The posts are based on the proposition that in the end, if the smart city idea is to be both interesting and genuinely transformative in a deep and sustained way, it should be about much more. And, at its heart, it should be about the relationship between people and the places in which they live and work.
As others have argued, smart cities should be “smart” because of the way they engage people and their relationships with the urban spaces they live in. They are not smart because of the technology, although the technology, especially the next wave of “internet of things”, artificial intelligence and machine learning, will be a foundation of what makes them smart.
They will be smart because they engage a set of bigger political, social, ethical and environmental opportunities and risks which fundamentally impact the way people experience cities for work, play, learning and politics
Smart cities: some warning signs
Aspects of the smart city critique reinforce the paradox that the biggest single risk for the smart city movement – which seeks to embed information-technological services and systems to mediate pretty much every aspect of everyday urban life (Adam Greenfield) – is the source of its greatest success and impact to this point.
The biggest challenge now for the smart city movement, which it seems to be taking up, is to become something more than a vision for more and better technology, aided and abetted by the technocratic impulses of engineers, architects and planners.
Initially, cities were interested in ways to use networked technologies to enable quicker, cheaper, more convenient and sometimes more productive ways to do their traditional, and predominantly transactional work.
Technology, which tended to dominate the smart city language and conversation (not surprisingly, as it was largely driven by large technology companies like Cisco, IBM and Siemens) was seen as the enabler of a whole bunch of city functions. In the process, the cost of running cities would fall and citizens would be happier with services that would be delivered more efficiently.
As well, this early version of the smart city movement was all about relatively “hard” technology solutions in areas such as transport management, energy, roads and physical infrastructure. It tended to be less about people and communities and governance and other “soft” solutions that focused on the human interactions and cultural disposition of a city, its day to day rhythms of life and work, including its governance.
The smart city movement is beginning to transcend its origins as the creature of large technology companies keen to find new ways to put their products and platforms to work and, in the process, find new markets and new sources of revenue and profitability at scale.
It’s not wrong that it started there and it certainly isn’t the case that technology companies should not be in the mix. They are and they have to be.
But how they play in the mix and what kind of framing vision they serve matters critically now if we are going to move from a fascination with digital and “tech” to a sophisticated conversation about how they pervade, and change, the discussion about how cities makes themselves attractive places to live and work.
Why is this shift of pitch and tone so important?
It’s important because the technology dominance of the debate gives the impression that complex human and institutional problems – lifelong learning, accessible health care, transport planning, affordable housing, more accountable and responsive governance and decision making systems, improved sustainability and countering the effects of climate change, cities that are more equal and accessible for jobs, housing, assets and amenities – can be solved by more and more powerful technology.
Clearly, technology and digital capabilities are an inescapable part of the mix of factors which will determine whether, and how, cities can “fix” the big, contested and complex problems they face.
But so are culture, history, the capacity of institutions of governance and authority, how responsive its businesses are, the availability of finance and investment and shifting attitudes and values across diverse “patchwork” communities to name a few obvious ones.
The evidence suggests that more and more cities are asking themselves how to build, maintain and activate the platforms and capabilities with which citizens and communities collaborate to determine shared outcomes and preferences. The impulse is much more design-based and human-centred, moulding services and experiences of the city around personal and collective preferences and values in ways that, as is happening in retail, banking, entertainment and airlines, for example, don’t rely on command-and-control interventions.
This is particularly true as the “big data” phenomenon grows, especially where it becomes a commitment not just to “big” but to more “open and accessible” data. This means a new approach to personalised services that reflect people’s values and preferences.
This is taking the smart city conversation well beyond the core underlying infrastructure and how to infuse networked solutions into things like parking, lighting and buildings. All of that is still in play, but it’s only part of the story.
It’s almost as if, having spent some time adding technology to an old business model, cities are now being invited to rethink a new, digitally-infused “connected city” business model. Leading cities are already building whole new ways to run their city, design and deliver services, engage with people and places and build trust, impact and accountability