South Korea's hi-tech city Sondgo - Photo © Songdo.Weebly
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Managing cities is primarily a question of information exchange. A gardener working on a flowerbed in front of the library needs to plan his work; which flowers have been planted, when work was last done, what the weather forecast says, etc. All this information is now available digitally. At the heart of the smart city’s reactor is collection, exchange and analysis of the data produced by the city, big data at its own service. Some recent cities have even been designed to be smart, such as Songdo in South Korea.
Let’s look at the example of urban transport. A city receives data from public transport companies, taxi companies, car park operators, etc. These data can be used to design a smartphone application to facilitate multimodal mobility (public transport, bicycle and car sharing) for citizens, discouraging the use of private cars in favour of less polluting means of transport. We could extend the examples to numerous fields, such as town planning, public works, security with the police or fire brigade, social welfare services, culture or energy.
While it may be more efficient, more cost-effective financially, the smart city raises political questions. Private companies in this market tend to want to replace public actors in areas which historically fell under public remit. There are many arguments to justify it : local authorities with insufficient resources, the ideology which states that private management is obviously less expensive, or the lack of skills of some town managers. Getting the city to go digital however should not be an excuse for political loss of control. Cities are, and should remain, primarily at the service of their citizens.
Otherwise, the consequences can be serious. Typically, the most vulnerable citizens are not the most “profitable” financially and are often forgotten by the smart city. For example, they may find it difficult to apply for social services online; they need to be supported and trained to use digital technology. Some initiatives however are placing the city’s agility at the service of the most fragile - Faciligo for example, is a website that connects people of reduced mobility with other travellers that can help them, in exchange for a modest fee.
Another risk of the smart city is transforming ourselves into amorphous consumers of increasingly efficient, digital municipal services. We risk becoming passive. Why bother sorting our waste if the municipal service is so efficient? Why should we even be interested in the issue? In general, why not let the digital services make the decisions for us?
Each person’s participation is essential however, in mastering all the complexity of a modern city, managing its growth, possible migratory flows, pollution, etc. In some places for example, citizens can signal damaged roads on a website, so they can be repaired. To fight corruption in India, the I Paid a Bribe project, by the organisation Janaagraha, encourages citizens to denounce any bribes paid on the internet.
Cities use very few of the possibilities afforded them by current algorithms. The failure of institutions to adapt to technical progress is helping to make them obsolescent. This failure is also increasing citizen’s distrust. Cities need to inform their citizens better, by opening up access to their data. Citizens also need to participate better in designing their city, in decision-making. It is up to us to reinvent the agile and smart city of the future to make it a more human, inclusive and sustainable place; a real city.
Serge Abiteboul is an IT researcher at Inria and ENS Paris, a blogger at binaire.blog.lemonde.fr and a member of the French Academy of Sciences.