Video monitors showing the activities of people across a town.

+ How could Smart Cities improve our quality of life without invading privacy?

As Google hits the headlines for changes to its privacy rules across Europe, it is worth noting just how important it is to balance innovation, the immense power of knowledge networks and the legitimate concerns of the people who use these technologies.

In the case of Google, the group argues that it is a positive change, merely simplifying a patchwork of privacy rules across separate services and consolidating 60 policies into a single one.

The French data protection watchdog suggests the new rules are a cause for concern, while the EU authorities are investigating and the issue has been raised in Japan and the US, among others.

This is clearly an extremely delicate topic and it will be interesting to see how it develops. But it also holds a particular lesson for those of us championing the greater use of information and communication technologies (ITC) to help create the Smart Cities of the future.

Smart Cities have tremendous potential to improve the efficiency of our urban environments, to usher in a new era of growth through the digital economy and to vastly improve the quality of our lives in all sorts of everyday ways.

At the personal level, we can easily imagine a smartphone app that rings you up to let you know to put your coat on and walk down to the bus stop just in time to meet the No 73 into town.

At the macro-level, our recent report estimates that Smart Cities replicating the energy-efficiency successes of places such as San Diego could save the public and private sector some Euro600 billion per year around the world, while we could reduce carbon emissions by 15% by 2020.

The light-speed evolution ITC, the ‘internet of things’ and the utility generated by the latest smart phones and other devices have combined to put society on the cusp of a whole new age.

We are only beginning to scratch the surface of the potential benefits.

Yet at this critical point, it is more important than ever that we as a society start thinking about the checks and balances we will need alongside the opportunities that Smart Cities can provide in an increasingly hyper-connected world.

This is a major, strategic issue for cities. And it is no idle philosophical discussion either. The Smart City is already on the rise – still patchwork, but silently evolving and becoming more sophisticated, generating ever more efficiency gains for society applied to everything from contactless mobile phone payments to crowd-sourced data generation.

This is far too valuable an opportunity to risk, which is why everyone who supports Smart Cities needs to think about the political oversight, governance and technical controls that will be required to help people in society make important choices about how we use the now ubiquitous data emerging across our cities.