Crowd-sourcing, connectivity and citizen empowerment: the future of our cities

What is a smart city, and how do you go about creating one? As part of The Drum’s Day Before Tomorrow documentary series which focuses on the technology that’s changing the world today, Ishbel Macleod takes a look at some of the themes explored in the third instalment, Smart Cities, and how empowering people can help create a better place for us all to live.

Everybody wants their city to be better: from less dog poo in the streets and improved city transportation to a better economy. But how is a smarter city born?

There is no absolute definition of a smart city, according to a UK government report on the subject published in 2013 by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. The report said rather it was a series of steps “by which cities become more ‘liveable’ and resilient and, hence, able to respond quicker to new challenges”.

At the heart of a smart city are information and communication technologies, which allow those living in the city to adapt and innovate to changing circumstances.

But a city will only earn the ‘smart’ label if its inhabitants embrace these new approaches – which usually means fundamentally changing their behaviour. So rather than technology offering a sticking plaster over some of the biggest gripes people have with their urban spaces, it offers solutions that citizens then need to embrace in order to facilitate real change.

Katz Kiely, director of strategy consulting at Cognifide and a strategic consultant at Loops Labs – which aims to help cities become more sustainable – believes that using the technology people already use in their everyday lives can ultimately contribute to their city working smarter.

“In smart cities, the agenda is usually talked about in this very top down, massive, technical infrastructure way. And then those technical infrastructures don’t always work to their best capacity when pesky people get involved.”

She suggests that the potential for change is already there – it’s how we integrate the technology that matters. “That’s what a real connected city is to me – it’s using the devices that people already have to motivate them to be the best they can be within the city.

“Cities are all about people and the connectivity between people, and that’s not about technology, that’s about motivation.”

One project, by University College London, saw the university look to find out whether sharing people’s personal data around their behaviour would lead them to change their habits. The inhabitants of a street in Brighton signed up to the project, which looked to decrease the amount of energy used.

“Every night the people received a text to say go and check how much electricity you’ve used that day,” explains Kiely. “So they’d send the data of how much electricity they’d used back to headquarters, headquarters would then turn that data into an infographic, and then the infographic would be drawn by a chalk artist down the road, street size, so that as people came out the first thing they saw how they were doing compared to other people.”

Adding this component of gamification and what Kiely described as the “keeping up with the Joneses” element saw energy usage drop 16 per cent in a month.

Rick Robinson, executive architect of smarter cities at IBM, approaches smart cities in the order of “life, then place, then technology”. Robinson says thinking technology first is unlikely to create lasting change.

“Think about the people’s lives in a city, think about the other characteristics of the place where those lives are carried out, and then think about the technology that might make those lives better. If we think technology first we can come up with all sorts of grand schemes, but they’re unlikely to really benefit the people in cities who are the most important.”

Nudge techniques such as the Tidy Street initiative are encouraging people to make better choices, and other examples of this type of behavioural economics can be found in initiatives encouraging more walking or cycling as an alternative to driving.

Kiely notes that her work with communities in Brixton for Loop Labs saw the creation of an app called BadgerScape to try to get people to walk more and drive less, therefore making people and cities healthier. The app, which is very similar to Candy Crush, allows children to gain ‘currency’ to buy extra lives every time an adult, such as a parent or guardian, walks 500 steps.

But it’s not just cities where an idea like this can work. The island of Guernsey has set itself a mission to become the best place in the world to live by 2020.

For Marc Winn, one of the founders of the mission which goes by name the Dandelion Project, the aim is to bring the community together in order to create a better place to live in, with each islander offering something to the community.

He compares the plan to that of the Apollo space programme. “In the 60s they said, ‘we’ll try and out a man on the moon’, and they achieved that in eight years. The really interesting thing about that is it created ‘mass-alignment’ of a whole country.

The whole country believed it was possible, and therefore all the details that people would normally argue and squabble over disappeared, and you saw an explosion of innovation to actually achieve a big mission.”

Winn suggests it is down to crowd-sourcing and people coming together by themselves. Again it’s about empowering citizens to create change amongst themselves.

“Everybody asks us what projects are we doing, and it’s really not about what projects this core team of people are doing. Actually all we do is give people permission. Everybody deep inside them knows what they want to do to improve where they live, but for some reason they’re waiting, and really, the truth is, you don’t need to wait.

So what are we waiting for? Either way, the future is in our hands, and changes in our behaviour can make or break the future of our cities.

The Drum’s six-part documentary series The Day Before Tomorrow, produced in association with SapientNitro, explores digital disruption across six sectors. The documentaries are available to view on The Drum’s YouTube channel. You can watch the Smart Cities film below.

Ishbel Macleod

All by Ishbel