We need smarter cities, not “smart cities”

Article by Riad Meddebarchive and Calum Handforth: “This more expansive concept of what a smart city is encompasses a wide range of urban innovations. Singapore, which is exploring high-tech approaches such as drone deliveries and virtual-reality modeling, is one type of smart city. Curitiba, Brazil—a pioneer of the bus rapid transit system—is another. Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, with its passively cooled shopping center designed in 1996, is a smart city, as are the “sponge cities” across China that use nature-based solutions to manage rainfall and floodwater.

Where technology can play a role, it must be applied thoughtfully and holistically—taking into account the needs, realities, and aspirations of city residents. Guatemala City, in collaboration with our country office team at the UN Development Programme, is using this approach to improve how city infrastructure—including parks and lighting—is managed. The city is standardizing materials and designs to reduce costs and labor,  and streamlining approval and allocation processes to increase the speed and quality of repairs and maintenance. Everything is driven by the needs of its citizens. Elsewhere in Latin America, cities are going beyond quantitative variables to take into account well-being and other nuanced outcomes. 

In her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs, the pioneering American urbanist, discussed the importance of sidewalks. In the context of the city, they are conduits for adventure, social interaction, and unexpected encounters—what Jacobs termed the “sidewalk ballet.” Just as literal sidewalks are crucial to the urban experience, so is the larger idea of connection between elements.

Truly smart cities recognize the ambiguity of lives and livelihoods, and they are driven by outcomes beyond the implementation of “solutions.”

However, too often we see “smart cities” focus on discrete deployments of technology rather than this connective tissue. We end up with cities defined by “use cases” or “platforms.” Practically speaking, the vision of a tech-centric city is conceptually, financially, and logistically out of reach for many places. This can lead officials and innovators to dismiss the city’s real and substantial potential to reduce poverty while enhancing inclusion and sustainability.

In our work at the UN Development Programme, we focus on the interplay between different components of a truly smart city—the community, the local government, and the private sector. We also explore the different assets made available by this broader definition: high-tech innovations, yes, but also low-cost, low-tech innovations and nature-based solutions. Big data, but also the qualitative, richer detail behind the data points. The connections and “sidewalks”—not just the use cases or pilot programs. We see our work as an attempt to start redefining smart cities and increasing the size, scope, and usefulness of our urban development tool kit…(More)”.

From the smart city to urban justice in a digital age

Paper by Marit Rosol & Gwendolyn Blue: “The smart city is the most emblematic contemporary expression of the fusion of urbanism and digital technologies. Critical urban scholars are now increasingly likely to highlight the injustices that are created and exacerbated by emerging smart city initiatives and to diagnose the way that these projects remake urban space and urban policy in unjust ways. Despite this, there has not yet been a comprehensive and systematic analysis of the concept of justice in the smart city literature. To fill this gap and strengthen the smart city critique, we draw on the tripartite approach to justice developed by philosopher Nancy Fraser, which is focused on redistribution, recognition, and representation. We use this framework to outline key themes and identify gaps in existing critiques of the smart city, and to emphasize the importance of transformational approaches to justice that take shifts in governance seriously. In reformulating and expanding the existing critiques of the smart city, we argue for shifting the discussion away from the smart city as such. Rather than searching for an alternative smart city, we argue that critical scholars should focus on broader questions of urban justice in a digital age…(More)”.

Barcelona bets on ‘digital twin’ as future of city planning

Article by Aitor Hernández-Morales: “In five years’ time, the structure of Europe’s cities won’t be decided in local town halls but inside a quiet 19th-century chapel in a leafy neighborhood of Barcelona.

Housed in the deconsecrated Torre Girona chapel, the MareNostrum supercomputer — one of the world’s most powerful data processors — is already busily analyzing how to improve city planning in Barcelona.

Barcelona is using data to track access to primary health care centers throughout the city | BSC

“We’re using the supercomputer to make sure the urban planning process isn’t just based on clever ideas and good intentions, but on data that allows us to anticipate its impacts and avoid the negative ones,” said Barcelona Deputy Mayor Laia Bonet, who is in charge of the city’s digital transition, climate goals and international partnerships.

As part of a pilot project launched with the Italian city of Bologna earlier this year, Barcelona has created a data-based replica of itself — a digital twin — where it can trial run potential city planning projects.

“Instead of implementing flawed policies and then have to go back and correct them, we’re saving time by making sure those decisions are right before we execute them,” said Bonet.

Although the scheme is still in its test phase, Bonet said she expects the city’s high-tech approach to urban development will soon be the norm in cities across the EU.

“Within a five-year horizon I expect to see this as a basic urban planning tool,” she said.

Looking for blindspots

Barcelona’s popular superilles, or “superblocks,” are a prime example of an urban scheme that could have benefited from data modelling in the planning stages, according to Bonet.

Since 2014 the city has been creating mini-neighborhoods where through-traffic and on-street parking is all but banned, with the goal of establishing a “network of green hubs and squares where pedestrians have priority.” The superblocks were also touted as a way to help tackle air pollution, which is directly responsible for over 1,000 deaths in Barcelona each year…(More)”.

Smart Cities and Smart Communities: Empowering Citizens through Intelligent Technologies

Book edited by Srikanta Patnaik, Siddhartha Sen, Sudeshna Ghosh: “Smart City” programs and strategies have become one of the most dominant urban agendas for local governments worldwide in the past two decades. The rapid urbanization rate and unprecedented growth of megacities in the 21st century triggered drastic changes in traditional ways of urban policy and planning, leading to an influx of digital technology applications for fast and efficient urban management. With the rising popularity in making our cities “smart”, several domains of urban management, urban infrastructure, and urban quality-of-life have seen increasing dependence on advanced information and communication technologies (ICTs) that optimize and control the day-to-day functioning of urban systems. Smart Cities, essentially, act as digital networks that obtain large-scale real-time data on urban systems, process them, and make decisions on how to manage them efficiently. The book presents 26 chapters, which are organized around five topics: (1) Conceptual framework for smart cities and communities; (2) Technical concepts and models for smart city and communities; (3) Civic engagement and citizen participation; (4) Case studies from the Global North; and (5) Case studies from the Global South…(More)”.

Transparency of open data ecosystems in smart cities: Definition and assessment of the maturity of transparency in 22 smart cities

Paper by Martin Lnenicka et al: “This paper focuses on the issue of the transparency maturity of open data ecosystems seen as the key for the development and maintenance of sustainable, citizen-centered, and socially resilient smart cities. This study inspects smart cities’ data portals and assesses their compliance with transparency requirements for open (government) data. The expert assessment of 34 portals representing 22 smart cities, with 36 features, allowed us to rank them and determine their level of transparency maturity according to four predefined levels of maturity – developing, defined, managed, and integrated. In addition, recommendations for identifying and improving the current maturity level and specific features have been provided. An open data ecosystem in the smart city context has been conceptualized, and its key components were determined. Our definition considers the components of the data-centric and data-driven infrastructure using the systems theory approach. We have defined five predominant types of current open data ecosystems based on prevailing data infrastructure components. The results of this study should contribute to the improvement of current data ecosystems and build sustainable, transparent, citizen-centered, and socially resilient open data-driven smart cities…(More)”.

Sustainable Smart City Transitions: Theoretical Foundations, Sociotechnical Assemblage and Governance Mechanisms

Book edited by Luca Mora, Mark Deakin, Xiaoling Zhang, Michael Batty, Martin de Jong, Paolo Santi and Francesco Paolo Appio: “This book enhances the reader’s understanding of the theoretical foundations, sociotechnical assemblage, and governance mechanisms of sustainable smart city transitions.

Drawing on empirical evidence stemming from existing smart city research, the book begins by advancing a theory of sustainable smart city transitions, which forms bridges between smart city development studies and some of the key assumptions underpinning transition management and system innovation research, human geography, spatial planning, and critical urban scholarship. This interdisciplinary theoretical formulation details how smart city transitions unfold and how they should be conceptualized and enacted in order to be assembled as sustainable developments. The proposed theory of sustainable smart city transitions is then enriched by the findings of investigations into the planning and implementation of smart city transition strategies and projects.

Focusing on different empirical settings, change dimensions, and analytical elements, the attention moves from the sociotechnical requirements of citywide transition pathways to the development of sector-specific smart city projects and technological innovations, in particular in the fields of urban mobility and urban governance.

This book represents a relevant reference work for academic and practitioner audiences, policy makers, and representative of smart city industries….(More) (Open Access)”.

Smart Cities: Mapping their Ethical Implications

Paper by Marta Ziosi, Benjamin Hewitt, Prathm Juneja, Mariarosaria Taddeo, and Luciano Floridi: “This paper provides an overview of the various definitions and labels attached to the concept of smart cities in order to identify four dimensions that ground the analysis of ethical concerns emerging from the current debate. These are: (1) network infrastructure, with the corresponding concerns of control, surveillance, and data privacy and ownership; (2) post-political governance, embodied in the tensions between public and private decision-making and cities as post-political entities; (3) social inclusion, expressed in the aspects of citizen participation and inclusion, and inequality and discrimination; and (4) sustainability, with a specific focus on the environment as an element to protect but also as a strategic component for the future. Notwithstanding the persisting disagreements around the definition of a smart city, the article uses these four dimensions to analyse both the different types and conceptions of smart cities and the multiple aspects in which smart cities reinforce old and introduce new ethical problems…(More)

Using location data responsibly in cities and local government

Article by Ben Hawes: “City and local governments increasingly recognise the power of location data to help them deliver more and better services, exactly where and when they are needed. The use of this data is going to grow, with more pressure to manage resources and emerging challenges including responding to extreme weather events and other climate impacts.

But using location data to target and manage local services comes with risks to the equitable delivery of services, privacy and accountability. To make the best use of these growing data resources, city leaders and their teams need to understand those risks and address them, and to be able to explain their uses of data to citizens.

The Locus Charter, launched earlier this year, is a set of common principles to promote responsible practice when using location data. The Charter could be very valuable to local governments, to help them navigate the challenges and realise the rewards offered by data about the places they manage….

Compared to private companies, local public bodies already have special responsibilities to ensure transparency and fairness. New sources of data can help, but can also generate new questions. Local governments have generally been able to improve services as they learned more about the people they served. Now they must manage the risks of knowing too much about people, and acting intrusively. They can also risk distorting service provision because their data about people in places is uneven or unrepresentative.

Many city and local governments fully recognise that data-driven delivery comes with risks, and are developing specific local data ethics frameworks to guide their work. Some of these, like Kansas City’s, are specifically aimed at managing data privacy. Others cover broader uses of data, like Greater Manchester’s Declaration for Intelligent and Responsible Data Practice (DTPR). DTPR is an open source communication standard that helps people understand how data is being used in public places.

London is engaging citizens on an Emerging Technology Charter, to explore new and ethically charged questions around data. Govlab supports an AI Localism repository of actions taken by local decision-makers to address the use of AI within a city or community. The EU Sherpa programme (Shaping the Ethical Dimensions of Smart Information Systems) includes a smart cities strand, and has published a case-study on the Ethics of Using Smart City AI and Big Data.

Smart city applications make it potentially possible to collect data in many ways, for many purposes, but the technologies cannot answer questions about what is appropriate. In The Smart Enough City: Putting Technology in its Place to Reclaim Our Urban Future (2019), author Ben Green describes examples when some cities have failed and others succeeded in judging what smart applications should be used.

Attention to what constitutes ethical practice with location data can give additional help to leaders making that kind of judgement….(More)”

A City Is Not a Computer: Other Urban Intelligences

Book by Shannon Mattern: “Computational models of urbanism—smart cities that use data-driven planning and algorithmic administration—promise to deliver new urban efficiencies and conveniences. Yet these models limit our understanding of what we can know about a city. A City Is Not a Computer reveals how cities encompass myriad forms of local and indigenous intelligences and knowledge institutions, arguing that these resources are a vital supplement and corrective to increasingly prevalent algorithmic models.

Shannon Mattern begins by examining the ethical and ontological implications of urban technologies and computational models, discussing how they shape and in many cases profoundly limit our engagement with cities. She looks at the methods and underlying assumptions of data-driven urbanism, and demonstrates how the “city-as-computer” metaphor, which undergirds much of today’s urban policy and design, reduces place-based knowledge to information processing. Mattern then imagines how we might sustain institutions and infrastructures that constitute more diverse, open, inclusive urban forms. She shows how the public library functions as a steward of urban intelligence, and describes the scales of upkeep needed to sustain a city’s many moving parts, from spinning hard drives to bridge repairs.

Incorporating insights from urban studies, data science, and media and information studies, A City Is Not a Computer offers a visionary new approach to urban planning and design….(More)”.

Whose Streets? Our Streets!

Report by Rebecca Williams: “The extent to which “smart city” technology is altering our sense of freedom in public spaces deserves more attention if we want a democratic future. Democracy–the rule of the people–constitutes our collective self-determination and protects us against domination and abuse. Democracy requires safe spaces, or commons, for people to organically and spontaneously convene regardless of their background or position to campaign for their causes, discuss politics, and protest. In these commons, where anyone can take a stand and be noticed is where a notion of collective good can be developed and communicated. Public spaces, like our streets, parks, and squares, have historically played a significant role in the development of democracy. We should fight to preserve the freedoms intrinsic to our public spaces because they make democracy possible.

Last summer, approximately 15 to 26 million people participated in Black Lives Matter protests after the murder of George Floyd making it the largest mass movement in U.S. history. In June, the San Diego Police Department obtained footage of Black Lives Matter protesters from “smart streetlight” cameras, sparking shock and outrage from San Diego community members. These “smart streetlights” were promoted as part of citywide efforts to become a “smart city” to help with traffic control and air quality monitoring. Despite discoverable documentation about the streetlight’s capabilities and data policies on their website, including a data-sharing agreement about how they would share data with the police, the community had no expectation that the streetlights would be surveilling protestors. After media coverage and ongoing advocacy from the Transparent and Responsible Use of Surveillance Technology San Diego (TRUSTSD) coalition, the City Council, set aside the funding for the streetlights4 until a surveillance technology ordinance was considered and the Mayor ordered the 3,000+ streetlight cameras off. Due to the way power was supplied to the cameras, they remained on, but the city reported it no longer had access to the data it collected. In November, the City Council voted unanimously in favor of a surveillance ordinance and to establish a Privacy Advisory Board.In May, it was revealed that the San Diego Police Department had previously (in 2017) held back materials to Congress’ House Committee on Oversight and Reform about their use facial recognition technology. This story, with its mission creep and mishaps, is representative of a broader set of “smart city” cautionary trends that took place in the last year. These cautionary trends call us to question if our public spaces become places where one fears punishment, how will that affect collective action and political movements?

This report is an urgent warning of where we are headed if we maintain our current trajectory of augmenting our public space with trackers of all kinds. In this report, I outline how current “smart city” technologies can watch you. I argue that all “smart city” technology trends toward corporate and state surveillance and that if we don’t stop and blunt these trends now that totalitarianism, panopticonism, discrimination, privatization, and solutionism will challenge our democratic possibilities. This report examines these harms through cautionary trends supported by examples from this last year and provides 10 calls to action for advocates, legislatures, and technology companies to prevent these harms. If we act now, we can ensure the technology in our public spaces protect and promote democracy and that we do not continue down this path of an elite few tracking the many….(More)”