Smart Cities but are they smart places?

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way” Charles Dickens A tale of Two Cities

One of the best things (worst things?) about being in the digital inclusion space is that you get to move in all sorts of circles: last month it was infrastructure at the Digital Agenda Assembly, last week it was knowledge sharing at a discussion in Birmingham and how that is becoming a government issue worldwide. While others will recognise that this demands a little understanding of everything it means that we have to hold our hands up to a detailed understanding of little.

I’ve always had reservations about City Regions as an underlying principle for economic and social development. Let me qualify that: it’s not that I don’t understand the importance of cities as centres of population or as drivers for economic growth it’s that we tend to think of them as independent systems that exist outside of any other context; we make the system boundary too constricted. I understand that we cannot have an unbounded system but we make the world view rather myopic and the city system looks in on itself or at best on other cities that are also looking inwards. This perception is shared not only by those who discuss cities but also those who live in them. Any recognition of a wider context for a city is limited to “trickle down effects”. Now we are moving into the realms of “Super connected cities” which begs the question: connected to what?

The piece by Dr Rick Robinson on how information can support forward looking decision making highlights the need to identify long term social, environmental and financial outcomes. I concur; outcome based strategy provides a better driver for innovation and investment than simple short term financial return. However, there are a couple of missing pieces from the picture.

The city operations centre in Rio de Janeiro is a well publicized example of Smart City Technology. I have never been to Brazil; I have never been to South America, much less Brazil and I don’t speak Portuguese. Everything I see and read about Rio de Janeiro is full of superlatives: biggest, highest, richest, and poorest and the fastest. Brazil has overtaken the UK as the world’s sixth largest economy but I read about it most in the context of Smart Cities.

I’m an admirer of the work of Anthony Townsend and Rachel Maguire of the Institute of the Future, particularly “A Planet of Civic Laboratories”  because they recognise not only the value to be gained from the high level information systems as a driver for decision making but also the importance of ownership by the people who live in the cities: in the Brazilian context they highlight the use of personal sensing and access to open data to inform citizens who can be empowered to make a difference locally. This chimes well with local currencies and trading systems and was emphasized by Greg Lindsay in a 2010 piece “The Battle for Control of Smart Cities” .

The second missing piece is about the context for cities. I’m not just talking about the peri-urban hinterland, I mean the rural context which sits between the cities. I recently had the pleasure of a discussion with colleagues at the THINKlab at the University of Salford about the use of sensor technology to manage food supply chains. This arose from a consideration of the popular, simple idea of local food boxes and barter systems in communities. Looked at in the wider context of rural food distribution (rural areas tend to produce food, export it to urban areas then re-import it in order to buy it at retail outlets). An efficient barter system and food boxes are potentially disruptive and could undermine the local retail outlet which closes. Apart from the loss of amenity this works until there is a period of shortage at which point the community is drawn back into the food supply chain but must go further to obtain food. This is inefficient in terms of carbon use and creates hardship for those who cannot travel easily. The solution we explored was to look at how information systems could manage demand and inform local supply in a way which incorporated the food boxes into the established supply chain; the internet of things at a very small scale.

How is this relevant to the city? Ownership by the citizenry cannot be ignored. The Mckinsey and Company report into “Cities, Information and Inclusion” emphasizes the public value that arises from digitally included populations. Such supply chains of goods, labour and information already exist between cities and their rural context but we fail to recognise them when considering the smart systems. There is a strong outcome based case for “smart places” for while the urgency lies with the cities of today to ignore the wider context is not only inefficient but poor system boundaries increases the future risk of unintended consequences when we encounter periods of disruptive change.


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