From Smart Cities and Smart Citizens to Smart Societies — the story so far…

From Smart Cities and Smart Citizens to Smart Societies — the story so far…

Over the past few years, in my role leading digital transformation and enterprise architecture for Bristol City Council, I worked to bring the smart city innovations run by our Bristol Futures team, into the mainstream of council operations. During this time I’ve been privileged to meet a lot of passionate and talented people, working to make Bristol a better place, and have learned a lot about the competing agendas and perspectives on what a smart city should be — indeed, whether we should even use the term smart city is contested.

As I’ve read through a wide range of writing on the subject, I’ve seen two major contrasting positions articulated in most of them. One is the technocratic, often technology vendor led, viewpoint on how smart cities can be built and managed to be more efficient and cleaner, producing happier residents. The other is the humanist, citizen centred and politically critical perspective of the urbanists who want to see the purposes of citizens as the primary driver for any use of data and technology in cities. These two perspectives are set up as oppositional and incompatible, and in most of the best recent articles the citizen centric viewpoint is the clearly preferred and morally approved approach.

I think there is a third, hidden, perspective — that of the often unheard public servant, trying to do a better job for the people they serve, navigating between the lure of technological silver bullets and the critique that they are no better than big brother. Through this series of blog posts I’ll attempt to articulate this perspective, based on my experiences within Bristol City Council as we delivered our Smart Operations Centre project, and connected it to our City Innovation team’s projects.

The Smart City technology vendor perspective

As they are major global suppliers, smart city solutions from IBM, Cisco, NEC, Microsoft and others are marketed to city governments — the only economic actors with the scale and remit to invest in whole city projects. As a result the language used frames the problems to be solved in a particular way. Although the citizen and service user appears in the narrative, it’s usually as the recipient of a service, which smart city technologies can make more efficient, leading to more effective use of limited budgets, and better insight on whether outcomes are achieved by using data differently. Whilst the technologies are indeed light years ahead of the traditional city government infrastructure, most suppliers have been marketing and selling to people who are still operating inside the “local government as service provider” business model. As I will argue in a later post, this mould has to be broken — we need to move to the “local government as a platform” model, enabling a “Participatory City” approach that transforms the relationship between citizen and state.

Progress comes through confronting issues and through dialogue — a number of suppliers and local authorities are talking and listening to the challenges coming from the urbanist, smart citizen perspective and changing their relationship.

Smart Connected Cities: People Centric Design

The urbanist, smart citizen perspective

There are many voices in the chorus of critique against this supplier driven approach to smart cities. I’ve found two in particular to be clear and compelling articulations of the issues. Adam Greenfield provides a powerful critique in his articles for the Guardian, highlighting the political nature of technocratic interventions, the contested nature of what communities want, and the flaws in much smart city thinking. He points out that

“The true enablers of participation turn out to be nothing more exciting than cheap commodity devices, reliable access to sufficiently high- bandwidth connectivity, and generic cloud services.” 
(The smartest cities rely on citizen cunning and unglamourous technology)

In a similar vein, Mara Balestrini (and colleagues in Ideas for Change and Making Sense.EU) paints a rich picture of people as active agents, not passive victims/consumers, who will appropriate technology and ideas for themselves, whether we like it or not. Her work has strong resonance with the GDS mantra “what is the user need?” — focusing on bottom-up projects that start by drawing out what issues communities care about and then support them to find ways of using data and sensing technology to address those issues.

This approach, focused on smart citizens rather than smart cities, shares a lot with Asset Based Community Development, and other strengths based approaches. Rather than applying a “deficit model” (what is wrong or missing), it focuses on what the community has in abundance. Investment in the group work, facilitation, and community building needed to sustain projects, is more important than the technology itself. In Bristol this approach is exemplified by Knowle West Media Centre, and I’m going to highlight their work and several other examples of citizen led approaches across a number of European cities in a later blog post in this series.

The public servant’s perspective

When I worked for Bristol, with colleagues planning smart city projects, we were very aware that we stood on contested ground. We knew that there were very legitimate concerns arising from our access to massive new sources of data generated by surveillance and control systems, which led to ethical questions about ensuring privacy. We also knew that to be successful our projects had to meet the real needs of people living in Bristol’s communities. We also had a responsibility to use the data from internet connected sensors and the software systems that can aggregate data sources, enabling us to respond to events and issues in a more efficient and effective way — ultimately helping us to save money.

At the stark end of the spectrum, people monitoring CCTV in Operations Centres have to watch road accidents as they happen, track people all the way down as they jump from buildings, and assist blue light services when potentially terrorist related incidents occur. They use the sensors and software systems which support a more sophisticated response to events in the city in an attempt to improve public safety and wellbeing. Of course it is true that this is often merely treating the symptoms of deep seated societal and individual problems, and I’m sure most people would recognise that investing in supporting the strengths of communities, tackling isolation, mental health and social cohesion are all better than waiting until it’s too late. But while that work is going on, and these problems keep occurring, councils and their partners need more effective ways to handle them, nonetheless.

Equally, traffic management and effective responses to congestion, which relates to air quality along major roads and junctions, are increasingly integrated into internet connected systems. The data emerging from these systems in near real-time can be published to open data platforms and through transport APIs for a wide range of people and businesses to use in understanding and addressing opportunities to improve travel in cities. At the same time, of course council transport departments are looking at all of the other ways they can change the nature of travel — including improving public transport by incentivising people to use park and rides, switching to zero-emission vehicles, encouraging “active travel” — walking and cycling — and encouraging changes in the nature of where people work, for instance through investment in fibre broadband rollouts and supporting more remote working.

People working in councils are by and large motivated by the sense of doing the best for their community, and aren’t interested in smart city technologies for their own sake. If vendors can’t articulate how their products solve real problems, they shouldn’t get bought. And public servants are generally very sensitive to the ethical dilemmas of increasing surveillance and potential to control — so they respond positively to the challenges and opportunities flagged by the urbanist critique. As a result, there are a growing number of Smart City initiatives that are applying different approaches now, beginning to set a new human-centred standard, that others would do well to follow.

I’m going to review some examples of these “Smart Citizen” approaches in my next blog post in this series. And alongside that, I’m going to draw some parallels to the bigger picture of the “re-negotiation” of the relationship between state and citizens, councils and residents, that has been driven by the necessity of austerity economics, the shifts in political ideology that values a removal of paternalism, and the continued agitation and expectation of engaged active citizens. Smart Citizens inhabiting a Smart Society need local government to evolve away from being a service provider towards “local government as a platform”.

Gavin Beckett is Chief Innovation & Research Officer at Find out more about Gavin here.

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