Smart cities and social innovation

03.02.2014 Blog

In a recent study for the European Parliament (EP) , DTI and partners analysed the extent and role of so-called ‘smart cities’ in Europe, defined broadly as cities seeking to address public issues using inter alia ICT-based solutions on the basis of multi-stakeholder, municipally based partnerships. This is to be seen in the context of the overriding goals of the European smart city movement as generating both economic prosperity and social wellbeing for city inhabitants.

An attempt to apply social innovation concepts and approaches to the smart city bandwagon is now taking place. It is realised that much of the focus of the smart city movement to date, in which the city authorities and other organisations deploy sensors, networks, data and data analytics to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of urban systems (like transport, utilities, etc.) and services, is only half the story. From this perspective on its own, there is the danger of a one-size fits all, top-down view of urban development. The diverse needs of the inhabitants as individuals, households, neighbourhoods, communities, organisations and businesses – that bring the city to life -- are just as important. Thus, any adequate model for the smart city must also focus on the smartness of its citizens and encourage the processes, and especially social innovation processes, that make cities important: those that sustain very different – sometimes conflicting – activities. Cities are, by definition, engines of diversity, so focusing solely on streamlining utilities, transport, construction and unseen government processes can be massively counter-productive. This is in much the same way that the 1960’s penchant for social-housing in tower blocks, based on their apparent economic efficiency in Le Corbusier style, was ultimately found to be socially and culturally unsustainable and highly damaging. See also Usman Hague’s article “Surely there's a smarter approach to smart cities?”, 17 April 2012.

Instead, smart cities will be smart because their citizens have found new ways to craft, interlink and make sense of their own and each other’s assets, data and other resources. The EP study showed that currently one of the most common types of so-called smart city initiatives across Europe is, in fact, about ‘smart neighbourhoods’, and is especially concerned with using data and coordinating local assets of all types to improve the lives of local inhabitants in terms of improved physical environments, mobility as well as community cohesion to tackle many of their own problems. Indeed, the conclusions of the EP study are that inclusion and participation are important targets for successful smart city programmes to avoid polarisation between the urban elite and low income areas. The study’s case studies highlight that it is often inspiring leaders (‘city champions’) behind many successful initiatives, many of whom are local activists. In the most successful cases, citizens are being empowered through active participation to create a sense of ownership and commitment, so it is important to foster participative environments that facilitate and stimulate citizens, businesses and the public sector to contribute.

The strategic objective of the most successful smart neighbourhood projects in European to date is to develop better public services hand-in-hand with community cohesion. This is based on input from citizens obtained by providing ideation platforms to develop a better city (e.g. the Amsterdam Smart City Platform), or competitions to take advantage of open public data to develop apps, useful data mash-ups or new services. This includes ICT-enabled citizen participation open data strategies, crowdsourcing and co-creation platforms. For example, the city of Helsinki, Finland, is finding new ways to encourage developers to exploit open data in order to create digital services and useful applications for and with citizens. One underlying theme of the Helsinki project is transparency of city decision-making and enabling better feedback from citizens to civil servants. Smart city services are thereby tested in the Helsinki Metropolitan area as part of people’s everyday life.

European ‘smart neighbourhoods’ are overall seen as very localised smart city initiatives typically focusing on sustainable environments, mobility and better living. Examples include:

These neighbourhood-scale smart cities, typically with between 10,000 to 40,000 inhabitants, are implemented either on green field (i.e. completely new) sites or as retrofitted development projects. They are usually used to expand city capacity and boost social and economic development by showcasing the city as a tech and sustainability frontrunner. The projects are holistic, representing complete visions of a future smart city but on a smaller scale. They are, therefore, intended for later scaling up to city level at least.