Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Citizen Engagement in Smart Cities: Theoretical Dreams vs Practical Reality

By: Muneera Bano (@DrMuneeraBanoand Didar Zowghi (@DidarZowghi) 

It has been predicted that by 2050, around two-thirds of the world’s population might be living in urban settlements. To make the cities ready for population expansion and growth, ICT is playing a critical role in the future of urbanisation referred to as ‘Smart City’. It has recently become the hot topic of research as the tech giants such as Google and Microsoft entering the race of real state.

There is no consensus on the exact definition of smart cities, however, any definition would refer to the core concepts of advanced technological infrastructure for urban society with collaborative and interactive human-centred design. An emerging view is that smart cities aim to increase efficiency, sustainability, and improve quality of life for citizen by utilizing technologies to connect every layer of a city, from the air to the streets to underground, to capture and analyse data from various independently-managed and operating infrastructures, utilities and service providers.

The buzz words used by researchers to propose architectural solutions for smart cities include Artificial Intelligence (AI), Internet of Things (IoT), Smart Phones, Cloud-based Services and Big Data. In essence, a smart city is a large-scale cyber-physical complex socio-technical system for an urban population that is comprised of many interconnected subsystems. Examples of these subsystems include transportation, power and water supply, waste management, pollution monitoring, crime detection, video surveillance, emergency response system and other smart community initiatives for e-governance. Typical examples of smart city are Singapore, Dubai, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Stockholm, and New York.

The three core components of a smart city are People, Processes and Technology. Regardless of the type of technology used for smart city implementation, the most emphasised factor is ‘Citizen Engagement’. As pointed out by Bettina Tratz-Ryan, research vice president at Gartner, "The way forward today is a community-driven, bottom-up approach where citizens are an integral part of designing and developing smart cities and not a top-down policy with city leaders focusing on technology platforms alone”.

Smart city design should not only allow the community of citizens to interact directly with the technology but increase their participation in the governance of the cities. However, relatively little research has focused on the complexities and pragmatics of citizen engagement leading to their participation in governance.

There are various stakeholders in the smart city and citizens are only one group of stakeholder. The intention for involving citizens in co-production and the evolution of the smart city is to turn them into a technologically intelligent community where collective human intelligence works in parallel to AI for maximum effectiveness. However, in practice, such form of citizen engagement (to the level of co-governance by society) has yet to be observed in real life examples.

The democratic concept of stakeholder involvement in system design is quite old and well established. Without careful consideration and management, involving stakeholders can cause issues rather than provide benefits. Smart city, being a complex, large-scale, cyber-physical, multi-faceted, multi-layered and socio-technical system, presents new challenges on how to involve and engage the right stakeholder (citizens).

The critical aspect of any smart city project is derived from the political, social and cultural values of the society. The design and infrastructure of a smart city, type of citizen engagement and its evolution will reflect the political system. Examples of such differences can be seen in the citizen engagement by Japan, in the Social Credit System by China, or the bio-microchip implementation by Sweden.

Whether citizen engagement is a democratic initiative (neo-humanist), where the technology is utilised to improve the life and environment of a city, or is it a step towards an increase in controlling the behavioural patterns of the citizens on politically acceptable values inherent in the governance layer of society (functionalist approach) or as simply phrased mass surveillance, the questions regarding citizen engagement such as who will be involved, why, when, how and how much, would all be answered within the political context and the paradigm of governance of a country.

There is a need for further research on various dimensions of citizen engagement not just from purely technological perspectives but also from a social perspective such as political, cultural, and ethical. It is one of the important aspects of smart city and lack of proper citizen engagement and fair representation of citizens from all walks of life can have serious repercussions. Lack of diverse representation can lead to biases in design, that can disadvantage the under-represented or underprivileged groups of citizens. Also, there is a possibility of increasing the digital divide that will impact the less technologically savvy population of cities.

Another crucial issue that requires attention is data protection and privacy.  Smart cities capture and manage large amounts of data that is extremely important for their operations. Any data loss will disrupt city operations and will impact citizen’s trust and confidence. Data collected and manipulated by Smart Cities solutions are critically sensitive for citizens, businesses, governmental, and emergency services, etc. To ensure compliance with data protection regulations such as GDPR, smart city architecture must include data protection as a critical requirement and must embed privacy protection in all stages of the data lifecycle.   

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