Smart Cities Have to Serve People and Be Responsive to their Needs

There’s a pretty comprehensive article in today’s Chicago Tribune about Chicago’s significant efforts around tech-oriented “smart city” projects: Chicago seeking ‘smart-city’ tech solutions to improve city life.

I work on the edges of lots of the projects mentioned. They’re all run by good people who have their hearts in the right place.

But I wonder if we’re going hard enough in making sure that the things we do meet the needs of the people we live with in this teeming metropolis of millions of people.

Here’s how I put it when the reporter, Kathy Bergen, asked me:

“How do we connect these abstract, big-picture, big-data initiatives to the needs of the residents of Chicago who are struggling under a failure to fund education and under a police force that thwarts the will of the people?” asked Daniel X. O’Neil, executive director of Smart Chicago Collaborative, a civic group that aims to improve residents’ lives through technology.

That’s pretty much it. When I wake up and go outside, I don’t see residents making a whole big fuss about enough civic data being released. Or hankering to know exact rainfall measures, block by block. Or demanding to see the exact nature of buried cable infrastructure.

Instead, I see people shutting down Lake Shore Drive to demand justice for a police killing. I see protests of a Governor who can’t lead, to devastating affect for poor people. I see an inability for us to even talk, in a coherent way, about our shared problems and goals.

I want a smart city. I believe in the power of technology to make lives better. I do not believe that a new dataset or a fancy API goes anywhere near addressing the needs of the people.

The CUTGroup Book

I’ve spent the last five years of my career trying to build methodologies for doing people-based technology. I invented the Civic User Testing Group — a set of regular Chicago residents who get paid to test civic apps. I wrote a book about it so as to help spread the methods.

There’s the work of Laurenellen McCann!!, and her book we published at Smart Chicago: Experimental Modes of Civic Engagement in Civic Tech. Super-specific methods that anyone in tech can deploy, immediately.

There’s more. Youth-Led Tech, Smart Health Centers, Connect Chicago. Each of them are people-centered approaches to technology. Giving food, and jobs, and knowledge, directly to people in neighborhoods. Working directly, always— not just as a side component, but as the core work.

When we publish these books or launch these programs, we get lots of high-fives on Twitter and nifty write-ups in all the usual places. But honestly there is very, very little uptake in adopting the methods or reproducing the projects. After years of the work, I have to start wondering why.

Here’s the closing of today’s article in the Tribune:

Those lessons likely will apply to Chicago as well as it pursues its smart-city strategies. O’Neil, of the Smart Chicago Collaborative, suggests the city and its partners keep their eyes on one overarching goal.
“I find immense value in what they are doing (but) I continue to drive them, and drive all of us and anyone in the smart-cities movement, to work harder at finding out how we can make lives better,” he said. “I continue to have consternation at how all this fits together.”