(Smart) Cities for (Smart) People

Smart cities – this is a topic largely covered since more than a decade. Cities and national governments around the world are investing in the potential of smart cities at an ever-increasing rate. There can be little doubt that successive waves of digital technology will continue to transform how cities are run. But the advocates of smart cities have often faced criticism: for being too concerned with hardware rather than with people; too focused on finding uses for new technologies rather than finding technologies that can solve pressing problems; and for emphasizing marketing and promotion at the expense of hard evidence and testing solutions out in the real world. As a result, many smart city ideas have failed to deliver on their promise, combining high costs and low returns. Many city governments are now trying to put this right, to reap the full potential of new digital technologies while not repeating the mistakes of the past. They are looking for answers that involve the public in both shaping technologies and implementing them; solutions that are cheaper and more modular; and they are seeking out evidence instead of hype.

Examples and good practices are already existing all around the world. In Beijing residents can use the ‘I love Beijing’ app to report issues such as broken streetlights and potholes to the city government. Building on the successful examples of Ushahidi and OpenStreetMap, people are using digital technology to measure and map their cities. Individuals and community groups can use low–cost environmental sensing kits like the Smart Citizen Kit to measure air pollution and upload the data to create crowdsourced maps. This data could be used to supplement professional sensing networks in the near future. In Jakarta, a city which experiences severe annual flooding during the rainy season, researchers have developed PetaJakarta, a real– time map of flooding in the city created by crowdsourcing flood reports from Twitter. Connecting urban communities to improve sustainability. In Seoul, South Korea, the city government is helping residents make better use of the things they own with the Sharing City Seoul initiative. It has supported a range of projects from local car–sharing company SoCar to websites like Billiji that help people share things with their neighbors. The goal of these services is to provide people with an alternative to owning things they rarely use. In Reykjavik, Iceland, citizens can use the Better Reykjavik website to propose, debate and vote on ideas for improving the city. Each month the city council debates the most popular ideas from the website and the city government has so far spent €1.9 million on developing more than 200 projects proposed by citizens. In Paris, ‘Madame Mayor, I have an idea’ is a crowdsourcing and participatory budgeting process that lets citizens propose and vote on ideas for projects in Paris. The process will allocate 500m Euros between 2014 and 2020. In Bangalore, local NGO the MOD Institute enabled residents to create a community vision for the future of the Shanthingar neighborhood of the city by encouraging online debate. The project identified abandoned urban spaces as a major issue of concern for residents and created software which residents will be able to use to map these spaces via smartphone and SMS.

smart city

To recognize the huge potential for digital technologies to improve how cities work, while going beyond the simplistic habits of ‘technology push’. Successful smart cities of the future will combine the best aspects of technology infrastructure while making the most of the growing potential of ‘collaborative technologies’, and above all the citizens who power them. But how can this work in practice? How can cities effectively harness the power of citizens through digital technologies?

Four emerging methods which are helping city governments to do this, powered by the growing ubiquity of smartphones, the increasing preference for online transactions, combined with the emergence of low–cost hardware and peer–to–peer technologies.

  • The collaborative economy: connecting distributed groups of people, using the internet and digital technologies, to make better use of goods, skills and space. This is important in cities where resources, particularly space, are limited.
  • Crowdsourcing data: People can use low–cost sensors to measure and create crowdsourced maps of their environments; city governments can crowdsource data from social media sites and sensors in mobile phones, as a supplement to city–wide Internet of Things networks.
  • Collective intelligence: Decision making and problem solving are usually left to experts, yet citizens know a huge amount about their cities. New digital tools make it easier for people to get involved in policymaking, planning and budgeting, and this could help cities make smarter and more democratic decisions.
  • Crowdfunding: People can connect with each other online to collaboratively fund community projects and city governments can use crowdfunding to make spending decisions that more accurately reflect the needs and wishes of citizens.

Collaborative technologies have the potential to make cities smarter and improve urban life. However, at present many of the most promising examples are early stage and small scale and if integrated at all, sit at the periphery rather than at the core of smart city strategies.

To have a chance of helping cities address some of the tough problems they face, further investment and support are needed to generate evidence about which approaches to using collaborative technologies are most effective. Cities then need to share these lessons so that other cities can adopt and build on the most successful approaches. Instead of all technology, smart cities will be developed through the will of which they’re made for – the people. This is how we will achieve to bring to life this universal vision of the ‘smart cities’.


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