Smart City: New thinking new ideas – Part I – The Guerilla Citizen

Ismart city 1t’s been over a year since I wrote about the rise of Smart Cities supported by underlying ICT infrastructure and services. A lot has changed in that time and while what I wrote is still relevant, the focus is changing internationally from the underlying technology (as it has matured) to what can be enabled on top of that layer.

Shortly to be let loose in the real world is city traffic management artificial intelligence. These systems are currently in beta. They take a plethora of data from moving cars, cyclists, pedestrians, public transport, road side cameras and watch all intersections from multiple perspectives as traffic (being people, cyclists, cars, and others) enter and leave the area. It can even identify cars that are likely to start traffic jams, i.e. driving too slow. All that data is then applied in a city-wide context to automate the flow of traffic.

Of course, one of the ways to slow down traffic volume and reduce emissions is not to travel to work at all, or to travel to a local hub that is within walking distance. Globally cities are deploying free internet access across entire metropolitan areas in order to not only give citizens access to the net by default, but to support working from home. Many jobs, particularly in a government town like Wellington do not require people to be in the office more than a couple of days a week. We already know that people who have flexible working arrangements are more productive, happier, and more likely to stay with the company that employs them.

In cities where this is encouraged, a number of interesting things start to happen. Traffic volume slows, the need for new office space reduces, local communities start to come back to life as workers go to the next door cafe for coffee and lunch. Some cities have encouraged businesses to create working hubs. This is where you can go and hire a desk for a day, a week, or a month within walking distance. Where this happens collaboration starts to increase as employees from different companies start to engage with each other.

Sharing everything is a growing (an old) phenomena in major cities. For example, in large cities businesses have created massive kitchens for catering companies, where like the office hub idea, companies can rent space and equipment. It’s like the Cloud version of physical world. Melbourne, for example, has more than one company that allows you to rent beer brewing space. So rather than you establishing industrial brewing equipment you can simply rent capacity at a brewery and manage your own recipes. The share everything concept also extends to cars and bicycles.

Cities without highways is another feature that once car-heavy cities like San Francisco, New York, and Boston have adopted over time. Simply put, heavy transport corridors have been replaced by a combination of traffic options that include public transport, cars, bicycles, and pedestrian foot traffic. It’s not easy, it takes years, but it makes the city more livable and perversely, reduces travel time. Again, you have to underpin this with some smart technology, you simply can’t replace a major thoroughfare without some very active management and analysis behind it. What drove this was not a Green movement, what drove it was citizens that woke up and figured out that they were separated from the sea and rivers by multi-lane roads who wanted to gain access back.

We are gathering more and more information about our traffic, our environment, and our services, but what about us? Citizens as sensors is arguably already here though the sharing of that data is still complex, not in terms of privacy (data can be made anonymous and aggregated) but because the sensing services (such as FourSquare and Google) are largely controlled by multi-national corporations who’s interest in not in the community or city, but advertising. Putting that aside, what we see is a more connected life via the smartphone whereby you trade your data in return for data that interests you.

The application of citizen sensors is interesting. In Boston, the city launched an application called “Street Bump.” As you drive it detects potholes and other road bumps and then reports those back to the city. Where the city gets hot spots, they can deploy road services to fix them. Other applications show congestion, not just on the road, but in restaurants and bars. Detractors point to the “big brother” nature of those services however this is often just fear, uncertainty, and doubt spread by the mega-corp’s who don’t want to lose you. The reality is that you are probably giving away far more private data today to them than you would be aware of and the future services coming will likely increase your privacy.

Connectivity of citizens in moving from one resident to City Hall, to one citizen to other citizens, lobby groups, community groups, bloggers, and social media groups that is powering a (somewhat skewed) new interest in democracy at a city level. City Councils can no longer get away with decisions in isolation where the community does not feel it has been consulted and while lobby groups have organised themselves before the general resident, over time this will balance out allowing for a large amount of citizen power being injected back into the process of managing a city. This is possibly the most exciting of the Smart City technologies, Guerilla Citizens, because other new smart city services are all well and good, but if you have no engagement with City Hall, then you feel disconnected.

Cities tend to have some kind of online “consultation” service these days, which really is nothing more than a survey approach leading to skewed results, particularly if a lobby group can raise numbers to “submit” on it. Internationally large cities have effectively given over development of the city, it’s direction, and ideas to the community using clever online collaboration tools along with access points for citizens who need it and face to face if required. Let’s face it. City Hall is not there to tell us what to do, City Hall is their to do what we want and consult with us in an guidance role, not a dictatorial “we know better than you” role.

City Councillors who embrace and regularly use those online mediums will be the leaders of the future as the world becomes more connected. Those that do not have a social media presence, are not transparent in publishing their activities, don’t have blogs, are not honest about their thoughts and feelings in a public arena, and do not live in a connected way will simply become invisible and ignored. Which can only be a good thing in the 21st century.

At the middle of this emerging battlefield sits City Hall. Encamped on one flank are industry sales teams, proffering lump sums up front in return for exclusive contracts to manage the infrastructure of cash-strapped local governments. On the other flank, civic hackers demand access to public data and infrastructure. But even as they face the worst fiscal situation in a generation— in the United States, in Europe, even in China— cities are rapidly emerging as the most innovative and agile layer of government. Citizens routinely transcend the tyranny of geography by going online, but local governments are still the most plugged in to their daily concerns. Yet citizen expectations of innovation in public services continue to grow, while budgets shrink. Something has to give. – Townsend, Anthony M. (2013-10-07). Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia (Kindle Locations 222-227). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.


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