‘A smart city should be ….’ - do we REALLY understand what a smart city is?

By David Singleton and Katie Hodge 

Many people are talking about smart cities. There is a lot of commitment to the idea, a lot of investment in the concept and a lot of effort being put in by people, governments, corporations and educational institutions around the world to develop approaches to smart cities.

While this is exciting, in order for all this attention and progress to be worthwhile and effective, a significant piece of work needs to be done for us to really understand what ‘smart cities’ means, what we want a smart city to be, what it should/could look like and what the objectives and impacts are on the communities who use the city.

When it comes to smart cities, to use an oft heard phrase: ‘we are on a journey’. A journey which no-one can really, unequivocally, state that they know exactly where we are trying to go.

Smart cities are a concept that in reality means different things to different people. What does a smart city mean to a technician? What does it mean to the policy makers? What does it mean in the minds of the community?

It is quite hard to articulate what we mean by a smart city because it’s not easily summarised, there is no universal definition and different aspects of a city’s operations will be more or less important depending on location, culture, economy, unique challenges and so on.

‘Any smart city shall be…’ is not the right way to think about defining a smart city. We should be starting from the realisation that a smart city is more a conceptual lens as opposed to a prescriptive statement.

As smart cities around the world evolve, we are seeing a greater understanding of the concept. On the one hand it’s about using clever technology to make a city a more liveable and adaptable for residents, students, visitors etc. It’s an urban system where the functions of various components of the system are interconnected and optimised to deliver better outcomes for the users.

A major component of a smart city is knowledge and access to knowledge. It conjures up ideas of the internet of things. It conjures up the idea of smart use of big data and data analytics.  It’s about world class infrastructure, living infrastructure and buildings, and capturing data on the building/infrastructure itself - and the people using it - to improve building/infrastructure performance and each person's experience.

But also it’s got to be more than throwing a bunch of technologies at a city and seeing which ones stick. There has to be an end game and the human context must be considered. A smart city has to be more that just IT and technological capability.

“For us it’s about integrating physical, digital and human systems to deliver a leading city. Digital is just an enabler to the human experience of the city.” Said Michelle Fitzgerald Chief Digital Officer for the City of Melbourne.

By considering the human context, we are able to understand how a smart city can make for a more complete life for a whole range of communities and subsets of those communities.

Along this vein, Melbourne City Council have developed a strategy that is intended to connect with its people - all of its people. They are prototyping tailor-made initiatives such as working with people who are blind, deaf or deaf–blind to better understand how they navigate through the city. As a result of this research, the CoM has partnered with Vision Australia to trial beacon technology in Campbell Arcade, which transmits location-specific information to phones.

We are seeing more and more examples around the world where cities are using data to better understand challenges and pinpoint need. Asheville, USA is using data and technology to reduce homelessness. Chicago will use it to help travellers.

In Seattle, USA, digital is also being utilised to develop pathways out of homelessness. WeCount digital platform enables people to fulfill specific requests – a pair of shoes or a sleeping bag – that a homeless person has asked for. A more recent program, GiveSafe sees a number of homeless people wear electronic beacons with Bluetooth emitters. When someone with the GiveSafe app is within 10 to 15 metres of the beacon, they receive a notification and can then read the homeless person's story and see a photo. It’s breaking down barriers and encouraging interaction on a social level. Also, people can donate to that person, simply by tapping a notification on their phone. The beacon holder can spend the money at select merchants on goods or services like warm clothing or transportation. Things they need to better their life.

However, as inclusive as we desire a smart city to be, smart cities do have the potential to be dystopic and inequitable and those who are designing, administering and setting policies need to have a plan to deal with those potential outcomes.

So, within the context of defining what a smart city means, it’s important to understand who is (or could be) advantaged, who is (or could be) disadvantaged, how we can avoid smart cities being (or becoming) elitist and how we can enable everyone to be included, rather than excluded.

We need to think about how all of a city’s people will walk through the walls of a smart city so they can make use of all it has to offer and not feel limited or disadvantaged in any way.

The Big Apple was recently named best smart city of 2016. Its Strategy for ‘Building a Smart + Equitable City’ leverages smart technologies to achieve the goals of the ambitious One NYC plan. The Smart + Equitable City strategy has 4 tiers: expanding connectivity for all, piloting and scaling smart technologies, growing the innovation economy, and ensuring responsible deployments.

Foe NYC, ‘Expanding connectivity for all’ is key to creating a smart city where every citizen can benefit and feel included.

The City has committed to bring high speed internet access to all of NYC’s residents and businesses. In 2016, NYC broke ground on LinkNYC, the world’s largest, fastest municipal Wi-Fi network. LinkNYC is transforming the city’s antiquated pay phones into a network of up to 10,000 state-of- the-art communications structures that provide gigabit-speed public Wi-Fi, phone calls, device charging, access to city services and more at no cost to taxpayers.

For the first time in NYC history, the City is also bringing free high-speed Internet service to the homes of over tens of thousands of low-income New Yorkers in public housing, starting with the nation’s largest public housing development.

This is an example of a city working hard to address the possibilities of a smart city on an equitable basis. However by its nature a smart city will always discriminate somewhat against somebody, most likely to be older, less IT savvy people.

It’s a dynamic situation, and not one which is set on any particular course but there is a scenario where those involved need to be wary and factor the potential for discrimination into their definition, strategies and plans.

If we want to ensure we create smart cities that don’t lead to an elitist outcome, our leaders, policy makers and planners must first be able to define what their smart city is. They must be aware of the issues and ramifications which a smart city can create. They should think about the different societal groupings that might be effected by their plans and they must understand how things might be experienced differently by those different groupings within the community and have that in mindplanning the roll out of their strategy.