True ‘Smart Cities’ should invest in libraries

A library. Image: Getty.

When we talk about the ‘smart city’, we talk about the ‘smart’ more than we talk about ‘the city’. We lean heavily on digital innovation to create the biggest impact with the smallest digital insert.

Or so we’d hope. Mostly we make assumptions, targeting broad and rough sketches of city users, what they want, to what they have access, how immediately we can expect change to happen or money to be saved.

Libraries are seen as irrelevant to the ‘smart’ conversation; expensive, under-used, unnecessary. Who needs a library when you have a phone, the internet and Amazon Prime? This plays into a one-sided discourse around digitalisation, which ends up helping the city users who need the least intervention. It assumes that every citizen has access to a safe place in which to engage with free public information.

A system is only as resilient as its parts. Citizens are active generators of a city’s data economy, as well as its economic flow and function. A function of smart city development is to automate city services, providing swiftly and cost-effectively for the needs of these citizens. At their core, smart cities mean to help citizens help themselves: make it easier to apply online, to search, get directions, to buy tickets or commodities.

And yet, 10 per cent of UK households have no internet access at home, and only 66 per cent now have access to a desktop computer or laptop, according to the Office for National Statistics. Around 48 per cent of DE classified households do not use the internet at all. These figures are likely a significant underestimate, as there is no UK body that consistently measures internet usage and rates of literacy in those who are homeless or in temporary housing. Inability to self-manage and self-inform significantly affects health and mortality rates, let alone economic stability.

Government digital standards often targets ‘accessibility’; how to design for different user requirements, impairments and specific needs on multiple devices. But They rarely considers access in terms of facilitating self-management through a computer, printer, internet, reading. Citizens who do not possess the individual advantages necessary to navigate smart cities are losing access to an infrastructure and service that is leaving them behind. To encourage citizen health and independence in the smart city’, we need to build a foundational understanding of what constitutes minimum viable access.

To enable optimal measures of active city engagement, citizen-centred design practice, research and innovation must consider service access beyond the screen; how to increase happiness, independence, and self-care, and how to intervene when it is most appropriate. What is necessary for a baseline access? What touchpoints, emotions, or events drive engagement through digital and non-digital formats?

While smart city strategists discuss city kiosks and building information hubs, properly funded, open and trained library spaces remain a culturally significant baseline, or safety net, for struggling city users to engage safely and competently, with the information-centric world that we need to keep up with.


With the appropriate resources, libraries have the ability to help users learn to engage with and manage information at varying levels of comfort – from accessing books, to printing benefits claims on a local computer, to ordering a replacement mobile phone, to giving children a warm, supervised place to read while training for work.

Libraries are also an effective arena in which to carry out democratised smart city research for digital tools targeted at hard-to-reach communities, such as busy parents or older persons. A library is an information hub, and an innovation hub. This is essential to the foundations of a smart city.

And yet, this established and recognised infrastructure of library spaces, culturally and historically viable information hubs with varied means of access, is under threat. The UK has experienced a £66m cut in library spending over the last year, with 105 libraries closing between 2016 and 2017.

We shouldn’t still be arguing for the necessity of safety, space and book access for young people. The argument is a vital one on its own in terms of social mobility and citizen worth. However, as we automate and digitise public services, local authorities looking for a business case must also recognise what drives and what hinders healthy engagement for their citizens.

To create a robust and resilient digital and local economy, local authorities are required to optimise possibilities for interaction with the information that is being shifted to digital – and required to optimise the confidence and capabilities to do so, too. To reengage citizens who might be falling out of the economic flow of the city, requiring extra support and enabled access, the first point of focus might not be further automation. Instead it should be targeted ‘smart’ intervention using the traditional, recognised, non-digital and pre-built infrastructures of a city.

Hannah Kaner is smart cities strategist at digital agency Orange Bus.

 
 
 
 

“Stop worrying about hairdressers”: The UK government has misdiagnosed its productivity problem

We’re going as fast as we can, here. Image: Getty.

Gonna level with you here, I have mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, I’m a huge fan of schadenfreude, so learning that it the government has messed up in a previously unsuspected way gives me this sort of warm glow inside. On the other hand, the way it’s been screwing up is probably making the country poorer, and exacerbating the north south divide. So, mixed reviews really.

Here’s the story. This week the Centre for Cities (CfC) published a major report on Britain’s productivity problem. For the last 200 years, ever since the industrial revolution, this country has got steadily richer. Since the financial crash, though, that seems to have stopped.

The standard narrative on this has it that the problem lies in the ‘long tail’ of unproductive businesses – that is, those that produce less value per hour. Get those guys humming, the thinking goes, and the productivity problem is sorted.

But the CfC’s new report says that this is exactly wrong. The wrong tail: Why Britain’s ‘long tail’ is not the cause of its productivity problems (excellent pun, there) delves into the data on productivity in different types of businesses and different cities, to demonstrate two big points.

The first is that the long tail is the wrong place to look for productivity gains. Many low productivity businesses are low productivity for a reason:

The ability of manufacturing to automate certain processes, or the development of ever more sophisticated computer software in information and communications have greatly increased the output that a worker produces in these industries. But while a fitness instructor may use a smartphone today in place of a ghetto blaster in 1990, he or she can still only instruct one class at a time. And a waiter or waitress can only serve so many tables. Of course, improvements such as the introduction of handheld electronic devices allow orders to be sent to the kitchen more efficiently, will bring benefits, but this improvements won’t radically increase the output of the waiter.

I’d add to that: there is only so fast that people want to eat. There’s a physical limit on the number of diners any restaurant can actually feed.

At any rate, the result of this is that it’s stupid to expect local service businesses to make step changes in productivity. If we actually want to improve productivity we should focus on those which are exporting services to a bigger market.  There are fewer of these, but the potential gains are much bigger. Here’s a chart:

The y-axis reflects number of businesses at different productivities, shown on the x-axis. So bigger numbers on the left are bad; bigger numbers on the right are good. 

The question of which exporting businesses are struggling to expand productivity is what leads to the report’s second insight:

Specifically it is the underperformance of exporting businesses in cities outside of the Greater South East that causes not only divergences across the country in wages and standards of living, but also hampers national productivity. These cities in particular should be of greatest concern to policy makers attempting to improve UK productivity overall.

In other words, it turned out, again, to the north-south divide that did it. I’m shocked. Are you shocked? This is my shocked face.

The best way to demonstrate this shocking insight is with some more graphs. This first one shows the distribution of productivity in local services business in four different types of place: cities in the south east (GSE) in light green, cities in the rest of the country (RoGB) in dark green, non-urban areas in the south east in purple, non-urban areas everywhere else in turquoise.

The four lines are fairly consistent. The light green, representing south eastern cities has a lower peak on the left, meaning slightly fewer low productivity businesses, but is slightly higher on the right, meaning slightly more high productivity businesses. In other words, local services businesses in the south eastern cities are more productive than those elsewhere – but the gap is pretty narrow. 

Now check out the same graph for exporting businesses:

The differences are much more pronounced. Areas outside those south eastern cities have many more lower productivity businesses (the peaks on the left) and significantly fewer high productivity ones (the lower numbers on the right).

In fact, outside the south east, cities are actually less productive than non-urban areas. This is really not what you’d expect to see, and no a good sign for the health of the economy:

The report also uses a few specific examples to illustrate this point. Compare Reading, one of Britain’s richest medium sized cities, with Hull, one of its poorest:

Or, looking to bigger cities, here’s Bristol and Sheffield:

In both cases, the poorer northern cities are clearly lacking in high-value exporting businesses. This is a problem because these don’t just provide well-paying jobs now: they’re also the ones that have the potential to make productivity gains that can lead to even better jobs. The report concludes:

This is a major cause for concern for the national economy – the underperformance of these cities goes a long way to explain both why the rest of Britain lags behind the Greater South East and why it performs poorly on a

European level. To illustrate the impact, if all cities were as productive as those in the Greater South East, the British economy would be 15 per cent more productive and £225bn larger. This is equivalent to Britain being home to four extra city economies the size of Birmingham.

In other words, the lesson here is: stop worrying about the productivity of hairdressers. Start worrying about the productivity of Hull.


You can read the Centre for Cities’ full report here.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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