Can Humans Live in the Smart City? —Part 3

Feb 15, 2017 · 5 min read

Technology can help us make our cities “smarter” but only if we use it to understand people better

Part three of a three-part series where Benjie and Gabe of talk about how smart city technologies can focus more on people.

Part 3 : Measure the things we love

“You can’t prescribe decently for something you hate. It will always come out wrong. You can’t prescribe decently for something you despair in. If you despair of humankind, you’re not going to have good policies for nurturing human beings. I think people ought to give prescriptions who have ideas for improving things, ought to concentrate on the things that they love and that they want to nurture.” ― Jane Jacobs

Benjie: The big concern is not only that we measure only the things that can be readily measured. (Mainly, things.) But also that we only measure to manage and tune for “efficiency.”

But the city is not a machine. We need to measure to understand and to facilitate what is important.

Gabe: CityFi’s own Ashley Hand has posited the theory of “transportation happiness” in the seminal smart cities planning document, “Urban Transportation in a Digital Age” which delves into whether we should even be focused on commute times or…the quality of the choice itself? You may walk to work in 30 minutes vs. drive in 10, but how happy are you doing it? How do you feel at work as a result and how does that impact your productivity?

In my book Start-Up City, I talk about the importance of “having fun” in everything that we do including the experience of governance, operations and consumer services in cities. By embracing process and data, we can actually open ourselves up to more creative pursuits in designing our cities for people and nature.

Benjie: Exactly. If we understand that cities are about people, then we focus on what matters to people.

So, what are practical steps can we take?

Gabe: It’s a matter of direction. We need to make sure that humans, nature, and happiness are not even just baked into the concept of “Smart Cities” but instead the singular north star that filters to the goals and efforts.

In practical terms and at the scale of an initiative, identify the purpose and need for your project before you set about doing anything. This may sound obvious but we see more often than not that this step is skipped. And when we go back to fill in the blanks later, often efficiency, cost savings and job creation amongst other themes are named as priorities. Not that these aren’t important outcomes, but are we going to design a city that people want to live in? That will help us actually lure the talent to create the companies? To create a place that people want to live vs. just work to alleviate transport needs and costs?

Second, set your vision before you set your goals. There is a natural order to things, and a waterfall of decisions that ensue. Vision, mission, goals etc. are not the same things.

Third, be collaborative when formulating each step. A city is an ecosystem of people with differences in outlook, opinion and life experiences. If you don’t want the feedback loop, go back to square one as you likely will not be successful in serving a diverse set of stakeholders.

Fourth, strike a balance between tried and true formulas for success (and there are many) and being sensitive to context, which is another reason to listen to a diverse group of people. As much as you can, frame in easy to understand, non-complex speak. Then layer on the local differences.

Fifth, don’t look at technology solutions until you have completed 1–4, even though they are likely percolating in the back of your mind.

(Benjie: This is important. We regularly see “smart city” RFPs that are more like laundry lists of all the technologies an agency wants to deploy vs. the outcomes desired.)

Last but not least, if you are in the private sector and think that the data has to belong to a corporation, vs. the city… or the citizen that created it, also go back to square one. There are ways to create open data for public consumption, and monetization strategies for non-consumer uses that benefit the private sector and taxpayers. Having said that, fundamentally the elephant in the data-center is that what you as a citizen create will ultimately, belong to…you in the long run.

How can we say that? Because progress forces non-negotiables to their end-state. And just as you can’t stop progress, you also can’t stop the eventual democratization (often via hacks) of everything from internet access, content, data (scraping) and so forth. Even open data has it’s drawbacks as it can have privacy issues when hacked down to the individual agent level. So just as we know that our every move will eventually be able to be triangulated through ubiquitous cameras, sensors and software, so will the value of such easily available information eventually, likely be….nil.

“It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer. Albert Einstein

Benjie: To recap: It’s about people. All this technology should be utilized to enable connections, catalyze energy. Cities should decide what kind of city they want to be, then work towards that.

Gabe: My favorite bad example is the proposal to create “smart intersections” where the cars don’t have to stop. Great if what you want is a city where the cars never stop. Terrible if you want a city where people can safely cross the street and where you want people to stop and participate in the life of the community (having said that I love the dutch traffic circles :)

I think we need to set the goals a little higher for “smart cities.” People first, planet second, and — as it is the most likely to be fleeting in the future — profit last.


We’re in the business of urban change management.


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Cityfi advises cities, corporations, foundations and start-ups to help catalyze change in a global, complex urban landscape. Twitter: @teamcityfi



We’re in the business of urban change management.