COMMENT: What is the citizen's role in a smart city?

Where are inhabitants in the definition set by the industry?
3G, 4G, 5G, Customers, European union, FCC, Governments, Industry, IoT, M2M, Network, Operators, Regulators, Smart, Smart cities, Telecoms, Columns, Research

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When companies define what a smart city is, they tend to remember the solutions and services that they are creating to improve people’s lives. In this message, the focus is on the actual solution, instead of the citizen. The corporate smart-city rhetoric is all about efficiency, optimisation, predictability, convenience and security.

The UAE TRA hosted the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) Forum on Smart Sustainable Cities in Abu Dhabi and during the event, the roadmap of the Smart Sustainable Cities transformation for the Arab region was debated and discussed. This roadmap follows the guidelines set by the ITU, but we might need to go beyond settled guidelines and ask the current citizens in different cities in the region what they expect and want. We might achieve a complete vision as we are gathering people’s opinion with companies and government’s ideas.

During the Forum, speakers said that smart cities aim to make citizens “happier”. Moreover, the ITU also set Dubai as the first city to assess the efficiency and sustainability of its operations using the key performance indicators developed by the ITU-T focus group on Smart Sustainable Cities.

The telecommunications sector has seen the city as an actor where they can implement solutions to improve inhabitants’ life. However, where is the active role of the citizen in these smart cities? Are we setting the citizen in the core of the smart city or is the smart city itself the essence of the idea?

These citizens living in the city are the ones providing the meaning to the city and algorithms can help us become more efficient, but they will not determine what people demand. For instance, the data that we might receive from a measuring application in a hospital can report that the lights are always on in a certain floor at night and it will recommend to switch off those lights. However, the algorithm might miss a possible context that complements the situation: it might be the floor where children sleep with the lights on because they are afraid of the dark. The human factor needs to be added to offer real efficiency to citizens.

Cities are engines of diversity so focusing solely on streamlining utilities, transport, construction and unseen government processes can be massively counter-productive, and that is why we need to think of the human factor, to complement and add value to the applications in these industries.

Inhabitants should be able to adjust the smart city when needed to solve problems and overcome obstacles in their own lives. Smart systems should not just be installed upon a city, and then maintained as the static status quo forever. The smart city need to be reconfigured every day. Smart cities should be places that foster creativity, where citizens are generators of ideas, services and solutions, rather than subservient and passive recipients of them.

Have companies asked citizens what they want in their city? Of course, I am not doubting that companies are willing to improve people’s lives, I just want to question if we really know what people want and how we can tailor these needs to different cities in the region. Once we tailor their needs, the public and private entities in the telecommunications sector will be able to offer the right services and monetise the new opportunities that they will find when asking the citizens what they want and need, as they will be using the services more.

Governments want to embrace the smart initiatives and promote the smart city idea to improve the lifestyle of its inhabitants. Do they know how it is materially going to affect the way people live and work?

Some experts recommend companies to include psychologists, ethnographers and sociologists in the smart cities teams, as it might help to measure the impact of these technologies and applications and understand the ‘end user’.

If technology adds value to our lives as citizens, then we can transform the productivity of the cities and focus it on what the citizen demands. A smart city should also include equality in its core. There are already some free applications that are available to answer basic demands from citizens.

A smart city should be able to gather and connect through technology solutions the needs and enable a network that promotes equality through people, considering them the main actors of the city, giving them an active role and using the technology just as a tool, but not as the primary focus.

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