Re Designing Smart Cities for Impact — Social Cities

Gabriela Corbera
5 min readJul 19, 2021


Smart Cities, Social Cities

Coming back from two metropolitan cities outside of Boston in the past few months, I’ve been compelled to share the model for cities I think is most sustainable, as well as futuristic in the wake of the 4th Industrial Revolution — social cities.

Photo Credit: The Conversation | 2019

Smart Cities are an urban movement spanning across metropolitan cities as well as in the developing world in the build out of cities using technology towards

  • Being efficient
  • Contemporary, modern through digital applications of artificial intelligence, the internet of things, GIS Technology, traffic surveillance, and citizen science
  • Being responsive, resilient
  • Solving urban challenges — in environment, mobility, health, housing, urban infrastructure to name a few

Globally, the Smart Cities movement in urban development has been well received. However, over time, there have been critiques of Smart Cities, challenging the notions of top down governance in digitalization, as well as digital barriers for marginalized communities in not being able to access the innovation of Smart Cities. These critiques are significant and currently changing the scope of Smart Cities.

In the book, Smart Cities by Germaine Halegoua, several definitions of Smart Cities are described. While all these definitions are dynamic, there is one particular definition that I believe resonates the most with social justice and a digital democracy.

Traditional Smart Cities Definitions --

“Smart cities can be understood through histories of urban imaginations that prioritize maintaining order and efficiency, and fostering economic growth and competitiveness in global and regional markets through technological and scientific developments” (Shelton, Zook and Wigg, 2015)

As we can see while the definition encompasses an embrace to the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and to a new urban imagination, it does not account any efforts in human development nor address a systems thinking approach. The critiques for new definitions have come from scholars, technology designers, urban planners, municipal officials, and community activists.

I like the definition of smart cities where systems thinking has been adopted into the urban imagination for sustainable development.

Architect Andrea Caraglui's definition of smart city is one that “focuses less on ICTs and more on investment in human and social capital to produce sustainable economic growth, management of natural resources, and participatory governance.” (Halegoua, 2011)

Social City ---

In seeing cities as social cities, we see cities as areas, landscapes, and neighborhoods where citizens can thrive. Where they can enable the design of their own solutions through the use of technology.

This approach is horizontal in nature. It gives citizens rights to design.

To design their own cities.

Given the multitude of resources of cities, as well as what they stand for, they should indeed be made to serve its residents.

So what are some examples of Social Cities?

Photo Credit: Esteve Almirall | 2017

Senseable City Lab, Cambridge

The Senseable City Lab at MIT is one of the most cutting edge laboratories and communities informing the urban imagination through 1. Studying built environment 2. Approaching new technologies and 3. Informing a cross disciplinary approach.

When I first came across the Senseable City Lab I was moved by its technologies, as well as its applications of technologies for social innovation. Every project has an objective, intention on informing a gap in urban development. Director, Founder Dr. Carlo Ratti has built a lab using tools to learn about cities as well as shape in new ways the design of cities. With lidar technology, data visualizations, and cutting edge research, Dr. Ratti’s team leads the mission of social cities with excellence.

Some projects to view:
Favelas 4D |
Urban Sensing |

New Urban Mechanics, Boston

Government and innovation are two spheres that more and more have become interwoven. Municipalities and Public Officials have seen the benefits of being innovative in creating urban solutions. The most exceptional government office in the City of Boston is the Office of New Urban Mechanics. With a cross sectoral team of technologists, sociologists, and urban planners working across departments in the City of Boston, this office exists to serve residents of Boston on issues from mobility, housing to digital transparency and collective well-being. Some of the most cutting edge projects can be found here:

Digital Transparency in the Public Realm |

Third Spaces |

For their annual report see here:

Urban Hackathons and Urban Accelerators, Latvia

Civic participation and fostered entrepreneurial ecosystems can generate solutions for cities. Hackathons have been used across cities to bring in new ideas building opportunities for budding entrepreneurs passionate about solving urban challenges. This model is part of social cities because it is civic, participatory. It is dynamic for cities because it allows the urban imagination to be co-created.

An example is the Urban Mobility Incubator. With efforts of reducing emissions as driving new solutions in transportation this incubator serves as space for urban innovations. Over the course of ten weeks, prototypes are progressed, advanced with high level expertise, business coaching, and 6,000. It is run from Riga, Latvia.

U-Code, Germany

Participatory Urban Planning is significant to challenge top down solutions. In smart city, traditional models, citizen voice and input can exist but only through very intentional designs of urban civic participation. U-Code (Urban Collective Environment Design) is a platform aimed towards large audiences in bringing them to the frontlines of urban development. This video explains their platforms and how it can be used towards designing collective urban solutions.

As we can see, smart cities might be great starting points to redesign cities as they embrace the tools technology have to offer in solving urban challenges. However, without citizen led design in these systems, cities will not succeed towards enhancing quality of life nor collective well being. Redesigning cities starts with engaging citizens as planners and contributors of urban spaces.



Gabriela Corbera

Innovation strategist with a heart for cities, sociology, culture, policy, environment, and systems change.