The unanticipated impacts of smart city technologies – part 2


For over 20 years, we have been told that smart city technologies will make our cities more efficient, sustainable, and convenient. We have been told about the multitude of positive benefits solutions will bring, from reduced energy use and operational costs, to improved data-driven decision making and reliable and personalised city services. However, for any solution implemented, in addition to the well-publicised positive benefits, there are likely to be a range of unanticipated impacts, both positive and negative.

This series of articles seeks to explore the unanticipated impacts of three ‘smart city’ solutions. The selected solutions span 3 different timelines:

  • Now: Remote health and social care
  • 5-10 years: Airborne drones
  • 10-30 years: Autonomous road vehicles

This article focuses on the 5-10 year scenario: Airborne drones.

5-10 Years: Airborne Drones

Airborne drone technology is advancing rapidly and has the potential to transform the operation of our cities. UKRI’s Flying High Programme, which aims to accelerate drone technology for real-world complex city environments, defines the following use-cases for airborne drone technology:

  • Monitoring – continuous scanning or assessment of defined areas looking for live changes. Eg: monitoring air pollution, mapping floods, monitoring traffic.
  • Inspection – assessing discrete objects, areas or systems to evaluate their current state. Eg: bridges, houses, construction sites, tall buildings, confined or compromised structures, linear systems (railway tracks, pipes, roads etc).
  • Delivery of Goods – collecting, transporting and delivering goods from origin to destination.
  • Transport of People – transporting passengers from one place to another.


Promised benefits include faster deliveries and journeys, reduced street level congestion, improved worker safety due to removal from hazardous environments, reduction in public sector service delivery costs, and the creation of new jobs, products, and services.

But what about the potential negative impacts of these technologies. Noise and visual pollution associated with low flying drones is likely to negatively impact citizen wellbeing. The introduction of low flying drones introduces a raft of privacy concerns. Will there be set routes which drones must follow to uphold privacy for those on the upper floors of high-rise buildings? How will the ownership and purpose of drones be made transparent to citizens? What is a specific drone doing and who does it belong to? Lastly, urban drone use cases give rise to safety risks. Malfunctioning or hacked drones could result in the loss of goods, damage to property, disruption to other city systems, and injury or even loss of life.

As these technologies approach mainstream adoption, robust and proactive policy and governance frameworks will be required to shape deployments to maximise positive benefits and minimise disbenefits, balancing financial returns and cost efficiencies with wider social and environmental outcomes. Work in this area is already underway. The Flying High Project has proposed the creation of an adaptive governance model. When developed and adopted, this model should allow city services to evolve and capitalise on the opportunities that urban airspace presents, while limiting potential problems.


The point of this piece is not to discourage the implementation of smart solutions. Rather it is to stress the importance of considering the wide spectrum of potential disbenefits alongside benefits, and to proactively implement robust policy and governance frameworks that minimise the former and maximise the latter.

For solutions currently entering the mainstream, holistic policy and governance frameworks must be developed urgently to avoid the realisation of unanticipated impacts. For those solutions that are still some way from mainstream adoption, there are opportunities associated with a proactive approach to policy development. Early signalling may influence the direction of solution development and drive investment into these areas over others. It is also beneficial from a citizen perspective, giving them the chance to have their say and shape future deployments. This in turn should maximise user acceptance and adoption in the future, a major risk for any new technology.

Hannah Griffiths is Senior Associate Director – Smart Places and Digital Infrastructure Team Lead at Jacobs

Feature Image Source: user6702303 on Freepik

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