Tagsmart cities

We need to approach Smart Cities as empowerment tech for citizens

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Doing some research-related reading this morning had me go down a bit of a rabbit hole that led to this Twitter thread. The points hold up, I think, so here it is in easier-to-read-and-reference format:

Smart Cities are often framed as part of industrial #iot. I think we need to frame it as empowerment tech for citizens instead.

This industrial #iot framing is only natural: Most vendors of smart city tech come from that background. But I think it’s not healthy. A technology that impacts, by definition, all citizens needs to be framed, regulated & designed accordingly. Meaning: If there’s not opt-out (and there isn’t, in public space), we need to make sure this works for everyone, can be understood & queried.

We need strong democratic oversight on smart city technologies and the algorithms, processes, vendors powering them. Which is why we need to follow the principles that made the early open web so strong & resilient: decentralization, open source, etc.

Only if we reframe our thinking of smart cities from industrial to citizen centric can these technologies unfold their positive potential.

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This echoes the position we developed for a report for the German federal government a while ago as part of research into how to best make smart cities work for citizens. The findings of that report are summarized here.

A few thoughts on smart cities today

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A recent UK survey shows that large parts of the (UK) public are sceptic over smart cities. Concretely, the 2.300 participant survey indicates that “two thirds of the public are unconvinced of the case for spending public money on smart city technology, and they are worried about the implications for their personal data”.

Smart cities are complex and tricky to discuss

Surveys about large-scale technological and administrational projects (read: infrastructure) tend to be oversimplified. Smart cities as a topic are by any standard complex and tricky to discuss. Still, these results seem plausible to me. Well thought out, too, to be honest.

I’m deeply interested in the role emerging technologies can play in improving people’s lives. That’s why I co-founded ThingsCon and ran The Good Home with Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino, and it’s what I try to focus on with my work here at my company The Waving Cat in every strategy, policy, or transformation project I’m hired for. And I believe technology is essential in tackling a large range of issues our society faces.

Yet, the smart city space in particular seems to be in an awkward phase: Huge potential, but few really great implementations. If done right, smart cities hold the promise of citizen empowerment galore; often we see solutions looking for problems instead.

And maybe most importantly, just under the surface of many smart city arguments we see a real danger of unhealthy power imbalances and power dynamics being reinforced in a bad way rather than upended.

Under the surface of many smart city arguments we see a real danger of unhealthy power imbalances

Last year, Prof. Dr. Christoph Bieber and I were kindly asked to contribute some research and policy recommendations for a larger report for the German federal government around the role of cities and urbanization in the 21st century. The report is called “Humanity on the move: The transformative power of cities” (Der Umzug der Menschheit: Die transformative Kraft der Städte) and published through WBGU, the German Advisory Council for Global Change. Some background, an English-language executive summary and links to all the full (mostly DE) documents are available in this blog post.

Also in 2016, Nominet R&D hired Designswarm to map out the smart city landscapes. (I contributed a little bit of research to the project through Designswarm.)

From that work, through lots of reading and conversations with people in the smart city space, all the way back to Cognitive Cities Conference (which I co-organized back in 2011) there are a few themes that regularly and frequently come up and don’t seem to be going away:

  • Smart city projects are often based on a false premise that an algorithm, given enough and the right kinds of data, could neutrally and perfectly balance the competing needs in an urban society. (It could never, because an algorithm is not biased and it can only act on measurable input, and many legitimate actions, intents, needs, etc. are immaterial and not measurable).
  • The strongest proponents of smart city projects are companies with a background in technology, process optimization, networking, logistics. Think big networking technology and global supply chain management. Why is this relevant? Because in their world, their background, their company culture and thinking efficiency is at the very heart of things. In the context of a sensor-equipped, self-adjusting, smart production pipeline or global cargo tracking system there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. But transferring the same approaches to urban public space creates more problems than it solves. The strength of cities is (usually) not efficiency but other characteristics like opportunity, inclusion, serendipity. The current top crop of smart city vendors is (in terms of culture, thinking, offering) not well-equipped to serve and improve citizens by fostering these characteristics.
  • In large-scale smart city projects we see a tendency towards a centralized top-down approach rather than the much more needed focus on bottom-up innovation and citizen empowerment, of which we generally see a lack. Smart city technologies can only unfold their real potential (ie. anything beyond mere efficiency gains) if they empower communities to creatively solve their challenges, if they are open source (and hence can be audited), and decentralized (and hence more resilient).
  • Smart cities and the underlying assumption of unbiased, data-driven management inherently lacks accountability and oversight. (Did someone just say dashboard?) Smart city projects are often provided as a technological turnkey solution to the city administration. Proprietary code means lackluster audits and potentially biased algorithms and data handling, centralization means centralized points of failure rather than resilience.
  • And overall, smart cities are (not always, but often) very pure expressions of market liberal approaches. I don’t say this to make a philosophical argument but rather a very concrete point about the day-to-day of citizens. Smart cities tend to be built in a way that’s very transactional: On demand you can rent a car, switch on the street lights, control that public screen. It’s all very pay-as-you-go. This is great to finance infrastructure through Private-Public Partnerships. However, the flip side of that coin is that those who cannot pay for a transaction do not get to participate in public space. The function of these transactional public (or formerly public) spaces and infrastructures is off limits to the most vulnerable parts of society.

So how to do it better? Put citizens first.

So how to do it better? Put citizens first. Involve citizens decision making around the technologies that they may or may not see impacting their lives. And follow some simple, straightforward guidelines. The de-facto principles that governed and shaped the open web of the early days can serve as an inspiration: decentralization, open source, openness, and a focus on bottom-up innovation.

Kansas City & questions for the smart city

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In her excellent IoT newsletter (subscribe here), Stacey Higginbotham of Stacey On IoT discusses privacy and the smart city. It’s a great, quick read in which Stacey takes Kansas City’s smart city plans and discusses them with KC’s Chief Innovation Officer Bob Bennett.

Since it touches on a quite a few of the core themes we touched on in our recent smart city policy recommendations for the German government, allow me to pull a few quotes from that newsletter:

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Smart cities in the 21c: “Humanity on the move: The transformative power of cities”

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Last year, Prof. Dr. Christoph Bieber and I were kindly asked to contribute some research and policy recommendations for a larger report for the German federal government around the role of cities and urbanization in the 21st century. The report is called “Humanity on the move: The transformative power of cities” (Der Umzug der Menschheit: Die transformative Kraft der Städte) and published through WBGU, the German Advisory Council on Global Change.

The report was officially released this morning.

Background, summaries and supporting documents are available online (English, German) The research paper Prof. Dr. Bieber and I contributed is available in full here (PDF in German).

Please note that this is just a rough translation of excerpts from the German original report. The language might be a little rough around the edges in some places, but it should suffice to outline the gist of our arguments. If you would like to volunteer a full translation, please get in touch.

Introduction

“My name is whm@mit.edu (though I have many aliases), and I am an electronic flâneur. I hang out on the network.”

This is the beginning of the chapter “Electronic Agoras” of the late William J. Mitchell’s book “city of Bits”. In 1995 the architecture professor at the MIT explored the interplay of “Space, Place and the Infobahn”, so the subtitle of his study. 20 years ago Mitchell outlined the consequences of digitalization for core elements of urban living spaces. In short sketches he described potential mediated transformations of market places, office spaces, schools, museums and retail spaces.

“Within bitsphere communities, there will be subnetworks at a smaller scale still – that of architecture. Increasingly, computers will meld seamlessly into the fabric of buildings and buildings themselves will become computers – the outcome of a long evolution.” (Mitchell 1995: 171)

Even 20 years later the text is worth revisiting and the reader could get the impression that a large part of the discourse around “digital cities” has hardly progressed beyond Mitchell’s thinking.

And yet, of course the situation today is very different. Digitalization of our everyday lives has progressed and isn’t just about the creation of network infrastructure, stationary and mobile access, secury data exchange and open content anymore. The Internet of Things (IoT) has turned many urban structures into interfaces. In many optimistic concepts the smart city even almost resembles an actor in its own right.

What does digitalization mean for the urban context today? What happens to cities when infrastructure, public space and citizens are becoming increasingly technologically networked, tracked by sensor networks, and part of a rich data ecosystem?

How can digitalization be used and fostered apart from specialized B2B solutions, general effects of social media, and in the spirit of a humane urbanity?

Taking these questions as a starting point this study for the German Advisory Council on Global Change (Wissenschaftlicher Beirat Globale Umweltveränderung, WBGU) explores the implications of so-called smart city. Starting with a basic introduction of key tecnological development perspectives, the study focuses on two main themes: What role can sustainable development play in concepts for the digital networking of the urban space, and what consequences are to be expected for participation in the political process?

Executive Summary

The concept of the smart city is highly relevant for the future of urban spaces, but the discourse currently heavily dominated by technology vendors and focused purely on efficiency gains. We see implicitly conflicting incentives and goals between commercial interest of technology vendors and regulatory steering goals of the administration, especially in the relation with infrastructure companies.

Besides perspectives for interconnectivity, product development, as well as regional and technological development, aspects of citizen-centric and sustainability are particularly relevant in urban planning. This also applies regarding data sustainability of software solutions. The various elements of a data-smart city and its integration into urban culture are to be recognized as a part of urban governance structures. Aspects such as sustainable development, education, inclusion, transparency and openness deserve attention accordingly.

The path to increased security and resilience of the smart city must include transparency and the principles of open source.

Strong data sovereignty of citizens is the basis for participation and problem solving competence – especially when facing possible technological problems of digital urban infrastructure.

A city that is measured and sensed through sensors, cameras and other survey systems is always a city under surveillance that could discipline its citizens. This means a conflict between problematic surveillance and control on one side positive knowledge and data based opportunities on the other. The ambivalence of the potentials that threaten democracy and those that foster it need to be reevaluated constantly.

The smart city can be shaped politically. The actors involved in smart city governance should not reduce themselves to administrational service providers but work explicitly towards unlocking room for political maneuvering and interventions.

It is essential to take into account impulses from citizens that aim to make use of the city as a platform. Fostering innovation and regional development, scaling of digital infrastructure, creation of spaces for participation as well as coordination the various institutional, individual and technological subsystems requires open, modular political impulses.

Important hints for the development and implementation of smart city governance can be drawn from guiding principles such as decentralization, openness and robustness that emerged successively throughout the development of computer networks and that made the internet to the global innovation platform we know today.

Smart city governance requires collaboration and cooperation models that draw on the skills not just of urban planners, architects and the administration but also of younger professions such as data scientists, interaction designers as well as translators between industry, administration and the public.

Representative of civil society and NGOs like Open Knowledge, Code for Germany or Wikimedia could serve in the role of ombudsman that support the administration with building and maintaining data structures as well as the shaping of digital citizens rights.

This means relying on a multi-stakeholder model that brings together public and civil society, science, industry and administration to shape the city as a platform collaboratively. A special role belongs to the smart citizen as a manifestation of the well-informed citizen – currently this explicitly political figure hardly is represented in most smart city concepts.

During the orientation towards the smart city as a guiding model for urban transformation, the (still young) civic tech movement could potentially serve as the context for further discourse of smart city.

The many facets of civic tech (digitization, open data, urban planning and development, social networks, community organizing) offers a wide reach of potential touch points for the smart city discourse.

Summary and recommendations

It is safe to assume that it is generally possible to adopt the smart city as a guiding approach for tech-positive urban planning: We already see projects developed in close coordination between technology vendors and local administrations or within the framework of national and supra-national initiatives. In this process political actors must not limit their role to that of a pure administrational service provider. Rather they need to defend the necessary freedom to shape – and intervene in – the overall process. It is essential to take into account bottom-up input from the citizenry wherever possible.

We tentatively identified several guidelines for a guiding principle that can help restructure participatory smart city concepts and place them within the framing of the civic tech movement. The keywords we propose are independence, security, decentralization, openness, citizen-centricity and empowerment.

Independence: Fostering and development of basic connectivity infrastructure play a central role in the development of a smart city: “Community[owned broadband is one of the best investments a smart city can make. (…) More importantly, it puts the city in control of its own nervous system, gving it tremendous bargaining power over any private company that wants to sell smart services to the city government or its businesses and residents.“ (Townsend 2014: 288) Note: The more independence from large technology vendors and integrated centralized smart systems can be secured, the more resilient, innovation friendly, and open for the needs of citizens the smart city is likely to develop.

Security: Transparency and open source are the best garantors of sustainable security of a smart city. All smart city software should conform to open source standards. Hardware and infrastructure should equally be as open source as possible. Additionally, planned and installed hardware and software infrastructure should be open to regular audits by experts and technologically skilled citizens, civil society, and civic tech groups.

Decentralization: Decentralization of infrastructure is to be prefered to centralized infrastructure. Concretely, technology subsystems should be loosely joined rather than fully integrated (rough consensus running code / small pieces loosely joined)

Openness: The guiding principle should be openness in the sense of open source, fostering of open access, and data ownership by the citizens. Furthermore, the smart city should be understood as a platform for citizens, private sector, science and administration.

Citizen-centricity: To strictly follow citizen needs and requirements in questions of data and media literacy, transparency and data souvereignity can avoid, and help solve, many problems. In particular, the exchange with citizens and civil society groups should be encouraged and supported by the administration: “(C)ivic hall should work as a platform to connect communities to each other, giving residents a way to partner with neighbors to prevent some problems and solve others. In the future, advanced systems might even combine official information with data supplied by residents acting as sensors through the various ways they might collect and transmit information.” (Goldsmith/Crawford 2014: 67)

Empowerment: The holistic perspective of data smart cities and in particular of civic tech as a new social movement should be taken seriously. The increasing levels of technology in the city should not be understood solely as a modernization process driven by commerce or technology. Rather, it is a process based on a much wider foundation of societal concerns. The emergence of a civic tech movement based on various factors and groups gains more relevance as local urban administrational structures gain more relevance. This can be interpreted in light of the sustainability discourse and its connection to the societal dimenstions of climate change, where we saw collaboration of comparatively delineated niche interests from various previously disconnected societal groups lead to an active, civil society led power for innovative governance structures. We see the same happen around civic tech and smart cities.

TL;DR: Connected cities offer great opportunities abd great risks. As guidelines for how to approach the complex and long-term process of turning a city into a connected/smart city we recommend the principles the early open web was built on: open source, openness, decentralization, bottom-up innovation.

Follow the tags below for some more thoughts around related topics.

A smart city and responsive governance report for the German government

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I’m super excited to be commissioned to co-auther a chapter for a report for WBGU, the German government’s Advisory Council on Global Change, with Dr. Christoph Bieber.

We’ll be taking a close look at “smart cities” and their implications for governance and citizen empowerment. Christoph is professor for ethics in political management and governance at University of Duisburg-Essen’s School of Governance and a dear old friend, so we’ll focus on empowerment, responsive governance and sustainability.

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Cognitive Cities Conference is go!

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Cognitive Cities Conference logoExciting news: We just launched the website for Cognitive Cities Conference, the conference about the future of cities and technology that we’re putting together next February. (Details: 26/27 Feb 2011, Berlin.)

And hey, the site features cool speaker images, creepy map visualizations and soon some other eye candy. The only thing it’s missing, really, is unicorns ;)

Big props to the great folks (who are also our co-organizers) over at Your Neighbours as well as Fabian Mürmann for putting together the site – you guys rock!

The other thing: We put up the Early Bird tickets. You can get them now, as long as they last, for the reduced rate of €79 (including Amiando fees). (You can grab yours here.)

So what is Cognitive Cities about? Here’s the official super-short blurb:

We are at a point in time where the paths are set for the future of cities. The Cognitive Cities Conference (#CoCities) aims to bring the vibrant global conversation about the future of cities to Germany. We see CoCities as a platform for exchange and mutual inspiration. We invite urban planners, designers, technology geeks, environmental experts, public officials, urban gardening enthusiasts and cultural influencers to be part of the conversation. We can only make our cities more livable if we work together to improve them. CoCities is a two-day event: Day 1 is a full-on conference (ticket required), Day 2 is dedicated to exploring the city through workshops, guided tours and exhibitions (free entry).

With Heimathafen Neukölln we have a fantastic location, a grand old theater in the super lively (and decidedly pre-gentrified) neighborhood of Berlin Neukölln. This is where the first day of the conference (the actual “conference day”) will take place. On Day 2 (“activity day”) we’ll head out to a number of location for distributed activities ranging from tours to exhibitions to some other, totally awesome stuff that’s too hard to convey in two lines.

I’m getting really excited about this whole thing. Hope to see you there.

For more details and to get an Early Bird ticket check out http://conference.cognitivecities.com/

Cognitive Cities at Convention Camp, Radio Trackback

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As the preparation for Cognitive Cities Conference are picking up steam, we’ve been invited to talk about smart/cognitive cities on several occasions.

A few days ago, my co-conspirator Igor Schwarzmann gave a presentation at Convention Camp about how our perception and perspectives change when a city gets “smart”. Mainly, we highlighted some interesting projects in the field and discussed them with the audience. You’ll find the slides (mostly links to videos) at the bottom of this post.

Following up on our talk, Radio Trackback interviewed me about smart and cognitive cities. (Links to some of the projects I mentioned: Urban Defender Game, MIT Trash Tracking, Walkshop in Barcelona, Homesense, Lost London, Chromaroma, Cognitive Cities). The interview is in German, starting at around 6:26.

(Some Rights Reserved: Radio Trackback is released under a Creative Commons nc-by-nd license)

Shout out! Edial Dekker was also featured talking about YourneighboursCity Crawlers Berlin project (around 14:35).

And these are the slides of our presentation: