More than a Smart City


It is said that only 2% of the Earth’s surface is occupied by cities in which more than half of the world’s population lives. Cities consume as much as 75% of the world’s energy. It is expected that by 2050, 2 out of 3 Earth’s inhabitants will live in cities. The numbers speak for themselves — one of the biggest challenges of the modern world are problems with the future of the cities.

We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives. Woody Allen

It is said that only 2% of the Earth’s surface is occupied by cities in which more than half of the world’s population lives. Cities consume as much as 75% of the world’s energy. It is expected that by 2050, 2 out of 3 Earth’s inhabitants will live in cities. The numbers speak for themselves — one of the biggest challenges of the modern world are problems with the future of the cities.

Ever since the The Hippodamian plan from the fifth century BC, the world has been reflecting on the essence of the city and its role in the lives of its residents. City planners are puzzled with the problem: how cities can become friendlier to their inhabitants. With varying success. The question is: whether after all kinds of different experiments and errors committed along the way, are we wise enough and aware of our needs that we can, at this point, steer urban space in such a way as to make them more friendly towards its citizens? Is there a possibillity to make every crowded city citizen feel good within a few years? Are we able to predict the development of cities and outline a strategy? And whether the technology contained in the concept of smart cities can create an ideal city?

When I got familiar with the works of Jane Jacobs — a controversial American architect — on the occasion of the Polish edition of her book “Death and life of great American cities” — I realized how passive and wrong is our approach to the surrounding reality. Jacobs criticized all of the popular twentieth century town planning trends. She mocked eight-lane highways passing through the city centers, modernist apartment blocks or vehicles favoritism. Her wide-reaching criticism was initiated by a plan to build a highway through her beloved Greenwich Village in Manhattan. Her activity started the development of activism in New York and ended Robert Moses’s one-man governance of the city, who was the mayor back then. It turns out that nearly everything was right. Better substitutes of almost all of her thoughts have been found. Let’s look at some examples. Air transport is increasingly winning with glowing empty motorways. The vision of living in the once fashionable Modernist Corbusier-style block of flats behind the Iron Gate [za Żelazną Brama] (Warsaw) now gives us the creeps. Crossing kilometers through ugly subways is the nightmare of every city dweller. I could tell you an infinite number of such examples. Since Jacobs was able to predict the direction of urban development, why can’t we also try to do it? It is easier than we think, I guess.

City of the Future

Automatic street trash cans, self-driving buses, streets and public institutions packed with technology — that is a vision of the modern, so-called smart city. The condition of creating and maintaining such a city is a leader with a vision and institutions open to citizens, all of this means better access to information and ensures wider participation in the public life. Lately, this is the main trend in urban development. The title Smart City is fashionable, is a testimony to the degree city’s development and even — as seen in the examples of Bilbao and Aarhus — may attract many tourists. Vienna, Copenhagen, Barcelona, ​​Toronto. These are examples of cities that are famous for smart solutions. All of them are focused on innovation, ecology, quality of life and a digital local government. Cities are more and more competitive in proposing new solutions, but sadly, all of us can see the lack of common sense and perspective thinking in their actions. I deeply regret the fact that most of the cities are detached from communication with their citizens. That often leads to massive chaos and is not what the people want. Hover, let’s focus on the good examples that will show the concept of smart solutions better than any definition.

Bask can do it

Bilbao as one of the first cities began to pay attention to intelligent solutions. They have built their own brand, which has been attracting many tourists from all around the world. A quarter of a century ago, Bilbao passed through a huge economic problems such as unemployment at 25%, massive emigration of residents and a huge loss of jobs. Through reforms, of which Guggenheim Museum built in 1997 became a symbol, the city started to be regarded as one of the most popular cities in Spain. It is estimated that just 5 years after the museum had been built it increased the income of Bilbao by about 176 million euros and added 27 million euros of tax profit to the local government of the Basque territory and thereby created 4415 new jobs. The example of Bilbao has been already named among journalists and scientists as the “Bilbao effect”. Bilbao for years has been focused on consulting changes through IT tools and extensive periodic meetings with its citizens.

Pearl in the Danish crown

American smart cities are developed for commercial needs. In Asia, cities are centralized and controlled by officials. Aarhus is a small city built on the Scandinavian tradition of engaging citizens. Apart from great cyclist solutions, Aarhus is famous for its computerized self-government.

The city created the Digital Neighbourhood programme, through which officials communicate and inform people using the new tools that have been created. Using those tools residents can e.g. help to create concepts of green areas and libraries. Another interesting example are the blue blocks that have motion sensors. The city along with Alexandra Institute has created a project to set the sensors around Aarhus and to observe and learn how the blocks were adjusted and used by the locals. With these blocks, one can better understand the behavior of people in urban spaces. Another example is the attempt to draw attention by project Pay Attention to important places and landmarks in the city. Some of them included interactive installations that provoked passers-by to join the ‘concert’ or to draw attention to a particular component of architecture. Pay Attention is a proposition connected the actions of the local government to use only LED lighting.

Viennese city

The Austrian capital is famous for one of the highest living standards in the world and innovative infrastructure solutions with an emphasis on environmental issues (half of the territory of Vienna is to be covered by greenery). Each year Vienna ranks high in each category among smart city rankings. One of the largest urban projects in Europe, known under the name of Aspern Viennas Urban Lake is being created in Vienna’s 22nd district. The complex will create places for twenty thousand workers and twenty thousand inhabitants in an area of ​​250 hectares. The program is widely consulted with citizens and is focused on creating innovative solutions. The buildings crammed with technology, convenient parking and everything is thought out in such a way as to harm nature the least it is possible. The project looks very well when it comes to architecture. Additionally, its development plan covers several decades. It is worth saying that Vienna is a city that has managed to create a widely accepted program “Vienna in 2050”, that is supported by the vast majority of the population. The program at various levels builds a vision of Vienna in 35 years.

Aspern Viennas Urban Lake http://www.aspern-seestadt.at/

Green metropolis

Toronto is a city that tries to be close to its inhabitants. It is the first of the big cities in North America that has implemented participatory budgeting. Toronto is famous for its solutions that support citizen participation. One of their flagship projects is the Toronto Community Housing. The project is about creating homes and local meeting places. Since 2002, the project has created or co-created 2,500 different residential buildings, aiming at different groups and local communities such as seniors, homeless people and students.

The capital of the province of Ontario boasts the largest surface of the green city on the American continent. The city is covered with parks, squares and lawns in about 20% of its entirety. Most known among them is the world’s largest urban green area — Rouge Valley Park. It occupies 5,000 hectares, which is about the same as Zielona Gora [a small city in Poland with 100,000 citizens]. It is worth admitting that there are 10 trees for every inhabitant. The city abounds in green areas for doing sport, especially golf courses.

Toronto Community Housing http://www.torontohousing.ca/our_housing

Another program of the largest city in Canada is a Smart Commute program. It helps commutes to move from point A to point B depending on the person’s preferences, time available and other various factors. The system considers several transportation possibilities such as using public transport, running, walking, bike rental or driving by car. It was created in order to reduce Toronto’s problem getting to work during peak hours. The local authorities at the same time also began to promote flexible working hours, week or tele-working.

Cooperation is the key

Given the broad concept of a smart city, which over time is defined anew, I have been always fascinated by the city and repeatedly mulled over the future of Polish cities. Traveling around the world, as well as watching other examples, I more and more noticed, where perhaps the biggest problem lies in.

The most thought provoking case was that of the slums of Bogota. It turned out that it doesn’t matter what kind of people live there, but what is their activity in the life of the city. The activities of non-governmental organizations that promote equal treatment and that mobilize citizen activities in the city. The interference of the local government by putting the library in the middle of the slums in the capital of Colombia, or refunding public transport tickets to the city center led to a very strong limitation of crime, increase in cleanliness and encouraged slum dwellers to take education in schools, to read books and to move to the city centre.

This example shows how important is the interaction with the local government and the third sector. I would let myself even define the city as a kind of social contract between local authorities and the citizens, where the third sector is the notary. I believe that such a city definition is close to our problems and is future oriented in terms of the years to come.

CivilHub

My interest in the city led me completely by chance to a CivilHub inauguration meeting in October 2014. As a result, I met open-minded people who bring solutions to help residents in an innovative way. It seems to me that CivilHub can really help break down the barrier between the officials and the residents. It can also participate in a very important mechanism of citizen integration. Nothing connects people better than a common goal. CivilHub is the perfect answer to my definition. It connects residents, officials and non-governmental organizations through new technologies. Residents can put forward their ideas, develop projects for their neighborhood, district, village or country. They can easily co-operate with NGOs and contact government officials. This may be the answer to many problems of our living places. In the end, the city will have the opportunity to respond through their actions to the real expectations of the residents. Defective public consultation carried out by most of the cities will be forgotten and the people, I hope, will understand that a change of places in which we live is possible and not at all that difficult as we have thought. CivilHub will give everyone the possibility to compare his/her ideas with other people from all around the world. Cities will be able to relate to each other. We can all learn from each other, support and solve our problems together. I hope that together with CivilHub will take democracy to a higher level.

New technologies are the Future now. They should become a tool to change our immediate environment. As the example of Apple shows us. The phenomenon did not come up with the invention of the iPhone but with the creation of the whole mobile infrastructure and application architecture, which encouraged developers and users from all around the world to use Apple products. The same thing can happen with such tools as CivilHub. A tool that impresses almost everyone to whom I have shown it, but it needs infrastructure to encourage non-governmental organizations and local governments, which include residents in nearby changing realities. I guess, everything is going in the right direction for now.

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I really hope that citizens will understand that their participation is the essence of the life of our cities and in the era of new technology that becomes easier than ever before. Discouraged by political tricks, populist decisions during campaigns and subconscious thinking that every debate or meeting is organized because “somebody wants something from us.” I hope we will all understand how participation in city life is not important for officials or politicians, but just for us — residents. You could say that the modern city thrives when creative and creative people give it a boost. However, it is necessary to exploit the potential of citizens and by all means raise the level of civic participation. Thanks to CivilHub the city as a social contract will improve communication on the residents-government-organizations plane. Thanks to this, each citizen’s idea will be more real and easier to implement than ever before.

More information about CivilHub Foundation:
https://civilhub.org/brief/

Contact with the author:

tomasz@civilhub.org