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Can smart cities pass the dog s*** test?

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Incremental, practical technology projects will secure citizens’ support for big reform.

The technology industry is currently facing serious accusations about its impact on our lives.

Amazon has been criticised for seemingly playing America’s great cities against each other to seek special benefits from city councils, which have bowed and scraped to welcome Jeff Bezos’s firm, and the accompanying prestige, jobs and economic stimulus, to their home.

Twitter and Facebook are also accused of debasing Western democracy by spreading fake news and exposing users to extreme content, making our politics more rancorous and unseating once comfortable political factions.

A more mundane sin of the tech industry is that it has further polluted working life with gibberish. We are told that technology is disrupting our lives at an ever-increasing rate, and we must buy the latest market-leading solutions delivered via the cloud or perish.

Local government must endure the same marketing onslaughts as the private sector in this regard. But less so than its business counterparts it is being asked to grapple with the evolving concept of ‘smart cities’.

Naturally, nobody can agree what the term means. At a Westminster eForum event on Thursday no speaker gave an incontestable definition, or really explained why cities have previously been ‘dumb’. Theo Blackwell, chief digital officer for the Mayor of London, told the event he finds the term “really quite unhelpful”.

Rick Robinson, digital property and cities leader at Arup, specialists in the built environment, first heard it back in 1997. He said that the meaning can be found at the overlap between what technology does and what makes cities better – a meaningful clarification, but still a bit vague.

More precisely Lou Downe, director of design and service standards at the Government Digital Service, described smart cities in three steps: sensing things, mapping things and responding. In other words data, meaningfully expressed, can inform better decisions by city authorities.

Ms Downe works with central government. But she pointed out that when you look up “smart cities” in Google Trends, a tool for analysing online search trends, the most popular terms relate to bins, potholes, pollution, transport and crime – all concerns of local government.

Some great progress has already been made on creating services that are already smart. Mr Blackwell said London “has an amazing track record” in this respect. Examples would include online payment systems for council tax, as well as the Oyster contactless card system for the transport network, which has inspired similar programmes abroad.

Counterintuitively, focusing on problems that local government has long dealt with is a better way to champion smart cities than focusing on the shiny technology that suppliers are keen for you to buy. Jennifer Schooling, director at the University’ of Cambridge’s Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction, put it bluntly: “Technology without a purpose is just a toy.”

Most speakers at the Westminster eForum said that putting citizens at the centre of things is key to this – tallying with broader thinking on service reform that doesn’t always relate to technology. But what does this mean in practice?

Mr Blackwell has an answer: “the dog s*** test”.

“Fundamentally, digital technology gets trusted an accepted by people if you’re able to design things that solve their day-to-day problems,” he said, for instance by removing canine excrement from pavements. This approach will let cities set challenges that both citizens and IT suppliers can understand, he added.

This does not preclude big thinking, but merely focuses the mind on incremental and practical gains. “You have to identify the things you want to solve quickly, but have an eye on the future, said Peter van Manen, senior development consultant at Frazer-Nash, an engineering consultancy.

If local authorities can balance implementing practical solutions to common problems with longer-term thinking, then smart cities (however defined) will stop being the stuff of marketing gibberish and start being genuinely useful to city-dwellers lives, as Oyster cards have already shown.

“The reality is our services were not designed for the internet,” Ms Downe said. “Our government wasn’t designed for the internet.” Locally and nationally, it will need to be in future.

Jimmy Nicholls, features editor

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