Smart city programmes worldwide need much stronger ethical and governance frameworks if they are to succeed. That’s according to a new white paper from the World Economic Forum (WEF).

The document, ‘Governing Smart Cities’, suggests adopting clear policy benchmarks across five key areas of benefit to citizens: ICT accessibility, privacy impact assessments, cyber accountability, digital infrastructures, and open data.

The WEF looks at 36 ‘pioneer cities’ around the world and identifies profound gaps in these policy areas – in cities of all sizes, in all regions, and at all levels of economic development.

The gaps suggest that some programmes are being implemented in a policy and governance vacuum, without considering the long-term risks to citizens from any failures in management or strategic vision.

For example, the WEF reports that, while the pandemic has accelerated digital transformation and the adoption of new services, less than half of the cities surveyed have accessibility policies in place for ICT procurement, with more than half providing no evidence that they have put accessibility requirements into practice.

This means that many smart cities are perpetuating existing societal problems in a digital world, by not making or designing services with accessibility at the forefront.

Less than one-quarter of pioneer cities conduct privacy impact assessments when they deploy new technologies, again failing to consider the potential harm to citizens from gathering data about individuals or groups.

The WEF finds that most of the cities have neither a designated cybersecurity executive nor a cybersecurity plan in place, despite the surge in cyberattacks in recent months brought on by the pandemic.

This could be putting citizens at risk when they use new digital services, especially if they encounter them in public spaces or divulge personal or financial data.

Many cities also lack the digital infrastructures needed to support or sustain the global shift towards home working. This may be because the economies of most have sprung up around office workers, leisure, entertainment, and tourism.

The cities of the future may need to be reshaped for the post-pandemic world, considering a range of very different scenarios to those envisaged pre-Covid. For example, Transform Industry’s own research finds that many councils are considering turning their own offices and civic centres into more mixed-use social spaces.

The report adds, “Among the pioneer cities, less than half have a ‘dig once’ policy in place to ensure that digital infrastructure is installed during street excavations and construction works.”

Such a policy would accelerate the roll-out of digital infrastructure and improved broadband or mobile connectivity while minimising disruption from constant, repetitive roadworks.

But there is some good news. Open data policy is perhaps the only area in which most of the cities have achieved a “basic implementation level”, says the WEF, referring to anonymised data sets about how functions and services are being used.

However, “only 15 percent of the pioneer cities have integrated their open data portals with their wider city data infrastructure, which is a necessary step towards making a city open by default,” it adds.

Open data can be used to improve public services and the design of cities, for example by gathering data about how people move through crowded spaces or use buildings and transport interchanges.

Taken together, the findings published in the white paper show that most smart cities lack key building blocks to safeguard their interests and ensure their own longevity.

Arguably, one implication from the research is that some initiatives are being pursued in the interests of suppliers or programme owners rather than citizens, or with a short-term view that runs counter to the spirit of smart city programmes.

The report concludes with a detailed call to action for stakeholders to take a better, more informed, longer-term view.