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24 January 2024

Smart and for all: the city of the future is human and inclusive

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Smart Cities: what’s in it for the citizens? Technology should empower people, but sometimes it becomes an end in itself rather than a means to an end. Cities must address problems like the digital divide, use technology to help the less privileged categories, and know when to intervene or step back to foster social values and inclusivity.

From homeless, anonymous guy to TV star, at least for one day. Alexandre has appeared on French media, sitting on a bridge in Lyon, while inviting passers-by to give him money by scanning a QR Code with their smartphone. Nowadays, people tend not to carry any change in their pockets, so a group of students from the ECAM engineering school has devised an app that can solve this problem for those whose generosity might otherwise be frustrated.

It is only one of many projects showing how technology can help the less privileged categories of citizens, which is what a “smart city” should do, according to the latest trends in the field. But it is not always the case, regrets Pontus Westerberg, a program manager at UN-Habitat working on what they call “people-centered smart cities”. “Many smart city projects,” he argues, “seem to be about finding new uses for technology.  The other aspect is that technology in many cities has been much more about the control of citizens and of residents than their empowerment. So, we see a lot of CCTV,  sensors, and facial recognition, and we see some worrying trends about automated policing and people's data not being used in an empowering way. Technology in cities should be about empowering people, it should be about ensuring inclusion, and it should be about respecting human rights.”

These words align with the principles of Lyon Metropolitan City's new policy. Lyon was named “First Smart City of France” in 2013 and 2014. Since then, a new administration has taken over, and a new institution, the Métropole or Metropolitan City, has been created. Laurence Boffet, Vice President in charge of citizen engagement, shares these views: “We've ultimately stopped identifying ourselves as a Smart City or even developing this project as such. Not that we are abandoning the digital aspect, but we are reorientating ourselves a bit,” she admits.

The first issue to address for a city that wants to be really smart is the digital divide. Weird as it might seem at this point in history, not all citizens have access to the internet or a smartphone. In urban areas, broadband is certainly not a scarce commodity. Still, for some categories of the public, it remains challenging to reach: the poorer citizens, people without housing, but also seniors. Data show that in 2020, the largest age group in Europe were those aged between 35 and 39, at roughly 53 million people. By 2025, however, the largest age group is forecast to be those aged 40-44 (52.7 million) and, by 2050, 60-64 (48.4 million). In short, the European population is ageing. And even if older people will eventually be more tech-savvy and probably healthier, there is still an issue with digital education and access to digital tools.

This is why some local institutions have taken action in this sense: “We are trying to keep physical counters and telephone counters,” explains Boffet. But, she complains, “Today, only the municipalities and the Metropolitan City still receive people physically. People can make an appointment, they can call, and we try to keep that, whatever happens. But the [French] State has almost no physical counters today, and when you want an appointment, you have to queue for hours.”

Elsewhere, the focus is on helping people with difficulties and on education through volunteers. In Trento, Italy, this has been done for a few years already, says Alex Tomasi from the Innovation Service at the municipality. And now, for the second year, a new initiative has been launched, financed by the National Recovery and Resilience Plan (NRRP): “We have 12 young people who do digital facilitation in the area as part of their civil service commitment, creating information material and giving training courses. ​We have discovered that digital facilitation is not only for people over 65 years of age, but young people also come for help, as well as many foreigners.

Technology can also help form social bonds, but here again, asserts Federico Bastiani, it must be a means to an end, not the end itself. Bastiani is the inventor of the concept of “Social Street”, which celebrated ten years last September and is now a reality worldwide. It was, in fact, 2013 when he created a Facebook group where the residents of the street he lived in, Via Fondazza in Bologna, Italy, could subscribe and get in touch. But the purpose of the virtual community was to meet in person, creating a “real life” community, and the slogan was – and still is – “From virtual to real to virtuous.” Actually, you don’t even need to be on Facebook to be part of the community, a bottom-up initiative that the institutions, Bastiani laments, didn’t understand at first: “The Social Street aims to reactivate good neighbourliness. But for the institutions, the common good is something tangible, like taking care of the building’s garden, which needs permits, insurance, rules, etc. That wasn't the goal. The common good is also saying hello to each other and reactivating relationships. In short, it is a completely different level, and the institutions often have not understood the social value of this.”

Things have evolved since. Now, the city of Bologna – and others after them – has created a form of “collaboration pacts” that every citizen can sign without the need for an association to be behind them, explains Bastiani, and the bureaucracy is highly simplified. But this is an example of how the institutions sometimes need to take a step back to let this kind of initiatives prosper.

On the other hand, a city's involvement can be crucial in developing higher inclusivity. This is the case of Pamplona in Spain, which has launched a series of projects in this respect, such as a software platform developed as part of the European STARDUST project to monitor and control energy use in social rental buildings in a Pamplona district. “The ultimate goal,” explains Leire Iriarte, who works for the city council, “is to have minimum energy waste while keeping the inhabitants comfortable. This also has a consequence in the energy bill, since you save a lot of energy both because of the construction, the materials, the heat recovery system, and different technologies used, but also because it's going to be managed in an intelligent way.” This translates into a double advantage for less wealthy citizens: it saves money and is automated, so the inhabitants don’t need to know how the system works to use it.

But Pamplona is engaged in making its citizens’ lives easier in multiple ways: among them, smart parking spaces for people with disabilities, with a project to develop an application that allows people with reduced mobility to find out where reserved spaces are available, their status (occupied or free) and also to make reservations; audio signals in traffic lights that visually impaired people can activate remotely; or virtual reality tools for elderly people to help them choose furniture setting and other details for the apartments in public buildings that are being refurbished.

And what about Alexandre in Lyon? Will he be able to use his QR code daily to ask for money, and how will he do so? For the Vagadons prototype, the students had help from a consulting company, Dynergie, which agreed to work for free because of the solidarity aspect of the idea. It’s what is called frugal innovation”. Now, Dynergie is looking for opportunities for public funding. “Making money through solidarity remains complicated in people's minds today,” complains Florence Caghassi, Dynergie’s Associate Director. “But a project like this needs to be developed. Is it OK to use donations to finance this type of project? Or should it be entirely funded by the State via associations? Finally, there are genuine issues concerning the economic model, and in fact, this is a bit of the particularity of social and solidarity economy projects.”

These are some of the issues that the smart city of the future will have to address to be able to make technology accessible and really empowering for all its inhabitants.

Article written by Selene Verri

Foto di Alexander Grey su Unsplash provides its content to all media free of charge. We would appreciate if you could acknowledge as the source of the content.