Smart cities or smart citizens?

Published on 18/02/2022

What is a « smart city »? According to the CNIL dictionary and to the majority of real estate players, builders, environmentalists and pseudo-politicians looking for votes, the smart city is a new concept of urban development.

It aims to improve the quality of life of city dwellers by making the city more adaptive and efficient, using new technologies that rely on an ecosystem of objects and services. The vast scope of this new way of managing cities includes: public infrastructure, networks, transport, e-services, e-administration etc.

In other words, the smart city would be the technologically-advanced city of the future, in which the inhabitants would be invited to live and benefit from the ease and synergies of services augmented by the amazing power of technology.

A sinister side to the concept?

The smart city concept is a nice idea, but the development phase of this type of project reveals a myriad of inequalities. The success of smart cities wildly fluctuates depending on location. Basic mobile phone service coverage is quite different in the center of a rich capital, in the suburbs of said capital, or in a small village in the middle of nowhere. Take a lovely little town like Leménil-Mitry (Meurthe-et-Moselle), where getting a simple 3G signal may require climbing the highest point of your backyard. How would a connected and self-lit street lighting system function in a place like that?

Today, the “smart city” is still a distant dream rather than a close reality, as much as some political candidates love to promise it to their would-be constituents.However, communities are already challenging the utopia of the smart city and reworking it to be more human and connected. Their slogan could be “Technology for the community by the community”.

The advent of social networks has created a gateway to communication between individuals on a wider scale. There are several digital initiatives designed to make life easier for everyone, and they are being developed, at first, without the help of society’s top players.

Existing community-driven digital initiatives to facilitate daily needs

The Waze platform, for example, is based on a collaborative traffic understanding tool optimized by drivers; users indicate the state of traffic jams, the location of police vehicles, accidents, and even dead animals on the side of the road, all for the benefit of other users. Waze is a collaborative alert system that makes life easier for drivers, and even helps them subvert authority (it has been bought by Google in fine).

On Facebook, there are innumerable collaborative groups existing to help each other in their daily quests. WANTED Community, Mums of the 9th district, Find an Apartment Easily, Dog Owners, the list goes on…. and now the biggest players are now taking inspiration from communities to develop new digital services. Many influencers and podcast hosts also create their own private Facebook groups for their fans to avoid receiving trolling comments on their public channels.

Finally, let’s take a look at Smiile: more than a social network, Smiile is a societal network that facilitates exchanges and sharing between inhabitants in your city or territory. Smiile helps to create social links by allowing users to organise mutual aid via a rich panel of collaborative and inclusive services and ensures real-time targeted communication by connecting to the existing digital channels of these users.

While tech platforms provide the platform and the service, they simply serve as vectors of the communication of needs. They respond directly to the needs of consumers since the latter are the initiators. In a way, they are at the origin of a smart city, because they create solutions that facilitate their existence in the city. And the actors are taking the lead.

Enter the participative city

Citizens are creative and full of resources, because they know their own needs best. And the smartest goal is to involve them in the design of tomorrow’s cities and infrastructures. The participatory city is a real trend, arguably one of the most important ones that will impact society in the near future. In a way, the idea is more to build a city made of smart citizens than build a smart city.

An example of a participatory or collaborative city can be found in Norway. The city of Hamar asked people to revitalise a totally abandoned square by making a work of art. In a revolutionary response to a standard practice, the collective decided to ignore the original request and instead, they reimagined the space as a series of events to bring citizens to the square. It was a difficult start, but the day they got everyone together over a glass of wine and slices of Spanish ham, things started to happen (Workshops, lectures, participatory web platform…).

Without community, there is no public space, no use, and no ownership. Once the dynamic was launched, the square was designed around the expectations and desires of that same community. This fundamental act should be used as a blueprint for the future of public places.

Residents should shape the future of property and place design. From here, another challenge arises: coordinating the community’s dynamic to transform the design of the spaces they inhabit.