How can we make sure smart cities benefit everyone?

A smog-cleaning tower in Beijing is an example of technology improving residents’ lives. Image: Imaginechina/AP.

By 2030, 60 percent of the world’s population is expected to live in mega-cities. How all those people live, and what their lives are like, will depend on important choices leaders make today and in the coming years.

Technology has the power to help people live in communities that are more responsive to their needs and that can actually improve their lives. For example, Beijing, notorious for air pollution, is testing a 23-foot-tall air purifier that vacuums up smog, filters the bad particles and releases clear air.

This isn’t a vision of life like on “The Jetsons.” It’s real urban communities responding in real-time to changing weather, times of day and citizen needs. These efforts can span entire communities: they can vary from monitoring traffic to keep cars moving efficiently or measuring air quality to warn residents (or turn on massive air purifiers) when pollution levels climb.

Using data and electronic sensors in this way is often referred to as building “smart cities,” which are the subject of a major global push to improve how cities function. In part a response to incoherent infrastructure design and urban planning of the past, smart cities promise real-time monitoring, analysis and improvement of city decision-making. The results, proponents say, will improve efficiency, environmental sustainability and citizen engagement.

Smart city projects are big investments that are supposed to drive social transformation: decisions made early in the process determine what exactly will change. But most research and planning regarding smart cities is driven by the technology, rather than the needs of the citizens. Little attention is given to the social, policy and organizational changes that will be required to ensure smart cities are not just technologically savvy but intelligently adaptive to their residents’ needs. Design will make the difference between smart city projects offering great promise or actually reinforcing or even widening the existing gaps in unequal ways their cities serve residents.

City benefits from efficiency

A key feature of smart cities is that they create efficiency. Well-designed technology tools can benefit government agencies, the environment and residents. Smart cities can improve the efficiency of city services by eliminating redundancies, finding ways to save money and streamlining workers’ responsibilities. The results can provide higher-quality services at lower cost.

Tapping a bank card on a bus farebox transfers payment. Image: Transport for London.

For instance, in 2014, the Transport for London transit agency deployed  a system that lets residents and London’s 19m visitors pay for bus and subway fares more quickly and safely than in the past. When riders touch or tap their phone or other mobile device on a reader when entering and exiting the bus and subway system, a wireless transaction deducts the appropriate amount from a user’s bank account.

The city benefits by reducing the cost of administering its fare payment system, including avoiding issuing and distributing special smartcards for use at fareboxes. Transit users benefit from the efficiency through convenience, quick service and capped fares that calculate the best value for their contactless travel in a day or across a seven-day period.

Environmental effects

Another way to save money involves real-time monitoring of energy use, which can also identify opportunities for environmental improvement.

The city of Chicago has begun implementing an “Array of Things” initiative by installing boxes on municipal light poles with sensors and cameras that can capture air quality, sound levels, temperature, water levels on streets and gutters, and traffic.

The data collected are expected to serve as a sort of “fitness tracker for the city,” by identifying ways to save energy, to address urban flooding and improve living conditions.

Perhaps the largest potential benefit from smart cities will come from enhancing residents’ quality of life. The opportunities cover a broad range of issues, including housing and transportation, happiness and optimism, educational services, environmental conditions and community relationships.

Efforts along this line can include tracking and mapping residents’ health, using data to fight neighborhood blight, identifying instances of discrimination and deploying autonomous vehicles to increase residents’ safety and mobility.


Ensuring focus on service, not administration

Many of the efficiencies touted as resulting from smart city efforts relate to government functions. The benefits, therefore, are most immediate for government agencies and employees. The assumption, of course, is that what benefits government will in turn benefit the public.

However, focus on direct improvements for the public can become an afterthought. It can also be subverted for other reasons.

For instance, global market projections for smart cities are huge. Companies see big opportunities for selling technology to cities, and local leaders are eager to find new investors who will improve their communities. That can make smart cities appear to be a win-win situation.

City leaders may also use smart city discussions as a vague “self-congratulatory” method to emphasise their forward thinking, and to reinforce a broadly positive – if undefined – view of the city. By talking about greater connectivity and improved technical capabilities, city leaders can market the city to future residents and businesses alike.

But if leaders focus on smart city projects as helping government, that won’t necessarily improve residents’ lives. In fact, it can reinforce existing problems, or even make them worse.

Who wins from smart city projects?

When governments decide on smart city projects, they necessarily choose whom those efforts will benefit – and whom they will neglect. Even when it’s unintentional – which it often is – the results are the same: not all areas of a smart city will be exactly equally “smart”. Some neighborhoods will have a greater density of air-quality sensors or traffic cameras, for example.

And not all smart city projects are having completely positive effects. In India, for example, Prime Minister Narendra Modi pledged to build 100 smart cities as a way to manage the needs of his country’s rapidly urbanising population. Yet the efforts are bumping up against challenges new and old. These include longstanding problems with land ownership documentation, developing policies to accommodate new markets and limit the old, and conflicts with vulnerable populations pushed out to make room for new smart city initiatives.

In Philadelphia, a programme intended to provide the city’s low-income, underemployed residents with job training on their smartphones didn’t address widespread socioeconomic inequality, among other problems. As one researcher put it, the programme was “empty policy rhetoric” designed to attract business.

Songdo City from G-Tower. Image: Fleetham/creative commons.

The much-ballyhooed Songdo City development in South Korea involved enormous investment from the public and private sectors to create a smart city billed as an urban hub of innovation and commerce. And yet, 10 years after it began, its highest praise has been from those who call it a “work in progress”. Others, less charitable, have called it an outright failure. The reason should give us pause when designing other smart cities: Songdo was designed and built as a top-down, “high-tech utopia” with no history and, crucially, without people at its center.

To avoid these troubled fates, officials, business leaders and residents alike must keep a critical eye on smart city efforts in their communities. Projects must be both transparent and aimed at publicly desirable improvements in society. Technology cannot become the focal point, nor the end goal. Smart city innovation, like all urban development and redevelopment, is a very political process. Residents must hold city leaders accountable for their efforts and their implications – which must be to improve everyone’s lives, not just ease government functions.The Conversation

Kendra L. Smith is a policy analyst at the Morrison Institute for Public Policy, Arizona State University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

****

Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

****
Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.