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Rethinking Smart Cities to put people first

Rethinking Smart Cities to put people first

Earlier this month, the British nonprofit Nesta issued a special report on the hits and misses of the global Smart Cities movement. Started in 1998 as the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, the self-described "innovation charity" aims to increase the innovation capacity of the U.K.

by TOM SAUNDERS and PETER BAECK, Nesta | June 29, 2015

For smart cities to reach their full potential, they need to focus on the citizens living in them, not just technology.

Traditionally, smart cities have emphasized hardware -- the internet of things, 'Big Data', advanced computing -- over the needs of people, and the challenges they face living in cities. They have also emphasized marketing and promotion at the expense of hard evidence and testing solutions out in the real world. As a result, many Smart City ideas have failed to deliver on their promise, combining high costs and low returns.

Our new report, Rethinking Smart Cities from the Ground Up, explores how many city governments are now trying to put this right, to reap the full potential of new digital technologies while not repeating the mistakes of the past. They are looking for answers that involve the public in both shaping technologies and implementing them; solutions that are cheaper and more modular; and they are seeking out evidence instead of hype.

Successful smart cities of the future will combine the best aspects of technology infrastructure while making the most of the growing potential of 'collaborative technologies' -- technologies that enable greater collaboration between urban communities and between citizens and city governments. 

Collective smarts: Frustrated citizens in Rotterdam crowdfunded this wooden footbridge, a much-needed safe crossing over a busy highway. Donors' names were put on planks on the walls lining each side of the pedestrian crossing.

Collective smarts: Frustrated citizens in Rotterdam crowdfunded this wooden footbridge, a much-needed safe crossing over a busy highway. Donors' names were put on planks on the walls lining each side of the pedestrian crossing.

Our report tells the stories of cities around the world - from Beijing to Amsterdam, and from London to Jakarta - that are addressing urban challenges by using digital technologies to engage and enable citizens.

Key findings

  • Many ‘top down’ smart city ideas have failed to deliver on their promise, combining high costs and low returns;
  • ‘Collaborative technologies’ offer cities another way to make smarter use of resources, smarter ways of collecting data and smarter ways to make decisions;
  • Collaborative technologies can also help citizens themselves shape the future of their cities;
  • We offer five recommendations for city governments that want to make their cities smarter.

As cities bring people together to live, work and play, they amplify their ability to create wealth and ideas. But scale and density also bring acute challenges: how to move around people and things; how to provide energy; how to keep people safe. To have a chance of helping cities address some of the tough problems they face, we argue that further investment and support are needed to generate evidence about which approaches to using collaborative technologies are most effective. Cities then need to share these lessons so that other cities can adopt and build on the most successful approaches.

‘Smart Cities’ offer sensors, ‘Big Data’ and advanced computing as answers to these challenges, but they have often faced criticism for being too concerned with hardware rather than people.

Drawing on examples from all around the world, we investigate four emerging methods which are helping cities engage and enable their citizens: 1) The collaborative economy; 2) Crowdsourcing data; 3) Collective intelligence; and 4) Crowdfunding.

In the introduction of our report, we set out five main recommendations on how cities can become smarter in a way that will deliver on their promise.

RECOMMENDATIONS

  1. Set up a civic innovation lab to drive innovation in collaborative technologies;
  2. Use open data and open platforms to mobilize collective knowledge;
  3. Take human behavior as seriously as technology;
  4. Invest in smart people, not just smart technology;
  5. Spread the potential of collaborative technologies to all parts of society.

The authors are both members of Nesta's Policy & Research team. Saunders is a senior researcher on international innovation and cities, and Baeck is principal researcher on public and social innovation.

To download the full report, click here.

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