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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

David Wilcox

Exploring how we can contribute to @thersaorg Networked City - adding the citizen and community dimension #RSACities

4 min read

The RSA Networked City initiative - which I wrote about here - got off to a great start last week with a public event and follow-through workshop.

I was particularly interested in how our London Networked City exploration might contribute to the RSA programme … and also how we might benefit from that, since I and others involved in London are RSA Fellows.

The RSA initiative was promoted as Smart City plus Sharing City … with a mix of technology apps and platforms for social, economic and environmental benefits and ways to support cooperation and collaboration.

I think we can contribute by promoting the importance of citizen participation and community building. I tweeted during the public event:

At @thersaorg event on Networked Cities = Sharing City + Smart City. Should be + Participatory City. Otherwise excluding

and received some encouragement

Think David Wilcox's point from audience hits the nail on the head - need more than digital inclusion to involve everyone

— Sufiya Patel (@sufiyapatel) May 18, 2017

We are developing the idea of Connecting Londoners as I've summarised in this note.

We are exploring three linked challenges as services and funding are cut, and the ways that people communicate are changing rapidly:

  • how will Londoners in future find out where to get help for themselves or their families in times of need; find local activities that interest them; share or sell items or services; find opportunities to volunteer; campaign for or against change in their community … and organise projects?
  • how can individuals, groups and organisations make use of the Internet - together with other methods - to cooperate and collaborate more effectively?
  • how can we ensure that those most in need, and most vulnerable, are not excluded by these changes?

... with a range of practical initiatives including mapping, communications, and co-design.

The day after the RSA event I was pleased to hear Geoff Mulgan, chief executive of NESTA, emphasise the importance of both bottom-up and top-down development, as I reported here. Geoff said:

What we have learned - contrary to many expectations 30 or 40 years ago - is that most of the dynamic of digital and indeed the knowledge economy, through most societies, is that it widens disparity, it widens inequalities.

adding:

It is important not to lose sight of that small and sometime very big P political side of what is being talked about - but it requires that the bottom-up and top-down link. It is no good enough just to fetishise either - just fetishising because they are grass roots, if they don’t get access to power and money, any more than it is good to fetishise top down, command and control or directive.

It is when the two combine that you get profound and lasting change in this space.

I think we can build on the previous RSA work on communities, as I said here, and provide a practical testbed in London to apply past experience and new ideas.

RSA could certainly help us by convening joint events, sharing development ideas and hopefully opening some routes to funding. We could apply for some project support through the Catalyst fund.

I found some support for cooperation at the RSA workshop, so I'll explore further and report back.

I'm also sure there's a lot more to be learned from the NESTA Digital Social Innovation programme, and from Cities like Barcelona, as I reported here. London will shortly have a chief digital officer, so I think we should prepare to pitch ideas there. Meanwhile, as Geoff Mulgan said during the DSI event, it is people not clicks that change societies.

Most of the profound change associated with digital technology moves at the speed of culture as much as it does of technology . Most of the things we are talking about here that really matter require changes to how people think, how they feel, how they behave as well as hardware and software.

The networks we need to build for a Networked City are human ones, as much as tech.

David Wilcox

Discovering how our work on Connecting Londoners can benefit from @thersaorg research into communities #RSACities

4 min read

As I reported here, RSA staff are developing a Networked City initiative which I hope offers scope for collaboration with our Networked City London project.

We didn't know about each other until recently - and that prompted me do a quick scan of past and current RSA research, publications and projects by both staff and Fellows that might also be relevant.

The search revealed a wealth of useful content about Connected Communities and other topics from the Action Research Centre and other sources.

It's particularly relevant as we shift our attention to Connecting Londoners - as I've summarised in this note.

We are exploring three linked challenges as services and funding are cut, and the ways that people communicate are changing rapidly:

  • how will Londoners in future find out where to get help for themselves or their families in times of need; find local activities that interest them; share or sell items or services; find opportunities to volunteer; campaign for or against change in their community … and organise projects?
  • how can individuals, groups and organisations make use of the Internet - together with other methods - to cooperate and collaborate more effectively?
  • how can we ensure that those most in need, and most vulnerable, are not excluded by these changes?

I've dropped examples of RSA work into a Google doc which you can view here and pulled out the main links below to offer a taster.

As Paul Vittles reports here, a group of us have been developing an RSA Fellows Forum. That's already providing some new opportunities to connect Fellows and staff.

RSA senior researcher Brhmie Balaram has kindly invited me to a workshop following their public launch on Networked Cities and offered to join in discussion on the Forum.

Meanwhile here's a few of the RSA resources about communities that I found.

Connected Communities and Citizen Power

Public services and local government

Inclusive growth commission

Fellow-led projects - a few examples

London as a city of communities, by Matthew Taylor

A city of communities? In a set of essays about London 2050 Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the RSA, argues that the capital’s strength will depend upon its communities and their connections. So, in 2050 ...

Every community would have a story about how its own internal social capital makes it stronger, more resilient and creative but also how it is a doorway to the world with street neighbours helping each other reach out to both geographical and non-geographical networks of people around the world.

David Wilcox

Now @thersaorg defines Networked City as Smart City plus Sharing City - with a launch event this month #RSACities

4 min read

It's encouraging for those of us developing the idea of London as a Networked City that the RSA think-tank has the same idea.

Later this month RSA is running a public event on Cities 3.0 with the line 'We've had 'Sharing Cities' and 'Smart Cities' - what's next for the evolution of the city?' Their answer: Networked Cities.

Modern cities are having to face up to a whole host of wicked problems like demographic change, inequality, housing shortages, homelessness, environmental degradation and access to public services.

So-called Sharing Cities emphasised the importance of peer-to-peer platforms and collaborative resource stewardship, whilst Smart Cities focussed on the power of ICT to make assets and services more accessible to all. But is there an ideal hybrid of the two that recognises the strengths of each?

The RSA envisions Smart Cities evolving into ‘Networked Cities’, re-imagining the use of technology to emphasise a human-centred approach to problem-solving. In recognition that the use of technology can be disempowering for some citizens of Smart Cities, Networked Cities seeks to enable citizens to reclaim power over technology, encouraging the use of P2P technology to address collective challenges. Whereas citizens were once passive bystanders to technology, in Networked Cities they are now actively participating in its use to achieve a shared goal of inclusive growth.

I'm particularly interested because I'm one of 28,000 people around the world who are RSA Fellows. That's not as grand as it used to be when William Shipley and some distinguished Londoners founded the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce 260 years ago in the coffee shops of Covent Garden. These days all applications are welcome, and I would encourage you to consider joining, not least because a group of us are developing an online Fellows Forum. Our London Networked City is already on there as a project.

I checked in with the RSA Networked City lead, Brhmie Balaram, who proved keen to share ideas at and after the event. I'm hopeful we can find some ways to cooperate. RSA has access to top-level thinkers and research, excellent events and publications, and some 8000 Fellows in London.

Here's some of the ideas we can bring:

How London can be a more Networked City
A background paper for our launch event on January 10 2017, including a summary of The Way Ahead initiative, models for cooperation and collaboration in the networked age, the development process for our exploration.

Supporting co-production
A note for The Way Ahead group on co-production, covering models for engagement, cooperation and collaboration, and the idea of local ecosystems. January 2017

Connecting Citizens
A paper summarising an approach to using digital technology, network thinking and self-organising to address three linked challenges: how people can find opportunities and services, and develop new relationships in their local communities; how to develop civic infrastructure when existing systems are reducing and new approaches are needed; supporting community connectors in their role of making connections and building relationship in local communities, and online

Slipham Living Lab
We can use a fictitious but realistic place - the London Borough of Slipham - as a Living Lab to explore how to improve the ways in which people connect with local services, organisations, and opportunities in their community. We can also work together in the Lab to find out what support organisations need, and what is involved in putting ideas into practice. To do that we’ll have a background map of existing connections, some characters and organisations, and some challenges to meet. The Lab could then be developed - subject to funding - as a “for real” co-design toolkit for local people and organisations.