thailand, have a national level smart city strategy (Matsumoto et al. 2019, p. 4). While engagement at the national level is positive as it signals commitment, collaboration and partnerships with regional and local governments is not always clear (Matsumoto et al. 2019, p. 8). This lack of clarity can lead to uncertainty in issues of governance and application. The following two sections will describe some of the common challenges related to developing, defining, and governing smart cities.

2.3 What Are Smart Cities? Defining Features

Defining smart cities is a useful exercise as it provides a starting point to conceptualize the various parameters of the term and to measure success. Despite smart cities being a widely used concept,Footnote 6 “smart” or “intelligent” cities have been defined in many ways. As highlighted by the United Nations Economic and Social Council in 2016, “[t]here is no standardized commonly accepted definition or set of terminologies for a smart city” (United Nations Economic and Social Council 2016, p. 3).

In 2020, the OECD defined smart cities as “initiatives or approaches that effectively leverage digitalisation to boost citizen well-being and deliver more efficient, sustainable and inclusive urban services and environments as part of a collaborative, multi-stakeholder process” (“Smart cities and inclusive growth” 2020, p. 8). Prior to this definition, in 2016 the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) developed a definition that highlighted similar themes: “[a] smart sustainable city is an innovative city that uses ICTs and other means to improve quality of life, efficiency of urban operation and services, and competitiveness, while ensuring that it meets the needs of present and future generations with respect to economic, social, environmental as well as cultural aspects” (2015, p. 3); United Nations Economic and Social Council (2016, p. 3).

In addition to these definitions, there are various qualifiers or “conceptual cousins” that have been used in the literature to further distinguish the goals or ambitions related to smart cities (Nam and Pardo 2011, p. 282). For example, smart cities have been qualified as “sustainable” (UNECE 2021) “ethical,” (Global Smart Cities Alliance 2021) or “people-centered” (UN Habitat 2021) and can also be qualified as “digital,” “intelligent,” or “humane” cities (Nam and Pardo 2011, p. 284). Nam and Pardo categorize these concepts into three main dimensions of “technology, people, and institutions”–noting that they are all “core factors” and “key conceptual components” of smart cities (2011, pp. 284–285). These factors seem to exist in all smart cities in varying degrees, depending on the city (Nam and Pardo 2011, pp. 286–287). The general goals of smart cities are efficiency, inclusivity, and economic and sustainable growth, with a focus on helping improve the quality and well-being of its inhabitants’ lives (UN Report 2020, p. 12). Two of the three factors, technology and institutional, will be highlighted briefly as they are directly related to the considerations discussed in the following section (Nam and Pardo 2011, p. 285).Footnote 7

Technology can be seen as an enabler of the outcomes that smart city initiatives attempt to achieve. (Fleming 2020).Footnote 8 Smart city enabling technologies rely on the collection and use of data from numerous devices, Internet of Things (IoT), and sensors. Additionally, there is an ever-growing array of technologies that may greatly contribute to this environment–these include artificial intelligence (European Commission 2020), 5G networks (Huang 2021), blockchain (Hori 2021), and quantum computing technologies. (Shipilov 2019). These technologies are often developed and operated by private sector third party organizations.Footnote 9

Various technologies can be implemented to enhance access to government services (e.g., digital identification, health) (Thales Group 2020), improve efficiencies (e.g., electricity, water management, traffic), help reduce impact on the environment (Carter and Boukerche 2020), and provide accessibility to transportation systems by reducing traffic and encouraging alternative mobility (OECD 2020a). There are several categories of smart city technologies, including “transportation,” “water and electricity,” “environmental monitoring,” and “infrastructure and architecture” (Landry et al. 2018).

Smart cities rely on strategic vision and governance, in other words, the institutional factor. (Nam and Pardo 2011, pp. 286–287) As Nam and Pardo describe it, this factor considers how various communities and actors align to design and develop their smart city ambitions, and governance (2011, pp. 286–287). Smart cities can emerge in various ways. Conceptually, they can be top-down, bottom-up, or mixed. Top-down cities are those that are heavily planned and controlled. The vision of this smart city is one where everything is connected and managed through the “control room” (Breuer et al. 2014, p. 156). The top-down city is built from the ground up with all things designed and planned (Breuer et al. 2014, p. 156; Centre for Smart Cities, nd), where the emphasis is on driving and enhancing efficiencies and having a city run like clockwork. The bottom-up city relies on citizen engagement (Breuer et al. 2014, p. 157). Organic engagement and participation by individuals, local businesses, and communities are key. There are also variations of mixed initiatives, layers, and elements of smart cities that don’t necessarily fall under either category (Capdevila and Zarlenga 2015).

The institutional dimension also covers public–private–people partnerships between one or several levels of government, the private sector, and individuals (Nam and Pardo 2011, pp. 286–287). Partnerships can contribute to the challenges that cities face when trying to adopt new “processes, practices and approaches” (OECD “Enhancing the contribution of smart cities” 2019, p. 21). Leveraging the private sector, for example, could be extremely beneficial for service delivery and access. The role or governance of partnerships will be discussed in the next section.

2.4 Smart City Technology Governance: Highlighting Challenges

The last decade has brought a significant shift in the way policymakers have been grappling with smart city governance. Organizations and policymakers have recognized and acknowledged the fact that emerging technology and its potential impacts have outpaced the regulatory frameworks that exist to protect individuals who interact with these technologies. This awareness was heightened as data—the foundational requirement for many technology-based smart city solutions—was declared the “new oil” in 2017 (Economist 2017).

Despite the various concepts or types of smart cities, for example, “sustainable” (UNECE 2021), “ethical” (Global Smart Cities Alliance, nd), or “people-centered” (UN Habitat, nd), there are cross-cutting challenges, especially as governments around the world are coming to terms with the far-reaching societal and ethical impacts of data and emerging technologies. In 2019, the World Economic Forum announced that it had been selected to lead a global forum to “establish universal norms and guidelines for implementation of smart city technology” in collaboration with the G20 presidency. At the time of writing this note, the “global policy roadmap” had developed “good practice” on several of the identified considerations, including information and communications technology (ICT) accessibility, open data, privacy impact assessment, and the cyber accountability model (World Economic Forum 2019). In the same year, 36 cities from around the world were selected as the inaugural participants in this program including selections in India, South Korea, Japan, and the Philippines (World Economic Forum 2020).

How these challenges are practically addressed will vary based on the jurisdiction and, as a result, the regulatory frameworks present within those jurisdictions. For example, in the context of data collection and use, what might be deemed appropriate based on the regulatory framework in one jurisdiction will be vastly different in another (e.g., the General Data Protection RegulationFootnote 10 versus other jurisdictions). For this reason, the examples provided in this section are general and are meant to illustrate the universal considerations associated with smart cities. Even where they do not breach laws or regulations within the jurisdiction they occur, the possible outcome, that is the potential harm or impact on an individual, remains the same.

2.4.1 Privacy

In the context of smart cities, technology-enabled solutions rely on the collection and use of vast amounts of data, including personal data, from numerous sources. These can include the collection and use of biometric, behavioral, and other types of information from IoT connected devices such as sensors, meters, and cellphones. How this data is used and for what purpose is an important question. As we rely more heavily on artificial intelligence and automation, there are additional risks of harm in some contexts.

Public trust is central to uptake and to civic participation. As pointed out by the OECD, in addition to considering governance issues related to competition and the economy, the “shift from an economy of infrastructure to an economy of applications will only work if data is perceived as being in safe hands” (OECD 2020b, p. 45). The TraceTogether contact tracing app, developed (Singapore Government Developer Portal 2021) and launched by the government of Singapore, while not a direct example of a smart city technology, received backlash as the government revealed that the information they confirmed would be collected for the purpose of contact tracing, could also be used in criminal and other inquiries (Illmer 2021). The public reaction prompted new legislation to be tabled in parliament (Yi-Ling and Abdul Rahman 2021).

The use of facial recognition and surveillance technology is also a legitimate concern as the extent and impact of the information being collected and used is often unknown to the individual. In 2019, TechCrunch revealed that a database containing data including “facial recognition scans on hundreds of people over several months” was accessed on a web browser that was not password secured (Whittaker 2021). The information revealed the movement of a subsection of individuals residing in a neighborhood including “where people went, when and for how long, allowing anyone with access to the data—including police—to build up a picture of a person’s day-to-day life” (Whittaker 2021).While there may be regulatory implications for the ubiquitous collection and use of data in some jurisdictions, there are also interesting ethical considerations, including profiling.

Some jurisdictions are looking at creative opportunities to overcome concerns about privacy and consent The city of Aizuwakamatsu in Japan, adopted an “opt-in” approach for smartphone disaster alerts and various digital services in “mobility, education, healthcare, and energy consumption” which provides citizens with some level of control over the use of their data (Chandran 2021).

2.4.2 Security

Security is a particularly interesting aspect of smart cities because the potential vulnerabilities do not apply only to individuals, but also to infrastructures and services (Kitchin 2019; Muggah and Goodman 2019). For example, in 2018, it was reported that IBM and Threatcare identified 17 vulnerabilities in smart cities around the world, which would have impacted traffic light and flood warning systems (Ng 2018). There are a wide range of actors who might benefit from breaching or disrupting cities. These may include state actors, organized crime, terrorist groups, individuals, or businesses (CPAC 2019, p. 11). There is also the possibility of (information technology and IoT) systems being vulnerable to disasters (CPAC 2019, p. 11).

In 2021, the United Kingdom’s National Cyber Security Centre issued guidance, suggesting that smart cities, due to the need to collect, process, and store sensitive data, could be “an attractive target for a range of threat actors” (Corera 2021; National Cyber Security Centre 2021). The Government of Canada also noted the potential threat to the safety of Canadians because of connected smart devices and smart cities (Communications Security Establishment 2020, p. 12). Additionally, it was reported that in the United States, “a quarter of local governments were facing attempted cyberattacks every hour” in 2016 (G20 Global Cities Alliance; Pandey et al. 2020).

The challenges with security stem from various issues. One of these issues is that given many cities have legacy systems intermixed with new applications, the level of security might not be standard across the board (Nussbaum 2016). Another security issue is the sheer number of sensors and connected devices gathering information for difference purposes. For example, a single neighborhood could collect data about energy, electricity and hydro, traffic, cars, front doors, and mobile devices. The implications of geographically concentrated information gathering can be far-reaching for individuals and systems (Nussbaum 2016).

2.4.3 Private–Public Partnership

Smart cities rely heavily on public–private partnerships (including partnerships with universities and non-governmental organizations) (McKinsey Global Institute 2019) across various industries, including telecommunications, energy, digital health, and agriculture. In 2019, the OECD highlighted the fact that the private sector has played a significant role as “advocate, investor and gamechanger in the use of technologies to define and address a range of problems in selected sectors; it is now confronted with the challenge of considering new forms of public–private collaborations to facilitate the uptake of these initiatives in the face of megatrends, regulatory change and infrastructure needs” (OECD 2019, p. 11).

In 2017, the World Economic Forum highlighted the benefits of private sector involvement in urban development and transformation, including the advantages of investment, innovation, management, and risk management (World Economic Forum 2017, p. 26) in the context of the UN New Urban Agenda, stating that, “a concise, focused, forward-looking and action-oriented plan … provides a new global strategy on urbanization for the next two decades” (World Economic Forum 2017, p. 6). There are numerous examples of public–private partnerships across smart cities in Asia. For example, Alibaba developed an intelligence system called ET City Brain and deployed it across 23 Asian cities (Alibaba Clouder 2019). ET City Brain has contributed to vast improvements in various areas. For example, in Hangzhou this program has assisted in traffic reduction, the purchase of parking passes, and vehicle licensing, and even checking into hotels (Alibaba Clouder 2019).

In 2019, Japan created a “Smart City Public–Private Partnership Platform” where over 100 cities and 300 companies have signed up to promote “knowledge exchange, business matching, and closer ties between public, private and academia” (Japan BrandVoice 2019). Furthermore, at the national level, Japan enacted a law in 2020 to “improve the collaboration between the public and private sectors for the digital transformation of cities” (Hirayama and Rama 2021), while at the local level, cities have been driving collaboration with the private sector to enhance digital transformation and data sharing (Hirayama and Rama 2021).

As stated by the OECD,

shifting from a government-led approach to public–private collaboration is an important priority. Smart city projects can only be successful if they engage a variety of stakeholders, such as technology developers and service providers (who make technology); city developers (who add technology); city administrators (who use technology); residents and local companies (who purchase technology). (van Eerd 2020, p. 9)

Despite the benefits, important challenges can arise from these partnerships. These challenges relate to data governance and questions of “ownership” (Scassa 2020). They can also relate to privacy and security. Teresa Scassa highlights the complexity of smart city data governance given the various actors and sources,

Public sector access to information and protection of privacy legislation provides some sort of framework for transparency and privacy when it comes to public sector data, but clearly such legislation is not well adapted to the diversity of smart cities data. While some data will be clearly owned and controlled by the municipality, other data will not be. Further the increasingly complex relationship between public and private sectors around input data and data analytics means that there will be a growing number of conflicts between rights of access and transparency on the one hand, and the protection of confidential commercial information on the other. (Scassa 2018)

As she points out, there can be important differences between the regulatory requirements and the objectives of the private and public sectors. These differences can result in an erosion of trust between the public and government efforts to encourage adoption and processes. The importance of partnerships cannot be overstated, as there are clear boundaries in the capacity of governments to fulfill the mandate of smart cities on their own.

2.5 Conclusion

Asian cities are poised to be impacted by high urban growth in upcoming decades. Given the potential density in urban areas, governments are looking ahead to develop smart cities to alleviate congestion and pollution, reduce the impact of climate change, and enhance civic engagement and mobility.

Smart cities do not follow a one-size-fits-all approach: no two smart cities are alike. They are a product of many considerations, including whether they are a result of a national or regional strategy, the objectives they are attempting to achieve, and the regulatory and social framework within which they operate. They are also the product of the degree to which levers of institutional, technology, and human factors are at play. Despite the differences between smart cities, they share several commonalities related to challenges and risks related to privacy, security, and public–private partnerships. In addition to questions of governance, public–private partnerships can play an important role in shaping the public’s uptake of trust in the adoption and acceptance of smart city initiatives.