With the growth of smart cities, how do we build smart citizens to match?

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When you work in a certain sector, there’s a tendency to assume everyone thinks like you; has the same knowledge. If you work in social media, you might presume everyone’s on Twitter, if you’re a footballer, you might expect everyone to understand the offside rule, and if you work in technology, you might think everyone knows what a smart city is.

The truth is very different. Only 22% of people outside marketing used Twitter in the last three months compared to 81% of marketers. Not everyone can explain what offside is. And, according to a nationwide survey carried out by the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) in April 2016, only two in ten (18%) of the UK’s population had heard of the term ‘smart city’, let alone understood what it means.

When it comes to kicking a football about or tweeting, this knowledge gap is not an issue. With smart cities, it is. Whether we like it or not, smart city technologies are collecting information about all of us, all the time – there is no opt-in. If the majority don’t understand how this data is being collected and used, who owns the data, who benefits from it or even who owns the analysis of the data, how can citizens hope to meaningfully engage in shaping their emerging smart cities? Is it sufficient to let the tech industry and governments decide what constitutes a desirable smart city and who gets to use the massive amounts of data it produces? These are a few questions, of many, that can only be addressed by citizens who are digitally literate.

So, whose responsibility is it to ensure digital literacy for smart cities and how do we go about enabling it? What are the challenges and how can we overcome them?

The digital divide

In 2013, The Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) conducted a study into the UK’s digital divide. They found at the time that 5.9 million adults in the UK had never used the internet, 4.1 million adults living in social housing were offline and 27% of disabled adults (3.3 million) had never used the internet.

Thankfully, the gap has shrunk significantly in the last five years. In their annual ‘Internet users in the UK’ bulletin released in May 2017, the ONS reported that 89% of adults in the UK had recently used the internet between Jan – Mar 2017. Progress, but usage isn’t knowledge, and understanding the intricacies of a smart city presents an entirely different challenge to Googling something (for instance).

The Internet of Things (IoT) is integral to our emerging smart cities and is increasingly being powered by AI and automation. This technology is bleeding edge, and is, as the aforementioned IET report proved, alien to most of the public. Not only that, it’s evolving and advancing at a rapid pace. The digital divide in this context is massive.

At a panel at Smart Cities Week 2017, Bas Boorsma, digitization lead for North Europe at Cisco and author of A New Digital Deal noted that the digital divides that exist today are not the same as those we experienced 20 years ago. He described the previous divide as “young versus old,” when younger generations were online while older generations remained offline. Now, he explained “we’re now looking at many shades of gray when it comes to digitisation.”

This is problematic. As the IoT grows, every aspect of all our lives will be affected no matter our socio-economic background, age or geographical location. Smart city IoT will change how we shop, control our homes and administer our healthcare and it will revolutionise the ways our cities are managed. These changes should be influenced by active citizens, as smart cities aren’t something people can say yes or no to. Indeed, many have criticised them for being commercial and ‘top down’, imposed by government bodies and policymakers without citizen engagement.

It’s a question of ethics, and closing the digital knowledge gap is central to citizens having agency in their smart cities. As smart functionality continues to permeate every aspect of our lives ever more deeply, surely, it’s imperative that citizens stay abreast and have a say about the environments that they can’t leave?

AI needs your data

At this point in time no one is really sure what transparency of data is required for AI systems. Nor do we really know how it will be used. But data must – to some extent – be transparent and accessible.

In this regard, Copenhagen and its ‘living laboratory’ vision of a smart city is leading the way. The Danish capital allows open access to public data to encourage efficient public-private sector partnerships and smart projects.

But equally crucial is the citizen engagement. Denmark has a long tradition of citizen involvement in urban planning and development, and their smart city projects are no different – opening up projects and data to people that are interested. As their technology partner Hitachi says, ‘It takes a community to build a smart city.’

In an interview with Geospatial World, Winn Nielsen, Head of City Data, City of Copenhagen, Denmark explains the thinking: “Open data is a central point for any city that is smart in its character. We are trying to make data available to the public — not only to ensure transparency — but also to make our citizens better informed. The sharing of data would enable us to have a dialogue because the citizens know as much as we do.”

Compare and contrast this outlook to China, whose government made headlines recently with its plan to implement a Social Credit System in 2020. The project is promoted “… as a desirable way to measure and enhance ‘trust’ nationwide and to build a culture of ‘sincerity’” but to many it looks like a state-imposed abuse of personal data; the government allowing themselves unfettered access to the digital details of China’s 1.3 billion citizens. By 2020 it will be mandatory for all citizens.

The Social Credit System may not be a smart city project in the traditional sense, but with China currently piloting about 500 smart projects – the most in the world according to Deloitte – it illustrates powerfully how different one country’s approach to public data is to another’s which, in turn, suggests that what constitutes an acceptable smart city in one part of the planet, may not be so in another.

If everybody should have a right to understand how their data is used, one of the challenges, therefore, is to establish citizens’ trust in the institutions which handle their data. Smart city projects, local and national governments and private corporations have a responsibility to explain to the public, in language they’ll understand, how their data could be used, in what context, and to reassure them that it will be safe.

Global initiatives for smart citizens

These concerns have not gone unnoticed and steps are being taken by governments and businesses to tackle the issues of education and understanding.

The British government, for instance, is currently recruiting for a Chair to lead the Interim Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation. The Centre will “… ensure that our governance, rules and regulations consider public concerns around data driven technologies, and address businesses’ needs for greater clarity and certainty around data use.” Measures, therefore, are in hand to build public confidence and provide certainty for business.

In London, the Chief Digital Officer for London and the Smart London Board have drawn up a discussion plan to address the development of a new Smart London plan, part of the Mayor of London’s objective to make London the smartest city in the world. The plan is asking “… how innovation from data can be truly mobilised by public services in partnership with London’s world class science, tech, finance and design communities.” These communities realise that digital skills are critical and ask, “How can better data help London improve digital skills at all levels and what steps do we need to undertake?”

Barcelona’s Digital City initiative has been turning municipal data into a public asset since 2015. Its Smart Education programme is now bringing the concepts of innovation and smartness to students through activities and workshops: it recognises that education is at the heart of transformation, and is starting with the youngest generation first.

Globally, UNESCO’s International Literacy Day (8 September) in 2017 was celebrated across the world under the theme of ‘Literacy in a digital world’: its aim “… to look at what kind of literacy skills people need to navigate increasingly digitally-mediated societies, and to explore effective literacy policies and programmes that can leverage the opportunities that the digital world provides.” It provoked debate and column inches at the time: however, its legacy is still to be determined.

These projects light the way for organisations who are serious about improving digital literacy in parallel to rapid digital innovation.

Preparing for the future

It should, as this PwC report suggests, “… now [be] possible to tackle some of the world’s biggest problems with emerging technologies, such as AI,” and bring about long-term sustainable change to both society and the environment.

The problem that smart cities (and a lot of new technologies) have, is one of citizen inclusion, engagement and agency. There is a sense that, thus far, the sensors and algorithms that power those smart city projects already underway are being ‘done’ to the citizens.

Digital literacy is partially about education, but it’s deeper than that. 18% of people don’t know what smart cities are; they are distant from a revolution happening under their feet and all around them. People are a critical constituent of the smart city landscape, and their data forms a huge part of the revolution already happening worldwide. Surely then, they should be part of the conversation about what data is collected, and how it can be used for good?

The key, then, is for those involved in creating the world’s smart cities – be they policymakers, developers, local or state governments – to position meaningful public engagement as a foundation stone of the future.

Engaged people become smarter citizens who help to power and shape the smart cities they inhabit.



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