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Smart cities are decades away: but open cities are within reach

Fri Jul 12, 2019
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Cities are being sold a vision of ‘smart’, but the reality is that truly interconnected, data-driven, technology-enhanced cities are likely to still be decades away. We are, therefore, at a crucial stage: an opportunity to change course to a more open future

Cities are being sold a vision of ‘smart’, but the reality is that truly interconnected, data-driven, technology-enhanced cities are likely to still be decades away. We are, therefore, at a crucial stage: an opportunity to change course to a more open future

We are going to start with a disclaimer: ‘smart cities’ do not yet exist. Cities may be described as smart, or make self proclamations of their smartness. They may have run or implemented individual pilots and projects – as 51% of European Union cities (with 100,000 residents or more) have – but no city has yet demonstrated that they have managed to connect these projects together.

Complexity is appealing

Cities are complex. City authorities are responsible for managing an elaborate ecosystem of sectors and people – in transport, planning, energy, emergency services and more – while balancing economic, political and societal pressures. They face problems such as providing housing, stimulating business, increasing jobs, tackling climate change, reducing crime, keeping the streets clean and managing the transport system.

This complexity is precisely what makes cities so appealing to big companies – such as IBM, Huawei, Philips, Nokia, Siemens. They are contributing to the growing tide of hype-ridden information being published encouraging cities to become smart by revolutionising their ‘nervous system’; selling the idea that tech, data and connection can solve cities’ most fundamental problems.

Cities are therefore expanding their use of data – across the data spectrum – about everything from transport to movement of people, energy usage, crime, infrastructure, weather etc. The collection, storage, analysis and use of this type of data is not new, but smart technologies (such as internet-of-things (IoT) sensors, apps or tech-enabled services) enable it to happen at a far greater speed and scale than ever before.

Tech doesn’t solve underlying issues

This may sound great, but in reality the goals of tech companies and city authorities, and the needs of citizens, do not always align. As author Ben Green stated in ‘The Smart Enough City’: ‘…contrary to the fables told by smart city proponents, technology creates little value on its own—it must be thoughtfully embedded within municipal governance structures’.

Without an alignment of priorities, the implementation of tech solutions may fail to address underlying issues in society which can make their usage unfair, unequal and sometimes unethical. It also raises questions related to issues of privacy, surveillance, ownership and control of data, digital rights, solutionism and power structures. We need only look at the ongoing and very live debate in Toronto about Sidewalk Labs to see what happens when all of these issues come to a head.

The reality is that truly interconnected, data-driven, technology-enhanced cities are likely to still be decades away. We are, therefore, at a crucial stage: where there is the opportunity for a more open future.

An open approach: a better alternative?

To be clear, smart cities are not automatically bad – this is not the conclusion you should draw from this blog. We just believe that by talking about ‘openness’ rather than ‘smartness’ we can avoid the hype and focus on making cities better for people and businesses.

We believe that cities should start by looking at the data they already have access to, before considering costly technological solutions. By using tools, such as the ODI’s Data Ecosystem Mapping, cities can understand where data already exists. The value of this data can then be unlocked by the city authority – such as to increase access to services, improve the efficiency of delivery and inform policymaking – or by other individuals, communities or businesses if it is shared as openly as possible.

Openness within cities is about more than just the data though. At the ODI we advocate for and support an open culture: a data infrastructure that is as open as possible; data literacy and capability for all; and open innovation. These concepts can help cities move to a more open future and to bring greater value to people and businesses. By encouraging greater participation and transparency, openness can begin to address societal problems where closed technical solutions may struggle (or not attempt) to do so.

A number of different projects are beginning to demonstrate this extra value of openness – suggesting that the movement towards open and smart cities is already happening. For example, citizen-engagement platforms such as vTawain and Decidim in Barcelona are helping city planners engage with the people who are impacted by their policy. The Forum Virium Helsinki, the innovation arm of the city government, uses agile and open approaches to co-create and collaborate with companies, universities, public sector organisations and residents.

Recently published city strategies also indicate that cities are planning for openness. Helsinki states in its city strategy that its ‘operating model is based on openness and transparency’. Gdansk states that ‘openness’ is one of its top priorities and is seeking to become a truly open city. And in the UK, Glasgow announced that it will be “Open by Default”. The state of Hamburg passed legislation in 2012 that created a legal obligation for its government to publish all public data openly.

There are other examples of cities across the UK who have been exploring openness in different ways – such as the continued work of Leeds City Council (with the support of ODI Leeds).

We want to learn from these cities (and those working with them) so that we can build on and promote existing work and projects.

What are we doing?

Although most cities share the same problems, no city is the same, and each will have a unique approach to implementing solutions. We are keen to learn from these different approaches first hand, to look, listen and learn; and to consider how our tools can help cities in the UK move forward with their open and smart strategies. Our vision is to help cities use what data, skills and resources already available, reducing the need to procure costly technology.

As our research develops we will continue to write about our thoughts and findings. We will be engaging with stakeholders within cities to learn more and test out some of the tools we have made. We want to explore openness within cities much further – in cases where it has brought benefit and value – so please share any examples with us at [email protected].