Smart Cities: The Prospects of Digital Authoritarianism

Smart cities present a formidable challenge to democracy since they employ a host of technologies that can be used inappropriately, jeopardizing basic civil liberties and political rights.

Dr Luis da Vinha, Senior Lecturer, Jeff Bleich Centre


As the world’s population continues to grow, we are also witnessing an accelerated process of urbanization. By mid-century, the world’s population will grow by an additional two billion people (to a total of approximately 9.7 billion), with those living in urban areas increasing from the current 56% to 68%. Africa and Asia will be responsible for most of this growth as both regions are projected to have the highest levels of urban growth over the next three decades. With rapid urbanization come several daunting challenges for cities such as inadequate physical infrastructure, urban density and congestion, urban slums and informal settlements, low quality and unsustainable social services, environmental vulnerability, and a rise in unemployment and in the informal urban economy.

To address the challenges associated with the rapid process of urbanization, there has been a growing call in the Global South to embrace “smart” development policies and solutions. It is argued that by harnessing the potential of digital technologies, smart cities offer an opportunity to exploit the latest innovations to try to solve the most pressing contemporary urban problems.  However, despite the discernible benefits in improving aspects of urban life, smart cities also pose many risks to their users. In the wrong hands, smart city technologies can also be employed to surveil and control groups and individuals, suppressing their civil liberties and political rights. Without the proper institutional and policy guardrails, illiberal regimes may exploit digital technologies to undermine fragile democracies.

Smart Cities

The concept of smart city is currently employed to designate a host of different cities employing digital technologies to address the mounting urban challenges. Most of the definitions of smart cities tend to emphasize the digitalization of services fostered by the proliferation of digital technologies and communication and information (ICT) networks. However, recent studies argue that smart cities should not be limited to ICTs, but rather extend to also embrace people and the broader social infrastructure that makes up urban environments. Accordingly, we can think of smart cities as a catchall term to describe a broad array of “smart” services that can enhance a city’s technological, institutional, and social milieu.

The EU and China have developed diverging models and strategies for promoting smart city projects across the globe. The EU’s 2030 Digital Compass: The European Way for the Digital Decade establishes a strategy for achieving a “human-centric” digital environment that reinforces citizens’ rights, such as their rights to privacy and data protection and freedom of expression. The emphasis on individual rights was further consolidated in the recent European Declaration on Digital Rights and Principles for the Digital Decade and in the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation which provides a regulatory framework for upholding its citizens’ data privacy and security and which is showcased as a model for digital governance around the world.

In its attempt to assume a greater role in global leadership and counter attempts by the U.S. and the EU to contain its behavior, President Xi Jinping and the Communist Party of China (CPC) have identified technological innovation as the linchpin of international competition in the future. China has used the Digital Silk Road (DSR) to promote and develop smart cities internationally. In contrast to the European model, China promotes a “people-oriented” (“yi ren wei ben”) approach to smart cities and which views technologies pragmatically by highlighting their role in solving urban problems and improving resident’s living standards and fostering efficient public services. In other words, while the Chinese approach to smart city development places people at the center, its objectives are primarily pragmatic and focus on improving people’s living standards.

Smart Cities and the Threat of Digital Authoritarianism

Smart cities present a formidable challenge to democracy since they employ a host of technologies that can be used inappropriately, jeopardizing basic civil liberties and political rights. Just like other smart systems, smart cities have several key components, ranging from the technology infrastructure formed by the networks of connected devices and sensors to the smart components that allow for processing and analyzing the plethora of data collected from urban dwellers.

A key feature of smart cities is the capacity to integrate and exploit big data collected from the multiple networked urban infrastructures and services. In other words, it is the capacity of smart cities to acquire, integrate, and process data from multiple sources that make it a system of systems capable of monitoring, controlling, optimizing, and autonomizing urban functions and services. Particularly concerning is the fact that much of the surveillance in the smart city deviates from the practices traditionally conducted by state actors. In recent years, surveillance has not only been expanded by new technologies, but its very nature has undergone a significant qualitative transformation. Accordingly, a burgeoning body of research in the social sciences emphasizes how the growing integration and processing of personal information and data has transformed the smart city into a “system of surveillance” that can foster digital authoritarianism – where governments use digital technologies to monitor, repress, and coerce their citizens by:

  • Surveilling and tracking individuals or groups;
  • Blocking, censoring, or manipulating data and digital information;
  • Keeping tabs on popular discontent and controlling mass protests;
  • Using disinformation to delegitimize critics and/or opponents;
  • Harassing and repressing dissenting or threatening individuals and/or groups.

In recent years, we have witnessed several instances where illiberal regimes have in fact used smart city technologies, particularly Chinese financed and supplied systems, to consolidate their power such as in Central Asia, Uganda, and Zambia, among other developing nations.

Strengthening Safeguards

While many promoters and providers of smart city technologies may claim to simply satisfy the demands of emerging markets, their behavior ultimately allows illiberal regimes to exploit these technologies to suppress their citizens’ civil liberties and political rights. Therefore, we need to consider how to balance development and security with civil liberties and political rights. One approach is to promote and support greater regulation of smart city technology, particularly regarding personal data. To begin with, democratic governments should invest in building public awareness of the dangers of digital authoritarianism in both fragile democracies as well as in their own countries. Having robust and resilient democracies domestically is still the best way to promote political values internationally without appearing hypocritical. This naturally means that democracies need to take the lead in developing domestic regulatory frameworks protecting personal data and preventing state and private companies from abuses. This would create impetus for promoting greater international governance for addressing the challenges posed by AI such as algorithmic bias, implicit discrimination, and privacy. Several actors, such as the EU, have already taken important steps in this direction and can provide a template to build standards that are compatible with civil liberties and political rights. It is incumbent on democratic nations to capitalize on this opportunity to transcend geopolitical considerations and embrace developing regions democratic potential.

Further Reading

Luis da Vinha and Hongyi Liang, “China vis-à-vis the EU: The Competition for Africa’s Smart Cities.” In The Palgrave Handbook on China-Europe-Africa Relations: Legacies and the New International Order, edited by F. Leandro, J. Tavares, Y. Li, and C. Rodrigues (Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming).

Alice Ekman, China’s Smart Cities: The New Geopolitical Battleground (Paris: Institut Français des Relations Internationales, 2019).

Steven Feldstein, “How Artificial Intelligence Is Reshaping Repression.” Journal of Democracy 30, no.  (2019): 40-52.

Willem Gravett, “Digital Coloniser? China and Artificial Intelligence in Africa.” Survival 62, no. 6 (2021): 153-78.

Sheena Chestnut Greitens, Dealing with Demand for China’s Global Surveillance Exports. Brookings Institution (2020).

Andrea Kendall-Taylor, Erica Frantz, and Joseph Wright, “The Digital Dictators: How Technology Strengthens Autocracy.” Foreign Affairs 99, no. 2 (2020): 103-15.

Eda Keremoğlu and Nils Weidmann, “How Dictators Control the Internet: A Review Essay.” Comparative Political Studies 53, no. 10-11 (2020): 1690-703.

Dr Luis da Vinha is a Senior Lecturer with Government and the Jeff Bleich Centre

Dr da Vinha is also the Teaching Program Director for the Government discipline. His research interests are international security, international order, international political economy, foreign policy analysis, and political geography.

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