Citizen power at the heart of smart cities 

I liked the recent article ‘Smart cities need open data’ by Ben Cave of the Open Data Institute. He made some excellent points, arguing that any smart city must be an open city because data shared with citizens enables a faster response to “the unpredictable nature of our cities”.

Spot on. Ben stated correctly that city plans “can easily be undone by people behaving in ways that were not expected”, reflecting that “smart cities are immensely large, complicated networks of interactions between different things”. He points out that having anticipated these ‘things’ being used in one particular way, city residents often end up using them for something else entirely.

We shouldn’t be surprised. Cities are not merely collections of buildings and infrastructure, smart or otherwise; they are fundamentally places for people, who spend their whole lives interacting with the people and infrastructure around them. And people have a habit of doing the unexpected. When he said that “no plan survives contact with the enemy”, Helmuth von Moltke was reflecting that war is a fundamentally human affair, and therefore you can never quite predict how events will unfold as a result. But from this citizen participation, interaction (think about crowdsourcing) and unpredictability comes innovation.

For this reason I don’t entirely agree with Ben’s point that “openness has to be the core principle in the evolution of urban services”. Openness (including open data) is important, but it is simply an enabler; it is citizen participation that must lie at the heart of the smart cities agenda. Citizen participation – difficult to plan and manage though it is – must be the core assumption of the smart cities agenda.

Citizens will always move faster than their governments. So government has to find a way to accommodate people’s ideas and evolving needs in cities that are smart because they are responsive and connected. Remember that in a smart city, the smartest thing of all is a citizen with a smart device.  We are all ‘smart actors’ who share and use information in, and with, our cities.

The more information is shared, the more useful it becomes.  The more an idea is shared, the more powerful it becomes. Openness is the smartest idea of all, a way to harness a vast network of activists who can provide up-to-the-minute information, come up with incredible ideas and contribute to their own government.

So while smart infrastructure and data (open and private) are key components, it is citizens who really bring the smart to the city. Unpredictable, technology-enabled citizens who want to understand and interact with what’s going on around them to make their lives better. As Ben said, the successful open cities are going to be those that bring in the widest range of voices. This is why open data is central to where smart cities are heading.


Neil Makepeace
Chief Executive Officer