Open cities are smarter cities

Is smart city tech failing us?

Commercial vendors are flooding the smart cities market (estimated to reach $774.8 B by 2021) with IoT and big data applications, spreading the vision of a Big Brother city, constantly sucking information from its citizens.

It’s just a bold vision in most cases, inspired by the potential of the technology now available on the market, distributed with huge marketing budgets of the companies ready to sell technology. In addition, the need for business investment in cities adds to the hype of smart technology for cities: City marketing campaigns are focused on making a city appear smarter than it actually is… After all, who wouldn’t want to move their business to one of the world’s smartest cities?

Public Domain via Unsplash

Other cities consider smart tech solutions more reactively, when trying to avoid key projects getting blocked by the media, like in the case of Rio de Janeiro: Its smartification with the “Integrated Center of Command and Control” in preparation of the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games has been criticized as the center piece of Rio’s ‘flawed emergence as a smart city’. High tech solutions may hold intrinsic promises of progress and social advancement, but before spending millions cities might want to consider how the new gear will stand out against a backdrop of favelas.

While the top-down nature of these tech packages seems unfit for the public sector context, another set of challenges of smart technology derives from security risks. Smart TVs and security cameras are already a target, but imagine those hackers attacking essential urban infrastructure like water supply, electric grid, or connected autonomous vehicles…

Public Domain via Unsplash

Living in smart cities is often compared to Orwell’s dystopian tales. After all, if everything is connected, the city / state / police could spy on everybody in the name of security for all. In Europe recent debates about plans to regulate web usage under the argument of matters of national security show how fine the line is between right and wrong.

A vehicle of trust

The top-down, tech-first promise to magically fix our cities with behind-the-scenes technology and closed-by-default systems breeds distrust. Are these necessary in the first place - are our cities broken? And who is actually paying for the billions tech companies spend on deploying these solutions?

It’s about time that the people living in cities (55+ % of the world’s population) are taken into account by their governments. Or do residents need to take matters into their own hands to tackle urban challenges?

Manuela Carmena, Mayor of Madrid, asks:

“What are the social problems we want technology to solve?

She describes what the Guardian calls a “non-neoliberal smart city”.

Public Domain via Unsplash

Accepting social, human-centered challenges as the true problems of today’s cities offers a lens to hone in on how solutions to real problems could be designed. By focusing a smart city push on the needs of the ‘users’ instead of potential technology to be deployed, data-driven solutions start to engage the local community, instead of scaring it off.

To further foster trust, transparency is key. Like businesses, most cities already capture data from transactions and administration. And the promise of big data (and more data streams through IoT and connected devices) is that mining and analyzing this data will make the city more efficient.

A report by Nesta UK finds that,

Running a city or a local authority is to a great extent about managing and responding to information.
Local authorities sit in the middle of a web of information. Everything from social care for vulnerable children, waste collection, procurement, council tax collection, to planning applications produces huge quantities of data. This data is sometimes garbled, hard to analyse, or personal and sensitive. But it is potentially hugely helpful in enabling councils to make services more targeted and effective, to allocate resources to where they will have the biggest impact, to save officer time in front and back office processes, and to provide insight into the causes and solutions to costly social problems.

Up until now however, a common pattern for local government has been to collect data with taxpayer funds, but then resource and talent scarcity causes the data to end up locked away without being analyzed or even accessed. Too often silo’d local government departments aren’t even aware of what data has been collected in the past.

Let’s do a thought experiment: A city where all data collected is always open and accessible allows anybody, not only researchers and local activists, to access the data and engage with it or use it to prove a point. Transparency through open-by-default systems for the local administration speaks for itself: Any smart technology deployed in this setup would not be suspicious. With everything being open and accessible, big brother style creepy is simply not possible.

Public Domain via Unsplash

Redefining efficiency

The multilayered, intertwined complexity of today’s greatest cities makes improving their efficiency a struggle. And let’s be frank: closed-by-default systems won’t improve this situation.

Crowdsourced map of flooded infrastructure in Chennai, 2015

Success stories of crowdsourced solutions (OpenStreetMap, Wikipedia) following open and open source software development standards compared to closed-by-default systems (Google Maps, Microsoft Encarta, Encyclopedia Britannica) proved the collective hive mind of hobbyists to be better at tackling complex scenarios than highly specialized teams of engineers. A similar approach is recognized in the traditionally conservative defense industry: The Pentagon uses the crowd to keep their systems secure. The same elements of transparency and distributed development are important elements of bug-bounty programs, a trend in the security industry.

Linus’ Law, the basis for the open source “philosophy”, states:

“Given enough eyeballs all bugs are shallow”

Lets think this through for the smart urban application context: The more people have a real interest in a functioning application (engaged local community), the more people access and maintain the open code (local tech community) and question open data released (journalists, activists). Access to data fosters the public discourse and allows for trust to developed.

Quality not quantity

Unfortunately, to reap all the benefits of open data, public sector needs to present data in an accessible and engaging way. Most open data portals are far from successful, causing frustration to their maintainers and their users to shy away from huge Shape or CSV files. Open data is not about quantity, but quality. Before we get there, local governments need bootcamps to get better at presenting data in meaningful ways. The average citizen won’t dig into a simple Choropleth map — but they will join the public discussion around development activity in their city if building permit applications are presented visually:

Fork, test, iterate, improve!

“Replicability or solutions and practice is important, but so is being able to tailor the blueprint for each city’s unique needs, all while avoiding vendor lock-in.”, summarizes this recap of a Smart Cities event in the UK.

Smart urban solutions developed in one city released as open source projects are free to be use by other cities as well. A local community adopts an open source solution that has been tried & tested elsewhere, and adapts it over time to their specific local needs. Over time, one approach becomes a catalogue of functioning solutions inspired by real urban challenges.


There are many more arguments why open cities are “smarter cities”. Support our discussion on this topic by voting for our panel at SxSW 2018 in Austin, TX.

>> Vote for our Open Cities panel before 25 August


Thanks to Michele and Brynne for 👀 on this post 🙇‍