Do smart cities need smart people?

do smart cities need smart peopleCities. Gleaming high rise office blocks, centres of technology and industry, and trade hubs. But more importantly, home to millions of people worldwide. Cities are vital ecosystems, consisting of far more than the bricks and mortar that make the buildings. So why is it only recently that city design has begun to be about people?

Smart cities allow us to address this issue, not least because the developing world is building brand new smart cities. Palava, in India, for example, or many new cities in China, can start with the inhabitants and build the city around their needs. But whether new or old, introducing technology to cities allows citizens and administrators to build a new relationship with each other and with the city.

Fabulous technology or fabulous interactions?

Mike Steep, senior vice president of global business operations at PARC, suggests that many of the promises made about technology have a whiff of science fiction about them. He posits that a decade into the smart cities initiative, the emerging issue is how humans interact with systems.

Michael Chui of the McKinsey Global Institute estimates that sustaining the projections for urbanisation over the next decade will cost more than $1 trillion in capital spending on infrastructure. This requires plenty of planning and budgeting, but it also needs a very real understanding about behaviour. Get it wrong, and it could be a very expensive mistake.

Data sharing is one of the biggest issues. It turns out that most people, when asked, would find it easier to do their jobs if they had sight of data collected by other people. However, most of them don’t want to share their data. Impasse.

But even if you get over that hurdle, there are issues about the way that data is shared. Provide long lists of numbers and most people’s eyes glaze over. Make it into a picture, and everyone is much more interested. Seeing is believing in a very primitive sense. Tell someone the train is on its way, and they will laugh and say ‘Yeah, right’. Show them a real-time picture of the train leaving the previous station and they will believe it.

Why does this matter? Because interaction is crucial to getting value out of the enormous amount of data which is now available. City administrations are increasingly required to get more for less money, and ‘crowd-sourcing’, drawing on the expertise of those living in the city, is one way to do that. Engaging with citizens means services and cities designed to meet their needs, making cities better for everyone.

The importance of engaging

But those living in cities also need to be prepared to engage. It’s no good complaining that ‘they’ don’t understand what you want, if you’re not prepared to get involved. Fortunately, doing so is easier than ever. From the days when there was an app to report problems with street lights, we have now moved to interactive data portals, such as the London Datastore, which provides huge amounts of data for citizens to explore.

But what about those who do not have access to data? Smart city administrations are doing something about that too. For example, Riverside, CA, has a programme called SmartRiverside, designed to engage those on the other side of the ‘digital divide’. The programme provides computers and internet access to low-income residents, and helps them to get online, and engage. It’s involved ex-gang members and high school dropouts, improving aspirations, and helping citizens to get on in life.

Citizens are generally way ahead of city administrations in terms of technology use. With smartphones, we’re happy to engage with data that is useful to us, such as traffic reports, public transport delays and hold-ups. What’s more, we’re happy to share that information with other people, giving cities an almost unimaginably large resource to tap into. And the more we engage with our cities, the more committed we become to them. In other words, engagement makes for stronger and more genuine citizenship.

Messy but real

Look at some cities, and you might almost think that they were designed to look beautiful, but never be inhabited. But what makes a city come alive is those who live in it. Smart city planners are starting to realise that they can tap into that resource to improve the city: to make it a living, breathing ecosystem designed around those who live in it. Smart cities make for smart citizens, and vice versa. The whole is very definitely greater than the sum of its parts.

Image credit: Tug O War by Dollface&Co

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