Julian Dobson, editorial director of Sustainable Cities Collective blog, writes about the urgent need to ensure that social infrastructure will work with the digital infrastructure in the smart cities of future.
Mr Dobson notes that while technologies can enable cities to run more efficiently, to apply resources more effectively to needs, to share information, etc. they are less good at dealing with the random and unpredictable.
Democracy and citizenship that relies on regular cycles of meetings and annual or triennial elections looks increasingly out of touch with ‘˜smart’ , real-time decision-making. Smart citizens will demand much more responsive, immediate approaches ‘“ the kind pioneered by applications like FixMyStreet. As that grows you can see how the traditional role of the local councillor, and especially their party political role, might start to look increasingly archaic.
But while political innovation may be overdue, beware the rise of the geekocracy. If the application developers and data mashers become the favoured voices, a host of citizens could be left behind, unable to contribute to a discourse in a language they don’ t speak. The already excluded could become further removed from decision-making. The new utility then becomes socially divisive to a far greater extent than the old utilities of water and energy ever were.
That leaves us with an urgent need to ensure social infrastructure works with the digital infrastructure. That means posing challenging questions ‘“ for example, what might a ‘smart’ social housing estate look like? ‘“ and forging new relationships not just between developers and providers but between the digital haves and have-nots. A digital democracy needs to couple innovation with widening access. Perhaps that’ s the biggest challenge for smart cities – and smart villages, hamlets and isolated farms too.
Mr Dobson concludes that smarter citizens will not just be able to use digital infrastructure to meet their needs; they’ ll use it to facilitate the very personal interactions that defuse a crisis or help a friend in need. Simple tools like Twitter and Facebook can already do that to a remarkable extent. The methods may be digital, but the solutions must be human.