The term smart cities were first used in the early 1990s to indicate urban transformation aimed at improving conditions on a technological basis. American IT companies coined it to describe the new ICT tools aimed at responding to the problems of large metropolises: from traffic and transport management to waste disposal, from the efficiency of energy and water distribution networks to the safety and health of citizens.
Cities are beginning to take on a different role, becoming true urban technological-digital laboratories; they are therefore taking on the appearance of “digital cities”. Considering the concrete transformation of cities that are increasingly taking on a digitised aspect, the main objective becomes that of providing citizens with services and accessibility to a wide range of ‘smart’ tools, bringing technological innovation everywhere. The smart city concept has generated strong debates among stakeholders and, more generally, among international players who are studying both the advantages and disadvantages that this transition can bring.
The effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and the obligation to equip oneself with digital and smart tools due to the lockdown has made us reflect on the need to bring great transformations to the urban level, transformations that aim to make cities smarter so as to allow remote accessibility to various services.
Although the transformation into a smart city would bring its advantages in terms of digital innovation and environmental sustainability – thanks to the possible reduction of mobility and therefore of carbon emissions – several researchers have hypothesised a possible dystopian scenario, which would risk transforming large population centres into ghost cities.
In this new JOurnal article we’ll talk about how the digital transformation of cities risks desertifying large urban centres by reducing their mobility in favour of technology.
In addition to producing an unprecedented capacity for computation, ICT tools also make it possible to experiment with new modes of comparison, dialogue, co-decision, and co-deliberation among human beings, giving rise to new forms of “online citizenship.” This phenomenon was already visible during the lockdown that forced everyone to minimise human contact and move communication online. Smart working and all the digital tools that have allowed remote communication have transformed large urban centres into deserted streets, turning them almost into ghost cities.
The term ghost city is not new. We need only think of the Asian and Middle Eastern New Towns, the result of enormous investments, which show the most disturbing aspect of the concept, because they are far removed from the idea of the city as “civitas”, as a community aimed at responding to the needs emerging from the citizens. These hyper-technological cities, completely automated and robotised, on the contrary, if on the one hand they allow the realisation of futuristic urban scenarios and the experimentation of cutting-edge technological solutions, on the other hand they feed fears and concerns about the pervasiveness of control over citizens. The same is true for Masdar, in the United Arab Emirates, conceived as the world’s first zero-carbon city, which despite multi-million-dollar investments risks becoming a ghost town due to its small resident population.
While most of these so-called ghost cities have failed to deliver on their original promise, very few have actually failed completely and do not deserve the epithet they have been given at all.
Many are wondering whether rapid digital transformation will deliver the benefits it is intended to. A million-dollar question given that digitization depends on an almost indefinite number of variables, thus not allowing for an accurate prediction.
The main insight on which the current debate focuses is the theory that digital technologies can improve people’s lives by providing a wider level of access to various information and services at reduced costs, but at the same time entail a serious risk of social disparity and inequality due to the digital divide between those who possess the skills to use the new technological tools and those who lack them. Not only that, even in the field of urban planning there are several doubts about the new aspects that cities can take on and the social damage they could generate. The possible alienation and the risk of being physically ‘disconnected’ are factors to be taken into consideration.
Technological innovation is now a must, but it is necessary to study all the areas in which it is applied and to inform oneself in order to avoid damages, often irreversible.