Smart city experts should be looking to emerging markets. Here's why.

Byline: Rohit T. Aggarwala, Katie Hill and Robert Muggah

From the crowded markets of Dakar and Karachi to the informal settlements of Addis Ababa and Rio de Janeiro, urban technology seems to be thriving everywhere. Whether used for hitching a ride and navigating grinding traffic or buying coffee and finding a date, smartphones and apps are ubiquitous. To many people living in the world's low and medium-income metropolises, tech companies like Waze, Uber and their local equivalents seem entirely native.

But there's a catch.

Many foreign technologies, companies and start-ups are still failing to address the most pressing needs of the majority of city residents in the so-called global south. Despite widespread adoption, they only really serve the needs of the elite, while leaving most of the urban poor in Africa, Asia and the Americas still struggling with basic issues ranging from safety to sanitation. This is not just a problem for low-income city dwellers. It is also a conundrum for the urban tech sector and global cities more generally.

There are several reasons why 'smart city' technologies rarely address the most important challenges of low and medium-income cities. For one, the overwhelming focus of the first generation of smart city vendors was on wealthy cities in mature economies. Early smart city champions like IBM and Cisco, two US corporations, focused initially on North American and European cities before spreading to fast-growing urban centres in East and Southeast Asia.

More recently, smart city technologies are being developed even more rapidly in emerging markets. Homegrown urban tech companies in fast-growing cities across China, India and Singapore, while less numerous, are adopting a similar approach to those of the US and Western Europe. This is not surprising: large Asian cities have the wealth, capacity and determination to take advantage of the latest innovations. They are also home to a surfeit of creative people thinking about how to solve municipal problems.

Not surprisingly, influential groups ranging from the Economist to McKinsey and Company routinely designate global cities like New York, London, Paris, Singapore and Seoul as the 'smartest' when it comes to the deployment of technology. The focus of most companies investing in smart city technologies, then, is on a narrow selection of between 300 and 600 developed cities driving the global economy.

The fact that smart city technology is purpose-built for wealthy cities partly explains why it is often criticized in the developing world. City officials and citizens in poorer cities (or in poorer neighborhoods of better-off cities) are frequently saddled with expensive systems supplied by foreign vendors. More often than not, these products are ill-suited to local realities. In some cases they can reinforce digital divides - benefiting the privileged minority with access to regular internet access.

More fundamentally, the traditional focus of urban technology companies on the wealthiest cities restricts the ambition and creative potential of smart cities. Technologists regularly espouse a focus on first principles as the basis of creative problem-solving and designing solutions. And yet technologies targeted...

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