Dave's blog. Updates from Dave Carter, Head of MDDA.

“Smart Cities”: the new ‘original, modern’ or the techno empire strikes back

Manchester is a founder member of a new European Smart Cities network which aims to promote the idea that, by making a conscious effort to use innovative digital technologies to improve living and working conditions, we can develop a more inclusive and sustainable urban environment. Manchester is working with a group of cities which have come together through the Eurocities network,  www.eurocities.eu, including Amsterdam, Barcelona, Bologna and Helsinki, to promote this work, in the context of the Digital Agenda for Europe,   http://ec.europa.eu/information_society/digital-agenda/index_en.htm, and the growing European Network of Living Labs, www.openlivinglabs.eu.

These latest initiatives come out of the work that cities like Manchester have been doing over the past 20 years, from the launch of the Manchester Host in 1991 and the European Telecities network in 1993 to the Living Labs network in starting in 2006. The emerging ‘Smart Cities’ network in Europe, set up last year, is enabling Manchester to learn more from those who are ahead of the game as well as to add our experience and expertise into the mix. Local initiatives such the Manchester Digital Lab – ‘MadLab’, Peoples Voice Media’s community reporters and work around open data through Future Everything and others all provide great examples of innovation which the network is interested in hearing more about and learning from.

As ever there are plenty of contradictions emerging, however, about how all this might play out. If you search on a combination of ‘Smart’, ‘Cities’ and ‘Community’ there are plenty of examples of the term ‘Smart City’ being used to promote different cities but far less of it being used to acknowledge proactive activities by or with real people. So just where are the “users and citizens in the innovation process” (as promoted in the EU’s new call for “Open Innovation for Internet-Enabled Services” in ‘smart cities’)? On the receiving end, perhaps with not too much to show for it, is the concern being raised by critical commentators.

One of the best expressions of this found to date is an article from Dec. 16th 2010 in the mag ‘Fast Company’,  http://www.fastcompany.com/1710342/the-battle-for-the-soul-of-the-smart-city , which asks the question: “Will tech-powered cities revolutionize the way we live or hand corporations the keys to our privacy?”. It’s a review of a fascinating new report from the “Institute for the Future” in Palo Alto on “The future of cities, information and inclusion”, www.iftf.org/inclusion , which is highly critical of what it sees as “global technology companies … offering ‘smart city in a box’ solutions”. Also in the report is a “Map” for 2020, an attempt to visualise how things could be made very different through grass roots action being empowered by technology. Well worth a download.

Posted on: March 9, 2011.