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Smart cities: But is it art?

More examples of involving citizens in smart city initiatives are finally emerging but we need to seriously scale them and get much more specific, and fast.


While almost all cities now talk about the importance of putting citizens at the centre of smart city initiatives, clear examples demonstrating what this looks like in practice have typically been hard to come by.

Interesting new examples are emerging but we’re far from there yet.

Crunchy questions

At the CityVerve Marketplace event last week, which reported on the smart city demonstrator’s progress over two years, it was refreshing to hear about the approaches the Manchester-based project has taken to involve, inform and entertain its citizens with the technology being implemented.

Art was a key tactic used to engage people with the initiative. Drew Hemment, CEO, FutureEverything, which led on this work, advised cities to bring artists into smart city plans because: “They are often technologists themselves, and many of them are interested in those really tough, crunchy questions around ethics and the social dimensions of technology.”

The every thing every time artwork, for example, turns the platform of platforms approach (connecting everything and harnessing its data) into a work of art. It takes data generated around the city, turns it into meaningful sentences, and then presents them as seemingly random lines of poetry that people encounter through screens installed around the streets.

Hemment commented: “The aim was to do more than just simply delight; it was to lead people to ask questions about data systems,” such as what is true, where information comes from and how we feed into it.

While these initiatives are an interesting way to facilitate essential debates about hot topics such as data ownership and its positive and negative uses, they could also be too abstract to give citizens an awareness of, and therefore a say in, the specific initiatives that are being implemented in their city.

Make some noise

In Toronto, Sidewalk Labs, one of the most hotly debated smart city projects in the world, is arguably doing much more than some to encourage people to connect with the work it is doing, including public meetings. However, many are concerned this is still not enough – not for a company pledging to “reimagine cities from the Internet up”.

Sidewalk Labs is opening its 307 office building to the public every weekend during the summer, with planned public talks, urban development prototype demonstrations, and more. Examples on show will include a modular pavement and lights that can be programmed to give more street space to pedestrians, more of the time; a programme testing how Bluetooth beacons for the blind and visually impaired can help visitors navigate spaces; and a new data-driven approach to urban planning known as ‘generative design’.

Lauren Skelly, a Sidewalk Labs spokesperson, told the Financial Post: “The conversations that are happening around us are great, and, you know, the truth is we don’t necessarily have all the answers yet, because what we are proposing has not been done before.”

However, Bianca Wylie, co-founder of advocacy group Tech Reset Canada, noted that what’s needed are more specifics.

“How do you have a consultation when people aren’t even informed?” she told the Financial Post. “What we need to understand is: What is this deal? And that’s where any social licence can be attained. All this other stuff is noise.”

Space for dissent

CityVerve also held deeper-dive workshops with citizens, which started out as being loosely about smart cities and IoT, then became more focused on specific use cases and technologies, and Hemment stressed the importance of creating a genuine space for “discordant” voices, which is refreshing to hear too.

However, when asked at what scale the outreach work had connected with citizens – whether the average person on the Manchester streets would likely be aware of the specifics of the smart city initiative, Hemment said that the workshops reached hundreds (10/20 people at a time), while lighter touch engagement such as the artworks reached thousands.

The work reached more people than many initiatives elsewhere (by its very existence) but, Hemment said: “It still wasn’t as many as we would’ve liked.”

Scaling it



McKinsey’s recent Smart Cities: Digital solutions for a more livable future report, a snapshot of deployment in 50 cities around the world, concluded that: "Wealthier urban areas are generally transforming faster, although many have low public awareness and usage of the applications they have implemented."

While we are seeing pockets of promising work (and McKinsey highlights Asian cities as the strongest performers in awareness, usage, and satisfaction, with European cities lagging behind), we need to ensure all citizens have a chance to understand what is happening and have their say.

At the Smart Cities Realised event in Liverpool recently, during a discussion on 21st Century Cities, the panel were asked: Where are we really at with informing citizens about the work that’s happening in their cities and truly co-creating with them?

Juergen Maier, Chief Executive Officer, Siemens, UK, said: “I can think of lots of examples, but at scale? That’s not really happening. There are lots of smaller projects where people are being engaged but to scale that up and really make the community part of it, we need to [do more] work.

“A key part of that is to create a stronger vision of what we are trying to achieve. If we can explain why we’re doing this, why this is exciting, why it creates wealth, prosperity, better air quality, people will be more keen to get involved.”

We’re all ears - bring it on.