smart cities and why they need a lot more social scientists to get involved

I spent a very interesting day a couple of weeks ago at the MK Future Cities conference, held at The Open University in Milton Keynes.  It looked to me like there were well over a hundred people there, mostly policymakers, businesses and various organisations with an interest in this thing called a ‘smart city’. Milton Keynes is a city with a lot of ‘smart’ stuff going on, and the day kicked off with a great talk from its council’s Director of Strategy on what’s happening and – more importantly – why and how it will matter to the city and its inhabitants.

Definitions of ‘smart cities’ proliferate (and indeed there is some muttering that the term is now past its sell-by date), but they’re generally understood to use data produced by digital technologies to do three things: enhance their sustainability by encouraging more efficient use of resources; increase their economic growth by innovating new products and markets; and become more open by enabling greater citizen participation in city governance.  I’m interested in them because, as I’ve posted about before, visualisations of different kinds are key to the smart city phenomenon. They proliferate as advertisements for selling smart city kit, they’re an important way of communicating ‘smart’ as an idea (and of course, these two things are often overlap), and visuals are also crucial to how smart cities are managed especially but not only in the form of the online data ‘dashboard’ (which are getting some attention now, with excellent recent discussions by Rob Kitchin and Shannon Mattern).

libelium_smart_world_infographic_950px

Smart cities are also proliferating – over half of UK cities claim to be smart, apparently – and so it seems important to think carefully about what sort of urban life they are offering.  I think right now that’s an open question.  There’s a lot of big corporations involved in selling smart city control-and-command centres, but there’s also a fair bit of discussion about how smart tech can also be designed and used by ordinary folk, for all sorts of ends other than profit.  (There’s a nice essay in First Monday exploring those latter possibilities, for example, from the Mobile City peeps Michiel de Lange and Martijn de Waal.)

From what I could gather of the make-up of the speakers and audience at the FutureCity event, it was pretty representative of who is driving the development of smart cities in the UK: local councils, tech enterprises small medium and large, and a bunch of other kinds of organisations, including universities, the UK-government-funded Catapults and a range of various interest and/or campaigning groups.  There were very few designers or architects; very few third sector organisations; and, bar one behavioural psychologist, no social scientists on the panels.

As a social scientist, though, various things struck me about the day, particularly about how social differences were – or were not – addressed.  Various thoughts follow. Continue reading