Is Gamification Making Cities Smarter?

Gianluca Sgueo in Ius Publicum Network Review: Streets embedded with sensors to manage traffic congestion, public spaces monitored by high-tech command centres to detect suspicious activities, real-time and publicly accessible data on energy, transportation and waste management – in academia, there is still no generally agreed definition of ‘smart cities’. But in the collective imagination, the connotations are clear: smart cities are seen as efficient machines governed by algorithms. For decades, the combination of technology and data has been a key feature of smart urban management. Under this scheme, what branded a city as smart was the efficiency of (digital) public services. Over time, concerns have grown over this privatization of public services. Who owns the data processed by private companies? Who guarantees that data are treated ethically? How inclusive are the public services provided by increasingly privatised smart cities? 

In response to such criticism, urban management has progressively shifted the focus from the efficiency of public services to citizens’ concerns. This new approach puts inclusiveness at the centre of public services design. Citizens are actively engaged in all phases of urban management, from planning to service provision. However, the quest for inclusive urban management is confronted by four challenges. The first is dimensional, the second regulatory, the third financial, and the fourth relational.

The moment we combine these four challenges together, uncertainty arises: can a smart city be inclusive at the same time? It goes beyond the scope of this article to thoroughly delve into this question. My aim is to contribute to reflections on where the quest for inclusiveness is leading smart urban management. To this end, this article focuses on one specific form of innovative urban management: a combination of technology and fun design described as ‘gamification’.

The article reviews the use of gamification at the municipal level. After describing seven case studies of gamified urban governance, it analyses three shared traits of these initiatives, namely: the structure, the design, and the purposes. It then discusses the (potential) benefits and (actual) drawbacks of gamification in urban environments. The article concludes by assessing the contribution that gamification is making to the evolution of smart cities. It is argued that gamification offers a meaningful solution to more inclusive urban decision-making. But it is also warned about three common misconceptions in discourses on the future of smart cities. The first is the myth of inclusive technology; the second consists of the illusion of the democratic potential of games; finally, the third points at the downsides of regulatory experimentalism….(More)”.