Our View from the Smart City Expo World Congress

16 Nov 2017 - James Hall

As an agency which has played a substantial role in redesigning the digital citizen interactions of UK Government services, the Smart Cities Expo World Congress was right at the top of our events calendar for 2017. Our CCO, James Hall, went to Barcelona to put forward Orange Bus’ point of view and exchange ideas with some of the industry's biggest influencers.

The question of control was a primary theme at the Smart Cities Expo: Who will be able to bring data and infrastructure together to provide real value for the citizen?

Will the likes of Amazon and Google make a big play to be the backbone of the Smart City, integrating a series of civic services over their own proprietary platforms - Toronto’s waterfront seems to be earmarked for a breakthrough Google project in digitally empowered neighbourhoods.

But what does this mean for the role of more traditional local authorities and civic institutions? As our democratically elected representatives and stewards of the physical infrastructure, they act as the main brokers between public and private networks.

Should traditional public authorities be leveraging this position and making a push to use open networks of civic data for public good, instead of the private sector companies who despite knowing more about us, won’t always be looking to manage data for the general benefit of a citizen-driven Smart City.

Cisco were well-represented at the Expo and took an interesting angle on this question.  As a company which builds actual platforms of networking hardware and software, they see the balance of power as lying at the heart of the infrastructure itself; pitching the IoT platform known as ‘Cisco Kinetic’ as a conduit for genuine collaboration based around open data.

It was clear from the Expo, that the fight for the role of ‘service broker’, will be one of the main campaigning grounds in the coming years, whether that be the existing civic authority or a broker from the private sector - or a partnership of both.

What is a Smart City?

The term Smart City has lost a lot of meaning in recent years, becoming a catch-all term for a city with any kind of digital intentions.

Is a Smart City something which is basically an even bigger consumer trap - generating revenue for private companies by pushing data from commercial services? Is it something which improves civic life, increasing democratic involvement, clarifying the dialogue between citizens and authorities? Or is it something where the public can develop a better relationship with their surroundings?

The Expo explored a diversity of opinion, but it is clear that we’re moving away from the idea of a Smart City as something which incoherently pushes commercial data from all directions. Instead, enhanced citizen involvement, community-driven design, and co-creation were all prevalent themes.

This underlines the idea of a Smart City as something which is genuinely progressive for public life. A Smart City treats citizens as equal stakeholders in the city. Not only does it gather and enhances data from its various services in order to make life better for all citizens, it directly involves citizens as users within that matrix: Smart Citizens in the Smart city.

A key idea taken from the Smart Cities Expo was that the foundations needed to build these cities, need to allow for open collaboration: building with citizens, not for them.

Open Data as the Basis of Meaningful Collaboration

The Expo revealed that the biggest problem for Smart City development is that most civic data discussions are still in silos. New urban digital developments tend to revolve around isolated tasks such as paying parking fees, tolls, and community charges, with no integration and no ‘single view’ of what you could call a Smart Citizen.

‘Smart City’ progress should involve all of the above services working together - pushing information to individual users through data, satellite mapping, GPS and smart hardware.  This would enable a citizen to interact seamlessly with the city - a city which delivers the real value of the data, across service silos.

This vision requires a scheme of digital service development which allows for easy third party integrations, using open-data to promote community driven development initiatives.  Hackdays would bring citizens, business and officials together to ply the possibilities of open data sets, delivering products which could potentially be used from city-to-city. Orange Bus have been involved in these types of events before, driven by progressive organisations like the Digital Catapult, which lobby and advocate the value of open data.

Hackdays like this are designed to channel the insights of specialists and the communities themselves, as well as the skills of developers who have no ties to corporate agendas. They identify a problem and then open the floor to a much wider audience than that of the corporation.

Dubai recently engaged with the Future Cities Catapult in the UK and are clearly focused on the customer experience, developing use cases based on open data, customer journeys and emerging tech such as blockchain and AI.

Engaging the Smart Citizen

The goal remains the same: To allow a city to integrate a series of services, delivered by a number of interdependent partners and fashioned around citizen behaviours and needs.

But how do we engage that Smart Citizen in the Smart City, and convince them to join-in?

Citylabs of various guises are springing up across the globe and this represents a pretty good starting point. Our own city, Newcastle, has launched Newcastle City Futures illustrating a clear initiative to produce the right frameworks for digital development.

Similarly, Leeds city region, which was the only UK City exhibiting at the Expo, work with organisations to open up city data in order to provide value for the city or create apps to deliver services through the Data Mill North. The challenge now is how to get better at  scalability and sustainability, not just prototypes but fully functioning apps across the city.

A wariness of data sharing will be a natural prohibitor to public engagement, and the looming data privacy laws known as GDPR meant data consent was high on the Expo agenda - asking how cities can build a healthy digital civic culture, where data flows from the public in a fully consensual manner.  Entwined in the question of privacy is the fact that we need to know what citizens actually want - what they’ll readily engage with, where they’ll resist, and how they’d like it to perform.

One of the Expo’s notable examples of how a city can encourage public engagement is Moscow’s Active Citizen app, which has over two million users. The app allows Moscow’s citizens to vote on proposals and actively suggest changes to their city. The Smart City as something which enhances grassroots democracy and civic involvement.

This is much more preferable to a top-down corporate marketing push of “Smart City” services which suit narrow business strategies.

Our View

Orange Bus’ Smart Cities view is citizen first. What interfaces does the citizen use to engage their city, what are they lacking and how do we help?

A Smart City isn’t just about current services, it’s also about the civic authorities being able to learn from citizen behaviours and make things better, refining current services as well as creating new ones.

This will be driven by ear-to-the-ground citizen engagement like the labs above, as well as machine learning, social media and big, open, transparent data. Used together, these tools and techniques will give authorities a much better and more accurate understanding of their citizens.

Over the next few months, Orange Bus will be looking at the dynamics of shaping public digital services around the end user and uncovering the key starting points for Smart City reinvention.  We’ll be focusing on scalable and sustainable applications from which to expand truly smart services.

This work has already begun with the commissioning of our Digital Cities Project  and will continue with comprehensive studies into citizen engagement - from both a technological and sociological perspective.

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