[video posted] Smart City session at Kigali Metro Lab

    Video of the Smart City session at Kigali Metro Lab is available here.


        Smart City approaches are generally based on city-wide deployment of technology infrastructures capable of sensing what is happening in a city in fine detail: where cars are parked, notification on  public transport, which hospital beds are empty, what the water quality in the river is, etc. ICT networks bring all that information together into an integrated overview of city processes and critical issues, while interactive control systems allow to intervene directly (re-scheduling stop lights, re-directing ambulances, etc.) to fine-tune this city-as-machine, adapting it to specific needs and circumstances.


        This Smart City vision is a very technology-driven approach to understanding the way a city works. Nonetheless, it is a useful model for two main reasons: a) many of the underlying technology systems are technically mature and can potentially bring real advantages to the management of city services, and b) the integrated vision at the base of the Smart City model, where the key is not so much the single networks but the systemic impact of interconnecting them, draws our attention to the need for a fully cross-sector perspective.


        A fully developed Smart City approach applies a similar logic to all the functional elements of a city – transportation networks, waste management, air and water quality monitoring, etc. – to allow for an integrated control of city systems, especially when such systems are linked with the different departments of a city administration that are relevant for each service. In addition, combining information provided by sensor networks with applications running on citizens’ smartphones allows to personalize city services according to both what’s going on in the surrounding world as well as a user’s specific position, profile, and patterns of behavior.


        The Smart City vision has a strong appeal, particularly in its promise of being able to control an increasingly complex world. Problems often arise during implementation, however, and this suggests that technology alone is not enough.  Sophisticated and complex infrastructures and systems can have high costs, often making roll-out a lengthy process; even if and when things go well, important components may be outdated by the time they’re fully operational. While such systems appear to work well on paper or even in pilot tests, the real world is inevitably more complex, with both human and system behaviors that are impossible to fully model and predict.


        There are significant challenges and solutions inherent to smart cities - continuous adjustments and fixes can make the final price tag rise beyond original expectations, with the additional risk of ‘technology lock-in’ forever tying a city to a given provider’s proprietary standards. Finally, complex technology systems often introduce governance mechanisms that are external to - if not in conflict with - the structure and operations of a city administration; this mismatch between the technology system’s implicit structure and the real workings of city life is what most often leads to problems.


        In short, the human dimension is too often missing from Smart City models. For all the user-centered design processes, user profiling, and context awareness, when people are considered as ‘end users’ and not an integral part of the system itself, they end up doing things differently than the engineers expected. The only way to really bring people into the process is to start with people, not the technologies, from the initial moments of conceiving and designing a technological system or a service application.


        In a similar fashion, running a city is no longer only a question of efficient administration, but has essentially become a continuous co-design process, engaging with different stakeholders and exploring new solutions together. Previously, citizens were considered as passive objects of city services: they take the bus, dump the trash, send children to school, etc. Not only is this scenario no longer possible, but each of these services – transportation, waste management, education, and so forth – is changing rapidly, in part due to the impact of new technologies. Perhaps one of their most important effects is that citizens demonstrate the ability to organize alternative solutions themselves.


        The new approaches in ICT – mobile communication, social media, Internet of Things and cloud computing – increasingly put the end user at the center of innovation processes, thus shifting the emphasis from technologies to people. Though following different paths and approaches in response to different contexts and needs, a common pattern can be seen in cities as they employ Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) to do things and organize activities in a way that was previously not possible. It is normal people and not ‘experts’ who generate content, give support and advice, define quality, and, to the degree that they are empowered to do so, effectively co-create the service offer: the more users, the greater the value.


        Technology is thus not only promising unprecedented levels of efficiency, but it is also the key driver of new forms of participation. The exponential growth of smartphones in recent years enables individuals to connect not only to almost any other individual in the world, but also to interactive services that process and analyze information on the move while customizing content to local and individual interests. The mobile phone has by now emerged as a nearly ubiquitous platform for which technology developers are designing innovative applications and services, such that ‘app’ market places for web and mobile services are becoming a part of the innovation infrastructure in many cities.