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Smart cities can’t exist while there’s a digital divide

At the recent Smart Cities Realised event in Liverpool, two city leaders outlined how they are putting digital inclusion at the centre of their smart city strategies.


“There is no such thing as a smart city today,” Bob Bennett, Chief Innovation Officer, City of Kansas, told delegates at the Smart Cities Realised event in Liverpool recently. “Anyone who tells you they live in a smart city is lying.”


While many cities have smart districts and some really smart systems, “until you’re able to impact every single citizen in your community, you can’t call yourself smart,” he added.


Benefiting all citizens means providing equal access to services. According to a report from the United Nations, over 52 percent of people globally still don’t have Internet access, and men outnumber women as web users in every region of the world. This is alongside big disparities in connection speeds.


As more things become connected as part of smart city drives, there is a concern that the digital divide could become wider.


At Smart Cities Realised, the cities of Kansas and Mississauga both outlined how they intend to ensure smart city benefits reach everyone.


Kansas scales smart


The first phase of Kansas’ smart city initiative, its ‘smart corridor’, launched in 2016. It includes sensors, screens, Wi-Fi, connected streetlights and traffic signals and more. However, it covers just 1% of the land mass of Kansas City and directly impacts only 15% of its citizens.


Kansas recently put out an RFP (request for proposal) for a partner or partners to expand this across the city. The selected “Program Manager” will be expected to be on board for 10-30 years and to design and build a full integrated suite of sensors, networks and data and analytics platforms.


A further issue is that 30% of citizens in Kansas City do not have” 21st century resources” such as computers and high-speed connectivity in their home, Bennett noted.


“This means we are starting the argument saying only 70% of our citizens matter if we’re going to focus our smart city exclusively on technology,” he said. “That is not something that we can condone as public officials. We have to make sure this applies to every single Kansas citizen.”


In Kansas’ RFP, the number one objective listed is: “Improve digital equity and inclusion and expand technical literacy of city residents…via improved connectivity infrastructure.”


Bennett highlighted that providing services to achieve this is also a significant business opportunity – for example, he said that Sprint, which owns and operates the network in the 54 blocks of the smart corridor and provides free Wi-Fi, is already making a profit from this small area alone, through data monetisation.


He noted too that the city of Kansas has a robust data privacy policy, including data anonymisation, which any partners must comply with.


As part of its Digital Equity Strategic Plan, published last year, Kansas is also focusing on digital skills and training, as well as connectivity, and is a participating city in the Connect Home Initiative.


A smart Mississauga for everyone


Canada’s Mississauga is also prioritising equality as the lynchpin of its smart city strategy.


Its vision statement looks to: “A future where Mississauga has solved for social and economic resilience; where everyone has equal opportunity…A smart city for everyone.”


Mississauga undertook a citizen engagement exercise to develop its application for Canada’s Smart Cities Challenge (the city wasn’t selected but is taking the work forward) and the top issues highlighted were power and inclusion/economic opportunity. Mobility was a close third.


Shawn Slack, Chief Information Officer, City of Mississauga, said: “Mobility is interesting because we’re investing lots in mobility, in management systems and connected intersections...but the citizens weren’t actually asking about that. They understand it is important but it wasn’t the most important.”


He noted that digital inclusion is key to achieving the smart city vision, commenting: “Wi-Fi is the new oxygen.” Mississauga provides free Wi-Fi in many public facilities and spaces. In 2016, the total number of hours of free City Wi-Fi used by the public would translate into 407 years’ worth of service.

Slack commented: “That’s a pretty important service to the public. For people to be successful they need to be connected.”


The Kit


Acknowledging that not everyone has access to the same digital tools, Mississauga is issuing ‘kits’ aimed at helping to bridge the digital divide in the city.


This includes providing accessible digital stations to enable mobile working; hubs with workspaces, networking and training; digital services such as free Wi-Fi; connected transport, including on-board connectivity and automated traffic management; and a data portal for access to information and services.


Slack explained: “Our plan is get these [kits] into the hands of the people that need it… people who don’t have a computer, who don’t have internet access.”


He highlighted the importance of public digital screens for bridging the digital divide. Mississauga is installing 500 screens throughout 23 communities in the city. They will be voice-first and offer multiple language choices (over 200 languages are spoken in Mississauga). The screens will include digital services, Wi-Fi hotspots and device charging stations, although they will accessible without personal digital devices.


“This is our response to the digital divide. You don’t need a device to get services here. You [just] walk up,” Slack said.


He added: “They have to be in the community not City Hall. Put these things deep into the community so at first they have the kit, now they come into the community, build confidence. They can access the same services right at the connection.”


Bob Bennett also stressed the importance of digital screens for civic engagement. “We have all become so desensitised to that device [smartphone] in our pocket,” he said.


Digital screens can help cut through this, especially for critical communications such as safety warnings.


“ Nobody can miss a seven foot tall iPhone standing in the middle of the street,” he commented.

“That’s a way for us to engage citizens. That’s how we [promote] the Get Out the Vote campaigns. That’s how tell folks where to register their pets. That’s where we tell folks how to report 311 issues. We’re able to engage citizens on that platform.”


Further, he added that 50% of the content on digital screens is managed by a commercial advertiser, which means: “I generate profit for the city which allows me to pay for the maintenance costs of all of these devices that are deployed throughout the city.”


Net neutrality: Here’s the deal


Another concern has been around the recent repeal of net neutrality.


Net neutrality rules, brought in by Obama in 2015, meant that that all traffic across the network is treated equally and carriers couldn’t charge users more to access certain content, or reserve bandwidth for corporate partners or high bidders. There are fears the reversal could exacerbate the digital divide.


Bob Bennett isn’t worried about this in Kansas.


“Here’s the deal,” he said. “If you’re a company and you want to do business in Kansas City, you will either do net neutrality principles as part of your access plan, or you will not get to sign a contract with the city of Kansas City. Period.”


Some other US cities and states have taken similar action, issuing executive orders or new laws forcing net neutrality.


Bennett said this is an example of how cities, rather than national governments, are increasingly “the source of power”.

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