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The People-Centric City is A Warm Smart City

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Blog. The future is lying in the cities. In 1950, approximately 1 billion people were living in urbanized areas on our planet; by the end of this century UN projections forecast that 85% of the world population or 9 billion people will be living in cities. According to a Cisco whitepaper from 2017 this technology-driven transformation is redefining the business of running a city, and the potential benefits of digital transformation in cities are huge: $2.3 trillion worldwide through 2024. But when Cisco and others talk about benefits; the question that remain is: Benefits for who? When cities become more and more digitally connected, who will pay the price? 

In order to find an answer to this question Karl-Filip Coenegrachts is the person to ask. He is the former Chief Strategy Officer in Ghent with the responsibility for the city’s long-term strategy including the smart city strategy, data and information management, policy participation, international relations, city marketing and European funding programs. For years his work has focused on the development of the City of People-concept, open governance, citizen participation, urban commons and new forms of democracy.

Recently he became a ‘recovering bureaucrat’ stating that way too often the benefits from so-called smart cities are for the companies – not the citizens: “For example, when Google talks about privacy it is not privacy for the people, it is privacy for them as a cooperation.”  This was exactly what Ann Cavoukian, Google-owned Sidewalk Labs’ lead outside privacy consultant on Toronto’s smart city project said about the Google smart city project in Toronto last year: “It’s not going to be a smart city of surveillance. It’s going to be a smart city of privacy,”. (Cavoukian has since left the project).

Cold or Warm Smart Cities?
Semantics matter and now Coenegrachts is developing a framework for a people-centric city of the future by comparing “cold” versus “warm” smart cities.

The cold smart city focuses on city marketing and competition with other cities for economic activity. It is rooted in distrust, so technology is being used to surveil its citizens and thereby has a focus on words like ‘to control’, ‘to monitor’ and ‘to manage’. In this notion the smart city taps into a general feeling of fear for the future. It has a top down hierarchy, is based on surveillance capitalism and neoliberal concepts and the role of the citizen is associated with words like consumer, user, object, potential danger.

Unfortunately there are not any real warm cities in the world right now:

“A lot of cities in Europe are evolving into economic thinking based on neoliberal concepts to please companies. There used to be a hierarchy in the thinking with the well-being of the citizens being most important and the well-being of the companies being the second most important. Many cities were on the right path, but due to change in (political) leadership and the promise of big money and wonder solutions by large companies, things have been reversed so many places” says Coenegrachts

A warm smart city is characterized by a focus on societal development; sustainability; solutions to local and global challenges and words like; ‘empowerment’, ‘rethinking’ and ‘trust’. A warm smart city looks at the future in a positive way, it has a bottom-up, holistic, integrated and collaborative approach. It is based on commons based concepts. Data and digital sovereignty is decentralized and Citizens Science mean that data can be used by citizens themselves.  Overall the role of the citizens in warm smart cities is to be co-creators of the future city’s societal advancement.

Technological Ghost Towns or Thriving Soul Cities?

According to Coenegracht future smart cities should be for the benefit of people – they should be about people in fine line with data ethics principles. And technology is only an enabler:

“5G networks don’t transform life, it simply just enables you to connect faster. It doesn’t change life. China’s approximately 100 ghost towns are technologically “clean” – but they have no soul”.

And as more and more cities are experimenting with some sorts of connectedness the city of Toronto in Canada is evolving into an example of another cold smart city. Toronto is working on becoming the “world’s first neighbourhood built from the internet up” – a project that some have call ‘Google’s Guinea-Pig City’ because Google’s subsidiary Sidewalk Lab is investing $50 million in the project.

Even though the town is not exactly a ghost town, there are according to Bianca Wylie, a Senior Fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation in the Global Economy program plenty of problems with this project.: “(…)many issues have been raised about data – what will be collected, how will it be used, who will own it, where will it be stored, and many more. What does it mean for the people living in the neighborhood? They are not subject to freedom of information laws, so we cannot get information that way either.”  

Wylie believes that all data should be public data and belong to the people, not to a black box company as is the case in Toronto. For her the central question is: “What is the public version of a smart city? Not only Google’s version?

For Coenegrachts the city is nothing but its people:

Cities should build on trust and should be created for the people and by the people. We need citizen science where we open up the data that we already have, so that data can be used by citizens themselves. Data should be owned and controlled by citizens in order for everyone to make their own decisions”.

And interestingly enough: When you ask citizens and not companies to come up with solutions, they often come up with something low tech – not high tech!


Read more about European initiatives on ethical or warm smart cities: