From ‘smart cities’ to ‘smart citizens’: when technology meets activism

The emergence of ‘smart cities’ came as a step forward in the deployment of technology to improve our cities, and therefore our lives. It didn’t take us long to realise the dangers of allowing private companies to get access to one of our most precious and yet most undervalued assets: our data. Could the rise of the smart city be only the beginning of a dystopian future where we are ruled by corporations? Or could people become the smart citizens needed to use technology for the people and by the people? And if so, how can new digital tools be used to create smart citizens?

Mara Balestrini

The people from Making Sense are trying to answer those questions by showing how citizens can harness their city’s data and use it to address local problems. Mara Balestrini, one of the leaders of this initiative under FabLab Barcelona, talked to us about their experience on how technology can be use to empower people and strengthen communities.

(Interview made with Antonin Léonard)

‘Smart Cities’ have been heavily criticised for their lack of economic model; therefore depending on big tech companies, such as Cisco or IBM, or becoming an economic burden for local governments. How can the ‘smart citizen’ model avoid this problem?

Mara Balestrini: This is really a key question. It’s still not clear how bottom-up civic tech initiatives can achieve sustainability and scalability without depending on donations, public funding or volunteer efforts. What I can say is that we need to be creative in finding new models to finance community enterprises.

Crowdfunding, for example, only works to kick-start a project. You need a sustainable business model to take the project to the next level, sustain further research and development, human resources, etc. There are a few leads on this; such as the cooperative model or social enterprise. It can work in some cases, but the governance part can become an issue, as not everyone can or wants to take part of the decision-making process.

It’s also about how you frame the problem, and therefore, the solution. Our Bristol Approach, for example, was about measuring temperature and humidity levels inside houses. With their data, citizens proved to the City Council that the investment needed to tackle the consequences of not addressing the problem was higher than the money needed to solve it. So, instead of spending around 15.5 million pounds a year trying to deal with health issues caused by living with damp, which is how much the NHS spends, there is an opportunity to see citizen-led initiatives as an investment to mitigate the problems. This opens perhaps a new model for citizens to contribute to the delivery of public services.

Many have pointed out the risk of ‘Smart Cities” becoming ghettos for the rich, with the evident danger of excluding important parts of the population due to limited access to the technology. In your case, it seems is not only access but operational know-how.  How can you make this type of technology more approachable?

MB: To make it more accessible one of the first key concerns is how to deliver a good user experience; the design is, therefore, crucial. Second is supporting the development of technological skills for people.

If cities are willing to pay for the technology to become smart cities, it is their responsibility to invest enough money to make sure all citizens can meaningfully access and profit from that technology.

And this can be done through educational and training programs at the community level, access to hackerspaces, programming workshops, etc.

The state cannot impose a set of technologies that citizens cannot make sense of. So if we want smart cities, we need smart citizens, which means guaranteeing access to opportunities to develop those skills. Some of these programs originate out of goodwill or private initiatives, but some should be enforced through public policy and law. We need to be militant about this in order to guarantee the accessibility of our own cities.

One of the challenges of activism is sustaining motivation in the long term, and when it includes a technology component, it also includes user engagement. What would you say is needed to solve these issues?

Making Sense EU_Barcelona Pilot

MB: Developing the technology to make it user-friendly and creating a sense of purpose and community. Engagement can be drawn from technological novelty, but will more likely sustain if it derives from having identified a problem that citizens want to solve.

Instead of a top-down approach, we need to be asking ‘what are citizens in need of’, and ‘how can technology help them solve it’.

Another very important aspect is how you initially frame the problem. It is very easy to focus on what is wrong and what is missing. But we tried a different approach. From the beginning, we mapped what we had as a community, and by visualising what we effectively had, we started the project with a great attitude, feeling that any challenges could be overcome by the richness of the group. We started from abundance rather than scarcity.

And finally, it is crucial to foster the emergence of very tight bonds. People need to be connected. For this project, we realised that having very small groups with facilitators strengthened the relationship between all the members. You need to foster social cohesiveness that in turns create community capital, which helps communities to become resilient.

Unfortunately, the soft skills that are necessary to build sustainable communities are often overlooked in smart city and technology programs.

What are the key learnings from your experience that can be transferable to other civic techs?

MB: Understanding how people appropriate technology and build communities around it should be shared across all the civic techs, as well as new models of decision making, governance and funding. How do smart citizens reach an agreement on who can use the data, under which conditions this data should be used, who owns it and who can access it, are urgent questions to be addressed by other civic tech and smart cities initiatives.

Activism is about advocating for specific change. Your project consists of giving people the tools to monitor their environment, but what about implementing change? Were you in contact with the local representatives/authorities?

Making Sense EU_Prishtina Pilot

MB: I would frame the question in a different way: we were not there to impose an agenda on the project participants from the very beginning. It is up to the citizens to decide the best approach once each pilot has finished. For example, in Prishtina, Kosovo, the pilot was about measuring air quality, and because the government refuses to acknowledge this as a major problem, part of the solution was to pressure the government and demonstrate that change is needed. The first pilot ended with a big demonstration in front of the Ministry of Environment and Spatial Planning displaying the data along mannequins that were wearing gas masks. The demonstration received wide media coverage resulting in over 3.000 people signing up to join the next pilot.  

In Barcelona, we are focusing on making sense of noise pollution, which has been identified by locals as a pressing environmental issue. As the local government is very supportive of citizen-led initiatives, it didn’t make much sense for us to demonstrate against it but rather to seek avenues for collaboration. In this pilot, participants realised that most people are unaware of what causes noise pollution and how it affects us, so they wanted to raise awareness in a creative way, engage people rather than scare them. They created a public interactive installation called the #NoiseBox. They learnt that it is possible to sense noise levels, but that the data can’t tell you the full story. Going above the limits of noise can mean very different things depending on the context of who is producing the noise and who is experiencing it.

This is a great opportunity for citizens to make real and very useful contributions. For example, they may become aware of the limitations and dangers of blindly trusting technology and allowing it to make decisions for ourselves. This is to show that for Making Sense public policy is not always the outcome of the pilots; other forms of impact are as valuable as public policy. Sometimes the policies are already there, but people don’t know nor comply with them, so change can come about from raising awareness, starting conversations and empowering people to rethink the status quo.  

What do you think is the future of democracy if each citizen is capable of contributing to making smarter decisions for the city?

MB: One of the things that we saw during the pilots, is that citizens realise how hard it is to build consensus and, furthermore, how hard it is to try to create a policy that fits all. How can this change democracy? It facilitates the understanding of how complex consensus, decision and policy-making are, how long it takes…

These kinds of initiatives allow people to exercise their democratic rights in a more direct and immediate way.

Democracy cannot longer be a ‘thing’ that we do once every x amount of years. You get good at being democratic the more often you practice it. Civic technologies are organised around participation, therefore granting the opportunity to get more experience, to assess different points of view, to build arguments, to accept we don’t know everything. Moreover, a grass-roots collection of data creates a very different landscape and understanding of cities by the citizens, at the very least this is why we feel it is worth doing.