Getting beyond the Buzzword

‘Smart City’ is the big noise. Rapid technological advancement has opened up a whole range of opportunities for city managers to increase their capacity to do what they’re paid to, manage their cities. A battery of smart sensors, vastly increased computing power, the internet of things (IoT), artificial intelligence and machine learning all combine to transform our cities into some wonderful utopian dream.

Cars that navigate themselves to free car parking spaces (and then park themselves) drastically reduce traffic congestion and so increase air quality and productivity. Waste collection is no longer tied to the scheduled collection rounds, recycling becomes increasingly profitable and total waste volumes decrease.

In short, increased technological capacity links up an ever growing variety of sources of information resulting in increased efficiency that results in citizens shaping the future of their city.

Or does it? Does it simply mean that city managers are ever more sophisticated at controlling the things they always did and have the capacity to control a few more?

Cities are living eco-systems, vibrant and chaotic in their complexity. Most citizens pay scant attention to the city managers and other faceless bureaucrats who, by and large, are seen as rather inefficiently failing to sort the obvious problems the citizens face each day. For them, life is not a whimsical journey through energy efficient buildings on gleaming rapid transport carriages gliding effortlessly through lollipop trees on some architect’s software generated 3D image. It’s rougher, coarser, more passionate and altogether more full of energy. And life!

As living eco-systems, cities are described by the ‘Big Five’ principles of living systems. Let’s take one of these, ‘self-organising’, as an example. As a self-organising system, the city draws on its history, told through stories, monuments, place names, written and visual histories to make sense of what goes on and just what sort of place it is. This capacity to self-organise preserves its identity, provides the glue that binds the city together, stops it descending into anarchy and chaos and allows its economy, environment and social fabric to function.

The city will take any smart city initiative and make sense of it, if it rejects it or how it uses it, through the lens of all that has gone before. The same as Birmingham in the UK made sense of Chamberlain laying the gas mains or how the Garden Cities grew and came to view themselves.

The city is already ‘smart’, it always has been. Activity emerges from networks of people making sense together of what they see and adapting their behaviour accordingly. If your ‘Smart City’ is to match the hope, not the hype, you need to learn to work with these underlying living dynamics.

The digital world can bring great advances. Real life is analogue. If you cannot learn to work with real life, how it self-organises, learns, perpetuates its identity, then your ‘smart city’ will never achieve your dreams and you will never see the possible return on your investment, however you measure it. Sure, you’ll achieve your awards and take the platform at conferences, but your city will have quietly and deliberately turned all your work back into what it always was, and be continuing about its everyday life, chaotically, passionately and blithely unaware of your personal triumph.