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Smart city leaders must act to deliver better digital lives

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Digital services are reshaping city life. To ensure that digitalisation is a positive force in the city, the role of the city administration needs to be rethought. Following the second meeting in LSE’s Digital Life series in March, Visiting Fellows Jonny Shipp and Dr Ioanna Noula discuss the challenges and opportunities for city leaders, citizens and companies in creating better digital lives.

Cities are complex ecosystems of many people, public infrastructure and private platforms. City administrations have conventionally been responsible for creating, managing and delivering city services. At the turn of the 21st century, digital systems providers tried to sell computer systems to city administrations. They made few sales, but they created a lasting vision.

Today, the idea of the “smart city” underpins a new wave of digitalization, driven by the Internet of Things and the data they produce. City leaders must reconcile the long-term and considered interests of citizens and local communities with the immediate benefits of effective, convenient and often “free” contributions of the new digital platforms.

Breaking down silos, sharing the data

Digital technologies are embedded within energy, water, transport and healthcare systems, yet so far little attention is given by procuring administrations to integrating, sharing of analysing data between them. With water processing creating 30% of energy demand in some cities, it is likely that such integration will produce valuable insights and efficiencies, improving travel, reducing air pollution and add to city life in other ways.

The London Data Store is pioneering the opening up of data about London’s infrastructure. Likewise, communications networks are investing in systems to bring together the data generated from the different ‘layers’ of their services.

Digital transformation

Until recently, infrastructure has tended to be provided as public services, with wide accessibility and a long-term view. Digital platforms, by contrast, have rapidly appeared and quickly absorbed into city life. More often private entities, these tend to be participatory, customised, user focussed, competitive sharing economy services. They challenge the traditional role of city administrations, corporations, start-ups and community projects, enabling people to manage many services directly themselves.

A majority of city services are now being self-served by people, often without any direct involvement by the city administration, and so quite possibly without the public interest being fully considered or represented. And having created useful and engaging services, digital platforms like Waze, Strava, or Uber are now brokering the big data they collect and analyse back to cities.

Administrations value real-time reporting on traffic, for example, but risk reproducing inequalities by adopting such data sources uncritically. Digital platform providers are also now making their own infrastructure investments, such as in satellites and sensors. However such investments are directed by commercial strategy rather than any public mandate. In these ways, smart cities are being shaped by the tensions, conflicts and overlaps between civic infrastructure and digital platforms.

Rethinking the role of city administration

City service ecosystems are evolving rapidly, sometimes without the guiding hand of an elected administration. As digitalisation takes hold, its processes are less and less visible, yet connectivity and encounter intensify, transforming the scope and purpose of civic life. Budget pressures mean severe cuts to services and a fundamental lack of capacity to respond thoughtfully to the challenges of digitalisation.

A popular ‘grass-roots’ digital start-up puts empty residents parking bays to use during the day, but in doing so may also contribute to increased air pollution. Private sector firms and platforms will deliver services, managing things in ways that public administrations may not have the time or capacity to consider and enable. They are not incentivised to stop cities from functioning well, quite the opposite. Yet the user-focus of data-driven platforms, aiming to “meet customer needs”, may obscure a need for governance that protects peoples’ fundamental human rights and hard won liberties.

If the public interest and collective living are the core purpose of the city, accountability and strong ethical frameworks for the data-driven platforms that improve city life are vital to hold the “governing” accountable to the “governed”. Citizens must be empowered to make decisions about their use of the services available to them, to improve their quality of life without discounting fundamental human rights including their rights to dignity, privacy and freedom of speech. The arrival of the Internet of Things should not deprive citizens of their agency.

A new model of governance is required in which city leaders are empowered in their role as guardians of the public interest, of rights, equality and social justice, whilst they relinquish direct control of service delivery. Successful smart cities will not be delivered top-down but will develop from the grass roots, guided by city administrations.

Modelling success

Wherever you are in the world, administrations appear to struggle with a lack of strategic, policy and governance capacity. In the global south there is also a lack of affordable capital, so development banks have a vital role.

Cities need the capacity to govern digital developments. As part of this, people must be engaged and involved: to effectively take hold, solutions must be co-designed rather than deployed. User focus is a key feature of successful digital platform development. Yet for the city administration the focus should also be on citizens not only users. In other words city administrations must consider the needs of people regardless of the value of their engagement to the growth and success of any particular digital platform.

Any measure of success should account for more than financial return. It must measure the impact on people’s quality of life, including the impact of sharing their data so taking into account the ancient civic quest of eudaimonia: “living well”. If administrations could model the impact of digitalisation, it would enable them to shape developments in the public interest, to govern effectively, so enabling better digital lives.

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