Smart cities will fail if people are not on board

  • May 19, 2024
  • Steve Rogerson

Scientists and researchers are realising the importance of asking what people want from smart cities, as Steve Rogerson found during a visit to Samsung subsidiary Harman.

Suman Sehra (left) and Lutz Eichholz.

As cities around the world roll out technologies that save them money and add a tick to their goals of making things smarter, it can be easy to forget the most important factor, and that is the people who live in those cities.

If they do not accept the technology or even rebel against it, then all the effort can be for nothing, or at least for not much.

Cities are growing, populations are increasing, and getting older, pollution and climate change are problems, budgets are tight, both for councils and citizens, and yet what people want is a better and more comfortable life.

When those scientists and researchers pitch their latest ideas to city councils, it can be easy for both sides of that fence to assume the people will love them or at least accept them. The whole micromobility trend showed just how wrong that attitude could be.

Now, having e-scooters and e-bikes carrying out the last leg of a joined-up transport system is an excellent idea. And cities around the world have been implementing this technology at pace. But they hit a snag.

While some people leapt, almost literally, onto these bikes and scooters, they were a small minority. For most of the population, they were perceived as a nuisance. Suddenly, nice, safe pedestrian zones were no longer safe as e-scooters weaved their way along the street. Accidents happened, and are still happening. On top of that, riders parked them where they wanted and ugly piles of abandoned e-scooters became a common sight.

This backlash led to some micomobility companies going under, a few councils abandoning the idea, and in Paris we saw a referendum in which people voted, albeit on a ridiculously small turnout, to ban their use (

Sights such as this became all too common.

In fairness, the micromobility companies are using technology now to combat these worries by forcing people to park properly, and some cities are looking at dedicated micromobility lanes, and I am confident in time the problems will be solved. But wouldn’t it have been so much better if they had got the people on board from the start?

I was reminded of this last week when I visited Samsung subsidiary Harman ( at its offices just outside Munich. There, the company was displaying the range of mobility technologies it is bringing onto the market, and it hosted a panel discussion in which Harman vice president Suman Sehra and Lutz Eichholz, a smart city engineer from German engineering institute Fraunhofer IESE (, discussed the importance of taking people with you on your smart city journeys.

“Technology is a means to an end,” said Suman. “A city is a city because of the people; you and I, we live there. We choose to live in a city for the quality of life, access to work, access to healthcare, and so on.”

Lutz added: “People don’t care about the technology, they want a better life. It is important we take the people with us, especially older people who are scared of technology. We have to take them by the hand sometimes.”

As an older person, I disagree with him a bit there. We are not scared of the technology, we have just been around long enough to know it is often wiser to step back a little and not jump onto every bandwagon that rolls into town. That said, you won’t get me on an e-scooter; but a nice comfortable autonomous shuttle to take me to the shops, I could go with that.

Ageism aside, Lutz has a point, and he sees the value in listening to the people they are trying to help.

“We have to ask the people what they want,” he said. “The e-scooter rollout could have been done better with better communications.”

Suman added: “For e-scooters, it is about awareness and education. It is about being incentivised to do it right. You need the right incentives to drive correct behaviour. You may have the best system, but if you don’t have the public trust, it is not going to go anywhere. The citizens have to be front and centre.”

That boosts my optimism that was beginning to fade as I saw the e-scooter fiasco play out even in my home city of Nottingham. Mistakes were made and now, hopefully, we can learn from them, not just in micromobility but in all flavours of smart city services.