Smart city technologies – Big Data in particular – can be extremely helpful and powerful tools in helping to overcome urban problems. But many of these issues can only be solved by making better use of our brains, not by collecting more data. It can be used to mobilize people and prompt change, but only when it becomes embedded within a wider social context. Simply put, for intelligent infrastructure to be successful, we also need old-fashioned community engagement.
The Plaça del Sol neighbourhood in Barcelona offers a compelling example of how intelligent infrastructure and community engagement can be used together to make meaningful change. Barcelona has long been a pioneer in smart cities, with an urban digital policy that promotes “technological sovereignty” and opens digital platforms to greater scrutiny, participation and engagement amongst its citizens.
Residents of Plaça del Sol had for years complained about the increasing levels of noise in and around the public square. But it wasn’t until 2017, when they started to participate in a community-led environmental monitoring project called Making Sense, that conditions started to improve. Residents attended meetings and workshops and were provided with sensors to monitor noise levels throughout the day. This allowed them to compare their experience with officially permissible noise levels, refer to scientific studies about the related health impacts, and correlate their measurements to different activities in the square throughout the day.
This process provided them with the information they needed to engage with the local council to find solutions to reduce noise: different materials to dampen sound were explored; gardens were put in place of the steps where people would loiter late at night; signage reminding people to respect noise were put in hotspot areas; a movable children’s playground is being explored. Residents will be able to monitor how these interventions improve quality of life over time.
It was by rendering their day-to-day experience into data -- and vice versa -- that local citizens could come to a workable solution. Or, as one person described it, “collective data gathering proved more potent than decibel levels alone.”
Other tools and frameworks are starting to emerge that combine information from smart and connected infrastructure with community engagement – Slow Data – to solve urban challenges. There’s the OrganiCity Playbook which uses the “experimentation as a service” model to provide citizens, small businesses, large corporations and city authorities with the resources necessary to test new ideas with urban data at a small scale. Infrastructure Canada’s Smart Cities Challenge focuses heavily on citizen engagement and non-traditional partnerships in order to enable truly connected communities. And Boston’s Smart City Playbook aims to “create a City-wide strategy for the use of sensor technologies that is people-centered, problem-driven, and responsible.”
What does this all demonstrate? That in our pursuit of more digitally-connected communities and smarter cities, we need to involve the very people that these technologies are meant to help in the first place. An abundance of new insights can be gained from the deployment of sensors, apps, and devices that form part of this intelligent infrastructure. But to realize its full potential, a combination of both Big Data and Slow Data is critical. Infrastructure can only be called intelligent if it is designed for, and with, the people it serves.