Making the Spaces of Cities Smarter: Why cities (and their citizens) should embrace the digital public realm

Smart cities have long been discussed as conceptual ideas for how cities should be and what they could do. Rarely is the concept broken down into something that provides substantive meaning to the average city-dweller. Indeed ‘smartness’ for many, is far removed from their everyday life, rather just a hidden network of sensors and connectors.

Despite now being a central part of urban development, underground networks of cables; a series of masts; and the overhauling of local government IT systems continue to bed the bedrock of smartness, preventing it from feeling as tangible as other city development catalysts such as master-planning or regeneration projects. Here it’s asked how this might change when the public realm — parks, streets and civic spaces — become the experienced spaces of smartness?

The digital public realm brings the concept of smart into the reality of day-to-day life, providing a physical and lived manifestation of smartness. However for many, the digital public realm is still something to be cautious of, and there are important questions about the implications of ubiquitous private devices on the publicness of space, or the erosion of civic life through a dependence on digital technology. But done right, the digital public realm is the perfect antidote to the failures of the ‘smart city’ that has come before, encouraging dwell time in public places and spaces, supporting engagement and civic participation, improving public service delivery and bringing about tangible benefits for a city’s people.

Connecting people to places 
Improved connectivity is one way in which digital technologies in the public realm can improve people’s experience of cities. High quality — and where possible, free — public Wi-Fi can create opportunities for urban residents far beyond those that had existed before. And where those connections are precisely in the public realm, rather than coffee shops or private businesses, space becomes repurposed for contemporary urban life, whilst increasing the inclusivity of digital connectivity.

One example of this repurposing of public space is in Havana where, two years ago, the Cuban state telecoms provider introduced Wi-Fi hotspots to public spaces. In a place almost wholly offline for so long, public connection has transformed communications and contact with those off the island, whilst also increasing the publicness of spaces, bringing tens even hundreds of people into the city’s parks.

Yet connectivity as part of a digital public realm is not just a benefit reserved for places without widespread connection. In New York City, the fifth most connected city in the world, LinkNYC has created connectivity corridors across five boroughs. The connectivity provided by more than 1700 Links has allowed more than 5 million users to connect for free to the country’s fastest, most robust public fibre network. Through this service, LinkNYC has supported people in accessing charities, using council services, and even applying for jobs.

LinkNYC —

In the cases of both New York City and Havana, the public spaces in which these new activities can occur take on new, more prominent meanings for residents. And this is a mark of great public spaces — adapting and responding to the changing needs and desires of communities.

Having high quality connectivity in the public realm enables more sophisticated digital public realm interventions to emerge, many of which provide ‘connection’ to place in a softer sense. Calvium are one organisation taking advantage of improved connectivity with their app-based experiences that draw on AR, 3D sound, and haptic technologies. Calvium have harnessed these technologies to bring communities into regeneration processes for example at Porth Teigr in Cardiff, or build a sense-of-place through digital-physical journeys of history and heritage, such as in Battersea Power Station in London.

This interaction between technologies and the people that use them — or between what we might conceive as technical and social systems — increase the publicness of space, supporting enquiry, understanding and use in ways far deeper than were possible in the physical only public realm.

Transforming Services
The public realm increasingly becoming a site of both the digital and physical opens up a number of other opportunities for the public sector. Devices, both personal and in the public realm that are required to provide connectivity or make the most of digital place-making interventions, collect vast amounts of augmented, non-personal data. This data, collected from the digital public realm, can in turn be used to improve cities’ public streets and spaces.

But unlike sensor networks and Internet of Things (IoT) implementation of years past, current efforts are not about collecting data for data’s sake, but instead focus first and foremost on what challenges could be overcome with a better understanding of uses and users of public spaces.

For local authorities, collecting footfall data from MAC codes — a by product of Wi-Fi connections — might support efforts in time efficient street cleaning and bin collections. Looking at the type of devices connected to WiFi spots or engaging in digital place-making scheme might indicate socio-economic profiles and support councils in delivering the right services to the right people. This can be strengthened further when data can be shared in the public realm, for example showing dynamic air quality information in public spaces to help people make healthy decisions.

Whilst there are some risks and concerns around the risks of big data and large-scale data collection, particularly where the private sector is a key actor, this type of user-first approach to data and the public realm enables cities to undergo an important transformation from smart to responsive.

Borough Data Explorer —

But there are challenges. Technology development and its application is fast — often implemented through a fail-fast or ‘suck it and see’ approach. This is challenging for regulators and the public sector generally who are unable to act in the same manner due to resource and institutional limitations. As seen in recent Uber and AirBnB cases, for place-making, the rapid development of technology can cause real problems and — largely through unintended impacts — undo the hard work of public servants at local and central levels.

Public-private partnerships
Unlike many technology enabled services, making adjustments or additions to the public realm requires proactive partnerships and collaboration. At the most fundamental level, changes to the physicality of place require planning permission, which requires dialogue and mutual understanding. Beyond this, success and longevity of the digital public realm will emerge when technology companies seek to understand policy and strategy across local government, and identify areas that may be supported through digital deployment.

On the flip-side it also requires local government teams to understand the features of the technology for deployment, and their ambitions. Crucially for government, working with pathfinding technology-SMEs will enable the public sector to direct the digitisation of places in ways that work for public good; retaining the publicness of space and place, regardless of who owns, oversees or manages technologies being deployed.

These partnerships for the public realm can have overflow effects into other areas of public policy and service. Not only through developing physical spaces and places, technology companies can support governments in institutionalising innovation through the introduction of new methods and ways of working, in particular supporting a human-centred approach to policy making. This can lead to better uptake and understanding of services by the population, as well as support the drive for efficiencies.

Looking Forward
Ultimately, the best can only come from digital technologies when they strengthen offline networks, economies and places, and this is evident in these examples. But more than merely strengthening networks and improving places, the digital public realm can empower. It empowers people to be connected and provided with public digital technologies; empowers local governments to improve their service delivery; and empowers technology companies to work for the public good.

In 2006 Ash Amin wrote about the ‘good city’ as a modern and practical exploration of urban utopianism. For him, the good city is achieved when the urban order looks to enhance the human experience. It is a city that celebrates commons and pushes stakeholders to outcomes that benefit the diverse many rather than the few, supporting active public engagement in place and politics.

The ‘smart city’ or the digitally enabled city might well be the current manifestation of the good city. This is true more so now than ever before in the history of urban ‘smartness’, as we now increasingly see a shift from technology-driven to people-centred smart cities, with the digital public realm the most obvious manifestation of this.

But just as we haven’t achieved urban utopia, we still haven’t seen the best of the digital public realm. And the only way we can edge closer to getting the best from these new applications of technology and innovation is by cities — decision makers and the public — embracing the potential of the digital public realm rather than shying away from it.