Ningbo smart city exhibition centre. Image courtesy of Robert Cowley.
Public must help shape ‘smart cities’
The public must play a key role in the ongoing “smart cities” revolution, researchers say.
The term smart city refers to places where digital data is collected and used to run services – ranging from traffic lights that minimise queues to health apps that allow patients to check waiting times.
Every town and city is becoming “smart” to some extent, but rates of change differ dramatically worldwide and in the UK – where places like Bristol and Manchester are leading the way.
Many changes may be invisible even to people living in the cities, and the research team – led by the University of Exeter – is calling for more citizen awareness and participation.
The call comes during Green GB Week (15 October – 19 October), a UK government initiative highlighting the opportunities “clean growth” offers the UK and raising understanding of how business and the public can contribute to tackling climate change.
“At the moment there is very little involvement from citizens in the development of smart cities,” said Dr Federico Caprotti, from the University of Exeter.
“The movement towards smart cities is one of the fastest and most fundamental changes we are seeing at present, and that process will continue to happen rapidly.
“There are huge potential benefits in almost every aspect of the way towns and cities work, but we must also consider what all this data collection and surveillance means for citizenship.
“Much of this change is happening at a very local level, and if people don’t help shape the process we will end up with a top-down approach.”
The researchers also highlight the increasing role of tech companies caused by the transition to smart cities.
“A key point that is coming out of the project is that the development of smart cities could be seen as heralding a change, or evolution, in capitalism – something that has been called ‘platform urbanism’, as smart platforms and devices increasingly make platform providers the key economic and industrial players,” Dr Caprotti said.
The comments come at the conclusion of a three-year project, Smart Eco-Cities (funded by ESRC), that examined smart city and eco-city initiatives in China and Europe.
One aim of the project was to find out what had happened to the green agenda of the earlier eco-cities movement, which was especially prominent in the 2000s before smart cities came to the fore in the late 2000s.
“We found that the green agenda is still very much part of smart cities – but the smart city concept includes a lot of other aspects now too,” Dr Caprotti said.
Comparing the progress of various cities, Dr Caprotti said a national smart cities programme in China meant many cities there were “way ahead of anything in Europe or the US”.
Speaking about progress in Europe, he added: “Some of the most active smart cities are the ones where city managers visit other smart cities regularly.
“In our research, the smart cities office in Bordeaux told us that staff there go to cities including Bristol, Amsterdam and Austin (US) to see what they can learn.
“In the UK, we are seeing cities that have gone through deindustrialisation, such as Glasgow and Birmingham, seize on smart city innovations as a way to rejuvenate themselves.”
No two smart cities are developing in identical ways, but changes include:
- Emergency services hubs that bring together live data on incidents, traffic, CCTV and deployments
- Live data available to the public about a range of things such as available parking spaces, A&E waiting times, etc
- Automatic watering of plants in public parks, based on rain and humidity sensors so water is only used when needed
- Private firms like Uber and Airbnb changing the way certain industries run
Bristol Energy Tree. Credit - Armita Afsahi.
Date: 17 October 2018