on how and when Smart Cities should meet real life (now)
Smart cities are happening now. There are promising technologies and solutions set as future promises in the most widespread narratives of smart cities, but the most fundamental changes have already taken place. Quietly, in a more silent way than the spectacularised versions foresee, networked technologies have colonized our daily life as citizens. It is not only that, at a certain point, we got used to some routines living in the hybrid city in which the way we work, shop, share, live and gather merged with a constant flow of digital traces, mobile tools and connected objects. It is also the kind of technologies we can operate with in the easiest way we could have imagined some years ago.
Top-down and bureaucratic versions of the smart city fail to acknowledge the contribution from very accessible and low cost technologies and solutions already at people’s hands: open source solutions for air quality monitoring, open data tools to enhance transparency in public policies, hacking processes in social innovation labs, digitally-based co-creation projects in public services, media facades and other connected objects to promote social interaction in public spaces, digital fabrication, etc.
In this sense, we can expect a broader use not only of technologies, but especially engagement processes in which smart technologies can serve as excuses or activators for social and civic creativity. The rules have changed in the digital era: thanks to open technologies, people can make real things together. But to do so in our cities, community engagement and strong physical connections are still relevant and the mix of digital knowledge and activism is needed more than ever. While some visions of smart cities tend to make us wait for the future to expect the benefits of an intelligent, automated, real-time city management, what we can see beyond is groups of citizens, civic hackers and social organisations making the best of already available technologies to active agents creating local solutions to local needs.
Infrastructures will keep on evolving into more sophisticated models, and city departments will keep on struggling to incorporate more efficient equipment and processes to ease procedures. This surely benefits people, but it is not clear if this is meaningful for citizens to understand what a smart city might look like. This is why there is a need to think smart cities from the street level and from daily needs. And here is where the main prospect of smart technologies can become real: gain autonomy to think, design and create locally-based solutions with affordable kits of open source technologies (think of all the Arduino applications), with open data (think of the great amount of mobile apps designed for the common good) and, in the end, with collaborative engagement processes.
Songdo, Masdar and other built-from-scratch cities are usually presented as best examples and can, at a certain point, help imagine and test new solutions, but they are not the rearview mirror we should use. The vast majority of people – and think here how the celebrated urbanized world after 2008 is happening in completely different contexts than these ones- will be living in already built cities. This is why we should concentrate on the complex and distributed network of digital practices, civic innovations and creative solutions that are already changing the way we live in cities and the way we create solutions for ourselves.