Truly smart cities need to be citizen not technology led

02 Oct 2018 - James Hall

Imagine, air pollution is reaching dangerous levels in Newcastle because traffic is backing up on all major routes into the city. A notification goes out to all commuters who would normally drive into the city with an electronic voucher for a free park and ride car parking space, coupled with free Metro, bus or train tickets into Newcastle together with other incentives for leaving their car at home. This could be the reality in Newcastle, in the not too distant future, if the city becomes a Smart City – a goal that many, including business improvement district company, NE1 Ltd are keen to champion if re-elected later this autumn.

‘Smart Cities’ has become a major buzzword in the digital and IT industry over the past few years. Designing integrated solutions to multi-faceted problems like rising air pollution, traffic congestion, public transport ticketing and pricing would all be part of a Smart City remit and would add value to citizens and to the city.

It has been on the Local Government agenda for almost a decade, on and off, but a lot has changed and indeed the world has changed in this time. Now as local councils struggle to deal with diminishing budgets and increased demand on overstretched resources and reserves – smart cities are taking priority on the agenda once again.

One of the major issues facing cities striving for Smart City status is that digital innovation relies on a ‘fail fast’ approach. This development technique aims to flush out problems quickly, identify where glitches have occurred within a system or a programme and change tack before too much time or money has been invested. When operating in the context of a city, like Newcastle, where you are accountable and responsible for citizens and crucial services – failing fast is not an option. The stakes are too high.

At Orange Bus we recommend a method that is ‘fail safe’: working with citizens to co-design a city’s smart solutions, services and applications based on the user experience and user needs. Truly smart cities should be led by citizens’ needs, not technological trends. My firm belief is that the starting point for successful Smart City development has to be the end user.

Whilst it is clear that there is a need to invest in the technology that provides the infrastructure and data to enable a city to improve services, the smartest investment is in engaging with users. Conducting research and getting to the nub of the problem prevents a huge, costly, tsunami of change when a new technology is implemented. We can focus on getting it right from day one by solving a problem, filling a gap, making improvements, minor or major, that result in clear benefits for our citizens who are the real experts and together we can build solid foundations for a successful Smart Cities programme.

Shifting the focus to the needs of citizens - whether residents, commuters, businesses or tourists, will deliver successful solutions…. with the first question to be asked: How will this benefit the user?

During the Great Exhibition of the North, Newcastle teamed up with hi-tech giant, Cisco to create what they called the ‘smartest street in the UK’, combining live and historical data from street sensors and sources, such as Newcastle’s Urban Observatory, to collate valuable information.  Fittingly the efforts were focused on Mosley Street, a street well versed in leading the way technologically. In 1879, it was the first street in the UK to be lit by electric lighting and in 2018 it is the first to use cutting edge sensor technology to collate valuable information on what is happening in a city and to respond accordingly.

This exercise highlighted some of the capabilities of a smart city relating the problems of traffic congestion, air pollution, potholes and over-crowded parking spaces to potential solutions, such as pre-emptive road management or parking space prediction for city users. But data production and management - ‘making the invisible visible’ - is only one facet of a smart city.

Smart technologies are expensive, and the data produced often lacks depth, unless interrogated with careful auditing and qualitative analysis. Data also measures past events; and on its own cannot prompt behavioural change, or action in its citizens, or service modifications in a way that would produce real or long standing improvements. In essence, it is great to be gathering and collating data but without a citizen focus it has questionable value.

To benefit both the city and its citizens – Smart City data has to be used in an integrated, coordinated fashion and focus on city problems and genuine user needs. Datasets focusing on transport, energy, health and safety and public spaces would provide an integrated view of the city’s infrastructure and then allow meaningful integrated services to be developed for citizens.

Citizens are experts in their city but many are disengaged from or dissatisfied with city services. Even more are forced to place huge demands on services, which struggle to respond to specific and contextual needs. Active engagement needs to start with us. With city planners, with researchers, decision makers and designers.

The smart technologies like those on Mosley Street could go a long way towards changing this with clear application to real situations faced by citizens. By developing solutions that citizens can recognise and engage with, we can optimise active city engagement and help produce high-quality, people-oriented data that solves problems for citizens and enables and encourages behavioural change. We strongly recommend that developers, councils and business interest groups start focusing on the way citizens interact with the city.

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