The design of smart cities must be about the needs of citizens, and not just about simply installing hardware and networks for the sake of it, according to a panel of city leaders and experts.
The launch of Nesta's Rethinking Smart Cities from the Ground Up research brought together smart city specialists ranging from Amsterdam's chief technology officer to city architects and authors.
Nesta, formerly known as the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, is an independent charity that works to increase the UK's capacity for innovation.
All the experts agreed that cities wanting to embrace modern technology need to be developed with the input of the local population.
"People are part of this whole new digital society," said Ger Baron, City of Amsterdam CTO. "What we [look at] nowadays is how can we empower people in the city and work with people and see our role in the whole 'need dimension'."
Baron added that smart cities need to focus on data to find insights into city operations and gain perspectives on how different initiatives can help citizens in different ways.
He explained that Amsterdam's smart city projects have focused on citizens and tourists. One was a trial of a city map that used crowed-sourced data from 1,000 people using a prototype mobile app.
The aim was to keep people informed about crowded areas in the hope that this would reduce the number of people in popular locations.
Baron said that the project was not a success, but that opening smart city data and sharing it with the general population empowers people to help themselves, or at least provide feedback to local government, about how they would like to see the open data used.
Carine Saloff-Coste, director of economic development, employment and higher education at the municipality of Paris, said his city's smart projects have also been focused on people rather than just filling the area with complex networks and hardware.
"We developed several applications for citizens to be involved in the management of the city," she said. "For example, [people] can say where there are areas of too much pollution."
Saloff-Coste explained that Parisians were also given access to a ‘fix my street' app to log problems with the appropriate authority and get them fixed as quickly as possible.
This was an example of a smart city project that used common consumer technology to empower people without needing large infrastructure overhauls and expenditure.
Power to the people
Nesta's research supported the views of the panel, and highlighted how too many smart city undertakings are focused on technology and see a lack of results for the high level of investment they require.
The research said that projects that have started from a grassroots level looking at the needs of citizens have been more successful.
Tom Saunders, senior researcher at Nesta, cited the example of Jakarta in Indonesia that monitors Twitter as a way to crowdsource alerts for floods from around the city, rather than installing sensors across the area.
"We're going to need ‘smart people'. If you're bringing in new data streams and new technologies [but] not working with people, it's not really going to help," he said.
Anthony Townsend, author of Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers and the Quest for a New Utopia, echoed this view, saying that infrastructure technology should come second to engaging with the local population and allowing them to influence smart city projects.
He explained that projects with prescribed plans lack the input of citizens who are often already equipped with smart devices, such as wearable technology, which in turn stifles any potential innovation they could bring to the table.
"The problem with the top down smart city is that it doesn't let us [look at] the kinds of connections that we can explore when we have access to these tools," he said.
Others on the panel agreed that smart city development needs to be driven by people, not just created in isolation by city officials.
However, Geoff Snelson, director of strategy at Milton Keynes Council, warned that any smart city project must prove its economic value before it is undertaken.
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