News and Comment

Smart Cities Need Smart Consultations

Monday 12 June 2017

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Future Glasgow. Smart City Bristol. Digital Birmingham. Pilot smart city projects are growing exponentially across the UK – and we’re barely keeping pace with the rest of the world (In 2014 India announced a plan to build 100 smart cities). However, while big data and small technology is enabling us to design our infrastructure to be more efficient, responsive, and environmentally friendly, it’s unclear as to whether we’re able to envision the social impact of these changes.

In many cases, Smart City planning is informed by the latest methodology in service design. Traditional methods of “let’s plan it and then ask what people think” have been replaced by human-centred design methodology and co-creation approaches. End-users are involved throughout the process. Nesta’s “Rethinking Smart Cities from the Ground Up” emphasises the need for collaborative technology and a focus on human behaviour. owever, these

In this sense, Smart Cities should be more people-centred than any other kind of urban planning previously undertaken.

However, while citizens may be involved in the design of a project, that doesn’t mean that there is a common understanding – or even any understanding – of what some of the overall impacts of Smart Cities and SMACT (Social, Mobile, Analytics, Cloud, Internet of Things) technologies might be in terms of quality of life and citizen well-being.

Those implementing and affected by traditional infrastructure and public policy projects are well-versed in communicating the balance of impacts of a project and asking for public feedback. Changes to health services, noise impacts from new roads, or threats to ancient woodland – while they can be complex – are familiar topics for people to digest and offer opinions on. In many ways, the whole idea of Smart Cities is to make all of these things better. If technology is enabling everything to be quieter, cleaner, and safer then what could the negative impacts be?

Nobody really knows the answer to that question, but we can take some guesses at what important considerations could be:

  • Increased automation results in a reduction in day-to-day personal contact and increased isolation and loneliness;
  • An unrelenting need for personal data in the name of responsiveness and efficiency leaves individuals and communities vulnerable to an erosion of personal privacy and self-determination and raises problems for democracy as a whole;
  • Increased reliance on OS systems makes cities more vulnerable to sharp shocks – whether through systems failure, crime, or terrorism; and
  • A departure from the creative chaos and diversity of organic cities that gives a city personality and identity. In the words of Adam Greenfield, author of Against the Smart City ‘it erodes the development of savoir faire; it eliminates the risk, but also everything wonderful, that arises in the confrontation with difference.’

These potential impacts are relatively intangible, and difficult to imagine, but we need to make more of a concerted effort to start doing that. While there are some sophisticated solutions (such as creating an interactive AI simulations for people to experience), it’s unlikely that these are going to be within the budget of a local authority any time soon.

There is a challenge for organisations passionate about embedding local voice within policy decisions and infrastructure development to shape the future of Smart City consultations. How might we best help city-dwellers understand how their lives could change in the next 10 or 15 years and articulate their opinions on that? How might we design creative, open engagement and consultation solutions which enable frank discussions around possible impacts? And how can we ensure that these comments and opinions are fed into the Smart City movement to ensure that our future cities are fully human, and not just “smart”?

These are some of the questions we enjoy wrestling with at the OPM Group. Through our work with the FLOURISH project on autonomous vehicles, with the Arts Council England on Envisioning Libraries of the Future and in the health sector with simulation of future events we’ve become ever more interested in considering how to engage members of the public in possible futures. We believe that evolving Smart Cities is the next crucial area for effective engagement and consultation.

If you’re interested in joining these discussions – get in touch! Drop an email to Lucy Farrow lucy@dialogyebydesign.co.uk