Manifesto for the Clever City

Drawing of a large robot looming over the skyline with a calculator and a lever, labelled Smart Sity. Below it, at street level, some citizens are being assisted by a number of small robots. This scene is labelled Clever City

The technology industry has approached the Smart City with largely the same assumptions that have served well through personal computing, web, mobile and now internet of things. Gathering as many data as possible in case they can work out a way to monetize them.

The city, however, is a very different context to the ones where digital technology is already preeminent. Consumers and enterprises have choices about the devices and services they adopt allowing them to opt out of products they do not feel are appropriate. Short of uprooting their entire lives citizens can not opt out of using their cities. Because of this municipal authorities need to exercise great care in the deployment of the internet of things in public space.

There is growing unease around the Smart City movement because of this tension. A discourse critical of the movement is gaining momentum in academia. Useful as this attention is we must not throw the baby out with the bath water. Pervasive computing and connectivity present huge opportunities to solve very real problems for citizens. We need to find a way to let this happen on terms those citizens are comfortable with. These principles for how Clever City systems can be created and used aim to aid this process.

Clever City services:

1. Use digital technology to solve problems experienced by citizens.

Drawing of a robot protecting a person from a monster

Living in cities can be problematic for many people for all kinds of reasons. Services based on embedding digital technology and connectivity into the city fabric can solve some of these problems. The creation of these services should begin with a strong and well evidenced use case.

2. Are built around the needs of the people who’s problems they are trying to solve.

Drawing of digital system elements being drawn around a human figure

To establish a use case it is essential to understand the ‘users’; the human beings who a service is supposed to help. This means really getting to know those people. The service should be built around their needs, not those of the city government or technology provider.

3. Are as simple as they can be and easy to explain.

Drawing of a figure in an official looking hat explaining a system diagram to another figure

A minimalist approach should be taken to the technology. Connected services necessarily have several important components but these should be a simple as they can be to achieve the performance demanded by the use case safely and securely. This minimises the cost of building and maintaining the service and makes them easier to explain. As citizens will not be able to opt out of becoming involved with the service it is essential that they understand how they work.

4. Collect as few data as are required to solve the problem for the citizens.

Drawing of a robot with a vacuum cleaner vacuuming up documents from around an unhappy figure, marked with an X. To the left another robot carefully selects a single document with tweezers from next to a happy figure, marked with a tick

Minimalism should extend to data. Services should collect and store only data that are absolutely necessary to satisfy the use case.

5. Are not platforms.

The Smart City is a top-down all or nothing proposition. We can start building the Clever City bottom-up with one lamppost, bus stop or parking space (and of course one problem). Maybe one day we will join up all the individual Clever City services and will have a Smart City. Maybe we never will, but the Clever City can make a real difference to people’s lives right now.

What do you think?


This was written by Ross Atkin (at the suggestion of Bruce Streling) at South By South West 2015. It is based on reflections on building several connected city services. There is an editable version if you would like to contribute your views directly to the text.