Innovative technologies trigger engaged citizenry: Smart cities are engaging cities

Following his articles on urban regeneration and de-industrialisation, Mark Dean unpacks recent literature around smart cities. From the emergence of e-governance, innovations of living laboratories to Pokémon GO, he looks at smart city technologies for twenty-first century engagement. 

Many problems face cities around the world in the twenty-first century and these require twenty-first century solutions. A significant evolution in governance policy making is necessary to deliver better solutions, particularly as more than fifty per cent of the world’s population now lives in cities, and that figure grows rapidly. Governance structures of the twentieth century struggle with the global social, cultural, economic and political interconnectivity produced by technological change. The present bureaucratic structures many nations have in place must become more flexible. As the size of cities increases demographically and geographically, the old ways of ‘doing’ government will fail to proportionately respond to pressing complex needs.

Recent literature exploring the concept of smart cities reveals a growing realisation that these problems must be addressed by connecting urban development policy to innovative forms of technology based public engagement. The smart city can be simply defined as one in which local authorities engage citizens through strategic use of digital technology to achieve goals of safety, security and liveability, and to help establish critical infrastructure and deliver services effectively and efficiently. For this reason, literature discussing the notion of the smart city has focused on the way twenty first century challenges to cities can be addressed by harnessing the power of technology in ways that achieve appropriate governance responses. However, what this literature makes very clear is that utilising technology alone will not be effective. Governments that adopt smart city strategies must make the process as much about public engagement as it is about technological innovation. In combination, technology and public engagement form the most critical nexus for innovative urban development.

Roadmap for development: e-governance and engaged cities

In Smart Cities – A Roadmap for Development, Sam Musa essentially argues that smart cities represent a potential break from the old, rigid bureaucratic structures and methods of managing cities that entrench inefficiencies and disconnection between infrastructure and citizens. Smart cities can overcome the impediments to access that face digitally disconnected places. However, a roadmap for developing a smart city approach is essential and must from the outset revolve around public engagement. Musa’s roadmap lists key steps in communicating the rationale for smart cities, developing policy to drive the initiative and involving citizens in an ongoing process of public empowerment, whereby effective forms of electronic governance (e-governance) permit citizens to not just benefit from things like new infrastructure, efficient service delivery and participatory budgeting processes, but allow them to provide constant feedback through digital connectivity with government in more flexible digital forms such as free public Wi-Fi and even things like app-based maintenance and service issue reporting mechanisms.

Participatory innovation and living labs

In 2016, such forms of digital public engagement feature in a range of e-governance types. Among some of the world’s most advanced smart cities are those that have adopted a ‘city-as-platform’ approach as their e-governance approach to public engagement in revitalising urban areas and strategising urban economic development. Ari-Veikko Anttiroiko discusses the platformisation’ concept in The Rise of Participatory Innovation Platforms in Finnish Cities, covering recent theory and case studies from city-as-platform approaches to embedding smart city programs in public engagement.

The city-as-platform is finding success in Finland’s three most culturally and economically important cities Helsinki, Tampere and Oulu which have all embraced the smart city model for urban innovation. By making public engagement the centrepiece of policy, when technology brings these cities together it resembles progress based on networks of participation between all sectors of society. The smart city policies of governments in these cities have underscored partnerships with the business and civil communities to facilitate public participation in experimental pilot programs. The aim of these are to redevelop run-down districts into smart city hubs; improve public transport services; and connect students, researchers, entrepreneurs and the local community in collaboration and co-creation on urban rejuvenation projects.

At the most advanced end of smart city development, Helsinki has embraced a combination of innovation incubation to inform the future trajectory of the smart city; and a ‘magnet’ to attract new ideas to it with a network of living labs that promote public participation in the discovery of user-driven methods and tools to solve real-world problems. Perhaps most simply, yet fundamentally at the centre of smart city development, provision of free public access Wi-Fi infrastructure features in the city-as-platform policies of Finland’s major cities. But rather than represent just an access point, free Wi-Fi is designed to facilitate open data sharing so that digital connectivity brings diverse users into contact in spaces where information is readily available for collaborative innovation possibilities.

In concluding, Anttiroiko draws attention to the way that the smart city policies of local governments in Finland have been so successful not because public authorities have stepped away from innovation processes. By government creating the space and providing the tools for innovation, the smart city platform at local level draws strength from its recognition in broader frameworks at inter-regional, national and international levels.

Geofences: digital infrastructure and Pokémon GO

It is evident from recent smart city research literature that governments can make forms of e-governance available to the public for the purposes of engagement. Yet making them aware of such opportunities and motivating them to interact remains a problem when thinking about the implementation stage of the smart city approach. Perhaps a key feature omitted from the roadmap, and oversimplified in analysis of the Finnish case is how governments can actually achieve public engagement within an implemented strategy. This requires an element of data measurement and analysis.

Fechner, Schlarmann and Kray focus on measuring smart city engagement in their article, Facilitating Citizen Engagement in Situ – a title that makes clear that smart cities are being applied to local places and people and so must be specific to local situations to promote changes in established cultural practices. Their idea to address this issue proposes a smartphone application that notifies a user about nearby smart city engagement opportunities. By using geofences to alert individuals in proximity to public digital infrastructure and service points, the public are effectively participating in a simplified version of Pokémon GO. Where citizens are encouraged to interact with urban environments through triangulation, governments can facilitate public engagement with smart city strategies. The results of these authors’ study show that citizens at the very least appreciate information about opportunities for interaction, even if they do not necessarily participate immediately. This indicates that digital information can inform ongoing physical relationships between citizens and their urban environments.

Smart cities, accessible cities

The recent literature on smart cities detailed above demonstrates that researchers and now even some policy makers are embracing smart city policy platforms for public engagement. It shows that the smart city is viable in policy and practice as a twenty first century solution to twenty first century problems in cities. The real-world examples contained within some of the above work demonstrate that the most advanced cities are well on their way to embracing the innovative approaches of the smart city as a dynamic and flexible system of governance and public engagement.

When fully incorporated into policy, there is potential for the smart city as a platform for various e-governance tools that engage citizens with public planning, services and urban development. Expanding participation beyond the typical administrative systems of government strikes balance between the forms of policy making – both free market and centralised government – that are failing to account for the complexity of reality. Recent research tells us that the smart city holds potential for promoting bottom-up solutions to the kinds of challenges that will test the limits of current institutional forms and styles of public participation.

But as with all research, significant gaps must be addressed before governments will have a range of tools to truly modernise their public engagement policies. An evident limitation in smart city projects detailed in the literature investigated above is the reliance of many on smartphones. This risks excluding some disabled, older and other disadvantaged groups in society from engagement and participation. Of course, the goal should be to make cities work for all citizens.

This is made a more difficult task when considering that mainstream economic ideologies still underpin much of the rationale and policy making practices for smart city developments. Yet what the above smart cities literature reveals is that there are viable options for meaningful, bottom-up public engagement, and when these are embedded in the very platform of government’s relationship with its citizens, smart cities can reach all corners of society. Thus, further smart city research might seek to determine how public authorities can become more flexible to fully meet the challenges of smart city policy making that fully engages the public in solving complex problems, where decentralised decision making replaces the market-based or centralised approaches that continue to dominate much urban development policy.

Mark Dean is a PhD candidate in political economy, University of Adelaide, where he is completing a project on policy responses of governments to manufacturing deindustrialisation in South Australia (SA). He is a Visiting Researcher at the Australian Institute for Industrial Transformation, Flinders University, and Vice-President of the Australian Institute of Urban Studies – SA Branch.

Header photo: Mike Wilson/unsplash/cc

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