Smart Cities for the People: Overcoming Barriers and Building Sustainable Solutions. Part 1

Over the last decade, the concept of a smart city has garnered significant attention from policymakers and technology developers worldwide as a solution to various urbanization challenges.

Authors: Tuhu Nugraha and Raine Renaldi*

Over the last decade, the concept of a smart city has garnered significant attention from policymakers and technology developers worldwide as a solution to various urbanization challenges. According to data from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), urbanization levels in developing economies, particularly in Asia and Oceania, have increased from 44.0% in 2012 to 50.6% in 2022. In Africa, urbanization has also increased by 4.6 percentage points during the same period. Advances in information and communication technologies, such as the integration of big data and the Internet of Things (IoT), have enabled increased efficiency and quality of urban services and improved quality of life for residents.

However, in developing countries, implementing the smart city concept faces challenges related to infrastructure and social and cultural adaptation. This transformation is crucial as it changes not only how cities operate but also the social interactions among individuals. For example, the transition from traditional markets to digital platforms can reduce direct interactions, which have been an essential part of the social structure and cultural values. If social and cultural aspects are overlooked, technology implementation can be hindered and even lead to broader social disparities. Communities that are less skilled in technology or lack access to digital infrastructure may feel marginalized, increasing the potential for social dissatisfaction that could lead to tension or conflict.

Digital Divide Challenge

One of the biggest challenges in implementing smart cities in developing countries is the digital divide. Many residents lack stable or affordable internet access, and the inadequate information technology infrastructure is a significant barrier to accessing digital services that are core to smart cities. Without this access, a portion of the population cannot take advantage of more efficient city services, such as smart public transport systems or online health services.

The digital infrastructure gap in developing countries involves not only the equal distribution of access but also the affordability of devices and internet costs, which are often prohibitive for the economically disadvantaged. Although network infrastructure may be available in many areas, the cost of devices required to access the internet—such as smartphones, tablets, or computers—remains too high for most residents. This situation results in them being unable to leverage the benefits of digital technology and being isolated from smart city developments. For example, based on 2022 data from the World Bank and NewZoo, smartphone penetration rates in some developing countries are as follows: India at 47%, Nigeria at 38%, and Pakistan at 31%.

Additionally, the relatively high cost of internet data packages is another barrier. In many developing countries, data rates are expensive compared to local income standards. This limitation restricts internet access to those who are economically more capable, while low-income families may have to choose between meeting other basic needs or purchasing internet data.

Thus, even though network infrastructure exists, the affordability of devices and the cost of internet contribute to an ever-widening digital divide, deepening the gap between the rich and the poor in terms of access to modern digital information and services. This condition underscores that merely having the technology available is insufficient without considering affordability aspects that enable access for all layers of society.

Social and Cultural Barriers

The transformation toward a smart city involves significant lifestyle and social interaction changes, which can be a substantial challenge in many developing countries. Changes such as the shift from traditional markets to e-commerce and the digitalization of public services are often difficult for all societal layers to accept, particularly for those who are older or have limitations in technological literacy.

In predominantly agrarian developing countries with highly communal cultures, these challenges are even more significant. Traditional markets, for example, function not just as economic transaction hubs but also as vital spaces for social interaction and community relationship maintenance. The digitalization of markets and public services can reduce face-to-face interactions, which are crucial for strengthening social bonds in these tightly-knit societies. The loss of these social spaces can lead to deeper feelings of loss and isolation.

Additionally, many residents in agrarian economies depend on a traditional economy involving direct exchange of goods and services. Replacing this with a digital system could threaten their livelihoods if they lack the ability or access to transition to digital platforms, which in turn could widen economic and social gaps.

Thus, policymakers and smart city developers in developing countries must understand the unique social and economic aspects of these communal agrarian societies. They need to design strategies that not only adopt the latest technologies but also preserve and enhance community interactions, ensuring that the transition to digital systems does not overlook or disadvantage those less connected to the technology world.

Resource Limitations and Development Priorities

Developing countries often face significant challenges in developing smart cities, primarily due to serious resource limitations. Whether it’s financial resources, skilled human resources, or advanced technology, many of these countries must allocate their resources to address urgent issues that directly affect the well-being of their populations, such as poverty, health, and education.

An example that reflects this situation can be seen in several cities in India. In the smart city projects in India, the central and local governments plan to integrate technology into city management to improve efficiency and services to its citizens. However, these projects often face funding constraints. In many cases, the funds provided are not sufficient to cover all the required infrastructure needs, such as digitally integrated transportation systems or more responsive public health services.

Additionally, in the context of education and training, the lack of skilled information technology workers also poses a barrier. For instance, in some regions in Africa, despite the desire to implement smart city systems, limitations in local technology skills make the projects less than optimal. Adequate education and training in digital technology are crucial to ensure that local citizens can maintain and operate smart city infrastructure, but these limitations often mean that technology implementation is only half-hearted.

These resource shortages not only slow down the progress of smart city development but can also cause projects to stall mid-way. Therefore, governments in developing countries must design realistic strategies, prioritize developments that can have the most significant impact on general welfare, and seek alternative funding sources or international cooperation to support their smart city initiatives.

Data Security and Privacy

Storage and processing of large-scale data are critical aspects of a smart city, yet they also bring serious concerns regarding data security and privacy. In many developing countries, these concerns are exacerbated by weak or inconsistent regulations. Without strong and detailed regulations, sensitive citizen data can easily be misused by both government and private entities. This not only poses risks to individual privacy but can also diminish public trust in the smart city projects themselves.

In addition to regulatory weaknesses, the political systems in some developing countries further complicate the situation. Unstable or authoritarian-leaning political systems may misuse data collected through smart city initiatives for purposes of surveillance or broader social control, rather than solely for improving public services. When citizens’ data can be accessed and used by the government without adequate oversight, it creates significant potential for privacy violations.

Furthermore, the prevalence of corruption in many developing countries’ bureaucracies adds another layer of complexity to the issue. Corruption in the management and execution of smart city projects can lead to data misuse that is not only illegal but also harmful to the public at large. For example, data intended to improve infrastructure and services could be diverted or sold for the benefit of specific individuals or groups, exacerbating social inequalities.


Adapting to smart cities in developing countries requires a nuanced and multifaceted approach. It is a complex journey that involves integrating advanced technology into the urban fabric while also addressing the diverse needs and challenges faced by its residents. The goal is to foster an ecosystem that is not merely technologically advanced but is also inclusive and sustainable. This kind of smart city initiative aims to enhance the operational efficiency of urban services like transportation, healthcare, and public safety, thereby improving the overall quality of life for all citizens.

Achieving this requires a comprehensive strategy that considers the economic, social, and cultural contexts of the local environment. It involves the collaboration of various stakeholders, including government entities, private sector partners, community groups, and international organizations. Such collaborations can help to ensure that the benefits of smart city technologies are accessible to everyone, including marginalized and underserved communities. By doing so, the transformation into smart cities can be a catalyst for broader social and economic development, leading to more resilient and adaptive urban centers.

*Raine Renaldi, President ID-Opentech Group, Chairman Indonesia Smart City Provider Alliance

Tuhu Nugraha
Tuhu Nugraha
Digital Business & Metaverse Expert Principal of Indonesia Applied Economy & Regulatory Network (IADERN)