Smart city? Smart mayor!

I have been writing about smart cities for some years. I wondered which advice I would give to the mayor if she asked me how to make her city smart. This is what occurred to me[1].

How to become a smart city?

One thing is sure: Becoming smart does not start with the choice of technology or the collection of data. Therefore, visiting a ‘smart city fair’ where technology companies are more than willing to sell devices like sensors, CCTV-camera’s, smart meters, smart lighting, smart trash collectors, software, operating systems and more is not a priority.

Instead, the city administration has to ensure meeting the following six conditions:

  1. Practice good governance. You will need this anyway as soon as widely supported choices have to be made.
  2. Develop a well-founded vision on the development of your city considering the concerns of all stakeholders, citizens in the first place.
  3. Enable and support experiments, in particular those who are initiated by citizens.
  4. Become an equal partner of technology companies in the deployment of suitable technologies.
  5. Take care that technological and non-technological policy instruments are integrated seamlessly.
  6. Evaluate projects regularly and decide in time to scale up or terminate them

1. Practice good governance

Good government goes beyond elections and enforcing the law. An essential characteristic is that citizens can trust that the administration is protecting their interests and that their voices are heard. Bridging the formal democratic structures (mayor and aldermen, representatives, civil servants) and the stakeholders (citizens, companies, institutions) requires frequent (in)formal meetings, forms of participatory budgeting and deliberative polling. Even more important is decentralization of decision-making to neighbourhoods, organizations or companies.

The mayor plays a central role in connecting the formal democratic structure and the voice of the stakeholders, citizens in the first place. The legendary mayor Mon-soon Park of Seoul took every opportunity to listen to his citizen’s concerns. To symbolize this, he placed a large sculpture of an ear in front of the city hall, in which citizens can express their concerns[2] (see header).

The time has passed that only the consent of the council gives direction to the development of cities. Formal participation procedures that enable interested parties to make their voice heard against plans are also no longer sufficient. Instead, stakeholders want to be involved in the development of plans from the start.

Example Barcelona: Decidim
Barcelona has built a digital participatory platform, Decidim (‘We Decide’, in Catalan language). This platform enables citizens to participate directly in government by suggesting ideas, debating them, and voting, also in budgetary affairs. Other cities, like Tallinn, also have tools for participatory budgeting and electronic voting. However, the unique characteristic of ‘Decidim’ is that is allows for threaded discussions between voters and between voters and politicians, as discussion is one of the pillars of democracy.

Decidim – Photo: City of Barcelona

2. A well-founded vision

Research shows that citizens’ main concerns are health care, safety and quality of life. However, the concerns of civil servants and politicians are mobility, sustainability and data. The research took place in the Netherlands, but other countries will not differ that much[5]. In general, the topics prioritized by the latter group dominate the policy agenda. Meanwhile, a well-founded vision takes into account the lived experience of all stakeholders[6]. To align the views of politicians, and civil servants on the one hand and the needs and wants of the citizens on the other hand takes a lot of effort and time but it is a prerequisite for becoming smart.

Example: Humane city
The ‘humane city’ concept is based on the simultaneous realisation of values like sustainability, quality of life, equal chances and digital rights. Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Barcelona are on their way to acting accordingly and applying digital tools and data to support these values.

For instance, because of its adherence to the principle of sustainability, Amsterdam wants to be CO2 neutral by 2040. As part of its decision to improve the quality of life, Copenhagen tunes traffic lights primarily to bicycles. Barcelona emphasizes equal opportunities and therefore precedes the virtual participation of all citizens in decision-making (see above) and in order to make equal rights possible Amsterdam and Barcelona reduce the collection of data by technology companies.

Road for bikes in Copenhagen – Photo: Dissing+Weitling

3. Approving and supporting local initiatives

We are living in an era where citizens become more self-directed. They do not want to be completely dependent on public services.  The 400 energy co-operatives in the Netherlands are a perfect illustration.  In these co-operatives, inhabitants from neighbourhoods are producers and consumers of energy at the same time and are responsible for the storage and trading of the surplus of energy.

It is important that the city administration offers expert support to citizens’ initiatives and also to innovative start-ups. The way support is organized is very critical. The place-making model, developed in the UK can be applied on a larger scale. In this model, small teams at neighbourhood level have proven to be very effective.

Example: Lombox Net
An example of an energy co-operative can be found in Lombok, a neighbourhood in Utrecht. Almost 10 years ago a number of inhabitants started promoting the coverage with solar panels of roofs of homes, schools and other buildings. By connecting these sources, a small locally owned ‘virtual’ energy company was established that currently serves 3,000 households. In 2014 a smart grid was rolled-out. A smart grid is a partly isolated part of the main grid in which local produced electricity is distributed, stored and exchanged with the main grid.  Devices within households that produce energy (solar panels) and use and store energy (electric cars and boilers) can be regulated from a central point to balance supply and demand. This is fully-automated and managed by software. Smart grids prevent the main grid from becoming overloaded and thereby also the necessity to enlarge the grid’s capacity at high costs. Recently, the neighbourhood made available 20 electric cars for energy storage and for car-sharing as well.

Shared car – Lombok (Utrecht) – Photo

4. Equal cooperation between government and technology companies

A rapidly growing number of companies is creating a so-called smart city technology market on which technical solutions are available for most urban problems. The assessment of such techniques based on the vision of the city requires technologists with a thorough knowledge of city planning, or vice versa. The city council must have such expertise, for example in the form of a chief technology officer, surrounded by a small multidisciplinary team.

There is growing worldwide concern about the collection of personal data via the internet, smartphones, sensors, CCTVs and the like. Most of this data is managed by technology companies such as Google, Facebook and Amazon. These companies use this data by, among other things, enabling personalized advertisements and thus making high profits.

The EU project DECODE is exploring how to build a citizen-centric digital economy where data that are generated in public space will be stored with blockchain technology and made available for broader communal use, with appropriate privacy protections. Pilots take place in Barcelona and Amsterdam.

Example: Amsterdam digital
The city of Amsterdam recently published its brand-new data policy thanks to the expertise, of the team of the chief technology officer. Some headlines are:

  • Safe and fast Internet for all citizens.
  • Data generated in public space will be stored with blockchain technology.
  • All these data are made public at aggregate level.
  • Citizens can decide which personal data can be used and by whom.
  • Unauthorized following of citizens by WIFI tracking is prohibited.
  • In case of data collection for government purposes, privacy is included in the design phase.

Amsterdam digital – Photo: City of Amsterdam

5. Seamless integration of policy instruments

Technological tools are usually only effective if they form part of a much broader package of policy instruments in the areas of law-making, infrastructure, communication and finance.

Example: Driverless cars
Until recently, many observers have blessed the arrival of autonomous vehicles (AV’s). Yet, many studies indicate that autonomous cars will further deteriorate our cities. Many people will exchange public transport for the use of driverless cars. The transportation system must therefore be considered as a whole. In such a system, coherent choices have to be made with regards to public transport versus AV’s, AV’s versus driver operated vehicles, shared AV’s versus single-user AV’s, freight transportation versus people and motorized traffic versus pedestrians and cyclists.

At a certain maturity level, an AV-based transport system is not compatible with the operation of driver operated vehicles. At that time, the government must prohibit driver-operated cars. In addition, the space in the city center must be prioritized for pedestrians and cyclists and projects intended for mobility-as-a-service. Moreover, the pricing mechanism should de-incentivize the use of AV’s for short distances in favor of walking and (rental)bikes[14].

Amsterdam: Room for pedestrians and public transport – Photo: City of Amsterdam

6. Experimentation, evaluation and implementation or termination of projects

The smart city ‘landscape’ is very diffuse and is characterized by many small-scaled experiments, usually with substantial subsidies. Too often, experiments are continued without proper evaluation. Therefore, during the experimental phase, projects should be considered as ‘living labs’, where elements can be added or undone, provided that the effects are constantly monitored. Living labs should not be continued for longer than one or two years. After that period, the experiment either becomes institutionalized or is terminated.

Example: Stratumseind in Eindhoven
In the city of Eindhoven, nightlife is concentrated in Stratumseind. It is bustling quarter, especially on the week-ends and it is occasionally the scene of violence and fighting. For five years ago, the city started installing CCTV cameras and sensors that record noise and in the future, odor too. The lighting is also adjustable. The main goal was to reduce violence.

The city regards this experiment as a ‘living lab’ and it has been continuously evaluated. The results so far are:
– No scientific proof was found of a connection between ‘smart’ equipment, including the control of lighting included and the number of incidents.
– The arrival of police in emergencies is somewhat accelerated.
– Visitors feel safer.

It is high time to decide on both the benefits of this project and on its continuation.

Eindhoven: Stratumseind – Photo ‘Uit in Eindhoven’

In my advice to the mayor I will emphasize the words of Léan Doody (smart city expert Arup Group): I don’t necessarily think ‘smart’ is something to aim for in itself.  Unlike sustainability or resilience, ‘smart’ is not a normative concept; you could think of cities which are ‘smart’ but not very liveable. The technology should be a tool to deliver a sustainable city. As a result, you cannot discuss a technological solution until you understand the problems it should solve or creates, the extent to which these problems are rooted in the lived experience of stakeholders, the relation with the government’s vision on the development of the city and the relation with other policy tools.

I hope the mayor will benefit from my advice.

[1] This short essay is based on a keynote presentation at the conference ‘Smart cities’ in Zagreb on April 9th 2019.
[2] Duncan McLaren & Julian Agyeman: Sharing cities: A case for truly smart and sustainable cities MIT Press 2015
*) Header: Mayor Mon-soon Park of Seoul before ‘Listening ear’- Photo Sharable
**) This article was brought to you by Professor Herman van den Bosch, Professor at Open University of The Netherlands.

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