Do Smart Cities make Stupid Citizens?

I recently visited the Smart Cities Week in Vienna where various aspects of smart cities were discussed and many Austrian smart cities and smart regions shared their best practice examples, challenges and experiences.

For Austria as a country of small cities (except Vienna) with very diverse structures it is important to break down the global challenges of globalization, urbanization and climate change on a regional level. Through its Smart Cities Program, Austria therefore aims to proactively address these issues and to become a frontrunner within Europe.

To achieve this, it is important to engage and excite people, to make smart cities inclusive and to let citizens participate in smart projects such as Vienna’s citizens’ solar power plants or in neighborhood and city-wide planning processes. Moreover, you have to accept that there will always be resistance to change (e.g. when it comes to personal mobility) and that there needs to be room for failure as failure is an integral element of innovation.

While probably everyone would agree to these general objectives and statements, it was particularly interesting to follow the discussion on different smart city approaches, e.g. ranging from the technological focus (energy, traffic, ICT) of the EIP Smart Cities and Communites to the more behavioral changes and social innovation driven view of the JPI Urban Europe.

In this regard, Chris Dunham from Carbon Descent posed the important question why suddenly everything is labelled “smart”? How did we move from energy efficiency, renewable energy and other environmental issues to smart mobility, smart travel choices, smart grids, etc. and finally to the concept of smart cities – a kind of futuristic world where everything is connected?

In particular, we should ask ourselves the following questions: Has the low carbon agenda been hijacked by ICT? Is this a distraction or central to the carbon agenda? What is the energy rebound of an internet of everything? Who controls and has access to that data? And finally, a provocative one: Do smart cities make stupid citizens?

With regards to potential backlashes of a technology-centric view, the UK government’s definition of smart cities includes the goal of “even identifying car parking spaces before leaving the house”, thereby probably making driving more attractive and contributing to the loss of public space to cars in our cities.

Especially in the case of urban mobility, a smart city is probably more about social innovation than technological innovation and we should therefore focus on how smart mobility can contribute to a better life, e.g. by showing that not owning a car in a city actually is a relief that increases your quality of life. So, the key often lies in social innovation (often supported by technology), building on smart citizens instead of stupid citizens.

In this regard, social innovations are new processes to solve social challenges which are employed by the affected people. These innovations come out of the population and contribute to the stabilization of our urban systems, although they don’t necessarily need to affect the whole system but can also comprise many small, incremental innovations.

So, do smart cities make stupid citizens? I’d say no if social innovation comes first!

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Note: This blogpost is part of a series of blogposts on interesting events from 2013 that I haven’t blogged about yet. As they’re dealing with rather timeless issues, I am finally sharing these insights at the turn of the year where both I as a blogger and you as a reader hopefully have the time to enjoy them.

Posted on December 23, 2013 in Urbanism

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About the Author

Andreas Lindinger is a Vienna-based business consultant, sustainability expert and urban thinker passionate about livable cities, sustainable transportation, renewable energy and civic engagement. Andreas offers a transdisciplinary business, finance and sustainability background, industry expertise in energy, mobility and environmental consulting and broad international experience gained in Vienna, Vancouver, Berlin and Dublin. Make sure to also check out Vienncouver.com and to follow @lindinger on Twitter.

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