Governance, Citizenship and Smart Cities

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Cities are complex entities that are intrinsically crammed with multitude of interdependencies and contradictions. In recent years, advancements in Information and Communications Technology (ICT) have made possible a new urban paradigm: The Smart City. Supposedly, once cities are equipped with networked ICT, their governments are on a better footing to make sense of the complexity and formulate the public good that is better aligned with its citizens’ needs.

The reasoning often used by governments and corporations to justify the smart city paradigm is the quest for increased efficiency. Historically, the improvement in efficiency has been achieved by militarising the bureaucratic structures that underpin societies and later on to corporations. The similarity caused the boundaries between politics and consumerism to blur, and making it possible to place both merchandise and politics under the tenets of consumption.

To remain relevant, the definition of public good must be reconstituted and placed within the contemporary construct. Here, the vital link lies with the formation of a stronger civil society in a networked city context. Moreover, and while the profit-making motives behind the corporate push for the adoption of the paradigm can be disdainful, technological progress also makes other alternatives possible. What is becoming increasingly visible is the range of non-corporate ICT initiatives that have begun to play a role in addressing citizens’ needs.


The Military – Industrial Complex

The quest for improving efficiency in governments is not a new phenomenon. The German sociologist, Max Weber wrote extensively on how the organisational model pioneered by the 19th-century Prussian army, founded upon clear command structures and highly competent officers and soldiers, became the model for many government organisations and businesses.

“No matter how impoverished a person, as long as they know their position and duties they are less likely to revolt.” – Bismarck in Wilson, 1989.

The adoption of this management structure permits long-term stability and predictability. The quest for order and efficiency was transferred to 20th-century civil society through the standardisation of operations, educational curricula and in professions such as law, medicine and science. Likewise, rationalised time and activities also found a place in business practices that profited from its implementation.

From the 1980s, Western democratic governments and the corporations operating in their realms gradually drifted away from the militarised models. A phenomenon that is also marked by a shift from manual labour to machine automation and the preference for short-term results. The immediate effect causes large institutions to splinter and the fragmentation of many people’s lives. In these societies, people are geared towards relocating rather than settling in, resulting in highly individualist societies that inhibits traditional communities from forming.

Emperor William II reviews Prussian troops (Röchling 1894). Source: Wikipedia

Emperor William II reviews Prussian troops (Röchling 1894). Source: Wikipedia



Shopping For Democracy

A direct comparison can be drawn between the Wal-Mart superstore model and political firms. In a Wal-Mart store, customers are free to wander through aisle upon aisle of goods and everything that is purchasable is available in an instant. In the rare cases that contact between a consumer and salespersons happen, these occasions are typically sanitised from mediation and persuasion. Similar parallels can be observed with many governments and political parties. In these organisations, the decision on what policies to adopt becomes limited to global imaging and marketing. These are the instances where the line between consumption and politics is blurred.

“Mostly what is sought by the act of purchasing the good is no longer the good’s function nor its materiality. Instead, what is desired is its potency and potential. When applied to the politics, this makes it possible—and acceptable—for politicians to emphasise selling ideas and making promises rather than acting substantively.” – Sennet, 2007.


Wal-Mart aisles. ©Stephen Wilkes / Gallery Stock

Wal-Mart aisles. ©Stephen Wilkes / Gallery Stock


In the smart city paradigm, corporate hand in dispensing public goods on behalf of governments is contested by for many. So what is this public good? In economics, the public good is defined as a good that can be used by everyone and where use by one individual does not reduce its availability to others. In philosophy and politics, the public good refers to mutual benefit at the societal level.

Up to the 19th century, the provision of the public good has largely been the domain of governments. They were the only organisations that are suitably equipped with the management structure and financial resources to deliver it efficiently to a large population. As corporations have become more important and equally- if not even more powerful, they can enter into complex arrangements with governments to provide the public good. As societies become increasingly connected through ICT networks another alternative is possible. A shift towards citizen empowerment.


Citizen Empowerment via The Open Data Infrastructure

In his book ‘Against The Smart City’, Adam Greenfield opined that the smart city model envisaged by corporations to be self-serving. For corporations, the city dweller’s participation is limited only to generating data that can be captured, analysed and acted upon by administrators. On the other hand, it would be presumptuous to assume that citizen participation automatically leads to public good. If citizens are empowered, and a genuinely open society created, then what type of information is shared and who decides?

In the most extreme cases, the kind of bigotry and fundamentalist ideas spread through the internet using the same networked infrastructure and ICT justifies the control that must be exerted to maintain collective security. These are just some instances that highlight the underlying tension between freedom of speech and state control. Hence, there are still scope for further deliberations on the balance between initiatives that are considered “top-down” — coming from the government to that which are considered “bottom-up” — initiated by the citizen.

When Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web (WWW) in 1989, it was intended as a platform for global information sharing. To our benefit, his creation was not patented and was made open without any royalties due. His position contrast to that of corporate ICT initiatives, which takes advantage of the free infrastructure, but seek profits from licences they issue in return for the use their patented products. To be in keeping with the spirit of openness championed by Berners-Lee, information ought to be considered as a form of public good, thus freely available. One form in which this approach has manifested into is the Open Data movement.

“Open data is defined as data that can be freely used, reused and redistributed by anyone—subject only, at most, to the requirement to attribute and share-alike.” – Open Knowledge Foundation, 2012

At the moment, much of the vital work done to encourage information sharing happens around the creation of a global standard. The non-profit organisation, Creative Commons, creates a variety of licenses that work alongside existing copyright rules and provide people the legal foundation to share, use and build upon licensed work. This protects the people who use the work, so they do not have to worry about copyright infringement

Millions of works have been licensed using Creative Commons, which is reflected by the ubiquity of its logo on the World Wide Web. While there are many positive aspects to the open data movement, the initiative is not without its pitfalls. As seen in Karnataka, India, open data can also be used to disempower citizens. In this example, a pro-poor initiative to digitise land titles was exploited by the rich to access previously restricted data and re-appropriate the lands of the poor instead.

Creative Commons Logo. ©Creative Commons

Creative Commons Logo. ©Creative Commons



Examples of work that are spurred by the open data movement can be represented by a number of non-corporate initiatives encompassing diverse fields. Part of the city of London’s open data initiative, the London Datastore is a website created by the Greater London Authority (GLA) that functions as a repository for London-related data. It was set up with the intention to give citizens open access and let them use it for any purpose, free of charge. They anticipated that by making it freely accessible, raw data can be turned into more useful information.

Front page of to the London Datastore webpage. ©Greater London Authority

Front page of to the London Datastore webpage. ©Greater London Authority


An initiative from the construction industry, the WikiHouse is an open-source platform for designing and sharing house designs that anyone can use to manufacture and assemble a house in days, with no construction skills. All design information shared in the WikiHouse commons is shared under a Creative Commons License.

Wikihouse Construction. ©Wikihouse

Wikihouse Construction. ©Wikihouse


New forms of financing are also made possible by networked ICT. Crowdfunding is the practice of funding a project or venture to raise money from the public, typically via the Internet. The model usually brings together three parties: the project instigator, supporters and an organisation that functions as the moderator and platform for bringing the parties together.

The miniaturisation and affordability coupled by the explosion of information also nurture many tech-related grass root movements. The maker movement, for instance, is a subculture representing a technology-based extension of DIY. Makers can be engaged in various pursuits ranging from electronics to traditional arts and crafts. The emphasis of this subculture is on the sharing and reuse of designs that are published online and in maker-oriented publications. The movement runs counter to the generic mass-produced products by empowering individuals to become craftsmen and making it possible for consumers also to become producers.

Children tinkering at the 2013 World Maker Faire. ©Agency by Design

Children tinkering at the 2013 World Maker Faire. ©Agency by Design



The discourse surrounding the smart city is still in the process of being formulated, and, therefore, there is still a broad scope of opportunities for shaping it in the right direction. Critics are right to beckon caution when it comes down to adopting the corporation’s brand of smart city paradigm, but future initiatives should not discount their contribution altogether. While there is a danger that in smart cities, citizens may become mere idle data producers, the answer to the issue should not be about having to select rigidly between a profit-making or non-profit initiative to deliver public good. The two need not be in contrast. Instead, both corporations and civic society have a role to play in advancing the public good. The argument should instead be about whether to adopt an open or closed system. In an open system, external interactions are taken into account and thus, both top-down and bottom-up urban initiatives can exist together. Within this framework governments still have a vital role to play; to channel public money to build the network infrastructure and then to regulate its use.




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Patrick Tantra
Patrick is interested in how context shapes the built environment and in a holistic approach to resolving design problems. He recently obtained his MSc in Smart Cities and Urban Analytics at the Bartlett, Center for Advanced Spatial Analysis (CASA)- UCL. He also holds architectural degrees from Curtin University and a Postgraduate Diploma from the Bartlett. He has worked on architectural projects in the UK, Australia and in Indonesia with various practices. Currently, he is developing a London open data platform at CASA and working freelance on private architecture projects. He is also the Vice Chief Officer for the Indonesian Institute of Architects-European Union chapter (IAI-EU).