The ‘Smart City’ is as much a political challenge as it is a technology challenge

Written by Rob Miller, Director of ICT, London Borough of Hackney

I’ve read a few pieces covering the Sidewalk Toronto initiative, which raises interesting issues about the way that authorities should engage with and try to shape ‘Smart City’ developments. I saw a link to a draft research paper yesterday which looks at the relationship between Sidewalk Labs and the City of Toronto and I thought it was an interesting read which prompted a few thoughts that I’ve put together in this blog post (although I don’t claim to know enough about the Toronto project to make any specific comments on that). The original is here and this version has my scribbled notes on the sections that I thought were especially noteworthy.

I’ve found myself in some fairly depressing conversations about ‘Smart Cities’ over the years. Some of those have involved bold statements about the importance of becoming a Smart City but with scant detail about what that actually meant or why it would be a good thing. Others have been alarmist declarations of the end of days whenever a new form of technology is proposed. (For the avoidance of doubt, none of those have been with my current employer!)

And whenever there’s a new trend in town there are also a healthy number of sales people offering all manner of different flavours of snake oil. AI, robots and ‘smart’ this and that clutter up my mailbox on a daily basis and are one of the reasons I’m pretty selective about which conferences and events I make time to attend.

But underneath it all there is some important stuff that we need to get to grips with. As the technology becomes ever more sophisticated, we need to find ways to make sure that we communicate the issues in ways that help our colleagues and political leaders understand why these need their attention and the levers that they have at their disposal to influence how things evolve. There might actually be some parallels with the ways that technology has changed the nature of public discourse through social media, and this could help underline why it’s so important that we are actively thinking about how technology and powerful uses of data will impact on our civic spaces and society.

I feel some way from having a formed view on what the answers are, but here are a few of the things that I’m trying to think through as I work to make sense of the ‘Smart City’.

The way the ‘Smart City’ evolves will have a big impact on where power lies in society

In a civic realm where huge volumes of data are collected and used to direct services and people, whoever has control of the way that the data is used will have enormous influence over people’s lives. Combined with increasingly complex technology it will become dramatically harder for authorities to apply regulation to manage the effects of this.

This might be comparable to regulation of news coverage where historically rules could be applied to the media with some prospect of them being (at least partly) effective. The personalisation of news feeds and distribution through massively complex global social media networks has blown this apart and governments around the world are grappling with the difficulty of responding to that. In a ‘Smart City’ where decisions are being made in real time based on data gathered from large numbers of sensors, how will democratic decision making keep up?

There are big questions we need to be asking about the implications for ‘Smart City’ developments, including:

  • What impact will these have on accountability?
  • Who are the winners and losers likely to be?
  • Is that compatible with our values?
  • And what we should be doing to influence the outcomes for society as a whole?

We also need to understand the relative power of the platform vs the apps which grow on the platform and the implications for the wider economy and opportunities for growth

I first became aware of Facebook when family members were trying to encourage me to sign up to join them in playing Farmville (I resisted the temptation, although I did join Facebook later on but have pretty much given up on it now). A fairly innocuous game that had been built on top of Facebook’s platform became an important driver in the huge growth of Facebook membership, powering their development into the behemoth we see today. Farmville, however, is pretty much a distant memory for most.

In a ‘Smart City’ context I think that the underlying platform of data sources and connections to that data is far and away the most important aspect from a societal perspective. It’s at this level that technical and political decisions will come together to determine what constraints of privacy will be acceptable, and the ability to turn data feeds off and on will also give huge influence over the sorts of economic growth that can happen through the development of ‘apps’ (software, businesses and communities) built on top of that.

How would we feel if a private provider can turn off access to other companies who are providing useful services that citizens have come to rely on? And what are the risks that data gathered through smart sensors will be used for new purposes which aren’t compatible with our original intentions? We need to be clear about who will control ‘Smart City’ platforms and how society can influence their development.

Our goal should be to find a way to balance democratic accountability with innovation and growth. But there are also real risks of excessive government control or monopoly privatisation that will be tricky to navigate, especially given the complexity of the technologies involved.

Trust and transparency will be fundamental

It can be tricky ‘working in the open’ when issues are contentious and spark strong views. And given the commercial opportunities from investing in ‘Smart City’ technology I don’t find it very surprising that the Sidewalk Toronto work hasn’t been entirely transparent. But it’s also evident that this has had an effect in terms of the trust (or lack of it) that people have in the project.

Given the issues that this sort of initiative raises, I think there’s a real need to design in transparency and make the space for engagement and debate. But that doesn’t mean that it will always be an easy discussion to have, especially given the big differences in position between technology evangelists and people who are nervous about excessive surveillance and control of civic space. So this is where we need to help political leaders get a strong handle on the issues involved so that they can work with the citizens they represent to develop a vision for the type of future place they want and consider how ‘Smart City’ developments can help contribute towards that.

This is a big change in the nature of digital leadership. From a focus on technology choices, efficiency, costs and channel shift, to a much more profound focus on how society works and who it works for.

Being ‘leading’ is not a thing if we don’t know where we’re going

Given the amount of hype surrounding ‘Smart City’ opportunities at the moment, it’s not surprising that there’s a desire to be seen to be at the leading edge and not be left behind. But sifting through the sales pitches and exciting proposals to find the ones that will matter most, and most importantly the ones which will be most valuable in learning about the right way forward, requires careful thought.

How do we avoid ‘analysis paralysis’, where caution about emerging technology becomes a barrier to any progress, while also making sure that we don’t create costly mistakes that we live to regret in future?

This is definitely the realm of the uncertain where Agile approaches can help us to explore new ideas in a controlled way so that we also mitigate risks.

Nothing in life is free and we need to understand the value of the cards we hold

The rapid development of technology makes it a high risk for public sector investment, especially in times of austerity. Big technology companies have deep pockets, deep expertise and are highly incentivised to invest in research and development for future products. But when that product is a city we need to be clear that their motives might not be totally altruistic…

We are not powerless in this. The foundation of the ‘Smart City’ will be access to gather and use lots and lots of data. As a society we can choose what we make possible, the constraints we put on how data is used and the degree to which we can influence future development. It’s vital that we (civic society) don’t give up control of the gathering and access to data without understanding the consequences. Even if there’s a shiny ‘free’ pilot project being offered to tempt us.

We also need to understand how to guard against a slippery slope. Providing the minimum access to data to accomplish a goal can reduce the risk of future developments going unchecked. You can see this in the scandals that have engulfed Facebook where legitimate developer access to gather data was exploited for purposes that were very different from what was originally intended.

Society might well depend on some friction in the process to guard against negative outcomes

A final thought from the paper was that a completely frictionless world might not actually be a good thing. A key feature of civic society is compromise and trade offs between individuals, and a seamlessly efficient city driven by data and consumer demand without any checks and balances could well result in unintended consequences that we would want to avoid.

Is it good for our city if the popularity of certain services made possible through ‘Smart’ developments means that other services that people still rely on become uneconomically viable?

This further underlines the importance of making sure that the way that ‘Smart City’ developments evolve isn’t simply a technocratic exercise in software, hardware and data.


Originally posted here.

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