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Thursday, March 24, 2016

Smart Cities or Smart Citizens: Which is the Future?

Watch the video to listen to the talk

Note: you can see the slides on slideshare
I will briefly talk about Smart Cities or Smart Citizens: Which is the Future? 
We couldn’t have chosen a better venue than Barcelona to talk about smart cities -- this beautiful city is internationally recognized as one of the shining examples of smart cities in the world -- you can see for yourself at the “Smart City BCN” website:
My presentation is from the perspective of over 30 years of experience I have had in the information and communications technology (ICT) sector and my U.S. government policy experience — having worked the past 18 years as a Technologist at the U.S. Government Accountability Office or GAO, where we review performance of U.S. government agencies and conduct technology assessments that look at the interactions of technological innovations with society, the environment, and economy; and the present and foreseen, but unintended consequences of those interactions. GAO’s portfolio of technology assessments have covered subjects such as biometrics, cybersecurity, wildfire protection, cargo security, climate change adaptation, water conservation, and additive manufacturing.
Internet of Things (IoT) happens to be underlying technological innovation that makes the current concept of “smart cities” possible.
The “Internet of Things” refers to the concept of connecting everyday objects -- whether inanimate or animate -- to the Internet by adding or embedding computing and communication capabilities into the objects so that they can send and receive information. Usually, these objects -- or “things” -- are connected to the Internet to gather data, which are then analyzed and used for some purpose that depends on the things.
An example can help make the concept clearer. Many homes nowadays have things such as thermostats and alarm systems that are connected to the Internet. In this case, the goal is to enable the homeowner to remotely control these Internet-connected home systems -- set the thermostat or arm and disarm the alarm system. A futuristic vision is to create “smart homes” with lots of Internet of Things that interact with one another to make life easier for the homeowner and provide benefits such as reduced energy use.  
The technological view of a “smart city” is similar -- connect various “things” -- from buses, trains, traffic lights to garbage bins -- to the Internet and gather data that can be used by the city to improve services it offers to its citizens.
You may have noticed that I have been talking about the technologies behind the concept of smart cities, but haven’t mentioned citizens much except as the beneficiaries of the “better” and “improved” services of smart cities. That’s because this is how  the initial idea of first-generation “smart cities” began -- a technology-driven vision of a city outfitted with “Internet of Things” sensors that gather data from the city infrastructure: buildings, buses, trains, rental bikes, parking, traffic lights, video surveillance cameras, garbage trucks, even recycling bins, etc. and bring them into a control center for centralized monitoring and management of the city. Typically such ideas of smart cities have been promoted by technology providers encouraging cities to adopt their products and solutions. Some planned smart cities such as PlanIT Valley near Porto, Portugal, Masdar in Abu Dhabi, and Songdo in South Korea are examples of such purely technology-driven smart cities. For example, PlanIT Valley, which, incidentally has not yet been funded, will reportedly include 100 million sensors that will send data to an Urban Operating System that would manage the city. (see, for example, ) It is worth noting that these grand plans for creating smart cities from scratch have not turned out as planned.
You can find a clue to the failure of these first-generation smart cities in their descriptions, which focus mostly on the latest technologies -- the sensors, the “operating system”, the control center -- and less on the citizens. A common characteristic of these smart cities is that they started with technology rather than urban challenges and they did not engage citizens in the design and deployment of new technologies.
There has been some criticism of such smart cities that focus on technology at the expense of first finding out what citizens need. In his 2013 book, “Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia” Anthony Townsend critiques these solely technology-driven futuristic visions of smart cities for missing out on how cities interact with citizens.
A June 2015 study by NESTA, a UK-based charity, also notes that many “top down” smart cities have failed to deliver on their promises because of high up-front costs of technology and low returns. (see )
This brings us to the second generation of smart cities where city administrators are using technology as an enabler and creating projects that focus on improving the quality of life of the citizens. These projects use the connected “Internet of Things” technologies to bring information to their citizens and make them more informed, turning them into “smart citizens.” The changing behavior of these smart citizens then enables efficient practices and smarter social norms to develop in the cities. For example, with digital tools providing the latest information, smart cities can make it easy for their citizens to use car- or bike-sharing programs. By providing information about average energy use among similar neighbors, cities can influence the way the citizens use energy.
The second-generation smart cities acknowledge the importance of listening to the needs of their citizens in creating smart cities. A November 2014 Ericsson Consumerlab survey provides a glimpse of what citizens want from a smart city.  According to that survey, 76% of citizens want sensors in public places that let them know which areas are crowded; 70% want to compare their energy use with that of their neighbors’ so that they can optimize their behavior; and 74% want both interactive street signs and bike and car sharing.
Many current smart cities are adopting smaller, well-defined projects that address these types of specific needs of their citizens. For example, Barcelona has 33 smart city projects that use a mix of technology and citizen education and communication to address a diversity of citizen needs and improve quality of life for citizens and visitors alike.
Getting back to the rhetorical question of whether Smart Cities or Smart Citizens is the future -- the answer is “both,” because they have a symbiotic relationship and work hand-in-hand in a virtuous cycle. Smart cities provide information via sensors and technologies to its citizens, making them smart, and smart citizens, in turn, help define how the smart city needs to evolve. Experience from new smart city projects help citizens learn newer ways cities can improve their services and this cycle continues on. In this vision of a shared future, smart citizens and smart cities evolve together.
The longer-term future vision for smart cities and smart citizens is one where smart citizens, along with the city leaders, become co-creators of smart cities that provide improved quality of life in an equitable and socially inclusive manner.
Using smart citizens as co-creators can help smart cities accomplish more with less. For example, in addition to using the Internet of Things to collect data, a city could also accept data from citizens, typically through smartphone apps that connect to low-cost sensors that citizens deploy themselves and then share the data with the city. Such “crowdsourced” data are already being gathered and used -- for example, flood mapping in Jakarta, Indonesia and air pollution data in Beijing, China.
Smart cities also can make the raw data from many of its sensors available to the public as “open data” -- in standardized digital format -- that can then be used by anyone to develop new applications, converting the data into useful information. For example, Barcelona’s open data project provides data that’s used in apps such as App&Town that helps you plan trips with Barcelona’s public transportation and CityBikes, which provides information about the city’s Bicing bike rental system.
So far in my talk, I have been mostly focused on the utopian view of smart cities and smart citizens where each leverages the other’s strengths for their mutual benefit. However, I’d be remiss if I were to ignore the dystopian view of smart cities -- even with smart citizens. Some recent articles lay out this type of  dystopian vision of a smart city. (see, for example, and
Some point to how a smart city that thinks it knows everything about its citizens’ needs through its sensors may assume that it does not have to ask the citizens what they want and, thereby, destroy democracy. Others worry about too much surveillance by a city that gathers data from so many sensors. Still others raise the issue of privacy of citizens and possibility of cyber attacks on city’s infrastructures.
In spite of these predictions of dystopian outcomes, participation of smart citizens still remains the most promising prospect that the dangerous scenarios can be avoided through the actions of citizens.
In the end, the smartest of the smart city projects do not have to depend on technology alone. Some cite the example of the Medellín Ciudad Inteligente (Medellín Smart City) initiative. The city was able to reintegrate its problem neighborhoods not through Internet of Things technology, but with publicly funded sports facilities and a cable car connecting them to the city. Earlier residents of the barrio of Santo Domingo used to take 2 hours to reach the city center by bus, but the cable car system shortened the ride to just seven minutes. This gave poor slum dwellers better access to jobs and has reduced the murder rate to 26.8 per 100,000 from a high of 381 per 100,000 some twenty years ago. So it was physical connection that turned out to be more important than digital connection in this case. (see
To sum up, smart citizens are key to smart cities and technology alone is not the answer. Involvement of informed citizens is the key to the success of smart cities. What we need is the virtuous cycle of smart citizens co-creating smart cities that further inform the citizens on ways to avoid the dystopian vision of robotic smart cities from coming true.

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