Smart People: Page 5 of 24

Mon, 2015-10-26 13:58 -- Jon DeKeles
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Who sets the agenda?

So where do bright ideas that make cities smarter and citizens' lives better come from? Should elected officials develop a vision that they sell to residents? Or do citizens announce their needs and set priorities? Smart cities realize the answer is a combination of both.

The traditional top-down approach to city planning and decision-making tends to result either in improvements that are more iterative than innovative, or sweeping initiatives that get stuck. Plans that are developed using very limited input may miss out on unique viewpoints that can give the effort so much more strength. Further, since the entire project risk is on one person or a small group, these projects tend to avoid risk altogether, and therefore avoid making any dramatic improvement. Or, if the project is truly revolutionary, it may never get off the ground. There's always resistance to change, and even if the vision is good, some may try to stop it for political reasons if they can't claim at least part of the success as their own.

A top-down vision may also result in a city that few people want to live in. Do you really know what your residents want? Have you asked? An operations management lecturer at the University of Leeds decided to ask Boston residents what they wanted from a smart city, and the answer was a bit surprising. They said they wanted a smarter version of what they already have. Thinking of the place their grandchildren may eventually call home, the workshop participants all wanted something that's more sustainable and livable, but they also wanted it to be recognizable. They were concerned that only the rich and powerful have a say in shaping the city, and desperately wanted the smart city to enhance – not replace – the city that they know.

A bottom-up approach is typically much more innovative and inclusive. As Council member Oracle describes it, this approach turns citizens from end-users to begin-users. It brings together a wide variety of people with different backgrounds working toward a common interest. You will have groups of people trying different ideas. Some ideas will work; others won't. People adapt and will likely join together to work problems out. Eventually, the better ideas will float to the top, resulting in an imaginative vision that's not usually possible with centralized decision-making.

While this sounds ideal, it isn't a perfect model, either. With a large number of people acting spontaneously, this approach can be full of complexity. Their solutions may also miss the mark if the participants aren't repre-sentative of the community as a whole. They may work for themselves instead of for everyone.