Smart Cities for the many not the few

boston-150x150Our cities are entering a new challenging age of resource constraints, economic uncertainty, social instability and environmental change. We need solutions. New technology has a key role in this. So it was with hope, that I travelled to Barcelona for the Smart City Expo and World Congress.

For those not familiar with the ‘smart city’ agenda, it is about the use of technological advances in physical and ICT infrastructure to improve competitiveness and create better cities in the future. In the UK, the most recent manifestation of this type of agenda is the Future Cities Demonstrator Project, which many cities have recently been bidding into.

From my own place-making and progressive economic development perspective I have always believed in the potential of ‘smart cities’, but have been a little frustrated by it. Whilst about new technologies, I perceived it as merely working within the often failing political and economic orthodoxies, driven by global city competitiveness. In this, I often got frustrated by its ‘techie’ elements and was often uncomfortable with an agenda in which cities were being reduced to mere ‘operating platforms’ for new technology rather than technology assisting progressive urbanist advances in citizenship, social, economic and environmental thinking.

However, I was encouraged by the event in Barcelona. We are in a social, environmental and economic mess and it was heartening to consider how the deployment of ICT to these challenges could start to make a difference.

Initially, on arriving in Barcelona and its gargantuan convention centre, I was not surprised to see electric vehicles manufacturers, ICT and data companies and smart gizmos intermingling with e-government-focused city representatives. However, it did not take long to see and hear another more positive and progressive side to the smart city agenda.

Indeed, by the end of the first day it was clear: the smart city agenda is a ‘movement’. A significant minority of the delegates and speakers were urbanists fuelled with an appreciation of the scale of the challenges and could see how technology could advance a new positive and citizen-focused urbanism.

Indeed as a number of speakers and active tweeters said or hinted at the event (notably Ramon Marrades, Manuel Portela, Brent Toderian, Phil Monaghan, Boyd Cohen, John Moore, Charles Landry, Peter Kageyama, and deputy mayor of Barcelona Antoni Vives) we need to think of technology as the means to an end, and less as the end in itself.

In my own talk, I highlighted the perfect storm of social, economic and environmental challenges facing cities. I argued that we will not address these unless we have a smart city movement. This movement must ensure that technology is used for the many and not the few and is used as a tool for increasing the role of citizens, communities and the social sector in shaping and making our cities.

This could revolutionise urbanism and could – if placed within a progressive political economy – offer the potential for greater social and economic inclusion and radically shift and recast a better social contract between the state, community and citizens.

Some also indicated that smart city agenda opens up the potential for data to be open for all and that knowledge could be federated and not owned by a single agent or the state. Indeed Peter Hirsberg went on to indicate that the smart city could be sowing the seeds of a new anti establishment movement – ‘nobody owns it, everybody can use it, anybody can improve it’.

Some within the existing alternative social movements such as the Occupy movement, may legitimately argue that the global corporate world will dominate and that the progressive future outlined here is unlikely to realised. However, elements of the ‘smart city’ agenda cannot be easily fettered. The genie may be out of the bottle. Indeed, the seeds may already be sown as regards how citizens operate in place, how they engage with public services, how they make a living, how they organise for change and how they could collectivise against injustice.

Thus, whilst this agenda remains firmly rooted in the orthodox, it may carry within it seeds of change. They could grow into the most progressive social movement of all.

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Neil McInroy

Neil McInroy is chief executive of the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES)

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