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Whose Smart City? Tomorrow's Cities Need to Be Shaped by Residents

Bringing some people power back into urban planning.
Masdar City. Image: arwcheek/Flickr

Smart cities offer a utopic vision of the future, where city dwellers will be in synch with their urban environments. You've got the sweeping Masdar City complex in Abu Dhabi's deserts to futuristic cityscapes in South Korea's Songdo business district. But there's a problem: Those cities aren't exactly success stories. Why? Because they were shaped by technologists with little input from the people that were actually going to live in them, say researchers at Nesta.


Smart cities use digital and information technologies to make city-dwelling a better experience, and smart city technologies and services are projected to be worth around $408 billion globally by 2020. Experts predict that around 66 percent to 75 percent of the world's population will be living in urban areas by 2050. So as the pressure on our cities build, how do we make sure that the technologies they're running on benefit the people as opposed to ending up as a high-tech loss?

In a report published yesterday by UK-based digital innovation charity Nesta, researchers Tom Saunders and Peter Baeck argue that the most hospitable smart cities will involve a "bottom-up" approach. This focuses on the needs and desires of the people living in them, and encourages their input when it comes to shaping a better city.

"When you look at smart cities, you see that it's all about hardware, infrastructure, big data, internet of things and predictive analytics. The issue with this is that there's really no role for people in that, and cities are fundamentally about people," Saunders told me. "The question we asked was how can we put people back into the smart city? How can you give people a role to influence the way their city works?"

From the Nesta report, click to enlarge

A narrow definition of a "smart city" is one where sensors peppered across the city gather data that is fed back into a central computing system. This data is analysed and used to predict what kind of problems might afflict a city.


"A Formula 1 engine would be covered in hundreds of sensors, which collect data on the engine's performance. The engineers can analyse this data to predict what kind of problems the engine might have," explained Saunders. "This is great for a closed system like an engine, but there is really no evidence that this works when you try to scale that up to something as complex as a city."

Instead of just lauding high-tech ventures, the researchers suggested four main ways of harnessing citizen engagement through digital technologies. First, fostering a collaborative economy would connect people scattered across a city with digital technology, encouraging them to connect with one another and share resources and skills. You might, for example, opt to share a car with your neighbour.

Crowdsourcing data would allow citizens to use low-cost sensors to map their environment, as well as allow governments to use data from social media and sensors in mobile phones. Collective Intelligence could harness collaborative technologies to involve citizens in key areas of decision-making, allowing their views and inputs to shape budgeting, policy-making and planning.

"Better Reykjavik in Iceland allows citizens to co-write the policies then go to the city council to debate them. Or Paris' new participatory budgeting process where the city gives the people the chance to decide what five percent of the investment budget gets spent on," said Saunders.


Lastly, crowdfunding would let people fund community projects they're interested in, and allow governments to see which projects they should think of investing in themselves.

"It's about moving beyond the model of a suggestion box of 'what would you like to see in Paris to a situation where you can debate ideas and give people real power to decide what happens," added Saunders.

Saunders attributed the failures of cities like Masdar and Songdo both to a lack of citizen input and the financial crisis of the mid-2000s. In 2014, a report by the Smithsonian Magazine found that after six years of development, the $20 billion Masdar city plan was still only 15 percent complete, with the completion date not until 2050, "if at all."

Songdo cost an epic $40 billion to build, but business isn't exactly booming, with its commercial district less than 20 percent occupied. Saunders also said that little concrete data on the efficacy of those cities had been released. "The big problem with these places is that they don't publish evidence to show that they are better than any other city in the world," he said.

Saunders said that constructs such as Masdar encapsulated the first phase of smart city building, which involved IT companies, technologists and architects building cities from scratch. This stage, he said, was over, with cities becoming more responsive to working with existing tech.

"The goal for cities is to adopt tried and tested technologies, said Saunders. "They should ask what issues they're facing and how they can solve them with the tools already out there."