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Clever cities aren’t ‘creepy’ places

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Kathy Gibson reports from MyWorld of Tomorrow – Smart cities have the potential to make people’s lives much easier, but there is still a lot of scepticism, suspicion and even fear associated with them.

Independent product designer Ross Atkin points out that smart city projects tend to put citizens last, with very little engagement with actual people.

In fact, there has been such criticism of smart cities that the Guardian newspaper has even declared that they could destroy democracy.

“There is a growing unease about smart cities,” Atkin says.

The important issue, he adds, is that cities are not simply places, but are indistinguishable from the people who live in them. “Cities are not just a load of infrastructure that people happen to inhabit. It’s important to remember that they are social structures that people live in.”

Atkin aspires to use the Internet of Things to make cities work for people. “There are a wealth of technologies that can improve people’s lives. So I’m keen that we come up with a way of talking about smart cities that people like.”

The reality, says Atkin, is that we can’t opt out of using our cities. Consumers can decide not to use a product if they don’t like it; even enterprise products can be opted out of – but it’s not really possible to opt out of your city.

“That means the level of accountability we need for smart city products has to be much higher than other IoT products,” he says. “We need to be very careful about what we employ and how we employ it.”

When talking about the Internet of Things (IoT), Atkin says, we need to start with the “things” rather than with the Internet.

“The platform is not the difficult thing,” he explains. What’s hard is the integration and interconnectedness of people and things. “We need to focus on the value in manufacturing and distributing things.”

Expecting to be able to lock people into platforms is not a good idea, Atkin adds.

It should also be borne in mind that “things” tend to last a long time. In the US, the average age of a car registered in the US is 11,4 years.

“Lots of digital things have happened since those cars were first registered,” Atkin says. Fridges are replaced only every 14 years, with washing machines lasting 12 years, microwaves eight years and smart phones being replaced every two years.”

How we relate to things changes even more slowly, he says. Apple tried to sell a pocket-sized computer back in 1993 (the Newton) and it failed. By the time the smartphone was launched in 1997, people have become used to carrying cell phones in their pockets and so the acceptance was better.

“We are in a better position to build out from things that people already have and relate to.”

So how could this be done? Atkin says there are three stages: identify a user case; design a service and validate it; then do user testing and validation.

During research, it’s important to do discovery to figure out what’s needed, then define what the problems are, and the context within which these problems happen.

Once that has been analysed, the design brief can be written, after which development and then delivery can take place.

Some examples of smart city applications include responsive street furniture designed for disabled people.

Atkin did project for the city of York that involved studying disabled people of all kinds.

“I realised there were things we were doing that might advantage one group but that would disadvantage another group. It’s often a question of trade-offs.”

While some trade-offs are impossible, there are instances where they don’t have to happen.

He cites an example in London where the time the pedestrian light was on green was shortened in  bid to keep traffic moving. However, this meant the older people battled to cross the road before the light turned red.

The ability to tailor devices to individual usage led Atkin to explore the idea of responsive street furniture to help disabled people overcome some of their challenges.

The individual’s tag or phone would communicate with street furniture which would, in turn, cause traffic lights to stay green for longer, street lights to shine brighter or seats to unlock.

“It’s important that people feel comfortable using the system,” Atkin says. “For this reason we collected as little information about people as possible. We aren’t tracking people or keeping their personal information.”

Another example is a project called Liftcheck. Lifts to the Greenwich tunnel in London are open to the public, unsupervised, so they are often out of service.

Pedestrians and cyclists found this inconvenient and annoying, but had no way of knowing beforehand what they would find.

A simple solution was to connect the lifts to an app and Twitter account so users can know what the situation is in time to make alterative arrangements.

Atkin has written a manifesto for what he calls the “clever city”:

* Clever city services use digital technology to solve problems experienced by citizens – not necessarily by the municipality or technology provider – that will make people’s lives better.

* Clever city services are built around the needs of the people whose problems they are trying to solve

* Clever city services are as simple as they can be and easy to explain.

* Clever city services collect as few data as are required to solve the problem for the citizens.

* Clever city services are not platforms. The Internet is already a good platform, Atkin says, it’s possible to build independent systems that solve specific problems without trying to predicate them in a whole integrated project.