The Slow but Steady Rise of Civic Tech and Smart Cities

Both Civic Tech and Smart Cities are technologies used en masse for the greater good. They are driven by government initiatives, used by the general public, and the latter is supported by the private sector.

Civic Tech aims to increase citizen participation in government. Civic Tech is non-profit and enhances the public good.

For example, Civic Tech might be a tool that improves voting turnout, or enables someone to easily write to their local MP online. Civic Tech is not that well-known among the general public, but there are a number of useful platforms available.

If you’re an active internet user, you’ve probably used Civic Tech without even realising it. For example, you’ve probably signed a petition on change.org to campaign for a certain policy change.

Civic Tech naturally works in partnership with (and sometimes by challenging) government to:

  • Further the public good
  • Allow the government to deliver a better service to citizens
  • Help people participate in government decision-making
  • To reduce economic inequality
  • Make government more accountable to the public

Civic Tech is related to the concept of Smart Cities, which we’ll go into next.

Smart cities

Technology can be used to address some of the problems associated with living in an urban area. Many governments are trying to utilise the benefits of technology to improve their city planning and reduce costs.

Smart City technology can help citizens to:

  • Navigate their way through a city
  • Tackle overcrowding
  • Reduce long-term carbon emissions
  • Improve traffic flow
  • Improve health (eg by encouraging people to cycle)
  • Support ageing populations

The result of smart use of technology in cities is increased economic productivity, lower healthcare costs, and better well-being for urban inhabitants. A key goal of Smart Cities is to ensure a greener future by using technology to reduce waste and increase efficiency.

Manchester Digital Development agency (a former department of Manchester City Council) says:

“a ‘smart city’ means ‘smart citizens’ – where citizens have all the information they need to make informed choices about their lifestyle, work and travel options.”

Many cities in the UK are becoming Smart Cities. The government launched Future Cities Catapult to help cities advance urban innovation.

For example, Manchester’s Smart City Programme aims to understand and optimise their existing city systems using technology. Bristol is Open is developing an ‘open programmable city’.

London’s Smart London Plan is a collaboration between business, academia and government which aims to bring people, technology and data together to solve London’s challenges.

The world’s smartest city is arguably Singapore, which monitors almost every aspect of its city with its large number of sensors. This generates a huge amount of data that can be analysed, collected by a program called Virtual Singapore, and used to improve city management.

Open data

Open data is crucial to achieving the objectives of civic tech and Smart Cities. Uber releasing their traffic flow data to the public in early 2017 on their website Movement means that city planners and researchers can gain more insight into urban traffic flows.

The London Datastore is an open data platform containing 700 datasets that has enabled the creation of 450 transport apps.

Crossover between Civic Tech and Smart Cities

Both areas of technology are naturally directed by government policies and local council participation. Civic Tech generally addresses the priorities of government, whereas Smart Cities are focused on the needs of individuals living in urban areas.

Smart Cities are driven by the private sector, whereas Civic Tech is exclusively the domain of government, nonprofit and citizens.

Barriers to Civic Tech and Smart Cities

The use of high technology demands familiarity with computers and in many cases requires the use of a tablet or smartphone. This could exclude people from low-income backgrounds without access to these kinds of technologies. Worries of rising social inequality hold back some initiatives.

Issues of data privacy and security also come into play as citizens worry about who has access to their data, or councils must guard against data breaches.

The UK is behind other countries in Europe when it comes to Smart Cities and the adoption of new technologies can only grow if there is the ecosystem to support it. It also requires cross-departmental collaboration within government, to share knowledge and data, and work towards shared objectives, something that has historically been hard to achieve.

Budget cuts are a barrier to pioneering new technologies and focus falls on maintaining essential services, even if innovation is badly needed. Many services, such as rail and bus, are privatised, meaning the implementation of new technologies requires the buy-in of private companies.

In Greater Manchester alone, there are 66 private bus companies, all of which had to agree to using the new smart ticketing system.

Final remarks

There are many technologies that have already revolutionised the way we live, work and play. Travel has been completed disrupted by ride-hailing mega company Uber. Travelling and navigating is easier than ever with Google Maps, City Mapper, and many other travel apps.

This demonstrates the enormous potential for Smart Cities if different stakeholders can align towards a common goal. A coordinated vision will be key to the growth of both Smart City and Civic Tech.

Both of these industries require the collaboration and participation of the many, and will benefit from more people truly understanding their potential and impact.

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