Cities are the dominant and most successful organisations of human endeavour. This intense form of cohabitation has developed over thousands of years, attracting an increasingly larger part of the human population. While they have vibrantly developed in terms of size, density and quality of life, technology has sped up, leading to problems and possibilities that we still have to fully apprehend.
To many contemporary government officials, there is no more silver-lined allure than the mantra of the “Smart City”. Smart Cities are essentially networks of sensors strewn across the city, connected to computers managing vast flows of data, optimising urban flows like mobility, waste, crime and money. They promise to make governance more efficient, and turn cities into safer, cleaner and more enjoyable places. This technocratic rhetoric, that stresses efficiency and control over serendipity and dialogue, might well do more harm than good, since it takes humans out of the loop and turns them into passive rather than active agents.
Citizens, on the other hand, have become smarter than ever; appropriating new technology at an incredible pace. In just over a decade, they have embraced mobile phones and social media, repair cafés and maker spaces, crowd funding and crowd sourcing. The power individuals have to influence others, even on a large distance, is unprecedented in history. While citizens became self-directed, funded and employed, governments often still regard them as customers, or even nuisances in the way of progress.
However, the power balance has changed and it is clear that citizens need their governments and governments need the intelligence and the cooperation of their citizens to function well. This demands a change in how cities are governed. Cities need to (re-)design and implement procedures, services and (technological) systems in ways that acknowledge the new role citizens take. No longer should they be designed top-down, and then poured over citizens without them having an active role in their conception, development and delivery.
Experience in participatory platform design suggests that to guide the design process certain principles are needed. City officials should implement them whenever they devise a new policy, rule or project:
The successful application of some of these design rules to governance can, for example, be seen in participatory budgeting, collaborative urban planning and distributed energy production initiatives. Hard evidence is as yet limited. However, experience indicates that systems, thus designed, will add to the complex city dynamic instead of stifling it. They will help to re-establish agency and trust between the ones who live, work, and raise their children in these cities, and the ones that are assigned to govern and manage them.
Any help on furthering these proposed design rules is highly appreciated – please get in contact. Smart Citizens abound; now it takes Smarter Cities to grasp their potential and build the systems that the 21st Century needs.
(Published in 'Smart Citizens', a publication by FutureEverything.)