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A few thoughts on smart cities today

February 2, 2017 | By | No Comments

A recent UK survey shows that large parts of the (UK) public are sceptic over smart cities. Concretely, the 2.300 participant survey indicates that “two thirds of the public are unconvinced of the case for spending public money on smart city technology, and they are worried about the implications for their personal data”.

Smart cities are complex and tricky to discuss

Surveys about large-scale technological and administrational projects (read: infrastructure) tend to be oversimplified. Smart cities as a topic are by any standard complex and tricky to discuss. Still, these results seem plausible to me. Well thought out, too, to be honest.

I’m deeply interested in the role emerging technologies can play in improving people’s lives. That’s why I co-founded ThingsCon and ran The Good Home with Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino, and it’s what I try to focus on with my work here at my company The Waving Cat in every strategy, policy, or transformation project I’m hired for. And I believe technology is essential in tackling a large range of issues our society faces.

Yet, the smart city space in particular seems to be in an awkward phase: Huge potential, but few really great implementations. If done right, smart cities hold the promise of citizen empowerment galore; often we see solutions looking for problems instead.

And maybe most importantly, just under the surface of many smart city arguments we see a real danger of unhealthy power imbalances and power dynamics being reinforced in a bad way rather than upended.

Under the surface of many smart city arguments we see a real danger of unhealthy power imbalances

Last year, Prof. Dr. Christoph Bieber and I were kindly asked to contribute some research and policy recommendations for a larger report for the German federal government around the role of cities and urbanization in the 21st century. The report is called “Humanity on the move: The transformative power of cities” (Der Umzug der Menschheit: Die transformative Kraft der Städte) and published through WBGU, the German Advisory Council for Global Change. Some background, an English-language executive summary and links to all the full (mostly DE) documents are available in this blog post.

Also in 2016, Nominet R&D hired Designswarm to map out the smart city landscapes. (I contributed a little bit of research to the project through Designswarm.)

From that work, through lots of reading and conversations with people in the smart city space, all the way back to Cognitive Cities Conference (which I co-organized back in 2011) there are a few themes that regularly and frequently come up and don’t seem to be going away:

  • Smart city projects are often based on a false premise that an algorithm, given enough and the right kinds of data, could neutrally and perfectly balance the competing needs in an urban society. (It could never, because an algorithm is not biased and it can only act on measurable input, and many legitimate actions, intents, needs, etc. are immaterial and not measurable).
  • The strongest proponents of smart city projects are companies with a background in technology, process optimization, networking, logistics. Think big networking technology and global supply chain management. Why is this relevant? Because in their world, their background, their company culture and thinking efficiency is at the very heart of things. In the context of a sensor-equipped, self-adjusting, smart production pipeline or global cargo tracking system there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. But transferring the same approaches to urban public space creates more problems than it solves. The strength of cities is (usually) not efficiency but other characteristics like opportunity, inclusion, serendipity. The current top crop of smart city vendors is (in terms of culture, thinking, offering) not well-equipped to serve and improve citizens by fostering these characteristics.
  • In large-scale smart city projects we see a tendency towards a centralized top-down approach rather than the much more needed focus on bottom-up innovation and citizen empowerment, of which we generally see a lack. Smart city technologies can only unfold their real potential (ie. anything beyond mere efficiency gains) if they empower communities to creatively solve their challenges, if they are open source (and hence can be audited), and decentralized (and hence more resilient).
  • Smart cities and the underlying assumption of unbiased, data-driven management inherently lacks accountability and oversight. (Did someone just say dashboard?) Smart city projects are often provided as a technological turnkey solution to the city administration. Proprietary code means lackluster audits and potentially biased algorithms and data handling, centralization means centralized points of failure rather than resilience.
  • And overall, smart cities are (not always, but often) very pure expressions of market liberal approaches. I don’t say this to make a philosophical argument but rather a very concrete point about the day-to-day of citizens. Smart cities tend to be built in a way that’s very transactional: On demand you can rent a car, switch on the street lights, control that public screen. It’s all very pay-as-you-go. This is great to finance infrastructure through Private-Public Partnerships. However, the flip side of that coin is that those who cannot pay for a transaction do not get to participate in public space. The function of these transactional public (or formerly public) spaces and infrastructures is off limits to the most vulnerable parts of society.

So how to do it better? Put citizens first.

So how to do it better? Put citizens first. Involve citizens decision making around the technologies that they may or may not see impacting their lives. And follow some simple, straightforward guidelines. The de-facto principles that governed and shaped the open web of the early days can serve as an inspiration: decentralization, open source, openness, and a focus on bottom-up innovation.

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