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How to ensure that your smart city strategy is inclusive
Lily Maxwell15. May 201812 min read

How to ensure that your smart city strategy is inclusive

Many proponents of the smart city claim that it is by nature inclusive. However, like all other aspects of urban design and development, smart city initiatives frequently fail to fully prioritize inclusivity, often perpetuating the very issues that they aim to solve. As Gil Peñalosa, world-renowned urban designer, noted in a recent panel discussion on ‘The Invisible Smart City’: “we currently design our cities as though everyone is 30 and active”, leading to biased, inaccessible urban design that excludes what he calls the ‘silent majority’. Going one step further than this, Yves Raibaud, acclaimed sociologist and urban geographer, argues that cities are designed ‘by and for men’ (par et pour les hommes) - notably ‘western’, privileged men. This evidently leaves much to be desired in terms of diversity, and in turn inclusivity. Children, older people, women, ethnic minorities, the disabled, the mentally and physically ill, and people with low household incomes (and those who meet at the intersecting points between these groups) are frequently excluded by and from urban design, unable to fully enjoy or participate in civic urban life or the processes that shape it.

The smart city, as a nascent concept that is not yet fully-formed, has the potential both to change our cities for the better, and to reinforce existing inequalities. Under the right leadership, cities could use the shift towards smartness to enable a parallel shift towards greater inclusivity. On the other hand, smart initiatives could actually reinforce social and digital exclusion - particularly those that are tech-evangelist, relying on an industry that itself struggles with diversity and inclusivity. As with AI then, we have to actively ‘program’ our smart city initiatives to be unbiased and to prioritize inclusivity, or we risk entrenching existing inequalities. In this article, we will explore some steps that cities can take in order to make sure that their smart city planning is truly inclusive.

The importance of leadership and vision

The New Urban Agenda sets out goals to ensure that future cities, towns and basic urban infrastructures and services will be more environmentally-friendly, accessible, user-friendly and inclusive of all people’s needs. But supranational agreements are not enough. As Jennifer Keesmaat, former Chief Planner of the City of Toronto highlights, in order for individual cities to be inclusive, they need strong in-house leadership with shared values of diversity, sustainability and equity. This leadership - ideally from across the public and private sector - should approach making the city smarter with these values in mind, sticking to a clear vision that imagines the city as a better place for all - not just select parts of the population. After all, there is no point employing tools to change a city - whether technological or not - if these tools do not improve everyone's’ lives.

Thomas Müller, Managing Partner at bee smart cityEnsuring that smart initiatives are inclusive is not always an easy task; it requires that these initiatives be conceived with inclusion as a number one priority. This is where shared values, strong leadership and a common vision become crucial."
, states Thomas Müller, Co-Founder of bee smart city.

In order to be truly inclusive, smart city strategies need to be conceived by leaders who are able to stick to their principles even when short-term financial gains appeal.

Know your facts

Sadly, not everyone thinks that our cities need to be inclusive of everyone (see the recent shift towards populist politics) and even when they do, inclusivity, diversity and equity, among others, have become buzzwords that are often included in project descriptions but fail to be translated into real-life implementation. This means research - and lots of it.

Dr. Alexander Gelsin - Managing Partner at bee smart city“Cities need quantitative and qualitative data to prove that inclusivity is an issue that requires investment, and to create targeted smart city strategies that tackle the areas that need the most work.”
states Dr. Alexander Gelsin, Managing Partner at bee smart city.

This is not always easy. Countries like France, for example, do not allow researchers to gather data based on race. This makes putting together a comprehensive picture of how inclusive a city is for ethnic minorities, and coming up with area-specific smart city initiatives, very difficult. Governments and city councils alike should not brush the issue of inclusion under the rug because they do not want to find out uncomfortable truths. In order to make sure that their smart city strategy is successful in the long-run, finding out what kind of inclusivity issues they face right now is key. Otherwise, cities risk implementing smart planning that is not so smart in the end: some strategies, such as making an area more digitally connected or improving smart transit networks to certain parts of the city, may for instance raise house prices and increase gentrification, displacing families with lower household incomes or from certain cultural backgrounds. Making sure that smart city strategy is based on the most recent and accurate research is therefore key: this way a city can implement measures that seek to specifically help those that are currently socially, politically and/or economically excluded. It also means that all outcomes are accounted for by policy: if a city knows that gentrification might result from one of their smart strategies, they can alter it accordingly or put measures in place to make sure that it does not inadvertently have this effect.

Getting first-hand information from ethnic minority communities, women, seniors, those living with disabilities, those with low household incomes, and even children, through, for instance, surveys is another way of finding out how the city is experienced by different population groups. Through both quantitative and qualitative research, numerical data can be combined with information about people’s real-life experiences and expectations to better align smart city solutions with everyone’s needs.

Be adapted and adaptable

As mentioned in the previous section, in order to be inclusive, smart city planning should be adapted to the individual city’s needs. The city council needs to know, for instance, if it should focus on making its public transport smarter in order to reach citizens who may currently find accessing parts of the city difficult, or if it should prioritize retrofitting all of its publicly owned buildings - including social housing - in order to improve energy efficiency and tackle energy poverty. Alongside being adapted to the population’s specific needs, smart city initiatives also need to be adaptable. Scalability is obviously key here, but adaptability over time, according to the changing needs of the population, is just as important. This again requires constant research and communication with the population. Alongside quantitative research, city councils need to keep working to ensure that their smart city planning itself is inclusive - in other words, that it incorporates civic participation. This means involving representative groups of citizens in not only the conception but also the constant evaluation of smart city initiatives. Through this, cities can ensure that systems and programs that they implemented a decade ago remain relevant.

Increase citizen participation

As noted above, citizen participation in smart city planning is absolutely key to ensuring inclusivity. This means moving beyond public consultation towards ‘co-creation’, requiring the active participation of all community stakeholders (representative of the individual city’s population) in the planning process. It also means targeting the population groups who are the least likely to attend public planning or community meetings - in other words, those who are most likely to be politically excluded or disenfranchised. In Toronto, the urban planning department noticed that a certain population group were dominating public planning meetings - middle-aged, white, usually wealthier people - and so they instigated two programs to ensure that everybody in the city would be represented. One was a youth engagement program, which gives young people from diverse backgrounds internships in various municipal departments, empowering them to directly contribute to the planning of the city. The other was a "planning review panel" made up of 28 applicants who, together, reflect Toronto’s diverse and predominantly youthful population.

Moreover, a smart city shouldn’t just use technology to improve public services and city operations - it should actively leverage its potential to increase civic participation in urban planning and community decision-making. This means using tech not only to reach citizens through, for example, civic forums or groups - such as "Better Rekjavik" or "Ctzen Inc" - or "digital planning notices", but also actively including citizens in smart city initiatives. A good example of this was the "Barcelona air quality datathon", co-organized by BCN Analytics, Barcelona Supercomputing Center, Eurecat’s Big Data CoE and Leitat, and the CCCB (Barcelona Centre for Contemporary Culture), which took place in January 2018. This event was open to the public and aimed to raise awareness, participation and innovation in relation to the problem of pollution in cities, in particular in Barcelona. The 2-day long datathon brought together a community of scientists, data and big data analysts, statisticians and mathematicians, among others (all members of the public) to calibrate a predictive air quality model. Although this event was organized by public institutions, citizens were the primary actors here.

Tackle digital exclusion

If many smart city initiatives rely heavily on new technologies, meshing the boundary between the virtual and the real as our cities become tech-enabled spaces, then everyone in these cities needs to be tech-savvy. This means that city councils need to be hyper-aware of how some smart city initiatives might exacerbate social, economic and/or political exclusion for those who are digitally illiterate. It also means making sure that there are general digital inclusion programs already in place. Often smart city strategy is implemented without taking into account that not everyone gets tech. Although the number of people using technology, notably the internet, in their everyday lives is rising constantly, a significant percentage of people do not use it often, or are even ‘technologically illiterate’. In the European Union, for example, 71% of people used the internet every day in 2016, according to the European Commission’s statistics: this means that nearly a third of the European population still don’t use the internet in their everyday lives. Furthermore, only roughly half of all people aged 16-74 used social networks or e-government services in 2016. Half of society, therefore, did not.

National and regional governments must therefore consider that many people are digitally excluded when conceiving a smart city strategy, and lay out measures to make sure that everyone can benefit from this strategy, regardless of their digital literacy level. So, if certain government services are moving online, for instance, the digital literacy of those who need to use these services needs to be seriously considered. Ironically, those most likely to need to use e-government services - those applying for welfare, social housing, citizenship etc. - are usually the very people who are least likely to be digitally literate or have easy access to a computer. A natural way to make sure that everyone is involved in the transition to a more digital city is through introducing public ICT education and guidance through trusted community institutions - libraries, community centres, community nonprofits etc. These could be open to the public and/or targeted towards specific groups - such as seniors. "Tech Goes Home" in Boston and "Connect Your Community" in Cleveland are two prominent examples of community-focused initiatives that aim to bolster people’s digital skills and information literacy and eradicate digital exclusion.

A smart, inclusive city is one that prioritizes people

A question mark remains over whether the “smart” and the “inclusive” can come together in a way that makes our cities better places to live for everyone. Innovative technology applications can ensure that smart cities are inclusive and friendly, especially towards vulnerable population groups, such as the elderly (who often have limited mobility), people with disabilities, and children. However, ‘smart inclusivity’ is not inevitable: it is the result of concerted efforts on the part of all community stakeholders, notably those in positions of leadership, to make smart city planning diverse, sustainable and equitable. City stakeholders - from mayors to business people, to community leaders, and even normal citizens - need first and foremost to recognize that the smart city and the inclusive city are not the same thing; that inclusivity does not inevitably follow from smartness; and that action is needed to bridge the gap between the two. These stakeholders should therefore channel the efforts of local innovation systems towards conceiving new smart city solutions that ensure inclusive development and adapting old ones to fit this priority.

Most notably, these digital inclusion initiatives should directly respond to the needs and challenges of specific urban systems and recognize the potential of technology as an enabler of change, while remaining constantly aware of its dangers and limitations.


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Talks at Urban Future Conference, Vienna, February - March 2018


Lily Maxwell

Lily is a freelance writer, translator and content-creator, specialised in smart cities and urbanism. After studying at the University of Cambridge, she moved to Barcelona and is now based between Spain and England, working with several different urban-focused European organisations. She speaks French, Spanish and English, and aims to tackle German and Italian next!