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The Challenges of Using Digital Technologies for Urban Adaptation

Learn more about digital technologies, the related challenges. and their potential to advance urban adaptation.
Male person in an office setting, looking at statistical data on a computer screen.
© Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

Based on our previous considerations about the use of digital technologies for urban adaptation, we may ask ourselves: What are key challenges of using digital technologies for urban adaptation? Will cities become more sustainable if digital technologies are used to support urban adaptation?

The impact of emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and cyber-physical systems (CPS) is increasingly discussed in public, but it remains a challenge for most researchers, business professionals and policymakers to fully comprehend the fundamental changes that these novel technologies bring to human societies. Emerging digital technologies could further accelerate adaptation by enhancing communication and coordination within our societies, but they also present us with ethical questions as well as complex regulatory and design choices.

For example, if we seek to use ICT to advance urban adaptation, we may ask how large amounts of urban data could be collected in a way that respects the privacy concerns of citizens. Moreover, it has been pointed out that the risks and benefits of novel technologies may primarily benefit populations in industrialized countries. The use of novel technologies may even create new power imbalances between citizens and decision makers on the one hand, and technology experts on the other. Thus, there is a potential risk that the use of highly advanced digital technologies may widen the existing ‘technology gap’ between and within countries, characterized as the difference between the actual level of technological innovation and the level required to achieve a societal goal such as climate change adaptation.

In addition to these fundamental ethical and political questions, there are a number of practical challenges as well. Many municipalities only have a limited capacity to obtain and analyze high-quality data or translate scientific information in a reliable manner, and to effectively communicate the results to the public (Balogun et al. 2020: 15). At the same time, there are serious concerns about the growing energy demand caused by the proliferation of digital technologies.

Accordingly, it is hard to predict whether cities will become more sustainable if novel digital technologies are used for urban adaptation. What can be said is that every technological solution will inevitably have non-technological side effects that need to be considered. What will be necessary, then, is to carefully monitor technological innovation, facilitate the development of ethical and normative guidelines for technology use, and support responsible research and education to encourage collaboration between relevant stakeholders before deploying new technologies at scale.

Before completing this step, please try to answer the following question. What are some of the potential challenges or barriers for the implementation of ‘smart city’ technologies in the urban areas that you are familiar with or currently live in? Think, for example, about infrastructure, policies, finance, expertise or the ethical use of data. Please share with other learners.


Balogun, A.L., Marks, D., Sharma, R., Shekhar, H., Balmes, C., Maheng, D., Arshad, A., & Salehi, P. (2020). Assessing the potentials of digitalization as a tool for climate change adaptation and sustainable development in urban centres. Sustainable Cities and Society, 53.

© University of Groningen
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Sustainable Cities: Governing Urban Adaptation Under Climate Change

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