The Last Mile: The Smart City Meets Social Innovation

June 11, 2015

The ‘last mile’ is a phrase that has entered common parlance in recent times in the context of the challenges of delivering high-speed broadband services to people’s homes. The phrase is used to highlight a key problem that has been identified with this technology: the service is only as good as the network that connects to the user’s home, no matter the capacity of the wider network. For broadband, the local context is everything – the difference between providing clear advantages to people and being an irrelevance. A similar case can be made, I will argue, for the prospects of the smart city vision delivering on the benefits of which its proponents claim it is capable.

The smart city vision is predicated on harnessing a new wave of innovations in digital technologies – urban informatics – capable of delivering the tools needed for the generation, collection, storage and analysis of data relating to urban environments and their inhabitants. Through being able to capture and analyse the explosion of social data – the so-called ‘data exhaust’[1] that people generate as they go about their daily lives – the smart city will, it is claimed, provide hitherto unparalleled capacity for understanding, responding to and managing the needs of its inhabitants. In this vision, urban policy-making and management becomes more objective, robust, more scientific and certain. In the vision’s normative version, the smart city will be run more efficiently because decisions will be better informed and made in a more timely way. The combination of the availability of data capturing the pulse of the city at an unprecedented level of detail and ever more sophisticated tools to make sense of it will ensure that urban inhabitants are more content and have increased confidence in the public servants who manage their day-to-day affairs and plan for their future wellbeing.

This version of the smart city vision has an undeniably technological determinist and technocratic flavour. Regarding the former, the vision uncritically assumes that technological innovations will lead automatically to a more efficiently managed and thus a more orderly urban environment. Regarding the latter, it assumes that its benefits will be delivered through the agency of an established cadre of professional urban policy-making and managerial elites. As I will argue, both of these assumptions are fundamentally flawed. Assuming, for example, that a more technocratic approach to the conduct of urban affairs will automatically lead to ‘better’ decisions is naïve, as anyone following the climate change debate will have observed. If the benefits of smart cities are to be realised, we must contextualise developments in urban informatics within a broader landscape of technical and social innovation.

Students of innovation processes have long recognised the inadequacies of technological determinist accounts, so it may surprise that it persists in popular discourses about the future (No doubt the fact that it suits the goals of stakeholders that expect to profit from sales of new technologies goes some way to explain this.) Innovation processes have always been shaped by the (often competing) interests of different stakeholders, with the result that early predictions of outcomes are often unreliable. But this in itself is not what leads me to question the smart city vision. Rather, it is the fact that innovation processes are becoming increasingly open and participatory, which established gatekeepers of technical change will struggle to control. Innovations are being co-produced from the ‘bottom-up’ in ways that we have not witnessed before.

I refer in particular to the new wave of distributed, networked, inter-operable and ‘hackable’ digital innovations that exemplify the concept of ‘disruptive technologies’. These offer the means for under-represented and relatively disempowered groups in society to challenge the status quo. Mobile devices with their built-in instrumentation capabilities provide ways to harvest data. The imminent arrival of the Internet of Things will enable remote harvesting of data. Social media (eg Facebook, Twitter) provide open fora for local and wider community discussion and for holding government agencies and political representatives to account in public. Web 2.0 enables the building of tools for crowdsourcing volunteer effort (eg citizen science) and at short notice (eg flashmobs). Cloud computing makes cheap, scalable computer and data hosting available to anyone who needs it. Policy initiatives such as open data not only give citizens access to a wide range of government datasets, but also enable citizens to request the release of previously unpublished data.

These technologies used individually and in combination, offer citizens the capacity to discover and share information; harvest data and analyse it; raise public awareness and mobilise attention; exchange ideas and shape opinions; promote cohesion and common purpose; marshal resources and organise for collective action. Used in such ways, these new technologies can give citizens opportunities to have a greater say in defining the problems their communities face and how they are managed. So, many of the same technological innovations that are assumed to be powering the smart city vision may also prove disruptive – at least for the realisation of its normative version. That’s not to say that we cannot look forward to a future where we are able to better provide for urban citizens’ wellbeing but that the how we get there may be rather different than we might have imagined. Most important will be discovering ways to embed the smart city within local communities, leveraging those ‘bottom-up’ innovation processes to the best advantage.

An example of such ‘bottom-up’ initiatives can be found in the efforts of voluntary organisations such as the Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science[2], which seek to promote the transfer of skills and tools for environmental science to community groups. They ‘hack’ cheap and readily available digital technologies so that they can be mobilised in the cause of doing environmental science that speaks to community issues.

Such developments encourage us to imagine a very different vision of the smart city, one driven by an open urban science that reflects the interests of community members who are able to use the tools of urban informatics to articulate their own problems, agendas and, where necessary, challenge the authority of professional and centralised policy-making and administration elites.

Urban policy makers and administrators will have to be prepared to justify their conclusions by revealing the details of their decision-making processes – their assumptions and, perhaps, the models they use to transform data into decisions. Citizens will be able to challenge these assumptions and run their own models with the same or their own datasets.

Inevitably, in this scenario, urban policy-making and administration will need to become more transparent. In turn, this may mean reaching a consensus may become more fraught, and hence policy-making and administration processes will not necessarily be more efficient, as the smart city vision might have us believe. However, its proponents should recognise that this is a necessary price for promoting public trust and confidence in the smart city. If the smart city vision is to succeed, then it has to be embedded in communities in ways that give members the power to take more control over their affairs. If, instead, it is perceived as being a tool for the traditional elite of urban policy-makers and administrators then it will fail.  

Rob Procter is Professor of Social Informatics in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Warwick and research director of the Warwick Institute for the Science of Cities (WISC).