Smart cities are addressing infrastructure issues, yet the housing crisis persists. Can digital technology bridge this gap and reshape urban life?
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The smart city and the urban housing crisis

Smart cities are addressing infrastructure issues, yet the housing crisis persists. Can digital technology bridge this gap and reshape urban life?

The smart city concept has developed and grown in the past two decades, and many of the world’s leading cities now have smart city programs underway. While these initiatives could assist in resolving challenges related to network infrastructure, traffic flow, and parking, they might also facilitate the growth of knowledge-based hubs.  Nonetheless, it is important to acknowledge that smart city projects and plans have yet to address the dire housing conditions of many major cities.  Are Smart City initiatives adequately recognising and addressing these housing issues? What role can digital technologies play now and in the future to address these problems?

The smart city movement

The smart city concept assumes that a city will be more “liveable” and better able to respond to challenges through digital technologies, vital infrastructure, and social capital improvements. While technology is the key enabler for smart cities, it is not an end in itself. The point of a smart city is to improve the lives of residents and businesses by applying advanced technologies. It modernises digital, physical, and social infrastructure to make the delivery of city services more efficient, innovative, equitable, connected, secure, sustainable, and exciting. Directly or indirectly, this should bring about improvements in the city’s housing stock and the lives of those living there.

With the population of major cities projected to grow significantly in the coming decades, smart cities are urgently needed. The effective provision of housing is a fundamental requirement in a smart city. The city’s ability to thrive and expand is severely hampered. As recently observed by Vince and Morrissey, “the projected growth trajectory for urban environments means that cities will face increasing challenges in all aspects of their operations—including social imbalances, traffic congestion, pollution, and strains on resources—if no action is taken. Mayors worldwide are realising that integrating smart tech into planning and sustainability strategies will improve quality of life, attract investment, and lead to positive growth in cities”.

Smart cities and housing issues

Until now, housing has not been seen as a critical focus of smart city initiatives, in contrast to transportation, street lighting, parking spaces, and communications networks. However, this is changing as smart cities shift their focus from connected infrastructure and technological innovations toward a broader conception of quality of life. In the context of slum advancements in Ecuador, Godijo observed that  “smart cities means that everything in these cities is designed to be intelligent, including infrastructure, energy, housing, grids, and mobility”. Recent research in Tehran, however, has shown how smart city plans are having a limited impact in addressing the poor housing provision.

Smart cities are addressing infrastructure issues, yet the housing crisis persists. Can digital technology bridge this gap and reshape urban life?
Figure 1. Andisheh is a new town west of Tehran
Credit. Author

Although some high-quality residential areas exist, most housing is characterised by poor-quality construction and a lack of adequate services. This includes the four new towns (Figure 1) built outside Tehran, described as “huge islands of soaring skyscrapers and indiscriminately developed apartments filled with crowds of people and cars.” Additionally, informal makeshift settlements persist in specific areas of the city (Figure 2). Despite the city’s enthusiastic participation in the smart city movement and the ongoing implementation of the city’s “Smart Tehran Program,” a noticeable gap exists between the Smart Tehran initiatives   and the mechanisms governing housing policy and development.

Smart cities are addressing infrastructure issues, yet the housing crisis persists. Can digital technology bridge this gap and reshape urban life?
Figure 2. Illegal housing at Farahzad in the north of the Tehran municipality
Credit. Author

The effective coordination of smart city initiatives with the urban planning process is illustrated in other major urban centres. In Melbourne, the smart city initiative of “working with the community (residents, workers, businesses, students, and visitors) to design, develop, and test the best ways for you to live, work, and play” overlaps with the 2026 Melbourne City Plan, which aims to “provide affordable options for accommodation, food, and services”, and “will offer a mix of housing, facilities, and recreation to support a diverse and inclusive community”. Such integration and coordination between smart city initiatives and city planning are particularly important for instigating change in housing provision.

How can smart city digitalisation help the housing crisis?

Past experience provides key lessons that can help activists and planners address the housing problems through smart city initiatives. There are several issues of importance, such as the coordination of the activities of planning and development agencies and the nature of the planning system itself. But above all, experience suggests that citizen participation in finding solutions to housing problems is key. In the case of Tehran, research suggests there is limited citizen involvement in the smart city initiatives in Tehran and that “poor citizen participation is due to low trust and awareness levels”.

By contrast, Barcelona is seen as leading the way regarding citizen involvement in smart city initiatives. “Barcelona puts citizens at the head of its new smart city strategy:  the use of data has to provide better and more affordable services and make the government more transparent, participative and effective”. This key issue allows the smart city to address housing issues: use digital technologies to make the local authorities more transparent, participative and effective.

Harness the power of digital technologies to provide the residents of sub-standard housing developments with the means to work with planners and politicians to reshape their deficient estates or shanties.  Then, use digital technologies – artificial intelligence, extended reality, big data – creatively to find and implement appropriate solutions, whether the small-scale provision of new service infrastructure or more significant house upgrade or replacement programmes.

Smart cities are addressing infrastructure issues, yet the housing crisis persists. Can digital technology bridge this gap and reshape urban life?
Figure 3. The shanty development at Campo de la Bota, Barcelona, in the 1970s
Credit. Author

The recent history of housing development in Barcelona illustrates the importance of such citizen involvement. The shanty developments of the 1970s and 80s at Campo de la Bota (Figure 3) were eventually replaced by a new motorway, park areas and marina (Figure 4). Many of the residents were relocated, some against their will, to the nearby La Mina estate, plagued by severe social problems and the subject of a series of plans to upgrade the housing conditions there.

Smart cities are addressing infrastructure issues, yet the housing crisis persists. Can digital technology bridge this gap and reshape urban life?
Figure 4. Campo de la Bota today: motorway, park areas and marina
Credit. Google Earth

It is now recognised that a different approach is needed. The Barcelona Digital City notes that  “public connectivity, and a large-scale civic digital infrastructure deployment, will enable better learning and better digital skills for all citizens, helping to narrow the digital divide. A clear strategy for investment, development and deployment of long-term research and innovation is critical to creating better social policies like social housing, reducing energy poverty, improving health outcomes, and adding meaningful and high-quality jobs.”

Conclusions

In Barcelona, “We have, therefore, evolved from a top-down process to a bottom-up one, promoting collective intelligence and involving all the key players of the city’s innovation ecosystem”. This type of approach may finally see smart city digitalisation making a meaningful contribution to addressing the poor housing conditions that persist in many of our major cities.

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Journal reference

Wynn, M. G., Hosseini, S. Z., & Parpanchi, S. M. (2023). Housing development and the smart city: A case study of Tehran, Iran. Journal of Infrastructure Policy and Development7(2), 1-24. https://doi.org/10.1080/10888705.2023.2173011

Zahra Hosseini holds a master's degree in urban planning from the Science and Research Branch of the Islamic Azad University in Tehran, Iran. Her research studies focused on codifying knowledge-based urban development components and indicators in Qazvin, Iran. She has worked as a project manager for the Alvand municipality in Iran and was a member of the executive committee of the Second National Conference on Knowledge-Based Urban Development and Architecture held at the Islamic Azad University, Tehran. She has also worked as an urban planning specialist in the Facilitation Office for Districts 1 and 2 of Qazvin City, Iran and is currently employed as a freelance researcher at the Qazvin Science and Technology Park. Her research interests include knowledge-based urban development, smart cities, and the application of artificial intelligence in urban planning. She is especially interested in investigating new methods for urban data acquisition, processing, visualization, and advanced modelling.

Seyed Mostafa Parpanchi holds a master's degree in urban planning from Qazvin Islamic Azad University. He completed his thesis on the smart city and sustainable development, publishing his results in the Iranian articles database (CIVILICA). He has worked in the private sector in Qazvin, Iran, for 2 years, gaining experience in urban management. He is currently a researcher in the field of urban planning and the smart city.

Martin Wynn is Associate Professor in Information Technology in the School of Business, Computing and Social Sciences at the University of Gloucestershire and holds a PhD from Nottingham Trent University. He was appointed Research Fellow at East London University, and he spent 20 years in industry at Glaxo Pharmaceuticals and HP Bulmer Drinks. His research interests include digitalisation, information systems, sustainability, project management, and urban planning. His latest book, Handbook of Research on Digital Transformation, Industry Use Cases, and the Impact of Disruptive Technologies, was published in 2022.