Smarter cities vs Smarter citizens: a chicken and egg problem?

Which came first? Or, in our case it is better to invest on creating smart cities or on creating smart citizens?

I have been working over the weekend to prepare a keynote on Smart Cities in Guadalajara at the World Congress on Information Technology that I am giving today September 30th. One of the thoughts that I am sharing at the Conference is the importance of having Smart Citizens. 

Now the question is whether by investing on a better, smarter city we will get as side effect better and smarter citizens or whether it would be better to invest on having better and smarter citizens that in turns will result in a better and smarter city.

The answer is not obvious and there can be strong reasons to favour one over the other.

If you have a better, smarter city with good transportation infrastructure people are likely to use public transportation thus decreasing private, less efficient and more congestion prone transportation. On the other hand if you create a culture, as it is the case in Singapore (strong disincentive to use private transportation through high cost of cars) or in Amsterdam (with thousands of people using the bike), you get a city that is much more liveable, less congested where public transport can be more effective.

I have often though that in my home I would save much more energy by convincing my kids (the wife is beyond my reach) to switch off lights when they leave a room, switch off their computer and television once they no longer use them, than by getting more energy efficient appliances or a smart home orchestrator that minimise energy utilisation. 

Researchers have developed, and are developing, many technologies that help in making a city way smarter, in transportation, in logistics, in air cleanliness; technologies that increase the wealth generation potential through more efficient infrastructures, open data, eGovernment and so on.

At the same time we have today several technologies that can help in making citizens better aware of their city and smarter in their interaction with their city.

As more and more people live symbiotically with their smart phone it is possibile to use it as a link to the city: a bidirectional link that brings contextualised and personalised information to the citizen and transfer information from the citizen to the community (crowd sourcing is the name of the game).

Several "objects" can become an interface between the city and the citizens and this can result in increased awareness. But we need to think in terms of citizen awareness rather than i just in terms of providing information. Rather than just providing, as it has become common, information on when the next bus arrives and how long it will take to get to the destination we could provide information on the amount of CO2 produced in the trip and on how much CO2 would have been produced by using a car. Also, how long time it would take to make the same trip at this time of the day using a private car (often public transportation using reserved lanes is more effective than private transportation) taking into account the search for a parking slot and how much more it would cost. What I feel is needed is to translate the data that we have in a city environment into information that can be perceived by each of us and that can help in evolving the culture and creating smarter citizens.

Personally, I feel that a lot can be done, now and with a marginal investment, in fostering a culture of smart citizens. As citizens culture evolves towards increasing the individuals responsibility and understanding of what each person can do to make the city "smarter" one side effect would like be the increased interest of citizens to have a smarter city and their support to investment in infrastructures, something that today is often opposed by a large part of the citizenship.

Investment in a growing citizens awareness clearly is not alternative, rather it should go hand in hand with the continuous investment aiming at bettering the infrastructures and "smartifying" the city, but I would say that if I only have 1 dime to invest I would rather invest it on citizens than on infrastructures.

Author - Roberto Saracco

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