smart cities in the making: a new research project

I was really happy to hear from the Economic and Social Research Council last week that they are going to fund a research project that a great bunch of OU colleagues put together with me: Nick Bingham, Matt Cook, Parvati Raghuram, Sophie Watson and Oliver Zanetti.

Motion-Map-for-news-image-1024x648Here is the short summary from the proposal:

The past decade has seen the widespread emergence of what are now often called ‘smart cities’. Smart cities are generally understood to use the data produced by digital technologies to enhance their sustainability (by encouraging more efficient use of resources), economic growth (through innovating new products and markets) and openness (by enabling greater citizen participation in city governance). ‘Smart cities’ are a global phenomenon at the heart of how many cities are planning for future growth, and the UK is no exception. Over half of UK cities are implementing smart projects, and the government’s Information Economy Strategy aims to make the UK a global hub of smart city delivery by capturing 10 per cent of the global smart city market by 2020. The government directly funds several large smart city projects, sponsors three innovation Catapults with direct links to smart initiatives, and the British Standards Institute is developing a framework for implementing smart city technologies.

‘Smart’, then, is increasingly central to UK urban development.  Smart technology in UK cities takes many forms, from smart grids, to sensors and chargers embedded in the built environment, to smartphone apps, to online open data repositories and dashboards. Smart cities are much, much more than their technological devices, though: a smart city also requires smart urban policy-making, it produces smart products, it has ‘smart citizens’ and it has visions of what smart is and should be, and all these things converge and diverge in all sorts of ways. Currently, although local community and citizen participation is repeatedly asserted to be a prequisite for a successful smart city, almost nothing is known about how the development and rollout of smart policies and technologies actually engage city residents and workers. Who are smartphone apps designed for and what social needs do they ignore? What kind of populations are described by smart data hubs, and who do policies using such data therefore address? Indeed, various concerns have been voiced by journalists, academics and urban activists that smart activity may well not reach socially marginalised groups and individuals, for example, and that it might therefore contribute to increased levels of social polarisation in cities between the digital ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’.

This project grasps the chance to answer these questions at a critical moment in the maturing of smart, and offers a real opportunity to generate social science that can both analyse and inform developments.

Through a detailed empirical study of an actually-existing smart city – Milton Keynes – this project examines how smart policies, technologies, products, visions and engagement activities imagine particular kinds of users, citizens and consumers. It will thus enable a wide range of public and private-sector local stakeholders in MK to understand much better who their smart activity is engaging, how and why. These findings will then help to ensure that smart city activities are as accessible to as many different kinds of people as possible, and that as many people as possible are engaged by the smart city emerging in Milton Keynes.

The project has been designed in collaboration with a range of local and national stakeholders in the UK smart city scene, including MK Council, MK:Smart, the Transport Systems Catapult, as well as Community Action MK, the umbrella group for voluntary and community groups in the city. This means that not only will its findings help MK to be a socially-inclusive smart city, but also that the project’s findings will have impact on smart cities across the UK and beyond.

 

There’s a nice presentation on smart activity in Milton Keynes here.

The project won funding of £750,000 from the ESRC (plus in-kind support from various generous partners in Milton Keynes of around £50,000), and will start officially on 1 January 2017.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s