Could Smart Cities Be Smarter About Inequality?

Our cities are unequal – in wealth, quality of life and our carbon footprints, amongst other factors. In the race to use technology to build so-called ‘smart cities’, I argue we run the risk of locking-in, rather than tackling, those inequalities.

Definitions and Data

When it comes to smart cities , Manchester is setting the example for the EU and beyond. But before this pioneering scheme progresses even further, now is the time for careful and considered design, with citizens and the principle of equality, front and centre. The term ‘smart city’ has been banded about quite a lot within the policy arena. With numerous, often vague, meanings, it’s hard to pin down – even the Government hasn’t clearly defined what they are and says “there is no absolute definition of a smart city”.

But what these definitions do seem to have in common, is data and trying to intelligently use it to solve problems. With camera networks, tweets, traffic sensors, weather stations, building management systems and GPS locators, to name but a few, cities are certainly creating a lot of data. They’re also facing a lot of challenges, including profitability, quality of life, sustainability and trying to be efficient.

So how can policymakers tighten up their definition of what a smart city should look like? Perhaps the EU-funded smart cities and communities project known as TRIANGULUM is a good example which is innovating and testing smart technologies, aiming to replicate successful solutions within their cities and beyond. Within this pioneering project three leading cities – Manchester (UK), Eindhoven (Netherlands) and Stavanger (Norway) – are developing smart solutions that will be rolled out to the three follower cities of Sabadell (Spain), Leipzig (Germany) and Prague (Czech Republic).

Curation and innovation

Manchester’s innovation has already begun on Corridor Manchester – its chosen project site. The Corridor spans just short of 2.5 square kilometres, nestled either side of Oxford Road, encompassing The University of Manchester, Manchester Metropolitan University and The Central Manchester University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust. It is a key transport route, with Oxford Road as one of the busiest bus routes in Europe. The site is highly knowledge intensive, home to not only the largest campus in the UK but also a leading science park. For these reasons and more, it serves as a key strategic economic growth site, already generating £3bn GVA per annum.

As part of their approach, Manchester City Council, The University of Manchester, Manchester Metropolitan University, Clicks and Links and Siemens are developing ‘City-Sense’, which is, in their own words, trying to ‘curate’ the Corridor’s data. A digital inventory of the Corridor’s data feeds intended to be used for various innovative applications and better decision making. But what could this mean for citizens?

Just imagine a cycle planner that determines a route not just for the shortest journey, but according to live data on current pollution or noise levels, or cycle-friendly roads, or heating that automatically switches on later if there is a traffic jam into the city centre. Imagine new bus services scheduled according to the routes searched for on travel planners or having access to data on whether certain roads have been gritted after snow or if your bus is delayed, so you don’t have to wait in the cold. It makes the public feel more informed and councils and organisations become more transparent. These are just a few examples of the possibilities that City-Sense could provide, and surely, with all of this information, councils and organisations could deliver better services for citizens?

Siemens once argued along similar lines, that “several decades from now cities will have countless autonomous, intelligently functioning IT systems that will have perfect knowledge of users’ habits and energy consumption, and provide optimum service”. But can we really have ‘perfect’ knowledge of cities in the form of data?

Data and Power

The term ‘data’ first emerged in the seventeenth century, with Latin roots as the plural of datum, meaning ‘something given in argument and taken for granted’, in contrast to fact. Dis-proven facts cease to be called facts, but false data is still data. Data reflects the people who create it, serving a particular purpose. City-Sense is no different, charged with curating data, implying some form of sifting and maintenance. This is of course necessary, to assure that the data is reliable, that the data feeds won’t mysteriously disappear and that they represent the city.

Crucially, and perhaps worryingly, the data curators will have the power to shape society for the better, or worse. One question raised during the development of City-Sense was whether data beyond the Corridor should be included. On the surface, this may appear odd, given that the Corridor is the site of the project. But if you consider the makeup of the Corridor, it’s clearly a prosperous business area with few domestic properties. With the science park and the Universities, it is an obvious choice, both for data contributors and innovators. But what about the people that use the Corridor? How well does it engage the surrounding areas, such as Ardwick and Hulme? Where do its workers come from? The food that is consumed? The Corridor does not exist in a sealed bubble and its data should not either. Not attending to this would create inequalities in ‘smartness’, a divide between the Corridor and its neighbours.

A Human-Centric Approach

It is easy to see, therefore, that how data is managed (and created) will paint a very different portrait of the area it supposedly shows. It is for this reason I would argue that ‘perfect data’ can never really exist in the way that Siemens may have, at least once, believed. Smart projects should never be seen to be a perfect cure to the problems and disagreements we have in our cities.

However, ‘smart’ cities and ‘smart’ projects need not appear sinister. I would appeal to policymakers involved in pioneering smart city projects that they should carefully consider how platforms will be designed to ensure they place people and equality at the forefront. I hope this human-centric approach is one of the aspects that Manchester will execute well with City-Sense, to be replicated in follower cities and beyond.

This post originally appeared on Policy@Manchester.