Smart city technology: a case for digital social innovation

On November 4th 2011, the trademark smarter cities has been officially registered as belonging to IBM. It marked the beginning of a successful campaign to launch the company as an obligatory passing point for cities that wanted to become smart. As I wrote elsewhere: The success of IBM’s narrative rests on the suggestion of a systematic solution of urban problems by approaching these as parts of manageable system…. At the moment cities are sick and at the eve of a fatal breakdown. But, once new technology has been installed, problems come under control.


Conquering the smart city market

According to Oda Öderstrom, the narrative of IBM is an example of company storytelling as its evidence at that time was very thin, and still is. IBM does not stand alone. Cisco’s vice-president of strategy Inder Sidhu described the company’s ‘smart city play’ as its biggest opportunity, a 39,5 billion dollar-market. The prospects have rocketed: the consultancy firm Frost and Sullivan estimates the global smart city market to be worth $1.56 trillion by 2020. And the organizers of the 7th Smart City Expo from 26-27 November 2018 in Dubai promise companies a multi-trillion smart city market.

The persistent policy of technology companies to usurp the use of technology in urban development angers me. Every euro they are chasing at, is citizens’ tax money. What has been accomplished until now is disappointing. Basically, no city in the world meets the current definition of a smart city: A place where technology is successfully deployed to realize sustainable prosperity and wellbeing for all citizens.

Forces behind technological development

I agree with Pieter Ballon, VUB-professor and Director Smart Cities at IMEC, who does not exclude that technology and data might contribute to the liveability and humanity of our cities. However, in order to reach this goal becoming dependent from big technology companies is the last thing to do.

The same applies to all those fourth industrial revolution adepts who claim that thanks to new enablers and tools like the Internet of things, 3D printing, big data, connected devices, wearables and blockchain anything can be transformed in a more efficient way. As the World Economic Forum states: “no technology is neutral” – and the powers of the Fourth Industrial Revolution certainly aren’t. As a consequence, the Forum states that application of technology must be preceded by a broad policy discussion about a number of technology-related questions.

Calling for such a discussion is probably too late already. As Bas Boorsma states (A New Digital Deal by Bas Boorsma,  Rainmaking Publications, 2017, page 52): “A couple of years ago we believed digitalization to facilitate the emergence of a ‘true’ free market, i.e. an economy based on peer-to-peer principles, collaboration, with small enterprises relying on the network effect and digital tools to conduct business in ways previously reserved for large corporations.” However, the network paradigm and the platform economy have been appropriated by big companies and some governments. As a consequence, the workings of capitalism, revitalizing monopolism and oligarchy have been strengthened. “Digitalization-powered capitalism now possesses a speed, agility and rawness that is unprecedented” (A New Digital Deal, p.54). Elsewhere I have compared Bas Boorsma’s view of technology with Alan Greenfields’, one of the most outspoken opponents of the smart city idea.

As a consequence, most of our capacity to influence the direction of the development of technology has been lost already and is taken over by oligopolistic giants like Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon and other technology companies (Adam Greenfield: Radical Technologies: The design of every day life. Verso 2017). First because digital technology is constraining us through the rules contained in its code, secondly because they capture, process and store, through the gathering of data almost everything about our lives. Thirdly, technologies control our perception of the world, because it is gathering, filtering and producing information, like the virtues of a tech-enabled society, smart cities included.

Countervailing power: Digital Social Innovation

The question is whether this development can be countered. As a first step, policy has to recapture technology companies’ activities in democratic procedures, disclosing full transparency of their cost and benefits and recovering competition. However, more is needed. This can be summarized as digital social innovation.

Digital social innovation goes beyond political control over the application of digital technology and data, which already is a tremendous challenge. Realizing the full benefits of technology requires changing relations between people themselves, towards more co-operation and away from the executing of power.

The recent Manifesto for Digital Social Innovation (2017), has compiled a list of the core values. Among these are openness and transparency, democracy and decentralization, experimentation and adoption, multi-disciplinarily and digital skills for anybody. But citizens themselves have to address together the imbalances of power shaping their social environment and making social relations more just, inclusive and democratic instead.

After Ada Colau became mayor of Barcelona in 2015, the town started a new phase in its smart city history. As  described here, digital tools were deployed to democratize the government of the city, with open data and open standards as key enablers. The city is making privacy, data sovereignty, and data security core elements of its approach. The intention is in the first place to open up governance through participatory processes and in the second place to ensure that the smart city would serve its citizens in a way the citizens choose by themselves, rather than the other way around.

From a digital social innovation perspective, decarbonization is not simply exchanging fossil energy by sustainable energy: Instead, it is about people who decide together how and why they organize the production and consumption of energy in the future.

The same applies to future patterns of mobility. Whatever politics decide and what types of cars automotive companies bring to the market, citizens have to decide together how their neighborhoods regain liveable and how different mobility solutions can contribute. For instance, how the use of cars can be decreased and how the decreased number of cars can be shared best.

The development of citizens science is part of this movement. People in many towns are gathering their own data to explore liveability and health issues. The video below is the trailer of the documentary Citizen Science Revolution, which premiere was at 25th October in de Waag Amsterdam.

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It is promising to see how digital social innovation has taken off. About 1,200 organizations are recently mapped by DSI Europe, and many more around the world. A couple of ‘traditional’ innovation agencies also have adopted some of the language of digital social innovation such as Sweden’s Vinnova, Finland’s Sitra, Canada’s MaRS and Malaysia’s AIM.

A few mayors have demonstrated their commitment to digital social innovation, such as the legendary Won Soon Park in Seoul.

The digital social innovation movement is countering the corporate-based brand of smart city development, looking for ways to empower people – individually or collectively – with technology, high tech and low tech as well. Social digital innovation is changing the way how people live together, deploying technological devises and data as a contribution towards a better life.

*) Source header: Shutterstock

**) This article was brought to you by Professor Herman van den Bosch, Professor at Open University of The Netherlands.

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