Cities that talk – smart cities now, moving the smart cities debate forward

Many cities towns and even villages have superb information layers created by the people who live work or play there often using simple websites, blogs and forums.  They are cities and communities that talk.  At talk about local we have helped add to and grow this layer.  But this remarkable smart layer of information often seems to be in parallel to the traditional ‘Smart Cities’ debate.

The former is people using simple yet powerful internet tools to get on and do it themselves, the latter is often corporations (civic and commercial) talking about complex, expensive top down infrastructure.

The smart cities debate needs to move on and embrace the new soft infrastructure people are creating for themselves.   This will help make the investment case for hard wired infrastructure, especially in the developed global North where economics are under pressure and the puzzle of retrofitting 400 year old places seems insurmountable.

But it’s possible to retrofit smartness to existing cities without expensive hardware. Citizens are already using simple internet tools to create a soft smart city layer for communities large and small. They do this without government intervention and without the expensive bespoke hard wired infrastructure that dominates smart city dialogue and policy.

Citizens use simple websites, blogging services or discussion forums to generate huge quantities of information about their neighbourhoods. They create and control their own local media from the bottom up, bypassing traditional local media and political oligarchies.  In aggregate we can even see some large cities with a sophisticated web of information about them online.

See the 5 million posts and 120,000 members in sheffield a city of 450,000  or the 1,100 articles in a tough urban district in London  or the urban information infrastructure in gritty Birmingham or a similar neighbourhood in Dublin or this tiny village of 500 people.  In New York we see the City embracing this with the appointment of the brilliant Rachel Sterne as Chief Digital Officer.  Rachel has a  background in creating local digital content.

Today at ND11 (see #goonnd11 on twitter) in London Jeremy Hunt MP the Culture Secretary talked intelligently about the internet of things in cities.  Which is nice, I look forward to each lamp post having its own IP address, though i am not sure what I will do with it.  But this is a long, long way away, expensive and a top down perspective.  I spoke with a great tech guy the other day interested in funding Smart City projects and described the software layer as above. His first question was ‘What platform is it on?’the answer was, ‘errrr the internet’.

The smart cities lobby should wake up and embrace these remarkable software layers as a path towards the ultimate hard wired smart city. Smart city proponents should see how they can help celebrate, encourage and promote hyperlocal grass roots media as a critical part of the smart city of today, showing the way to the hardwired smart city of the future.  There’s a great opportunity in the stuttering local TV debate in the UK to boost the local web instead of TV and switch from a top down to bottom up approach.

Notes: this post has its genesis in my entry for Local2020 and was encourage by discussion at Nesta on the Reboot Britain programme

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william perrin

Founder of Talk About Local, Trustee of the Indigo Trust, member of UK Government transparency panels, former Policy Advisor to UK Prime Minister, former Cabinet Office senior civil servant.Open data do-er, Kings Cross London blogger. Loves countryside. Two kids, not enough sleep.
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