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David Wilcox

RSA Networked Cities aim to make tech serve citizens - let's co-design with people and communities #RSACities

5 min read

The RSA has filled out its vision of a Networked City - launched at a recent event - as one that "makes the most of technology with citizens at the forefront".

I hope this approach opens the door to collaboration with London's Networked City exploration and with RSA Fellows who have expertise in the field. We could help co-design Networked Cities with citizens to ensure that they and not top-down tech initiatives are in the lead.

In Cities 3.0 - from data-driven to people-powered senior researcher Brhmie Balaram says that technology-driven Smart City solutions require rethinking:

Over the past decade, ‘Smart Cities’ have captured the imaginations of city leaders, urban planners, and tech enthusiasts. A Smart City was conceived of as a city that integrates information and communication technology (ICT) and the Internet of Things to help manage a city’s assets. With big data came the promise of greater control, enabling cities to cut down on costs, energy, and crime.

But while some cities, like Glasgow and Barcelona have used technology to improve public services, developments in Singapore and Rio have raised concerns about using sensors and cameras to track citizens and vehicles.

These sorts of examples have provoked critiques from the likes of scholars like Adam Greenfield about whether Smart City advocates are simply trying to turn cities into computers and assuming that urban planning can be reduced to algorithms. Concerns have been raised about the level of surveillance and the lack of transparency about how data is being used. In recognition that the use of technology can be disempowering for citizens of Smart Cities, the RSA is proposing a different way for cities to make the most of technology with citizens at the forefront.

Rather than the city as a computer, we should see cities as a network of people.

Whereas citizens were once passive bystanders to technology, in ‘Networked Cities’ the use of peer-to-peer technology means that citizens must actively consent to and participate in its use. Examples of P2P technology might include sharing economy platforms, crowdfunding, and citizen engagement tools such as Pol.is or Wazoku. These peer-to-peer platforms empower people through connecting them to one another through a network.

Smart Cities were critiqued because big technology companies were driving a top-down approach determined by the sort of technology they were producing, but what’s exciting about peer-to-peer technology is that the network is ultimately decentralised and distributed. The purpose of a network can be shaped, but there is a lot more scope for grassroots, bottom-up movements to emerge as well.

Brhmie adds that while P2P technolody is being used in 'Sharing Cities' like Seoul, for example, there it is usually focussed on a specific objective of sharing goods or services. The RSA Networked City vision is wider.

We envision that in Networked Cities, P2P technology would be embedded in systems akin to the technology of Smart Cities, but would enable a collaborative approach to problem-solving, as it has in Sharing Cities.

In Networked Cities, however, the goal citizens are working towards is broader than managing shared assets and resource; the ambition here would be to apply P2P technology to support inclusive growth. While cities have long been drivers of growth, in recent years they have also struggled with widening inequality, compelling cities to pursue a new agenda that rebalances social objectives and economic priorities. Under the banner of achieving inclusive growth, cities must find solutions to emerging problems of health, housing, the environment, ageing and other demographic change.

At the RSA, we’d argue that Networked Cities goes beyond simply rethinking the Smart City or Sharing City in terms of the tools or technologies that we use, or how we engage citizens, because we are also redefining the problems and challenges being tackled. The Networked City is about more than managing public space and population growth or enabling resource efficiency; rather it takes into account wider social challenges that cities are confronting in their pursuit of a more equal society.

The RSA programme "will bring together P2P technology platforms like Airbnb and Beam with inclusive growth stakeholders like Core Cities" - but so far there hasn't been any mention of citizens and community-based networks.

As I wrote earlier, I think that's where the London Networked City initiative could help. This may be through our partner the London Voluntary Service Council, umbrella for 120,000 London groups and organisations, and connections with The Way Ahead initiative that is rethinking London's civil society.

However, we shouldn't restrict the linkage to London. Over the past three months I've been part of a group of RSA Fellows developing an online forum that now has 680 members. We'll be extending our reach through the forum and other systems to more of the RSA's 28,000 Fellows around the world.

Introductions on the Forum already show that the Fellowship has enormous expertise to contribute to RSA projects, and there's recently been some discussion about how to explore some practical collaboration. The Networked Cities project seems an ideal route, so I'll follow up on encouraging conversations about that which I started at the event.

You can see a recording of the public Cities 3.0 event here