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From smart citizens come smart cities

  • Smart cities experts, including the Australian government, consistently advocate citizen engagement in their planning, policies and development.
  • The vast amounts of data captured from urban spaces and infrastructure daily needs to be freely available
  • “It’s about knowing what’s happening to develop the insights to create better outcomes,” futurist Ross Dawson says.

Tomorrow’s towns need technology and infrastructure, but most importantly, people. It takes a village to build a smart city.

When the Australian Federal Government revealed its Smart Cities plan in April 2016, it rolled out a red carpet for citizens to get involved in the process. The document’s preamble states:

“If our cities are to continue to meet their residents’ needs, it is essential for people to engage and participate in the planning and policy decisions that have an impact on their lives.”

This is a point on which several smart cities experts agree. Internationally recognised architect and director of Massachusett’s Institute of Technology’s Senseable City Lab, Professor Carlo Ratti, is one of them.

Open data, applied

Ratti was the creative engine behind the famous Digital Water Pavilion unveiled at the Zaragoza Expo in Spain in 2008, an installation he says embodies the very essence of smart cities.

Using digital technology to control the flow of water as it fell from the installation’s eaves in sheets to make relatively complex patterns and shapes, Ratti says he was exploring how computing can change the experience of space. Time Magazine listed it as one the best inventions of the year.

“Open data is a great way to share urban knowledge with citizens who can then take action in different ways,” Ratti says. In that sense, the installation could be a visual metaphor for the smart cities vision that he and his contemporaries promote.

Just as the flow of water in the pavilion is tamed to convey meaning, smart cities capture vast amounts of information emanating unheeded from urban spaces every day and liberate it in the form of freely available data.

It’s a concept that persistently surfaces in conversations about the architecture of smart cities.

Futurist Ross Dawson drills a little deeper. “It’s about knowing what’s happening to develop the insights to create better outcomes,” he says.

Physical space, connected

The Internet of Things also emerges frequently in discussions about smart cities. It refers to the vast and growing number of network-connected data sensors and other devices wrapping the urban infrastructure in a digitally sensate fabric. Smartphones equally play a role, providing citizens with a means to share useful data with each other and urban planners.

As Ratti puts it, “physical space is becoming connected”.

The types of data collected and ways that they may be used are myriad. It could be San Diego’s prosaic but effective networked light-pole sensors that improve city maintenance. Or more sophisticated applications such as Chicago’s efforts to collect data on street garbage loads to gather insights into vermin control.

Ratti is fond of a project in Seattle in which plastic water bottles were digitally tagged so the public could track their progress through the city’s sanitation system. When some people discovered bottles were going to landfill – and much closer to home than they expected – they stopped buying bottled water.

Smart citizens, engaged

Given the breadth of creative ways that open data could improve urban landscapes, smart cities experts consistently advocate citizen engagement in their development.

In fact, citizens are critical to successful smart city development to extract value from urban data, not least because valuable planning data is already flowing directly from them, says Dawson.

“Arguably, in a connected world you have more ability for citizens to contribute and engage to shape government, the services government provides, and how it provides them,” he says. “That is always the way it should be done.”

Brook Dixon, Managing Director of smart cities consultancy Delos Delta and former ACT government director of Smart City and Regulatory Reform, agrees. He says it’s the reason he devoted an entire chapter to digital democracy in his 2016 Churchill Fellowship Report, “Building the Digital City: the People, the Smarts, the Buzz”.

However, Dixon laments that people are often left without the tools to engage in developing smart cities. 

“Open data is a great way to share urban knowledge with citizens who can then take action in different ways.”

- Professor Carlo Ratti, architect and director of the Senseable City Lab, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

“Engagment is a critical part of a smart city but many cities fall back to outdated consultation methods that place all the onus on the citizens,” he says. “I’d like to turn that around – in the first instance the onus should be on government to make it easier for citizens to engage in the creation of their cities and their regions.”

Seoul, South Korea is a digital democracy exemplar, he says. The city has developed mVoting, which lets people engage and vote on important city issues in real time, on their mobile phones.  Another digital tool in Seoul allows citizens to nominate smart city ideas and vote on options to identify the best for the city.

Ratti says urban planners around the world are still experimenting with both the art and science of smart cities. However, if they don’t get it right the missed opportunity could be great.

“If architecture is, as it has been often described, a kind of ‘third skin’ after our biological one and our clothing, we have to acknowledge that this skin has often been rigid and uncompromising,” Ratti says. “However, with better data the built environment can start adapting to us, generating a living, tailored architecture that is moulded by its inhabitants.”

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