Avoiding blunders, splintering and exclusion in smart cities

Any social or cultural disconnect can have serious consequences for city planning

The Future Cities Catapult are hosting an interesting breakfast briefing next week on ‘inadvertent exclusion’ in smart cities. Here’s the pitch:

As more and more smart technologies are incorporated into the fabric of our cities, it has become increasingly pressing to ensure that those technologies reach the audiences they are intended to reach.

This presentation introduces the concept of ‘inadvertent exclusion’, where potential users or consumers of smart city technologies are found not to engage with the possibilities that those smart initiatives can offer. It is argued that this may be the result of a misunderstanding of the importance of social difference in the way that cities work.

The research is based on the ESRC-funded project Smart Cities in the Making: Learning from Milton Keynes. The project asks how people in a smart city engage with smart technologies, and what difference the smart city makes.

These are important questions. They also remind me of two related pieces of work. The first is the notion of ‘splintering urbanism’, whereby urban infrastructure can drive social and spatial inequality. The book is full of examples of both deliberate and inadvertent boundaries:

In Baltimore… [urban geographer] David Harvey notes the paradox that, whilst African American women cross these boundaries daily to clean some of the world’s most famous hospitals (for example Johns Hopkins), they are unable to access health services when they are ill because of a lack of health insurance. Meanwhile “life expectancy in the immediate environs of these internationally renowned hospital facilities is among the lowest in the nation and comparable to many of the poorer countries of the world”.

The second is the 2013 book, The Blunders of our Governments. If you don’t have time to read the book, this review in the Guardian is helpful. It’s worth quoting in full this explanation of how many blunders arise from a disconnect born from ignorance or social and cultural divides:

The causes of the blunders were numerous. In many cases, ministers and their senior officials were simply ignorant – King and Crewe politely call it “cultural disconnect” – of how large sections of the population lived from day to day. The Tories had no inkling that, if sent a poll tax bill of several hundred pounds, some families, and particularly elderly couples, would not be able to pay. “Well, they could always sell a picture,” suggested Nicholas Ridley, the then environment secretary and the son of a viscount, apparently in all seriousness.

But Labour has become almost equally disconnected from real life, with its frontbenchers and advisers increasingly drawn from a cohort that went from school to university (usually Oxbridge) to Westminster thinktank without ever working in a retail store, a hamburger joint or a benefit office. Its tax credits scheme involved paying out weekly or monthly a sum that was determined annually.

Millions of people short of money, many of whom had never previously completed a tax return, had to fill out complex forms about their previous year’s earnings, estimate earnings for the following year and notify the authorities each time their circumstances changed. The scheme, as the head of the Inland Revenue admitted, went “spectacularly wrong”.

This month I begin a tour looking at the role of universities in smart cities in eight European countries, for an exciting research project commissioned by the British Council. One question I’ll be trying to answer is how universities may be able to help prevent blunders, exclusion and splintering in the development of smart cities. If you’re working on smart cities, please get in touch!

(Photo credit)

University campuses can be a testbed for smart cities

By seeing campuses as ‘cities in microcosm’ the development of smart infrastructure can lead to closer working between universities and local leaders

India wants 100 of them. China had 193 pilots of these running in 2013. At the moment they are largely conceptual, little known by the average person on the street, mostly ‘captured’ by commercial interests, and, as I’ve written about before, we are still some way from realising their transformative potential. But smart city initiatives will be an important part of future city development.

Universities can help shift smart cities from being merely a good idea to providing everyday benefit to citizens. They can do this through smart campuses – developing the principles of smart cities on a limited geographic area, testing new infrastructure and implementing lessons learned, drawing in students and researchers, and then working with city officials to roll these out more widely.

The University of Glasgow is expanding its campus by 25% over ten years. The university is working with the Future Cities Catapult on a project to ‘develop a strategy for a Smart Campus that will take into account changes in technology and learning whilst also protecting their heritage (both cultural and physical) and realising cost savings’. The Catapult has developed a definition of the smart campus that supports the university’s new strategy:

The Smart Campus actively learns from and adapts to the needs of its people and place, unlocking the potential of e technology and enabling world-changing learning and research.

Other universities have been working on smart campus projects. The University of Nottingham plans to develop a smart campus that is ‘efficient, safe, sustainable, responsive and enjoyable place to live and work, underpinned and enhanced by digital / internet based technologies’. They see the campus as ‘an ideal vehicle’ for researching, developing and evaluating a ‘diversity’ of smart city concepts, especially as the university is multi-site and encircles a major hospital. The project has attracted the interest of Nottingham City Council.

A case study of the University of Lille presented to the World Bank in 2014 applies elements of smart cities – smart sensors, smart data analysis – to a university campus based in a city. The angle of this presentation seems to suggest the campus could act as a city in microcosm and thus be a good test case for wider implementation, for example managing water, energy and transport on campus. There would also be other benefits to embedding ‘smart’ on a campus: immediate access to expertise and researchers, reinforcing partnerships with local government and with the private sector, and capturing learning in new education programmes that could be delivered to students alongside implementation on campus. Developing a smart campus is arguably easier than developing smart city, with most of the campus falling under the ownership of one institution. In essence, the presentation concludes, the smart campus could ‘promote the concept of smart city to the city’.

Vegas

Lessons

It’s important to prepare students and staff (the campus equivalent of a city’s residents) for smart campuses. After analysing the experiences of smart cities around the world, Nesta have found that many ‘top down’ smart city ideas have failed to deliver on their promise, and that smart city planners need to take human behaviour as seriously as technology, and to invest in smart people, as well as smart technology.

By blurring the public realm and the university estate, city residents can become involved in the development of smart cities

Local government and city leaders may be keen to test the concept of a smart city by supporting the development of a smart campus. By seeing campuses as ‘cities in microcosm’ the development of smart infrastructure can lead to closer working between universities and local leaders. And by softening the edges between a campus and a city, by opening up campuses as public spaces, providing community services and cultural events, by blurring the public realm and the university estate, other city residents can become involved in the development of smart cities.

At the same time, universities can learn from the experience of smart cities. For example, whilst technology is an important component that underpins smart cities and campuses, they need to be developed with people at their core.

Universities are ideally placed to both apply the lessons from smart cities in the development of smart campuses, and to ‘test’ smart infrastructure that can be rolled out to smart cities.

How universities can help ‘smart cities’ become transformative (and why leapfrogging is difficult)

Cities are constantly in states of flow, and can easily be locked into patterns of behaviour that over time can have serious consequences

We are some way from realising the transformative effects of smart cities,1 and further still from these effects benefiting the poorest in society. I have a couple of thoughts on their potential:

  1. Can smart cities be to cities what smartphones are to ‘dumb’ phones? A button (non-smart) phone today seems closed and antiquated compared to the limitless panoply of apps and the functionality of touchscreen phones. Or will the ‘wide experiential gulf’ between the top-end smartphones and generic low-end smartphone handsets be replicated in tomorrow’s smart cities? I suspect there will be wide variations in effective implementation, and I suspect the impact will be far less dramatic and sudden than the shift from ‘dumb’ to smart phones. Cities have been developing for thousands of years and smart infrastructure needs to be embedded and layered upon existing foundations. But a transformative, positive wave of impact is possible.
  2. Can this wave of possible impact enable some cities to ‘leapfrog’ their development? Comparing cities again to phones, think of a country with limited phone networks skipping the installation of telegraph poles and landlines and instead building a fast mobile network. Kenya, for example, has excellent mobile phone reception in remote areas but limited landlines. So could a smart city allow urban areas with poor healthcare, high crime, limited access to, for example, banks and bus routes, and areas of general deprivation to leapfrog some of the traditional, slower means of development? Unfortunately, smart cities are no shortcut, and mobile phones are an unusually effective leapfrogger. Instead, you usually need to have gone ‘medium tech’ before you can go ‘high tech’.

So what is needed? Cities will need to be both adaptable and smart. Underpinning both is social capital. The World Economic Forum has developed a four part taxonomy of city competitiveness, with ‘soft connectivity’, a city’s social capital, a critical factor. Education is the ‘ultimate soft connectivity’, and cities can specialise in knowledge intensive niches by capitalising on education. Education and soft connectivity make investments in hard infrastructure and new technology more productive.

Cities are constantly in states of flow, and can easily be locked into patterns of behaviour that over time can have serious consequences. A city with a highly skilled workforce, with access to continuous education and training opportunities, is also a highly adaptive one.

An adaptive city is a resilient city. Work by Nesta has shown that 87 percent of highly creative workers are at low or no risk of automation compared with 40 percent of jobs in the UK as a whole. You can complete an online survey to determine whether your job is at risk of being taken by a robot. Whilst automation is likely to solve many more problems than it creates, a successful city in future years will adapt to these changes, attracting creative industries and highly skilled jobs.

The objectives of ‘smart’ and ‘adaptable’ cities are mutually reinforcing, with a smart city a more responsive one, and an adaptable city more likely to benefit from the insights delivered through data and technology. Universities play an important role in developing and testing new technologies, curating and understanding data (and the infrastructure behind it), and conceptualising and operationalising the ‘Internet of Things’ – a network of physical objects that collect and exchange information.

City leaders and universities will need to work together to harness the benefits of smart cities. The UK Future Cities Catapult is a good example of this, bringing together businesses, universities and city leaders to turn ideas into prototypes, including developing sensor networks and unlocking urban data. There is particular focus on smart cities in emerging economies. The Catapult has just signed an MOU with the China Center for Urban Development, building on smart city collaboration two years ago between Bristol and Guangzhou, and last year between Manchester and Wuhan. And in 2015 India set a target of 100 smart cities, focussing on satellite towns of larger cities and modernising existing mid-sized cities. It will be interesting to see whether any ‘leapfrogging’ takes place within these cities, and how inclusive the benefits are.


  1. There are many definitions of smart cities, but I like the European Commission one: ‘a place where the traditional networks and services are made more efficient with the use of digital and telecommunication technologies, for the benefit of its inhabitants and businesses’.