Developing better urban metrics for Smart Cities

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When we embed connected technologies — sensors, networks, etc. — into the public space*, we create connected public space. In industry parlance, this is called a Smart City. (I prefer “connected city”, but let’s put the terminology discussion on the back burner for now.) And data networks change the way we live.

* Note: Increasingly, the term “public space” has itself come under attack. In many cities, formerly public (as in publicly owned & governed) has been privatized, even if it’s still accessibly by the public, more or less. Think of a shopping mall, or the plazas that are sometimes attached to a shopping mall: You can walk in, but a mall cop might enforce some house rules that were written not by citizens but the corporation that owns the land. I find this not just highly problematic, I also recommend flat out rejecting that logic as a good way forward. Urban space — anything outside closed buildings, really — should, for the most part, be owned by the public, and even where for historical reasons it can’t be owned, it should at least be governed by the public. This means the rules should be the same in a park, a shopping mall-adjacent plaza, and the street; they should be enforced by (publicly employed) police rather than (privately employed) mall cops. Otherwise there’s no meaningful recourse for mistreatment, there’s no ownership, citizens are relegated from stakeholders to props/consumers.

Networks and data tend not to ease but to reinforce power dynamics, so we need to think hard about what type of Smart City we want to live in:

  • Do we want to allow people to get faster service for a fee (“Skip the line for $5”), or prefer everyone to enjoy the same level of service, independent of their income?
  • Do we want to increase the efficiency for 90% of the population through highly centralized services even if it means making the life of the other 10% much harder, or do we plan for a more resilient service delivery for all, even if it means the overall service delivery is a tad slower?
  • Do we want to cut short-term spending through privatization even if it means giving up control over infrastructure, or do we prioritize key infrastructure in our budgeting process so that the government can ensure quality control and service delivery in the long term, even if it costs more in the short term?

These are blunt examples, but I reckon you can tell where I’m going with this: I think democratic life requires public space and urban infrastructure to be available to all citizens and stakeholders, and to work well for all citizens. Pay for play should only apply for added non-essential services.

“Don’t confuse the data you can capture with the things you need to know!

In order to shape policies in this space meaningfully, we need to think about what the things are that we prioritize. Here, a brief warning is in place: the old management adage “you can’t manage what you don’t measure” is problematic to say the least. All too often we see organizations act on the things they can measure, even if these things are not necessarily meaningful but just easy to measure. Don’t confuse the data you can capture with the things you need to know!

What do we want to prioritize, and maybe even measure?

That said, what are the things we want to prioritize? And might it even be possible to measure them?

Here I don’t have final answers, just some pointers that I hope might lead us into the right direction. These are angles to be explored whenever we consider a new smart city project, at any scale — even, and maybe especially, for pilot projects! Let’s consider them promising starting points:

Participation
Has there been meaningful participation in the early feedback, framing, planning, governance processes? If feedback has been very limited and slow, what might the reasons be? Is it really lack of interest, or maybe the barrier to engagement was just too high? Were the documents to long, too full of jargon, to hard to access? (See Bianca Wylie’s thread on Sidewalk Labs’ 1.500+ page development plan.) Were the implications, the pros and cons, not laid out in an accessible way? For example, in Switzerland there’s a system in place that makes sure that in a referendum both sides have to agree on the language that explains pros and cons, so as to make sure both sides’ ideas are represented fairly and accessibly.

Sustainability
Would these changes significantly improve sustainability? The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SGD) framework might offer a robust starting point, even though we should probably aim higher given the political (and real!) climate.

Will it solve a real issue, improve the life for citizens?
Is this initiative going to solve a real issue and improve lives meaningfully? This is often going to be tricky to answer, but if there’s no really good reason to believe it’s going to make a meaningful positive impact then it’s probably not a good idea to pursue. The old editors’ mantra might come in handy: If in doubt, cut it out. There are obvious edge cases here: Sometimes, a pilot project is necessary to explore something truly new; in those cases, there must be a plausible, credible, convincing hypothesis in place that can be tested.

Are there safeguards in place to prevent things from getting worse than before if something doesn’t work as planned?
Unintended consequences are unavoidable in complex systems. But there are ways to mitigate risks, and to make sure that the fallback for a failed systems are not worse then the original status. If any project would be better while working perfectly but worse while failing, then that deserves some extra thought. If it works better for some groups but not for others, that’s usually a red flag, too.

When these basic goals are met, and only then, should we move on to more traditional measurements, the type that dominates the discourse today, like:

  • Will this save taxpayers’ money, and lead to more cost-effective service delivery?
  • Will this lead to more efficient service delivery?
  • Will this make urban management easier or more efficient for the administration?
  • Will this pave the way for future innovation?

These success factors / analytical lenses are not grand, impressive ideas: They are the bare minimum we should secure before engaging in anything more ambitious. Think of them as the plumbing infrastructure of the city: Largely unnoticed while everything works, but if it ever has hiccups, it’s really bad.

We should stick to basic procedural and impact driven questions first. We should incorporate the huge body of research findings from urban planners, sociologists, and political scientists rather than reinvent the wheel. And we should never, ever be just blinded by a shiny new technological solution to a complex social or societal issue.

Let’s learn to walk before we try to run.

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