William & Mary Environmental Law and Policy Review


From 1800 to today, the global population has shifted from only three percent living in an urban environment to well over fifty percent in 2020. As a result of urbanization, cities around the world struggle to manage traffic and waste, efficiently distribute utilities, and lower pollution to slow the progression of global warming. Smart city technologies have emerged as a tool to process cities’ various forms of data collected through networks of precisely placed sensors and map solutions to many of the environmental and social issues created by urbanization. For swelling metropolitan areas in the United States, China, and Europe as well as in developing countries like Kenya and India, the allocation of control over smart city technologies in private hands provides the necessary technical expertise and funding to make cities smarter and, therefore, more sustainable.

However, smart cities gain insight of smart technologies at a cost. The question is whether this cost is clearly understood. An obvious cost is the loss of privacy, which is receiving much attention at academic as well as political levels. Another less obvious, but not less important, cost is the challenge to establish clear lines of accountability for decisions based on smart city technologies. Public mistrust in ubiquitous technology capable of surveillance is inextricably linked to transparency, critical in democratic systems. The question is whether these risks are necessary to achieve greater sustainability.

This Article reviews the sustainability claims that smart cities promise while highlighting the issues raised by the privatization of large data collection, the exposure of personal data, and the datafication of citizens from the perspective of accountability. The Article will conclude with some observations on the challenge of establishing accountability in the context of smart cities governance.