Building better cities: The future should not just be smart, but inclusive

by | Nov 8, 2016 | Smart cit­ies

In a world where driver­less vehicles cruise by, street lights mon­it­or CO2 emis­sions and lit­ter bins broad­cast break­ing news, it’s easy to lose sight of cit­ies as places for people. Digit­ally-enabled inter­ven­tions, powered by smart sensors and big data, can deliv­er a wealth of bene­fits for cit­izens. But if these inter­ven­tions are not executed in the right way, they can end up ali­en­at­ing the very people they are try­ing to help.

Some of our most switched-on urb­an hubs are exper­i­en­cing an iden­tity crisis as we begin to ques­tion what exactly ‘smart’ is. If smart cit­ies are to remain rel­ev­ant then they must deliv­er more respons­ive exper­i­ences. When it comes to solv­ing some of our biggest urb­an­isa­tion chal­lenges – such as access­ible health­care and income equal­ity – a city is more likely to achieve suc­cess­ful out­comes if it dir­ectly engages cit­izens in that decision-mak­ing and assess­ment pro­cess.

So how do we con­nect places, spaces, people and ser­vices in more intel­li­gent ways? City plan­ners and author­it­ies tra­di­tion­ally oper­ate a silo men­tal­ity when it comes to tack­ling key issues around ser­vice pro­vi­sion. There are dif­fer­ent depart­ments for dif­fer­ent dir­ect­or­ates; health, social care, edu­ca­tion, hous­ing, trans­port, and so on. Smart cit­ies tend to build on this silo approach; the danger here is that any smart inter­ven­tions lack cross-func­tion­al­ity and remain lim­ited in their scope. This can lead to lin­ear sets of data and ana­lys­is.

Break­ing down these silos is the first step to smart cit­ies deliv­er­ing bet­ter value. Fos­ter­ing a cul­ture of open dia­logue and col­lab­or­a­tion between author­it­ies, depart­ments and key stake­hold­ers will enable a more integ­rated, city-led approach to ser­vice pro­vi­sion. The more diverse this level of lead­er­ship is, the bet­ter – and that’s where the cit­izen comes in.

Factor­ing in a range of more human dimen­sions into city think­ing is key. Ima­gine a city as a ‘cat’s cradle’ archi­tec­ture of cit­izen inter­ac­tions. Under­stand­ing the nature of those inter­ac­tions, where they inter­sect and how they inter­lock with each oth­er, is import­ant. But we also need to work out how to influ­ence those inter­ac­tions for great­er effect so they deliv­er genu­ine value.

Ask­ing the right ques­tions of any smart inter­ven­tion injec­ted into this archi­tec­ture can help us under­stand these inter­ac­tions bet­ter. Why does a res­id­ent choose to over­ride cli­mate con­trol sensors installed in their home? How can a city be car­bon-neut­ral if lack of afford­able hous­ing is for­cing com­muters to make longer jour­neys into its centre? At what point does per­son­al data gath­er­ing become too invas­ive that people opt-out? By con­sid­er­ing the human per­spect­ive, this type of learn­ing can help determ­ine wheth­er the inter­ven­tion is right (or wrong), while offer­ing a clear­er assess­ment of cost again­st impact.

Going for­ward, smart cit­ies will increas­ingly depend on the par­ti­cip­a­tion of cit­izens in order to func­tion effect­ively, and this is some­thing we recog­nise with­in Peter­bor­ough. As one of only four UK Future City demon­strat­ors, we are pion­eer­ing a more inclus­ive approach for our urb­an envir­on­ment. We believe we are ahead of the curve in a num­ber of ways.

Our Peter­bor­ough DNA Smart City pro­gram­me is demon­strat­ing the poten­tial of human inter­ac­tion with open data by mak­ing it rel­ev­ant on a num­ber of levels. One example is the 25 weather sta­tions we have installed at schools across the city which are provid­ing rich data on cli­mate and air qual­ity. The data col­lec­ted not only helps raise pupils’ aware­ness of the imme­di­ate envir­on­ment around them, but doubles up as a teach­ing resource and met­eor­o­lo­gic­al aid for stat­utory agen­cies. This effect­ively enables young people to act as intel­li­gence gath­er­ing agents, bring­ing to life the con­cept of ‘smart cit­izenry’.

Another example is our Break­through Think­ing events. These are facil­it­ated work­shops where we bring diverse groups togeth­er face-to-face to think cre­at­ively about how to solve city chal­lenges around themes like zero waste. The focus is very much on ‘real world’ issues that cit­izens are exper­i­en­cing, wheth­er it’s redu­cing house­hold pack­aging waste, or pre­vent­ing old IT equip­ment from being dumped in skips. A Brain­wave Chal­lenge Fund offers up to £20,000 to turn these pro­posed solu­tions into real­ity.

Our ambi­tion to be the UK’s first cir­cu­lar city will only deep­en this col­lab­or­at­ive approach to cit­izen involve­ment. How we integ­rate smart strategies with cir­cu­lar think­ing is a huge chal­lenge, but both are mutu­ally rein­for­cing. Like smart, cir­cu­lar solu­tions are increas­ingly enabled and con­nec­ted by the Inter­net of Things, but we must ensure these inter­ven­tions are demo­crat­ic­ally owned from the bot­tom-up, rather than imposed from the top-down. And where bet­ter to chal­lenge the status quo than with the next gen­er­a­tion? We have already asked young people to ima­gine what a cir­cu­lar Peter­bor­ough might look like through our Smart Sup­pers events.

Har­ness­ing the power of cit­izens through a vari­ety of inter­ven­tions (human-to-human, human-to-machine, machine-to-human and machine-to-machine) will enable a city to build a smarter evid­ence base for decision-mak­ing. That’s not likely to be enough how­ever. How smart cit­ies meas­ure and eval­u­ate their per­form­ance going for­ward will be crit­ic­al, given grow­ing demands around trans­par­ency and gov­ernance.

Met­rics in this field are still emer­ging, but include: PD 8101 – a set of guidelines for smart city plan­ning; the ISO 37120 indic­at­or report­ing stand­ard for city ser­vices and qual­ity of life; and the PAS 181 smart city frame­work, which Peter­bor­ough helped lead on. Peter­bor­ough has also developed its own self-assess­ment tool, a matur­ity mat­rix, which rates cur­rent pro­gress again­st stated aims. An action plan and roadmap is also being cre­ated for Peterborough’s cir­cu­lar city work in con­junc­tion with key stake­hold­ers.

Lastly, remem­ber leg­acy. Smart cit­ies must look to provide not just scal­able solu­tions, but rep­lic­able mod­els that can be rolled out across oth­er urb­an envir­on­ments, regard­less of their size. Recog­nising the beha­vi­our of the city as a whole not only involves match­ing resource out­puts (such as waste heat) to resource inputs (loc­al dis­trict heat­ing net­works), but show­ing the bene­fit to ordin­ary people (afford­able warmth). Peter­bor­ough is plan­ning to cre­ate a series of applic­able blue­prints that can be repro­duced by any city aspir­ing to be smart, per­son­al and con­nec­ted.