Where are the “smart” technologies to protect our cities’ culture?

No culture in sight: the 2015 Internet of Things Solutions World Congress (IOTSWC) in Barcelona. Image: Getty.

This week Sadiq Khan opened up London Tech Week, proclaiming in his speech that he wanted to make London the “Smartest city in the world”.

The word ‘smart’ in this context does not mean providing better education for Londoners. Instead, it means using technology to best automate, structure and arrange the city’s infrastructure, to make it work better for all of us.

Khan is right to say that London’s need to smarten up: across our old, expansive city, many different solutions are needed. And global conglomerates are dedicating thousands of hours and millions of dollars to aggregating big swaths of data to determine how to improve the places we live – not to mention, how to better target us as customers. From driverless cars to seeing eye robots, the assumption is that these solutions will be better for all of us – and our cities will be better because of them.

This word ‘smart’ is mentioned in reference to cities a lot. There are endless conferences and trade fairs exploring ‘smart cities’ or ‘Internet of things’ technologies. Most cities now have tech weeks – and the term is now so regarded that it’s often capitalised as ‘SMART’. But spending time in this world, hearing from the many mayors at the many conferences, you start to wonder who these solutions are being tailored for, and what aspects of city life are they ignoring, often unintentionally.

Take music, arts and culture, for example. At the world’s largest smart cities event, Barcelona’s Smart Cities Expo, there’s little mention of it. And if smart cities technology is being deployed to change how we experience life in our cities, than we must think about these implications.

There are hundreds of tech- and application-based solutions to problems in music’s value chain, from getting it to our eyes and ears, to ensuring artists are paid for the work they create. Some are mainstream, such as accepting that every song ever written is available on your phone through Spotify or Tidal. Some are less front-facing, including solutions for how royalties are distributed – the micro-penny economy that converts the playing of a song into money for the songwriter and performers.


But where are the technologies that can bring music into communities more – or make local governments more accountable for supporting, sustaining and developing music and cultural ecosystems? Is there an app to assess or measure one’s music policy, or a piece of kit that helps create one in the first place? Can we develop better thinking to prioritise the value of what happens inside a building, rather than simply calculating value on the land itself?

We’re tackling issues with traffic, making our fridges smarter, improving health care and automating our sprinklers. But are we enhancing our systems and technologies to make music and culture more widely available and accessible for all of us within our city limits?

For example, public squares could be better outfitted – through their wifi networks and cabling – to create ‘plug and play’ opportunities for buskers. Digital tipping could ensure they get paid. Through Blockchain, it could happen in real time.

School choirs could record impromptu performances in bandstands, and have them available online instantaneously. Music venues could be equipped with sound sensors that let the venue owner know, in real time, if their venue has breached noise regulations.

Land could be mapped for ‘plug and play’ festival sites. Permitting could be automated. And we could calculate the connection between the availability of music in schools, and the success of a place’s venues and festivals. Can technology better understand such a correlation? Because any place that prioritises its music and arts is smarter and one that doesn’t. And culture has not been subject to the same due diligence as other urban problems in the smart cities debate.

I’m not saying we should prioritise improving our music scenes over sorting out our traffic, or hospital waiting times, or civic bureaucracy. But let’s treat it as important, as a problem that could be tackled through the civic-focused technologies that makes all our lives better. Making music smarter will make cities smarter, too. It’s worth a try.

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More than 830 cities have brought essential services back under public control. Others should follow

A power station near Nottingham: not one owned by Robin Hood Energy, alas, but we couldn't find anything better. Image: Getty.

The wave of cities worldwide rejecting privatization is far bigger and more successful than anyone thought, according to a new report from the Transnational Institute, Reclaiming Public Services: How cities and citizens are turning back privatisation. Some 835 cities in 45 countries have brought essential services like water, energy and health care back under public control.

The persistent myth that public services are by nature more expensive and less efficient is losing its momentum. Citizens and users do not necessarily have to resign to paying increasingly higher tariffs for lower standard services. The decline of working conditions in public services is not an inevitability.

And the ever larger role private companies have played in public service delivery may at last be waning. The remunicipalisation movement – cities or local authorities reclaiming privatised services or developing new options – demonstrates that cities and citizens are working to protect and reinvent essential services.

The failure of austerity and privatisation to deliver promised improvements and investments is part of the reason this movement has advanced. But the real driver has been a desire to meet goals such as addressing climate change or increasing democratic participation in service provision. Lower costs and tariffs, improved conditions for workers and better service quality are frequently reported following remunicipalisation.  Meanwhile transparency and accountability have also improved.

Where remunicipalisation succeeds, it also tends to inspire other local authorities to make similar moves. Examples are plentiful. Municipalities have joined forces to push for renewable, climate-friendly energy initiatives in countries like Germany. Public water operators in France and Catalonia are sharing resources and expertise, and working together to overcome the challenges they meet.

Outside Europe, experiments in public services are gaining ground too. Delhi set up 1,000 Mohalla (community) clinics across the city in 2015 as a first step to delivering affordable primary health care. Some 110 clinics were working in some of the poorest areas of Delhi as of February 2017. The Delhi government claims that more than 2.6m of its poorest residents have received free quality health care since the clinics were set up.


Local authorities and the public are benefiting from savings too. When the Nottingham City Council found out that many low-income families in the city were struggling to pay their energy bills, they set up a new supply company. The company, Robin Hood Energy, which offers the lowest prices in the UK, has the motto: “No private shareholders. No director bonuses. Just clear transparent pricing.”

Robin Hood Energy has also formed partnerships with other major cities. In 2016, the city of Leeds set up the White Rose Energy municipal company to promote simple no-profit tariffs throughout the Yorkshire and Humberside regions. In 2017, the cities of Bradford and Doncaster agreed to join the White Rose/Robin Hood partnership.

Meanwhile, campaigners with Switched on London are pushing their city to set up a not-for-profit energy company with genuine citizen participation. The motivations in these diverse cities are similar: young municipal companies can simultaneously beat energy poverty and play a key role in achieving a just and renewable energy transition.

Remunicipalised public services often involve new forms of participation for workers and citizens. Remunicipalisation is often a first step towards creating the public services of the future: sustainable and grounded in the local economy. Inspiration can be found in the European towns and villages aiming for 'zero waste' with their remunicipalised waste service, or providing 100 per cent locally-sourced organic food in their remunicipalised school restaurants.

Public services are not good simply because they are not private. Public services must also continuously renew themselves, grow, innovate and recommit to the public they serve.

The push for remunicipalisation in Catalonia, for example, has come from a movement of citizen platforms. For them, a return to public management is not just an end in itself, but a first step towards the democratic management of public services based on ongoing civil participation.

Evidence is building that people are able to reclaim public services and usher in a new generation of public ownership. The momentum is building, as diverse movements and actors join forces to bring positive change in communities around the world.

You can read the Transnational Institute report, “Reclaiming Public Services: How cities and citizens are turning back privatisation”, on its website.