The global appetite amongst mayors and city leaders for developing smart cities is on an upward trajectory.

The trend for better use of data and technology in our urban environments has been gathering pace, but as 2020's global pandemic took hold we saw new combinations of people, technology and data enable innovative approaches to the crisis. The response to COVID-19 has offered valuable lessons for the use of technology in smart cities.

Some studies predict that by 2023 as much as $189 billion will be spent worldwide on smart city initiatives. However in spite of the billions of investment, questions remain about the ways in which cities are trying to become ‘smart’ through the use of technology. Most still focus on relatively narrow (albeit important) challenges such as energy, public safety and transportation. The starting point is often a technology-first approach deployed and managed by city control rooms or centralised digital teams that pays little attention to the role of active citizen participation - and the need to put citizens’ rights, values, needs and aspirations at the core.

The recent decision to wind down the controversial Sidewalk Lab smart city project in Toronto offers a high profile cautionary tale about the risks of a top-down and opaque vision for the smart city. While ‘economic uncertainty’ was given as the main explanation for ending the project, critique over secrecy, a mismanaged public engagement strategy, issues of data privacy, consent and public value and a three-year public campaign against the project will all have played a significant role too. The failure of SideWalk Labs illustrates how in 2020 many smart city projects are still hampered by the flaws we discussed in our work on Rethinking Smart Cities from the Ground Up in 2015.

However, elsewhere there have been more hopeful developments. For one, the last five years has seen radical advances in tools and methods for better citizen engagement through the use of digital platforms, technology and data in new ways. Across the world, cities are demonstrating how these tools can be used to tap into collective intelligence and make places truly smart (and even ‘wise’) by enabling new ways of understanding citizen needs and empowering communities.

In this feature, we will share some of the main trends in how smart cities have (and haven’t) evolved in the last five years. Building on this, we'll explore how using collective intelligence to solve city challenges in areas such as planning, environment and the response to COVID-19 provides an alternative and potentially more sustainable and inclusive approach for the future of smart cities

Our upcoming projects will look in more detail at how cities can make the most of the opportunities in collective intelligence. 

In partnership with Dark Matter Labs we are exploring how AI can be used to empower urban communities to take action on the climate crisis. 

In August, Nesta, in partnership with Govlab, will publish our research and guide of how cities can overcome one of the biggest challenges in collective intelligence; how to make crowds and institutions collaborate effectively.