The unanticipated impacts of smart city technologies – part 3


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 piece 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 10-30 year scenario: Connected and Autonomous Road Vehicles.

10-30 Years: Connected and Autonomous Road Vehicles

Automation is considered to be the next disruptive innovation in transport and autonomous vehicles are expected to become an integral part of future transport systems. Proponents promise they will deliver safer road travel, smoother traffic flows and more cost-effective personal transport. Wider positive benefits are expected to include increased economic productivity due to people being able to do other things while driving and the ability to repurpose city centre car parks for other users.

However, what if the improved convenience, speed, and cost of road travel leads to increased demand, thereby reducing the use of public transport and active travel modes.

  • What does this mean for public transport revenues or the health of the population?
  • What if people decide that travel is so convenient, they do not need to live near workplaces, leisure locations or public services?
  • What is the impact of this on the density of the built environment and does it drive urban sprawl?
  • What if all the autonomous vehicles repositioning themselves and travelling to out-of-city car parks cause increased congestion?

The realisation or avoidance of the impacts identified above will depend on the policy context in which the solution is implemented. The Norwegian Centre for Transport Research identified four different scenarios for the implementation of autonomous vehicles:

Rolling out autonomous vehicles and AV sharing programmes without policy measures in place to control demand is unlikely to reduce congestion and is likely to have a detrimental effect on public transport usage and revenues.


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: Freepik

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