Citizens are foundations of Smart cities

When government officials and C-level executives came together in September 2016, from around the world to attend an executive 3 day Conference in Yinchuan, China, they agreed that without the fourth ‘p’ i.e ‘People’ in the PPP (public-private partnership) model, there will be no value creation. Increasingly, there is a clear shift to discussions about Smart Cities around citizens and humanising technology.

In June 2016, The Australian federal government released Smart Cities Plan, built on three pillars: smart investment, smart policy and smart technology. Yet, it also suggested that:

Cities are first and foremost for people.

and:

If our cities are to continue to meet their residents’ needs, it is essential for people to engage and participate in planning and policy decisions that have an impact on their lives.

Despite this quintessential policymaking statement, the plan largely uses language that conveys a limited role for people in cities: they live, work and consume. The absence of a more thorough response is surprising considering the rich body of work calling for better human engagement in the smart city agenda.

Technology is advancing too rapidly and if not handled correctly, technology solutions can feel imposed, rather than inclusive. Cities can be perceived to be tackling the ‘wrong’ problems or introducing ‘technology for technology’s sake’ and therefore failing to deliver value. Citizens need to feel part of the changes in their city.

If people are not involved, it can result in failures. For example, in India, in 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the Smart Cities Mission (SCM) to enable the holistic development of cities. This initiative aimed to drive economic growth and improve the quality of life of people by enabling local development and harnessing technology as a means to create smart outcomes for citizens. It also set up a platform —- http://www.mygov.in —- for better consultation between the government and citizens. But as cities launched their multi-crore urban renewal programmes, a few faltered badly on citizen’s participation. Take for example, Dehra Dun. Last year Doonites bulldozed their way into a smart city project and demanded their right to have a say in the planning process because they did not agree with the local government’s environmentally-destructive plans. Then there are examples of Bhubaneswar and Chennai: Both cities successfully demonstrated the positive impact of citizen’s participation in planning for SCM.

Technology can offer new creative solutions but it should always remain a means to an end at the service of the citizens. Citizens are the key to designing, building and making future smart cities. Citizen engagement should be the number one priority as citizens reflect the community needs. Therefore, smart city projects need to be set up after several deliberations with the residents of the city.

Smart city projects also help set up a platform for better consultation between government and citizens. City officials and urban experts should be trained to conduct meaningful and ethical engagement of citizens.

The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) has called for a public engagement campaign around the benefits of smart cities, following research which suggested there is ‘public apathy’ around the technology.

The Smart Cities – Time to involve the people report found that just 18 percent of the British public has heard of a ‘smart city’ and that there is a lack of consumer consensus on the relevance of technologies typically associated with smart cities. In India, one of the reasons of roll out of smart city projects was that it was presupposed citizens have a certain level of digital literacy and access to technology.

A European manifesto on Citizen Engagement focuses on collaborating on the following initiatives:

  • To raise citizen awareness of the potential advantages and benefits of smart city projects
  • Develop and exploit new and existing collaborative models
  • Improve procurement and assessment procedures
  • Promote the use of open data and appropriate access to data by citizens
  • Promote open science and open innovation to foster smart citizens
  • Leadership in citizens engagement

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