Photo of crowded city street with facial recognition software in use

The interest in designing smarter communities is not new. Generation after generation has deployed innovations to make their communities smarter.

Early on, many of these innovations were mechanical, or manual, in nature. Over the last few years, thanks in large part to advances in computational systems, innovations in the spotlight have been techno-centric. My own work since 2010 has focused on examining how might communities, of all forms and sizes, leverage information systems to make them more livable, sustainable, just, and resilient.1

In 2015, along with a group of colleagues, I led an effort that looked at how emerging technologies would shape the future of local government in 2035.2 We looked at technologies such as autonomous vehicles, drones, and blockchain, among others. This project, while exhilarating, also troubled me for two main reasons. First, I realized that most local government managers were unaware of the consequences these technologies will have on their communities. Consider autonomous vehicles and their impact on public finances and how we will need to transform infrastructure to accommodate for these innovations.3

Autonomous systems will require significant investments in our transport infrastructure to make our roads and the various devices on them (e.g., traffic lights) smarter. It will also require sizeable investments to upgrade our fleets (many of which are obsolete when compared to current vehicle standards when it comes to sensors and telemetries on automobiles). As an example, when one looked at the use of drones in our communities, regulatory and governance frameworks resembled the wild west.4

Second, I feared that emerging technologies, if deployed carelessly, would make our communities more fragile. In 2018, David Selby, a doctoral student at Arizona State University, began developing a framework to examine fragility in cities and communities in the developed world. Our work pointed to the need to recognize how breakdowns in public commitments leads to fractures, which if not addressed through responsible administrative or policy responses, would lead to worsening of fractures, which over time leads to irreversible fragility of communities.5

While in recent times, we have seen plenty of evidence of fractures in communities across the United States, one must pay attention to the fact that some of these have been years in the making and have only reached their peak boiling points recently. In Tokyo, for example, crime on the elderly rose from under six percent to 20 percent in just over 10 years (2007–2017), and this trend is not declining. Communities look to local governments to ensure that four kinds of commitments are attended to—fundamental, stability, integrity, and prosperity.

“Fundamental commitments refer to the government ensuring that individuals can survive and function in the city. A city that is fulfilling their stability commitments is keeping the city safe, and predictable. Integrity commitments refer to the government not abusing their power and ensuring that members of the community do not take advantage of the city’s laws. The government commits to enable residents and organizations to enrich their lives and build economic capacity which we call prosperity commitments.”6

A critical finding from investigating smart city development projects in cities around the world is that often these projects are focused on advancing prosperity commitments where resources are better invested to ensure that local governments can continue to meet their social compact needs when it comes to fundamental, stability, and integrity commitments.

Public commitment failures (i.e., when governments violate or fail to meet commitments) are bound to occur given the complex nature of our communities. Hence, it is important to ensure that local governments have the adequate capabilities, either through administrative or policy instruments, to respond in a timely, empathetic, and effective manner to regain, or even maintain, community trust. Collecting, analyzing, and acting upon feedback on responses to public commitment failure will bolster the local governments’ ability to recognize signals of impending public commitment failures and preempt them.

In 2019, I was fortunate to be selected as an ICMA local government research fellow. As part of my fellowship, I continued to explore how we can design smarter communities responsibly. Can we leverage emerging technologies to advance our collective values and increase the robustness of our communities? I specifically undertook two major inquiries. First was to study techno-centric smart city development efforts and unpack how these projects evolved over time and what we could learn from them.7 Second, I took a critical look at AI-enabled systems that were being deployed in communities from machine learning algorithms for uses such as sentencing in courts, autonomous vehicles, and other intelligent platforms that are increasing access to public services.

After reviewing close to a dozen smart cities projects, our analysis pointed to three pathways to smart cities:

1. A green field development pathway.

2. A neighborhood development pathway.

3. A platform-oriented pathway.8

Green Field Development Pathway

The first pathway identifies a number of smart cities that are conceptualized and operationalized as a single physical entity. Often, these cities are built “from scratch” as “greenfield developments,” which utilize public-private partnerships as a result of federal/national government initiatives to attempt to solve issues of urbanization and employment.

One such example is Gujarat International Finance Tech City in India, which has been initiated because of the Modi’s government’s 100 Smart Cities Mission. This city is being built on the banks of the Sabamarti River, where no previous infrastructure existed and aims to become a new financial center for the Indian economy, improving employment in its wake.

Neighborhood Development Pathway

The second pathway focuses on the development of particular neighborhoods within a city. This pathway shares similar motivations to the first, although demonstrates much greater challenges as it requires retrofitting infrastructure and systems to existing urban areas. The Hudson Yards development in New York is a $25 billion urban transformation aimed at transforming a major rail center and transport hub within Manhattan into a technology-enabled commercial and residential sector. This transformation employs 7,000 construction workers annually, generating $500 million annually in taxes and a total of $19 billion to the city’s gross domestic product. However, in radically transforming an existing urban area, it has faced critique from a number of existing stakeholders.

Platform-oriented Pathway

The third pathway to smart cities tends to focus less on the transformation of physical space and more on the pursuit of technological platforms that integrate data across different operational siloes. This perspective understands a cities intelligence as its ability to utilize technology to improve delivery of public services and enhance city-wide dialogue.

In recent years, Barcelona has adopted this strategy to create a smarter city as it noticed massive inefficiencies in the non-integration of its numerous technological and operational siloes. As a result, Barcelona’s new strategy focuses on the public release of data that demonstrates the benefits of the technology to its residents and involves the residents in the commentary on and development of unique community-based solutions. This pathway looks to the power of data to imbue intelligence within a city.

Artificial intelligence, and machine learning applications, are not new.9 What is new is their expansive nature and the number of domains in which they are being deployed. AI technologies are also seamlessly being integrated into the many facets of our communities. One of the major challenges facing communities today is to really understand the nuances associated with AI systems. Many of these systems are designed without much regard to preserving, or even advancing, public value. The interest of the public is seldom accounted for during the engineering of many of these tools. This is to be expected given that the motivations of those building these technologies differ than those of public officials. To make matters worse, I found a significant knowledge gap existing between public managers’ understanding of the inner workings of these technologies, which limits their ability to design necessary governance frameworks for regulation.10 Public managers need to make serious investments to upgrade their knowledge of technical tools, especially when it comes to machine learning systems, and how the data that they thrive on lead to outcomes. Dialogue is needed between custodians of public value and designers of emerging technologies to facilitate responsible innovation.

Fast forward to today, the COVID-19 era that we are all living through has put significant strain on communities across the globe. Not only have communities had to grapple with dealing with a pandemic at a scale that no one was prepared for, but they have had to do this while dealing with economic adversities. If this was not challenging enough, the tragic and unnecessary death of George Floyd in Minneapolis has galvanized us to stand up against racial discrimination and injustice. For too long, we have designed policies, initiatives, technological solutions, and entire systems that knowingly or unknowingly discriminate. While law enforcement remains in the spotlight when it comes to calls for reform, it is by no means the only aspect of our communities where change is needed.

A Call for Pause and Reflection

If there was ever a time to take a moment to pause and reflect when it comes to designing smarter communities, it is now. Research has shown that simply throwing more technology at communities is not going to make them smarter, and actually could make them more fragile. In addition, given the financial strain caused by COVID-19 on economies, we are only going to see more development projects put on hold or cancelled completely. Case in point, in May 2020, Sidewalks Labs, Alphabet Inc’s urban innovation arm, has abandoned its effort to transform the Toronto Waterfront into a prototypical smart community.

Moreover, today there is an even greater need to consider how our designs impact all members of our communities. Project Sidewalk was terminated due to economic conditions, but the project was marred with issues such as lack of care on how data was going to be protected, privacy concerns, and even who would be the eventual beneficiaries of this project. Furthermore, given the fact that we are more dependent on digital platforms to enable us to function and with no signs of any return to pre-COVID patterns, it is imperative that public managers understand how these technologies shape outcomes at various levels from the community to groups and to individuals.

Drawing on the research conducted as part of the fellowship and my ongoing research efforts, I will now distill findings to 10 recommendations for managers:

1. Do not engage in techno-centric smart city development efforts.

Simply put, these efforts seldom result in anything else but significant loss of valuable taxpayer resources, overhyped artificial designs, and lock-ins into current technologies that will soon be outdated.

2. Leverage local knowledge and resources so as to design contextually relevant solutions.

Too often, smart community development efforts rely on exporting external talent and solutions. While exporting necessary skills can be beneficial, this is often done at the expense of exploiting local knowledge and resources, which leads to design solutions that do not meet the necessary social, cultural, and economic realities of the community. Consider the Modderfontein New City project in Johannesburg, South Africa. The project was launched in 2013, dubbed the New York of Africa, it was supposed to comprise of 55,000 housing units, over 1,450,000 square meters of office space and all requisite supporting amenities. Initial cost estimates were R84 billion. The project failed due to the solutions being proposed failing to fit with local needs and requirements. While the designers wanted to build an elite city, the community wanted a more inclusive district that could better serve its residents. The project was managed by Chinese developers who wanted to build the project so as to be attractive to overseas investors, especially Chinese firms investing in the continent.

3. Avoid mega-scale projects.

The track record of mega-scale development projects is horrendous. These artifacts often serve as good publicity campaigns, but often lead to significant waste of resources and poor economic development outcomes. In addition, these projects are often abandoned before completion, which results in works-in-progress that need further investment to be repurposed.

4. No free (or discounted) technology lunches.

Our research points to the troubling issue that most communities do not understand the total cost of technology deployments. Many get enticed with free or discounted trials of technologies, only to find themselves locked into long-term contracts with significant maintenance costs. In addition to the costs of the technology itself, it is important to account for the overall costs one must invest to modernize the necessary infrastructure to house the technology.

5. Create platforms to promote civic innovation.

Rather than designing for your communities, you should build platforms that allow you to either design with your community or facilitate the community to design for themselves. Platforms that promote co-creation of solutions are vital tools when engaging members of the community. Ensure that these platforms are accessible across multiple media (e.g., different languages) and environments (e.g., physical, digital, and hybrid).11

6. Increase your IQ on emerging technologies.

Public managers, and the public workforce in general, need to immediately raise their IQ when it comes to emerging technologies. This is critical if we are to ensure that one can ask the necessary questions to investigate their affordances, risks, and opportunities to ensure we understand the consequences of their use in our communities. Given the digital age we are in, your first stop for resources to educate yourself on emerging technologies is the wide assortment of MOOCs (massive online open courses) that are available on everything from the basics of machine learning and artificial intelligence to more advanced offerings on how to set up and even run large-scale analysis.

7. Engage your community before deploying technologies, especially those that have machine learning capabilities.

While much attention has been given to the use of facial recognition technologies by law enforcement personnel in recent times, we must remember that this only scratches the surface of what can and will be done. AI technologies that can learn from datasets and function in a semi- or fully-autonomous manner are becoming more pervasive across our communities. Already, these technologies are being used by courts to assist judges in determining sentencing. The community must be engaged on these technology projects upfront and must have their voices heard when it comes to if and how these technologies should be used.

8. Promote responsible experimentation with new technologies.

Communities need to be able to experiment with new technologies. Experimentation allows one to learn and reflect on their experiences. They allow for a controlled setting where unexpected outcomes are not viewed as failures. Local governments must find ways to build experimentation capabilities into their organizational DNA, especially when it comes to emerging technologies where one must learn from pilot deployments in an agile manner. Several local governments have set up living labs to promote experimentation and co-creation with external stakeholders. Engaging with the academic institutions in your communities also is a viable avenue for experimentation. Universities can take on projects that are riskier and require access to skills that may be outside the local government.

9. Understand how technologies shape and exacerbate cultural, racial, and political divides in the community.

Technology is not neutral and is socially constructed. It is important to understand how technologies, and the algorithms that underpin them, shape our understanding and interactions with our communities. We have also heard of echo chambers that develop on social networks and how these platforms are often amplifiers of misinformation. Yet, we are still grappling with the fact that these technologies are subject to being weaponized based on the data they use and the algorithms that act on the data. One way these technologies do get weaponized is by playing on our biases and differences and dividing communities and even nations. It is now more critical than ever that we begin to understand how to intervene in this space at the local level to prevent our communities from becoming more fragile.

10. Understand the criticality of cybersecurity.

Given how dependent our communities and our individual activities are on technology, we must pay close attention to developments in the cybersecurity space. Information systems are being disrupted and even being weaponized.12 Several senior government employees were working on their government laptops connected to the free public Wi-Fi at a coffee shop in Washington, D.C. Soon after, the U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) Department suffered a cyber-attack. Amid the rapid spread of COVID-19, the cyber-attack on the HHS computer system sought to undermine the agency’s response to the coronavirus. It was speculated to be the work of a foreign actor as part of a campaign of disruption and disinformation.

Advancements in video and audio editing have introduced a suite of new opportunities to manipulate information and its interpretation. For instance, super-imposing an individual’s face on another individual’s body is now a common-day reality, with easy-to-use tools available for use by the ordinary person. Deepfake technology creates videos showing politicians who say or do things they never actually said or did. A well-made Deepfake video could convince voters that what the video showed actually occurred and could easily influence voter sentiment.

In recent times, several local governments have had their systems hijacked and held for ransoms, penetrated for data theft, and even compromised due to negligent behavior on the part of employees. These events are only going to be increase in frequency and sophistication over time. When investing in technologies, a clear and purposeful strategy is needed to not only account for cyber risks from a protection perspective, but also how backup solutions will be used in the absence of technological solutions.


We are living in unprecedented times. We have an opportunity to rise above the crises of the day and make our communities stronger if we act responsibly and use technology affordances to solve challenges that were previously unsolvable. Doing so requires us to understand the changing landscape of technologies, especially in the context of how AI systems ingest and learn from data. As we get more dependent on technology, it is paramount that we invest in securing them from malicious actors and educate the community on how these technologies can be weaponized to disrupt community cohesion and undermine societal values.

We must put people and your community’s future at the center of your development efforts. While this might seem a like a no-brainer, our research has pointed to the fact that this is often ignored. Economic interests trump what is really needed for the community in many cases. Moreover, when it comes to technology installations, these often assume that individuals are dumb receptors and providers of data. I am reminded of the words of John Christopher Jones, “Design everything on the assumption that people are not heartless or stupid but marvelously capable, given the chance.”

Headshot of author Kevin Desouza

KEVIN C. DESOUZA is a professor of business, technology, and strategy at Queensland University of Technology’s QUT Business School. He is also a non-resident senior fellow with the the Brookings Institution. (





Endnotes and Resources

1 Some of my musings can be found on

2 Desouza et al. Local government 2035: Strategic trends and implications of new technologies, Brookings Institution, 2015

3 See two pieces on

4 Desouza et al. Drones and the “Wild West” of regulatory experimentation, Brookings Institution, 2015,

5 Selby, J.D. and Desouza, K.C. “Fragile Cities in the Developed World: A Conceptual Framework,” Cities, 19 (August), 2019, 180-192.

6 Ibid.

7 Desouza, K.C. et al., “Under the Hood: A Look at Techno-Centric Smart City Development,” PM Magazine, December 2019,

8 Desouza, K.C., Hunter, M., Jacob, B., and Yigitcanlar, T. “Pathways to the Making of Prosperous Smart Cities: An Exploratory Study on the Best Practice,” Journal of Urban Technology, Forthcoming.

9 In the late 90s and early 2000s, I was involved in several projects and even wrote my first book on AI, Managing Knowledge with Artificial Intelligence: Guidelines for Nonspecialist (Westport, CT: Quorum Books), 2001.

10 Desouza, K.C.“Your IQ on Emerging Technologies: Mind the Gap,” PM Magazine, June 2020,

11 Desouza, K.C., and Bhagwatwar, A. “Technology-Enabled Participatory Platforms for Civic Engagement: The Case of US Cities,” Journal of Urban Technology, 21 (4), 2014, 25-50.

12 Desouza, K.C., Ahmad, A., Nasser, H., and Sharma, M. “Weaponizing Information Systems for Political Disruption: The Actor, Lever, Effects, and Response Taxonomy (ALERT),” Computers & Security, 88 (January), 2020.