Smart cities should work for everyone

Cities and technology are intrinsically linked. In fact, many modern cities are defined by how they connect, and are connected, through different forms of technology; such as sensors, augmented reality and AI informed civic open data platforms. This has prompted researchers, industry and governments to collaborate and further advance the role of technology in both how a city operates and people interact with it, and how this shapes a ‘smart city’.

Developing smart cities can certainly be of benefit to urban communities, however, the creation of a smart city often comes from a viewpoint that urbanism is a problem for technology to solve, and excludes the very people, communities and place it is trying to help. Evidence from previous projects shows that they can lead to the exacerbation of existing historical, material, and social inequalities, emphasising the importance of addressing the politics and power networks underlying smart cities. The key is to establish how marginalised or excluded groups may benefit – or not – in these initiatives.

Research studies have found that providing technical infrastructure is not enough to ensure those benefits are evenly distributed, since the spread of access and use is geographically uneven and many people remain digitally excluded. Those excluded can be limited or unable to participate fully in society, particularly when place and space are not factored into large-scale digital projects. These ‘not-spots’ and ‘digital deserts’ are usually found in remote corners of rural Britain, but central city locations are also affected because of the length of copper lines, the street layout or the height of buildings. Even in the heart of London, there are numerous areas that have very low or no broadband access or mobile connectivity. New city technologies need to serve and work for the communities first in terms of their design, deployment and in setting local civic and infrastructural priorities.

The communities themselves should decide on the problems they wish to solve, led by their own local concerns and interests, and with more informal modes of social organisation. This may include initiatives such as living labs, car-sharing, community currencies, hackerspaces, time-banks, tool libraries, and include how their city itself is designed, integrated with technology and lived in, establishing digital places in streets, squares, libraries and parks.

In Plymouth, we are trialling how technology can connect us with parks and greenspaces, working as part of a city-wide partnership, aiming to create a new model of governance for urban green and blue spaces in the city. The community takes ownership of a green space through a digital toolkit of innovative and playful technologies, such as Internet of Things (IoT), Augmented Reality (AR) and an open source participatory data platform. The toolkits and open data platform treats natural inhabitants – the wildlife, trees, marine and river habitats – as equal participants in the project. A living data lab in Plymouth’s Central Park, uses a series of low-cost, low-power sensors capture environmental and pollinator data and reveal this hidden nature and enable local people to engage with the park in new ways. Bringing the data alive to people in creative ways will help us understand and adapt the way we care for, use and manage our urban natural spaces in ways that benefit people and wildlife.

This shows how we can move beyond smart cities which are defined solely by economic or software parameters to thinking about smart communities and places. We can employ technologies to enhance and deepen the relationship between people and physical places, that can help us move towards creating a more inclusive, diverse and sustainable urban environment.


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