New smart city dimensions: authoritarian regimes and technology giants

Cutting out the middleman. And communities and civil society and the public sector…

My report for the British Council on universities and smart cities described the first wave of smart cities led by large technology companies such as IBM and Cisco, followed by bottom-up movements from civil society groups. The report concluded that universities can effectively bridge the two and ensure communities have a say.

A couple of months after the final publication, I’m reflecting on how this picture varies outside of Europe (the focus of the research) and on additional forces that are shaping the story. Since publication I’ve briefly covered the dangers of smart city projects lacking effective partnerships in Canada, but there are two further movements that are worth keeping an eye on.

Technology giants

The first is smart cities by stealth. This movement enters through the back door (or, more accurately, is mounted onto your front door). Consumers purchase products like Ring, a doorbell fitted with a security camera, from Amazon. City hall is circumvented in the building of smart city networks, but is co-opted in later, as an excellent article in Wired (focusing on the US) explains:

In exchange for promoting Ring’s devices and its associated crime watch app Neighbors, cops are given access to a portal where they can ask citizens for footage from their cameras that may be connected to a crime without a warrant. The arrangements have come under growing scrutiny in recent months, as reporters and activists have criticised their lack of transparency and potential for privacy abuses. Public records obtained by journalists also show that Ring tightly controls how police officials can portray its dealings with the company.

These digital doorbells are motion-activated and detect activity up to around nine meters away. The creation of a massive net of video coverage managed by a private company has led 30 American civil rights organisations to ask government officials to investigate the company’s business practices and partnerships with police.

Amazon has much bigger ambitions in this area. The company’s new ‘Sidewalk’ protocol extends the connectivity of devices outside the home. The first product is a rather innocuous-sounding tag for tracking the location of your dog (called ‘Fetch’). Another article from Wired explains how the use of such devices by even a minority of people can envelop communities:

In its testing, though, [Amazon] sent out 700 gateway devices to Amazon employees in the Los Angeles basin, and because each one has a range of between 500m and up to a mile, Amazon was able to “basically cover where everyone lives in LA”… An innocent smart dog tracker like Fetch fits perfectly into this model of Amazon-networked communities sharing video, alerts and location tracking.

Authoritarian regimes

The second movement is a reminder that in some places the first wave of smart cities – a ‘top-down’ approach led by governments and industry – never really went away. Instead this approach has intensified as technology becomes cheaper and more powerful. The website Coda has excellent coverage of what it calls ‘authoritarian tech’, including the darker side of smart city projects and how ‘authoritarian technologies lurk around the infrastructure of smart cities’. Examples include how Western companies are aiding the surveillance architecture of smart cities in China, how technology is assaulting the lives of ordinary Zimbabweans and how technology can be used to surveil minorities like Uyghurs in China.

Bypassing civil society

Two stories are being told. One is vast infrastructure projects delivered across cities at scale, the other an accretion of thousands of devices. One is city government procuring from one or two companies, the other thousands of consumer transactions. But both, as the protests of American civil rights organisations and the coverage of Coda shows, have a lack of oversight and accountability and transparency, and omit the likes of civil society, universities and other bodies that can add so much.

(Photo by Miłosz Klinowski on Unsplash)

Smart cities are a quiet revolution

Opinion piece published in today’s i newspaper

A final quick post on my recent British Council research before we resume our usual programming: today’s i newspaper (23 July 2019) has a short piece from myself covering universities and smart cities in Nottingham, on page 18.

You can read the full report here, a summary on The Conversation here, and a podcast of the smart cities session at Going Global 2019 in Berlin here.

(Photo credit)

New wave of smart cities has arrived – and they’re nothing like science fiction

Smart cities are more likely to be defined by quieter upgrades to existing infrastructure and new partnerships that better represent residents.

This post originally appeared on The Conversation

An abandoned mine shaft beneath the town of Mansfield, England is an unlikely place to shape the future of cities. But here, researchers from the nearby University of Nottingham are planning to launch a “deep farm” that could produce ten times as much food as farms above ground. Deep farms are an example of what the latest wave of smart cities look like: putting people first by focusing on solving urban problems and improving existing infrastructure, rather than opening shiny new buildings.

These smart cities look nothing like science fiction. In fact, the sleek, futuristic visions often used to promote smart cities tend to alienate residents. Isolated high-tech buildings, streets or cities can foster social inequality, and even free WiFi and bike-sharing schemes mainly benefit the affluent.

So instead of chasing ribbon-cutting opportunities in city centres, planners, community leaders and researchers are coming together to tackle mundane but serious issues, such as improving poor quality housing, safeguarding local food supplies and transitioning to renewable energy.

In my own research, commissioned by the British Council, I looked at how new projects and partnerships with universities in eight European cities are making life better for residents, through the clever use of technology. You may already be living in a smart city – here’s what to look out for.

More voices

Students bridging the divide.
Andrés Gerlotti/Unsplash. FAL.

These new smart cities are getting communities and universities involved, alongside big companies and city authorities. This has helped shift the focus of smart city projects onto the needs of residents. During my interviews in cities across Europe – from Bucharest, Romania to Warsaw, Poland and Zaragoza, Spain – I found that university students and researchers have played an active role in this, consulting with residents and working with city hall to promote cooperation between citizens and local institutions.

Universities produce a wealth of knowledge about the kinds of problems facing cities, and there is often a need to make more people aware of new research, so they can shape it, use it and build on it. In Milan, the City School initiative brings together the Municipality of Milan and six local universities to discuss issues facing the city. Universities take turns to showcase research and activities, and city officials test urban policy ideas with experts.

But above all, communities are now part of the conversation. The EU-funded Sharing Cities programme, led by city halls and universities in London, Lisbon and Milan, has the audacious goal of proving that at least half of the 15,000 locals affected by improvements have actively participated in the process. As such, city authorities have worked with residents to design and implement smart city technologies including smart lampposts, energy management and e-mobility (smart parking, car sharing, electric charging points and so on) – but also to ensure these changes actually improve their lives.

More complexity

Successful smart city projects blend disciplines, bringing together experts in behavioural change alongside specialists in artificial intelligence and information technologies. Interdisciplinary work can be messy and difficult, it can take longer and may not always work – but when it does, it can bring real benefits to cities.

For instance, Nottingham City Council and Nottingham Trent University have been part of the Remourban regeneration programme, working across sectors with cities around Europe. Homes in the Nottingham suburb of Sneinton have been upgraded with new outside walls and windows, a solar roof and a state of the art heating system – a process that takes just a few days.

The result is improved insulation and reduced energy bills for residents, but also better public health: calculations suggest that bad housing costs the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) £1.4 billion a year, and improving the quality of homes can cut visits to local doctors almost by half.

Darmstadt, Germany. Shutterstock.

The German city of Darmstadt has worked with citizens, universities, museums and businesses to plan for the future. For smart city projects to be embraced by residents, the benefits of new technologies need to be balanced against the need to manage privacy and security concerns. Darmstadt has set up an ethics advisory committee and has a strong focus on cyber security.

The city was recently crowned winner of the German Digital City competition, and the municipal government is now working with other German cities to share what has worked.

More places

The new wave of smart cities spreads improvements beyond the city centre, with universities from France to Ireland running initiatives to bring residents from surrounding areas onto campus, and take their expertise into local communities.

For instance, when Technological University Dublin and Dublin City Council came together to develop a new campus in the deprived district of Grangegorman, they opened it up to the rest of the city. The community eat with the students in the canteen, new buildings reuse material from the old site, renewable energy is stored locally, with excess power released onto the grid, and signage throughout the campus is the same as the rest of the city, blurring the edges between the university and the city.

Technology can play an important and often decisive role in tackling urban problems. But the smart city of the future is more likely to be defined by quieter upgrades to existing infrastructure and new partnerships that better represent residents, than flashy new developments that resemble visions from science fiction.The Conversation

James Ransom, PhD candidate, international higher education, UCL. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article. (Main image: Grangegorman campus, Technological University Dublin. Technological University Dublin, Author provided)

Universities and smart cities session at Going Global 2019

A recording of the smart cities session at Going Global 2019 in Berlin is now available online, including my presentation of the report findings, panel discussion and questions from the audience. You can also find my (admittedly minimalist) slides at the above link.

In related news, University World News kindly re-published my summary of my earlier report on universities, cities and internationalisation here. And if you missed it, the full report on universities and smart cities is on the British Council website here.

Smart places – how universities are shaping a new wave of smart cities

Smart city activities with universities at the heart are growing across Europe, but challenges remain

My latest report for the British Council was launched in Berlin at Going Global a few hours ago. The report draws on interviews with nearly 50 university staff and city officials in eight cities from Bucharest to Zaragoza. It sets out how universities can help build successful ‘smart cities’, but also the dangers faced if they don’t get it right. Read it here (link to report at bottom of page).

Here’s the intro:

A simple message runs through this report: universities are needed to help tackle the serious challenges faced by towns and cities across Europe. Climate change and changing job markets are complex problems needing a wide-ranging response. Poor quality housing and pollution have plagued cities for centuries and progress will require new partnerships.

City leaders should include universities in the fight against these challenges, and in the push to build better societies. Cities need to upgrade universities from advisory roles to actively shaping and delivering projects. But the real onus lies with universities themselves. Universities need to align themselves with the priorities of the city, to be proactive in building partnerships, and to make sometimes difficult internal changes to better meet local needs.

Thousands of partnerships, projects and pilots are being delivered across Europe – from multi-city programmes to neighbourhood initiatives, some in places at the top of smart city league tables and renowned for their research and innovation, and others in regions grappling with economic uncertainty. Yet leaders and planners across the continent share common challenges. Budgets are tight, populations are growing, and new threats and challenges are appearing. City leaders are required to think beyond their city centre to the broader metropolitan area, balancing regional and national relationships whilst forging new international links. They shoulder growing responsibilities for their city to tick the latest urban policy boxes – to be resilient, sustainable and smart.

Universities are also under financial strain, and often juggle teaching and research with the mantle of being civic institutions. Whilst many university leaders understand that this civic role – to help coordinate social and economic activity, to be a good neighbour and positively shape the place they are in – strengthens their teaching and research, challenges remain. Universities are being called to seek tighter integration with their environment, to form stronger bonds with local communities, and deliver more effective projects with longer term impact whilst growing national and international networks, all within a complex political arena. Even in places with a track record of local partners effectively working together, new thinking and new ideas are required.

This report takes you on a tour of eight European cities. It explores how universities and city hall are working together to tackle the challenges faced in each city. Each city has a unique configuration of institutions and a different history of collaboration between the city hall and local universities. In some cities, both sides are building on decades of close working, in others universities are balancing a history of state control whilst exploring new opportunities to work with city officials. All eight cities, however, illustrate a broader trend – the emergence of a new wave of smart cities, placing universities at the heart of a more inclusive, human-focused movement to build better places and societies.

Smart cities redefined


In 1975 NASA drew up plans for a colony in outer space. Called Stanford Torus, the colony would resemble a small city – housing up to 140,000 residents, drawing on the latest technology, and designed to be completely self-sufficient. Stanford Torus is worth considering for two reasons. The first is a reminder that we have been thinking about ‘smart’ cities, and how the latest technology can meet our needs, for a long time (the expansion of Barcelona 150 years ago was designed around the telegraph and railroad). The second is the close resemblance between the artist impressions of Stanford Torus in 1975 and promotional visions of the future city when the hype around smart cities hit around the year 2013.

Discussion around smart cities in 2013 was focused on issues of technology, control, efficiency gains and large infrastructure upgrades, and was driven in part by multinational companies. In his excellent book Smart Cities, published around this period, Anthony Townsend described a vacuum between the top-down, technology-heavy solutions for cities promoted by big companies, and the bottom-up but limited-scale grassroots work of community activists.

The smart city of 2019 looks quite different to that of 2013. The utopian visions have mostly gone (as we will see, they tended to alienate citizens). Movements towards ‘smart governance’ and ‘smart citizenship’ have grown, embodied in initiatives such as open data platforms. This ‘second wave’ of smart cities favours incremental improvements to existing infrastructure rather than entirely new systems. The spotlight is on the needs of residents rather than on glamorous new buildings. Technology may play an important part in solving problems, but it doesn’t look like science fiction. And culture and politics have joined the party – the path to the future city may now be a little messier and a bit noisier, but it is also more realistic and more achievable. Accordingly, this report uses a new definition of smart cities: using new ideas and innovations (which might include technology) to improve cities for the people who live, work and visit there.

Townsend predicted that mayors would step into the vacuum between industry and activists and design the smart city of the future. He was right – but mayors and their teams have company. Organisations such as universities can bolster the work of city hall by drawing on the vast amount of research and innovation they deliver, but also working in closer partnership with city hall. This requires universities to concentrate on where they can really add the most value, and for both university and city leaders to pay attention to developing strong processes and structures for collaboration. Universities also work closely with large and small businesses who continue to be an essential part of this partnership. And their work with communities can help ensure a constant focus on inclusivity and participation. This report shows how eight European cities are doing just that.

Read the full report here!

(Image credits: photo by Valik Chernetskyi; Stanford Torus artist impressions here and here)

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’.