Smart cities … treading the line between the possible, the probable and the desirable

By Morwen Johnson

Sometimes it feels like every city in the world is now claiming to be ‘smart’. Our research team regularly add new reports on the topic to our database. And with a policy agenda riding on the back of a multi-billion pound global industry, the positivist rhetoric around smart cities can seem overwhelming.

We’ve blogged before about the disconnect between what surveys suggest the public values in terms of quality of life in urban areas, and what smart cities are investing in. And last week I attended a conference in Glasgow ‘Designing smart cities: opportunities and regulatory challenges’ which refreshingly brought together a multi-disciplinary audience to look at smart cities in a more critical light.

The conference was rich and wide-ranging – too broad for me to try and summarise the discussions. Instead here are some reflections on the challenges which need to be explored.

Every smart city is a surveillance city

Look in any smart city prospectus or funding announcement and you’ll find mention of how data will be ‘managed’, ‘captured’, ‘monitored’, ‘shared’, ‘analysed’, ‘aggregated’, ‘interrogated’ etc. And this is inevitably presented as a benign activity happening for the common good, improving efficiency, saving money and making life better.

As David Murakami Wood pointed out at the conference however, this means that every smart city is by necessity a surveillance city – even if policymakers and stakeholders are reluctant to admit this.

Public debate is failing to keep up with the pace of change

Even for someone who takes a keen interest in urbanism and the built environment, any description of smart cities can risk leaving you feeling like a techno-illiterate dinosaur. It’s clear that there is also a huge amount of hype around the construction (or retrofitting) of smart cities – with vested interests keen to promote a positive message.

Do we really understand the possibilities being opened up when we embed technology in our urban infrastructure? And more importantly, what are the ethical questions raised around sharing and exploiting data? The pace of the development and rollout of new technologies within our urban environments seems to be running ahead of the desirable cycle of reflection and critique.

An interesting point was also made about language – and whether experts, technologists and policymakers need to adjust their use of language and jargon, in order for discussion about smart cities to be inclusive. Ubicomp … augmented reality … the Internet of Things … even the Cloud – how can the public give informed consent to participating in the smart city if the language used obscures and obfuscates what is happening with their data?

Where can we have a voice in the data city?

Following on from this point, cities are not ends in themselves – to be successful they must serve the interests and needs of the people who live, work and visit them. An interesting strand of the conference discussion considered what a bottom-up approach to smart cities would look like.

Alison Powell highlighted that there’s been a shift from seeing people as citizens to treating them as ‘citizen consumers’ – I’d add that within the built environment, this goes hand-in-hand with the commercialisation and privatisation of public space – and this has profound implications around questions of inclusion/exclusion. And also where power and decision-making sits – and who is profiting.

Although some general examples of community participation projects were mentioned during the conference, these didn’t seem to address the question of how ‘people’ can engage with smart cities. Not as problems to be managed or controlled – or as passive suppliers of data to sensors – but as creative and active participants.

Conclusion

I left the conference wondering where society is heading and how we, the Knowledge Exchange, can support our members in local government and the third sector to understand the extensive opportunities and implications of smart cities. We see a key part of our mission to be horizon scanning – and our briefings for members focus on drawing together analysis, emerging evidence and case studies.

Not all towns or cities have the resources, investment or desire to lead the way in technological innovation. But the challenge of bridging the gap between professionals and their vision and understanding of smart cities, and people in communities, is a universal one.

As William Gibson observed: “The future is already here … it’s just not very evenly distributed”.


 

The Idox Information Service can give you access to a wealth of further information on smart cities or public participation. To find out more on how to become a member, contact us.

Our reading list prepared for last autumn’s Annual UK-Ireland Planning Research Conference looks at some recent literature on smart cities.

The conference Designing smart cities: opportunities and regulatory challenges was held at the University of Strathclyde on 31 March and 1 April 2015, supported by CREATe and Horizon.

The Idox Group is the leading applications provider to UK local government for core functions relating to land, people and property, such as its market leading planning systems. Over 90% of UK local authorities are now customers. Idox provides public sector organisations with tools to manage information and knowledge, documents, content, business processes and workflow as well as connecting directly with the citizen via the web.

Putting the “Smarts” into Smart Cities

Liverpool Albert Dock

by Rebecca Riley

Last week I attended a workshop organised by Red Ninja Studios, bringing together a wide range of place based organisations, to explore what a technologically integrated future for Liverpool would look like. We spent the day exploring the three main domains of economy, health and transport, what the issues were in the city, what data was available and what innovative ideas we had to solve the issues through technology.

The discussion was interesting and lively but throughout the sessions I kept coming back to ‘why?’. Technology seemed to be the answer but what was the question, what were we trying to achieve?

Smart Cities is the latest policy buzzword – our briefing earlier in the week highlighted the wealth of research and development which is going on in this area and how great leaps in technology are changing the way we live and work in cities. The danger with looking at developing Smart Cities is that the opportunities and options are boundless, and this came through in the workshop. Smart travel systems, integrated health care, environmental measurement, technology development, graduate retention, high quality jobs, access to learning –  all could be tackled through integrated next generation technology. So how do we prioritise and get the highest impact we can in a city such as Liverpool?

One of the participants asked “what connects all these ideas, what integrates them?” the simple answer is people, not technology.

So on returning to my desk (or rather my kitchen as I am one of the nation’s 4.2m home workers) I started to think about what ‘people’ would want from a technology driven environment, rather than what the technology will deliver to the people.

A guide on service design in smart cities highlights that we have to start with the ‘business proposition’; people have to be willing to ‘buy’ the service on offer. It highlights two reasons for improvement:

Improving customer service

  • Increasing the take up of services among key groups to achieve targets
  • Making it easier to access services
  • Giving a better service
  • Giving a service targeted to individual needs
  • Giving access to a broader range of services

Improving efficiency

  • Increasing take up among key groups to increase income
  • Increasing early take up and reducing more expensive interventions later
  • Improving processes to streamline services and reduce costs
  • Switching customers to more cost efficient channels

These business imperatives should be at the heart of any technology implementation and technology can impact across all these goals but, form should follow function.

When people were asked by Steer Davies Gleave what words describe a ‘Smart’ city their response was surprising. Although there were a wide range of answers (reflecting the diversity of the term), ‘clean’ and ‘technology’ came out top, followed by ‘transport’, ‘friendly’, ‘connect’, ‘internet’ and ‘eco’. Overall people said smart cities should aim to be ‘a pleasant place to live, work and socialise’ with a ‘healthy, vibrant economy’, and sustainability was at the bottom of the list. When answers were normalised for population, Oxford, York, Bath and Cambridge were seen as the most ‘smart’ cities – all areas with higher ‘smart’ populations as well as ‘nice’ places to live. The priorities for making cities smarter were seen as availability of facilities and services (shops, places to eat and drink, sports and entertainment), modern public transport and safe, secure travel. People want good quality of life experiences.

Future Everything presented a series of essays aimed at shifting the debate on future cities towards the central place of citizens and open urban infrastructures. The essays focus on how cities can create the policies, structures and tools to engender a more innovative and participatory society. Dan Hill discusses the idea that “smart citizens make smart cities” and a city cannot be ‘managed’– it’s a living organic response to people’s lives, where people are often invisible in the management of transport or infrastructure systems. As Hill says, smart cities do not exist, but smart citizens do. The city is its people and technology should enable people to come together.

Can we harness the power of the citizen as an ‘organic sensor’ to improve services, drawing them in to actively engage with improving society? Can a ‘smart city’ be one where active, participatory, citizenship becomes central to the development of infrastructure? If a cities’ smart citizens applied their Instagram, TripAdvisor and Twitter engagement to the transport network or the health centre they use would it drive more responsive services? The answer is yes, but only if those services are listening or care. How can technology help citizens reclaim their space; would we all share information if it improves our quality of life?

The challenge for technology is to respond to the smart citizen, the millennials and generation Alpha will have very different demands, ones we cannot conceive of now. The challenge for government and large technology firms is not to emphasise top-down solutions but to respond to the issues, aspirations and abilities of individuals and make personal and civic responsibility core to a Smart City Vision.


Further reading

Smart cities – the who’s, what’s, where’s?

Accenture Survey 2013: What Travellers Want from Public Transport Providers

Smart Cities and Smart Citizens

Understanding Smart Cities: An integrative Framework

Smart Citizens

The Smart City Market: Opportunities for the UK