The Smart City revolution: Looking Back to Understand Where We Stand.
Over two centuries ago, what would come to be known as the industrial revolution slowly began to change the way in which we lived and worked. Changes were small at first, but with improvements to the steam engine, steam power spearheaded the revolution to new heights. Similarly, the digital revolution, which has its beginnings back in the 2nd world war, steadily gained traction until the internet, like the steam machine, kickstarted a revolution that continues unabated today.
As with the industrial revolution, the digital revolution has not been without issue. Back then, as industry took over, towns became cities and the influx of rural migrants, moving into the cities to work in the factories, brought new challenges to the urban landscape that needed to be managed. Labor unions sprung up to ensure that workers were given proper conditions, treatment in the workplace, and safe, healthy housing, provided by the factories in which they were employed.
Gradually, this eventually led to the emergence of a number of organizations entrusted to maintain a well functioning city. More than a century later, these entities roughly consisted of; one to draft legislation (laws), another to enforce penalties if they were not correctly implemented (labor inspections), another to report violations of these legislations and advocate for their improvement and enforcement (labor unions).
Society Goes Online.
We’ve seen a similar transition at the end of the nineties as people shifted their social, commercial and recreational activities from the physical, to the online world, at least in part. With this shift, corporations and governments have tried, to varying degrees, to control the internet and users’ activities. There are now some legislations and guidelines from governmental organizations that attempt to create order, regulation and acceptable practices in this new online reality.
Merging the Physical and Digital World.
The internet has expanded beyond the devices, like laptops, smartphones and tablets, that we have become accustomed to as the only gateways of access to the online world. Smart technology is connecting the everyday objects that surround us, extending the reach of our digital lives. These objects encompass not only our accessories, homes and transportation, but permeate into the city and infrastructure around us to create the Smart City.
The idea of the Smart City is to provide new services, or improve the efficiency, quality, and cost of existing services within a city by connecting them to an electronic infrastructure. This often leads to more automated processes within a city, or the ability to provide better insights to act upon.
The Smart City finds itself in an early stage of development. Though digitizing elements of the city is nothing new, and sensors have, for many years now, been implemented in various systems, it has largely remained at a level of infrastructure, for example, monitoring traffic. While we have become incredibly efficient at managing these resources and infrastructure, and make full use of the internet to monitor, plan and drive progress forward, there’s still much that can be done.
The New World.
This need for efficiency has been behind the drive to create a better city. There is currently a pursuit of technologies that can connect and merge seemingly disparate elements together, producing a symbiotic system and easing the burden of complexity by automating processes.
In several cities, there are any number of experiments in place attempting to achieve just that. These experiments focus on areas such as; crowd control, noise pollution, and waste management to name a few. Great steps are being made toward a safer, cleaner and more efficient city.
However, it’s something of an invisible revolution.
Citizens of these cities are not always aware of these experiments taking place. At best, they’re actively informed by the local municipality that an experiment will be taking place in their area. At worst, they’re unwitting participants, moving pieces none the wiser to the machine they’re helping to power.
Fueling the Smart City Revolution.
During the industrial revolution, progress came off the backs of the people working in the factories. It took a century to create a more balanced relationship between employer and employee.
The Smart City revolution now is fueled by its citizens. Not personally, but rather by a particular commodity of great value which they passively generate; their data. The municipalities and organizations that initiate these projects, rely on the information collected to quantify the results of the projects. Residents however, are not always, or ill-informed about the type of data which is being collected from them, what it will be used for, and who has ownership over the information. Besides that, the collection of the data also happens invisibly or goes unnoticed.
Though the Facebook / Cambridge Analytica scandal has made us all more aware of how our data can be mismanaged and misused, it’s easy to forget we’re just as vulnerable in the offline world.
What’s needed for the Smart City to move forward to the next phase, is transparency and improved, more balanced governance. With regards to the projects themselves, people need to be clearly informed of the added value, what, and how they contribute — especially with regards to the areas in which they reside — and transparency into the measures taken to protect their privacy, into communicating the results of such projects, and what the consequences will be.
The apparent invisible revolution needs to made tangible, and understandable for citizens for them to relate, and response to it. Steps need to be taken to ensure that the Smart City does not produce tools that will give power to the wrong parties for them to abuse. Now is the time fo policy makers to ensure that measures are in place to be certain of a clear, and meaningful trajectory for its development.
The Need for New Governance.
As with the industrial revolution, several regulatory entities are needed to propose a set of rules that respect all equally, and detail common, decent behavior, that ensure everyone acts accordingly, and administer disciplinary action on the deviants. The form, role and activities of these entities is still unclear and rudimentary.
We need to obtain the optimum balance between these entities sooner rather than later; but, let’s not take a century as with the industrial revolution. This of course will take time, energy and effort from all fronts to reach a consensus of what exactly that balance should be. We have an obligation to use our ‘smart’ thinking to swiftly organize, and balance this new governing infrastructure.
To achieve a common culture and attitude that everyone can agree upon, each and every one of us needs to adopt a set of norms that will become common sense, and are perceived as ‘normal’ behavior. Just as with the factories of today, everyone has common understanding of what ‘normal’ working conditions are, as opposed to the horrendous, 18 hour work days of centuries past.
Igniting New Thinking
What can the creative community contribute? As advocates for a user first approach, designers can collaborate to create the tools needed to clearly communicate the presence, purpose and outcomes of such Smart City projects in an easy to understand way. Tangible solutions that everyone can use, simply and effectively.
Designers have the ability to listen, and use their analytical and creative minds to propose new ways that allow citizens and others to participate in, and influence the fate of their city.
They can think of the ways to have a more balanced relationship between all stakeholders. Designers can imagine the consequences of certain developments from many perspectives, pointing out the opportunities and pitfalls, and preventing undesired outcomes.
More importantly, how can they be galvanized to contribute to the betterment of their city? Let’s include the design community as part of this revolution, and enable designers to discover solutions with which we can create a more informed, controlled and balanced relationship with the Smart City.