'It's about the people': What is a 'smart city' - Part 1

What is a smart city? Is it about the technology we use to generate data about our infrastructure and places? Or is it about how we define and understand the problems we are looking to address? Or is it both?

The Manchester skyline at night
The Manchester skyline at night
  • Updated: 12 May 2016

Over two articles we will explore contrasting definitions of ‘smart’ and what it means for our built environment. In part 1 Diarmaid Lawlor, Head of Urbanism at Architecture and Design Scotland, explores ‘the human element’.

Data is the fuel of the emerging economy. We are building the systems to use data to drive change and maximise efficiencies. So why don't people and institutions adopt these systems and technologies quicker to enable smarter decision making? What's wrong with the people?

Let's start with the problem. The Helsinki Design Lab was a nation scale initiative in Finland built to look at some of the major public and civic problems of our time including ageing and sustainability. So how do we tackle them? They cost money, affect lives, challenge governments. Nations seek solutions.

The interesting thing about the Helsinki Design Lab is the way they started the conversation. They started by looking at the 'architecture of the problem'. For them, the key process is about problem finding, deep understanding of the drivers and motivations shaping why we are where we are. And who the problem affects. Tackling modern social, environmental and economic problems is about empathy. Design then becomes a vehicle to demonstrate the art of the possible. But, it has a context.

We know there are all sorts of problems. We have simple problems, easy to understand, easy to diagnose, easy to fix. Bish, bash, bosh. We have complicated problems which are layers of simple problems acting simultaneously. A building or an engine is a series of layered problems. We have complex problems like ageing, where multiple contexts and systems act and change the nature of the problem itself. It adapts. It is hard to understand. And we have chaos; the absence of any recognisable pattern.


Cyclist on the pavement in a UK city
Pedestrians and cyclists in a UK city. Do you think data will be able change our cities?


Many modern public and civic problems are the complex variety; the product of complex adaptive systems. People are usually involved in a variety of messy ways. Tackling these problems is like nailing jelly with a skyhook. And these are the problems of social justice, welfare, employability, resource management and learning. They are the problems of communities and town halls. Tackling them is hard, really hard. And these are tough days with resource challenges and changing politics. So why not adopt more of the data and technology driven smart systems at scale and at pace?

Perhaps one issue is many of us crave simple elegant solutions. Faced with complex or complicated problems, we look for simple ways ahead, reduce the scope of the problem. Or focus on the solutions and technologies we are most familiar with, or convinced by. Even if we suspect they may not be the right tools for the job.

Contrast this with the example of a special school in Scotland. Many of the learners work in the kitchen and restaurant. They provide hospitality to the public. And each year, the teacher's get to know the students through relationship building and trust building and empathy despite sometimes no verbal communication channels. They understand the young people, what makes them tick, what they are capable of. Touch, smiles, hugs and respectful challenges are the language and method of communication. And using this knowledge they adapt the curriculum, the structure of spaces, even the menu in the kitchen every year so every learner can be the best they can be working to their strengths and capacities. No smart technology. Just smart caring people making great decisions.

Smarter technology informing better decision making to supply better citizen outcomes has huge potential. And it is here to stay. But let's be honest. The environment of these problems is complex. To get the best outcome we must invest more in problem finding. We need to invest more in empathy, deeply understanding people. And we need human feedback to complete the loop. The technology needs people. That's who the systems are for.

Growing cities and building resilience

Find out more about ICE's work exploring the challenges that mass urbanisation poses to city infrastructure. Let us know your opinions by joining the debate in our comments section.