The Blood, Heart and Brain of the Smart City

It’s important to look at the driving forces behind the smart city and how personal data dovetails with these to generate a fuller picture of what it means to live in a smart city.

Susan Morrow
A heart and a brain on an abstract background
Illustration: © IoT For All

In the last few posts, I used analogies with smart city processes and technologies using our physical being. In the “Brain of the Smart City,” I looked at how artificial intelligence can be used to put smart into the heart of the city. This next post looks at the infrastructure behind smart cities and how personal data dovetails with these to generate a fuller picture of what it means to live in a smart city.

A core driving factor of the smart city is the need to create sustainable living. The human population is growing exponentially and along with that comes increasing resource needs, efficient allocation of resources, and optimal waste disposal. Managing this will require a technical approach, but there has to be a sociological layer of control over the use of technology to prevent a privacy catastrophe. In our rush to smarten up our cities as our populations explode, we mustn’t get so carried away with physical fixes that we forget our basic human need for privacy. This brings us full-circle, to my earlier discussion on privacy as an intrinsic human right; the need to have personal spaces, to find solace in our own place, and to enact controls over those spaces has been part of human societies since the Neolithic period.

Driving Factors Behind the Smart City Revolution

The basic factors driving the need for smart cities and how personal data is used as part of these drivers are the following:

Increased World Population

This is the fundamental driver as this is what determines the resource requirements of our populations. The data generated by the citizens of smart cities will be used to inform smart decisions.


Resources are generally finite, or at least need to be managed, to ensure fair allocation. Sustainable use of resources is the ground-stone of smart city success. Personal data can help to understand how resources are used, ultimately allowing fine-grained and fair management of finite resources.

Issues of Energy Management

Energy is one of the most problematic and complex resource allocation areas that we need to manage. Personal data collected and collated showing energy use can be used to optimize and manage dwindling or changing energy resources is a smart city.

Housing Issues

As our population expands, we need to create more efficient housing for individuals. No one wants to live in a world where basic housing needs, like temperature control, are not met. Housing, data and smart cities are intrinsically linked. Technologies that specifically address housing will need to aggregate data across services and compare/analyze this with reference to the various providers in the housing ecosystem.

For example, in the UK, the Housing Data Standard (HACT) has been set up to look at the data standards required for the industry.

Communicable Diseases and Evolutionary Medicine

Communicable diseases, like chickenpox, first became an issue when human populations increased and we started to live more closely together. Today, various factors are involved in communicable disease, including water supply, sanitation, and climate. Flooding, for example, can lead to sewage overflow and contamination of drinking water.

As the traditional disease weapons, such as antibiotics, start to become less effective, we are turning to other methods to help the spread of communicable diseases. These factors include improved living conditions, management of waste and water, and better healthcare options; the optimization of these is data-dependent.


Smart city development has emphasized transportation for good reason: congestion rates in cities are horrendous. Looking at USA traffic congestion tables (Texas AMI) gives a clue as to why this is an issue worthy of smart city resolution. For example, in Washington DC, the average commuter loses 82 hours of their life, per year, to traffic congestion. Smart city projects across the world are looking at improving transportation in, out, and within our cities. Much of this work is based on having enough data to optimize transport issues like parking and public transport needs, potentially reducing traffic by facilitating remote working.

Urban Resilience

Our packed cities are susceptible to natural disasters. Climate change is a two-way street for cities; they both add to it and are impacted by it. According to the United Nations, cities consume 78 percent of the world’s energy resources and produce more than 60 percent of carbon dioxide output. Smart cities need to tackle this discrepancy by improving energy consumption and reducing carbon dioxide and other pollutants while managing climate change effects on citizens. Utilizing big data and analytics can help to alleviate these issues and optimize efficient energy use.

A Super-Critical Infrastructure of Data and Devices

Looking at these factors, you can see that none of them stands alone. They act like a convoluted web with one or more of the other factors. The smart city, its technology, and the data it relies upon is like an intricate web of interlocking variables. The movement of data across multiple systems, along with data aggregation, shared across multiple processes, creates a complex data lifecycle. A super-critical infrastructure made of devices and data is created, one that is difficult to follow, with potential for multiple failure points in applying privacy protections that will become weak links for the city and our privacy. Data that starts at one point may be utilized across the entire city to improve our living conditions and to optimize health, but does this have to come at a cost to our private lives and data protection?

Better Privacy, Better Cities

The question we have come to at this juncture is this: Can we have the levels of open data and sharing that are needed to develop the smart city yet retain the choice needed to offer privacy to the citizens of those cities?

Seattle, Washington, has a model that seems to have solved the conflict between data openness and privacy. The initiative What Works Cities (WWC) is a US national initiative launched by Bloomberg Philanthropies in 2015. The project looks at ways to use data within cities to improve services and to inform local decisions. Seattle received a silver award from the WWC initiative. The city has also partnered with the Future of Privacy Forum(FPF) to look at how they utilize this data and how privacy is impacted by the use of open data. The FPF released an open data risk assessment on Seattle’s Open Data Program. The paper looked closely at the data privacy risks associated with using citizen data for city improvements. There were a number of recommendations that came out of the assessment, including the following:

  • Build a culture of privacy across the city and encourage privacy leadership; training in the data lifecycle for better management and communications.
  • Develop management initiatives that implement risk assessments.
  • Set in place measures to identify risk areas and to fully utilize techniques such as de-identification.
  • Encourage the improvement of data quality.
  • Invest in education and communication between government and individuals around data openness and its implications.

Clearly, we must create a more sustainable lifestyle. How we use technology to help us do this needs to be tempered with a humanistic approach, which includes respectful privacy practices.

Smart City Limits

We’re already at a juncture in history where we freely offer up our data, be it personal, behavioral, or biometric, to be used by technology providers. This “habit” of letting our personal information seemingly fall through our fingers is likely to carry on but to an extent never before envisioned as our cities become smarter.

As I write, the most famous of all social media platforms, Facebook, has been hauled over the coals for privacy violation after privacy violation. Facebook allowed the personal information of 87 million users to be sold off to the highest bidder (Facebook) without users truly understanding how this data was being used and without full consent to that use. Thankfully, there are trends and changes in society that are promoting a more sustainable way to use data and to live smarter; the idea of a smart and connected life engages the populace. The social platforms that have stolen our privacy have also taught us to understand how our data can be used in a smarter manner.

Privacy is a complicated and multi-faceted concept. The effects of the loss of privacy are rarely felt immediately. If we’re to go forward into a world that’s ever-more dependent on information to make it run, we need, on an individual level, to understand the pros and cons of saying, “I consent to share,” and how this, in and of itself, is not enough to ensure privacy.

In the next post, I’ll take a look at some of the smart city initiatives across the world before delving into smart technology and the threat to privacy.

Susan Morrow
Susan Morrow
Having worked in cybersecurity, identity, and data privacy for around 25 years, Susan has seen technology come and go; but one thing is constant - human behaviour. She works to bring technology and humans together.
Having worked in cybersecurity, identity, and data privacy for around 25 years, Susan has seen technology come and go; but one thing is constant - human behaviour. She works to bring technology and humans together.