Put the citizens in the center of the board (To solve the smart city puzzle)

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By @marabales (originally published at SmartInnovation)

75 percent of global population will live in cities by 2050, according to statistics published by the Urban Age Project[1] for the London School of Economics and Deutsche Bank’s Alfred Herrhausen Society.Growing at this pace, it is not surprising that the term “smart city” has become a trending topic and that sustainability and resource optimization are such pressing issues. Still, there’s a lot more to smart cities than sophisticated M2M (machine to machine) networks aimed at spending less and doing more. In order to be smart, a city needs a whole population of smart citizens. As Carlo Ratti from the MIT Senseable Lab usually says: “It’s not about technology, it’s about people”.

In order to start solving the smart city puzzle, I propose to put the citizens in the middle of the board and then pay attention to the following pieces: from data to design-situated information, cloud augmented public infrastructure, surveillance or emancipation, citizen driven innovation, and cooperating for smart solutions. And there are so many others…

Data-driven city augmentation

As citizens, we will be surrounded by information. Contemporary cities are going through a change that may seem obvious but is fundamental: it will no longer be necessary to go and look for information in one of the temples of the past, or to absorb it through the media. Data flows through closed and open networks, down under the earth and up in the skies. Data from sensor networks or M2M connections, information provided by users of social networks, and crowdsourcing will come down from the cloud and enhance physical urban space. The great challenge of how to turn all that data into meaningful, useful information still remains, but the data and the devices that ‘sense’ it already exist and are connected.

Increasingly, companies that design urban experiences are starting to develop physical interfaces or mobile apps that integrate data with city life. A good example of it is Urbanscale[2], a New York City based startup created by Adam Greenfield, with its UrbanFlow service that augments the city’s screens (at bus and train stations, streets, etc.) with “designed and situated” information that allows citizens to find what they are looking for, plan routes, and even participate in civic life through informal public consultation.

In Barcelona, companies such as WorldSensing[3] have set up sensors to capture traffic data that can then help drivers to find a parking space using a mobile app. Along similar lines, the European project iCity, which involves the Catalan capital, London, Genoa and Bologna, seeks to open up urban infrastructures that interested agents can enhance with data in order to offer services of public interest that improve urban life. A parking meter that offers information on the air quality at its location, an app that lets you know whether the public swimming pool or part are packed to overflowing, a ticket vending machine for public transport that offers you the chance to participate in a popular consultation as well as selling you your weekly ticket. We will assist to the augmentation of public infrastructure and the development of public cloud-enabled services. How do we harness the power of this information networks to maker better personal, economical, social and cultural decisions?

A city of trust or a city of control: emancipation versus surveillance.

Utopia versus dystopia. As usual, our ideas about the future are influenced by strongly conflicting ideas. There are those who believe that smart cities could imply the rise of an Orwellian society, where technology will be in the hands of monopolies and authoritarian governments, and will be used to monitor and control citizens. Security and privacy are still a problematic frontier. On the other hand, more optimistic visions trust that technology and data will open up doors to transparency, civic participation and the emancipation of sections of society that were previously excluded. They also defend the sustainable city, in which the community itself, by means of its access to open data, reduces its energy consumption, adopts more responsible behavior or deepens its participation in governance processes. The Tidy Street[4] project in Brighton is a great example of a citizen initiative to self-regulate electricity use.

Trust and engagement seem to be the fuel for citizen innovation. By digital or analogical means, using open data or inventing open infrastructures, citizens can create and develop smart solutions. They live the city everyday, they use FixMyStreet to report which street needs to be repaired, Waze app to inform and learn how the traffic is at a specific time and location, and they could even be installing seats at a LA sidewalk right now[5]. This is why the smart city meme must go far beyond resource optimization and hi-tech efficiency projects. While corporations such as IBM offer city councils smart city- in-a-box type solutions that require large technological investments even though there is no conclusive proof that a system that works in one city will work in a different one, research suggests that smart cities will not exist unless citizens are in the center of the equation[6].

Citizens. What does it mean?

A curious detail: in all the smart city events that I attended during 2012, practitioners, technologists and politicians usually referred to citizens as if the term suited a whole variety of definitions. My colleague Javi Creus just published[7] an article that summarizes very well our opinions on such observation. A common dictionary definition would describe a citizen as “an inhabitant of a city or town, especially one entitled to the rights and privileges of a freeman”. So, being a citizen has to do with our political rights and duties.

Well, when they name us citizens it seems like they mean something else. Through the eyes of the city council, we are “the administered”: our data, our information, our taxes and the city flows need to be sorted and organized. For the companies we are “users”: they design technology for us, we buy it if we like it, we use it in/with the city. Among us, we, the citizens, feel like “neighbors”, capable of gathering collective energy to keep the local traditions alive, enabling a network of trust to fix things we don’t like or even invent a new coin to replace the Euro[8]. All very different definitions, right?

Citizen driven innovation

A growing number of initiatives suggest that citizens, clearly in their role as neighbors, are starting to take control of and transform their cities. Take the example of the brand new pedestrian crossings in Bogota, Colombia: neighbors are increasingly likely to get out on their streets and implement the urban infrastructure their governments haven’t provided. In a recent interview published in ThisBigCity.net[9], Jimena Veloz and Alejandro Morales explained the project Camina, Haz Ciudad[10], a Mexico City collective aiming to improve facilities for pedestrians and cyclists as follows:

“Camina, Haz Ciudad started as a project to recover space for pedestrians. It was inspired by a modern development that happened here in Mexico City in an area called El Puente de los Poetas. Amazingly, there was no pedestrian infrastructure at all there, the whole place seemed to be designed for cars. A group of citizens decided that couldn’t be, so they painted a sidewalk in an area where lots of people walked but had no safety. But the sidewalk was erased, and the people who painted it were really mad. This anger seemed to inspire a sense of purpose within the group, and we just started painting more things. The collective is completely citizen orientated and we fund it with our own money”.

Groups like Camina, Haz Ciudad present a real change of ambition in terms of citizen engagement. They are distributed communities and tend to be grassroots movements, they gather resources through crowdfunding and use social media tools to spread the word and inspire other people. And they are definitely not alone.

“They say city is broke. We fix. No charge”, claim the Toronto based collective Urban Repair Squad[11] that specializes in painting bike lanes and bike boxes. Even though their actions are not necessarily legal and in consequence sometimes even reversed by the city government, they aim to meet needs that are unsatisfied by the local authorities. In the real spirit of an open source movement, The Urban Repair Squad published a manual with instructions for anyone to learn how to paint bike lanes, while the Mexican group wikiciudad (wikicity) preach that “anyone can edit and modify cities”.

Cooperating for smart solutions

Last year, the Institute for the Future[12] and the Rockefeller Foundation[13] released “A Planet of Civic Laboratories”[14], a report that suggests that in order for cities to be truly smart, data must generate inclusion and development. Top-down solutions proposed by big technology companies are not enough. According to the report, in today’s cities there is a growing and opposing force of entrepreneurs, hackers, and “citizen hacktivists” who are pursuing a different vision of the future city. Their pitch is that urban data in the form of information can promote cities that are more democratic, more inclusive and more resilient.

These do-it-yourself (DIY) urbanists use open-source technologies and cooperative structures for citizen-driven initiatives, strengthening social commitment and ensuring that technological process remains in line with civic interests. Along these lines, projects such as Smart Citizen[15] (a kit containing sensors for measuring environmental indicators and connecting via the online platform Cosm[16]), by Barcelona FabLab, and DCDCity[17], incubated at MediaLab Prado, nourish the smart city concept from the other side: open code, DIY philosophy and citizen participation.

In the future, successful cities will almost certainly have to integrate these two models. Ideal solutions combine large-scale platforms with big citizen-led innovations. This integration is already taking place to a certain extent, but public administrations need to shape and encourage it as part of an agenda of openness, transparency and inclusion.

Cities are like living organisms with a spirit that extends way beyond the technological network and infrastructure. Human communities make and sustain a city’s specific DNA, and it is these particularities – sometimes whimsical or even inexplicable – that must be taken into account when designing innovation with and for the citizens.

[1] http://lsecities.net/publications/books/living-in-the-endless-city/
[2] http://urbanscale.org
[3] http://www.worldsensing.com
[4] Tidy Street Project. http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/blog/2011/apr/12/energy-use-h…
[5] A Los Angeles, gruppi di cittadini cercano di risolvere la carenza di posti per sedersi lungo le strade. Essi hanno prodotto SignBench e SignChair, sedute e panchine che possono essere appese all’arredo urbano esistente. Un altro gruppo ha realizzato un set completo di panchine di legno e di aiule per le fermate del bus che mancano di qualsiasi traccia di struttura per sedersi.
[6] The battle for control of Smart cities http://www.fastcompany.com/1710342/battle-control-smart-cities
[7] Smart Cities: ¿ciudadanos, administrados, usuarios o vecinos? http://www.yorokobu.es/smart-cities-ciudadanos-administrados-usuari…
[8] Echoes, pumas, blackberries… 30 Coins circulating in Spain to drive another possible economy.http://www.deltaworld.org/economy/Echoes-pumas-blackberries-30-Coin…
[9] Bogota citizens improve road safety conditions. http://thisbigcity.net/wikicity-bogota-citizens-improve-road-safety…
[10] http://hazciudad.blogspot.co.uk/
[11] http://urbanrepairs.blogspot.com.ar/
[12] http://www.iftf.org
[13] http://www.rockefellerfoundation.org/
[14] A planet of civic laboratorios http://www.iftf.org/our-work/global-landscape/human-settlement/the-…
[15] http://spain-lab.net/project/smart-citizen-fab-lab-barcelonaiaachan…
[16] https://cosm.com/
[17] http://thedatacitizendrivencity.com/?page_id=4

photo credit: ruSSeLL hiGGs via photopin cc

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