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.

 
 
 
 

“This is a civic pride for the digital age”: why we should why we should willingly let City Hall have our data

He was the future once: David Cameron discusses smart cities with Angela Merkel and a German technology executive. Image: Getty.

Victorian England. From the shadows of wealth grew poverty. Slums slumped against symbols of civic pride, cowering next to towering town halls funded through rich merchant princes, whose elitist rule was insufficient to deal with too many people in too few houses with too little infrastructure.

Enter municipality. With darkness came electric light; with disease came tunnels to disperse their cause; with time came reform, regulation and the rise of town planning.

It’s over a century since those places which first industrialised became those first urbanised; yet even the wealthiest cities in the world continue to struggle with the complexities of urbanisation. In London, ten thousand die each year from pollution; in New York, six times this amount reside in homeless shelters.On the rush-hour roads of Sydney, cars stand still, and in the ‘burbs or banlieues of Paris slums still stand.

An umbrella bought during a downpour costs more than one bough under blue sky – and the truth is that, for too, long city halls have failed to forecast and so incurred greater costs. It’s a reactive culture summed up by words first head in Jimmy Carter’s budget office: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Disease before sewer, gridlock before investment, collapse before rebuild – visible fix over unseen prevention

But with the world’s urban population growing by 65m every year, this has to change: there is not enough resource to manage cities reactively. Enter technology and the move to smart cities.

From Barcelona to New YorkOxford to Amsterdam, Singapore to Seoul: billions of low-cost devices are being installed into everyday objects to send and receive data: street lights recording pollution, and bridges reporting performance; traffic lights that count, and whose analysis will be counted upon, to ease traffic congestion; health wristbands understanding our heart’s needs, shop ceilings noting our heart’s desires. A web of information woven into the very fabric of cities which, when added to data from sources like mobile phones, is providing a living-breathing picture of how we and our cities operate.

This data is no longer retrospective or historic but live and dynamic. It is of such quantity, and can be analysed at such granular detail, that it can provide certainty where once there was only supposition. It is build-up before the gridlock, illness before epidemic; the crack of an ageing bridge, the first signs of smog. It is diagnostic to preventative. Umbrella under blue sky.

Those promoting the “internet of things”, estimated to be worth $11.1trn a year by 2025, will declare it a panacea – but it is not, at least not entirely. Sure, challenges regarding data quality, privacy, standardisation, and security will be overcome; 4G will become 5G will become 6G. Devices will communicate intelligently with each other – autonomous vehicle to autonomous vehicle, autonomous vehicle to bridge, drone to home. Data will become as fundamental to cities as infrastructure, and will be referred to as such.

Yet city halls in democracies, whilst infinitely better informed, will continue to make their decisions which are restricted by commercialism, framed by political ideology, and driven by short-term electoral or media pressures.


People first

From the mid-sixties to the start of this century a UK television programme called Tomorrow’s World showcased future living. For every correct prediction (mobile phones) came countless incorrect ones: the floating-bicycle, say, or paper underwear. My point is that only a small part of understanding the future of cities is about understanding technology. The majority is about understanding people and society, the people from whom the very word “city” is derived: civitas, the collective of citizens.

Gutenberg did not change the world by inventing the printing press in the 13th century – but he did enable the world to change. The technology was the printing press, the outputs were books filled with knowledge, the outcomes were the actions of the many who used that knowledge. Technology is a tool, a process towards an outcome. 

In much the same way, the Internet of Things will not change the world – but it will enable the world to change. Sensors are the technology, data the outputs, the analysis of this data and subsequent decisions, the outcome.

It is crucial to avoid the Tomorrow’s World approach. That is, racing to implement technology first without consideration of identified social, economic or environmental needs; introducing more complexity when most citizens seek simplicity. As the writer and urbanist Jane Jacobs once said:“First comes the image of what we want, then the machinery is adapted to turn out that image.”

Start with people. Form the image. Think of technology through the Greek origins of the word, techne and logos – a discourse about the way things are gained – and capitalise on collective intelligence to move towards that image.

Since cities first started to appear some millennia ago, they’ve provided incontrovertible evidence that the wisdom of crowds is far greater than the individual; that collective intelligence gained from that trinity of city institutions – citizen, government, industry – surpasses what can be achieved by any one in isolation. Where would Apple, Uber, or Google be without the government-backed inventions like the world-wide-web, touchscreen technology, WiFi or global positioning systems?

A new civic pride

Of course, an app on a smart phone that can ask a thousand questions is meaningless if nobody feels motivated to answer. Increasing urbanisation brings increasing interdependency: lives intrinsically linked, services shared. The challenge for city halls is to turn the increase in what people have in common, into an increase in common purpose, through understanding the three benefits that motivate and lead to action.

Extrinsic benefits, of status and reward, caused merchant princes to fund city halls in Victorian England: such benefits today see the ambitious putting in extra hours. Intrinsic benefits, like competitiveness or fun, that once caused business tycoons to compete to build the tallest skyscrapers, now explain why “hackathons” and “city challenges” are such a success. Then there are the pro-social benefits of altruism or benevolence, that cause millions to volunteer their time to give back and feel part of something bigger than themselves.

These motivations are of greater significance, because there are no longer people with clipboards standing on street corners asking permission to collate our views on services: it is happening automatically through the Internet of Things. Our choices online, movements offline; the travel we take, the pollution we make; our actions and interactions. We are data.

City halls can take a click-box-small-print approach to this, like so many apps. But there is opportunity to do the opposite. They can promote the fact that citizens can knowingly provide their data towards making lives better; visualise and enable citizens to see and understand their input, alongside data provided by others.

They can incentivise interaction with data, so that entrepreneurs can work back from outcomes, solve challenges, and re-localise where appropriate (we should not need a multinational to get a taxi). They can be proudly open, enabling citizens, industry and government to receive pro-social benefit by contributing to something bigger than themselves: their life and the lives of others.

This is a civic pride for the digital age. Not just localism or patriotism based on geography but the strength of connection between people and their ability to direct and determine change through data. Not just pride in the buildings and infrastructure that form our physical world, but in the quality of data that will shape our future world and move us from a diagnostic to preventative society – umbrellas under blue sky.

We should take pride in technology, yes; but that should come second to the pride in those who, enabled by that technology, drive progress. Who, through the wisdom of crowds, form an image of the future and strengthen democracy by motivating society to move towards it. Who embrace openness and help overcome the challenges of urbanisation.

Kevin Keith is a writer, researcher, urbanist, and director of the southern hemisphere’s largest open data competition, GovHack. He tweets as@KevKeith.

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