Get Smart, Stupid! Digital Technology, Climate Change, and the Missing Human Element

The Dublin Climate Gathering this month considered the intersection between digital technology and the climate change challenge with the aim of fleshing out “Plan C”: a vision for a clean, digital, low-carbon economy. The concept is based on the understanding that if you want to stop people going from point A to an unsustainable point B, it is necessary to show them a better alterative C. Although nobody can yet be certain of what a future low-carbon society will look like, is generally accepted that digital technology will be a key enabler in any scenario other than large-scale de-growth. Furthermore, given the central role digital technology has come to play in western lifestyles, any appealing vision of a low carbon future must incorporate the conveniences and quality-of-life improvements people have come to expect from digital innovation.

The role of information and communications technology (ICT) in facilitating transition to a low-carbon society is well understood in European policy and has been promoted in various ways over the years. In a 2009 communication the European Commission set out its vision for “mobilising Information and Communication Technologies to facilitate the transition to an energy-efficient, low-carbon economy”. In it the Commission sets out a number of contributions ICT can make to transition, including:

  • use of digital technology to manage energy in major energy-using sectors such as buildings and transport;
  • enabling business models and lifestyles that use less energy and other material resources; and
  • providing the information businesses and consumers need to help them make better decisions on energy use.

The strategy for harnessing these benefits has been moved forward through various avenues, including the Strategic Energy Technology (SET) Plan, the Smart Grids Taskforce, the Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS) Directive and Action Plan, and more recently a new communication on Energy Technologies and Innovation. Many of the recent developments are well outlined in this IIEA blog post by Paddy Buckenham on EU policy on ICT and energy/climate.

Smart cities

Urbanisation is one of the major global trends – by 2050, 70% of the world’s population will live in cities, the same level of urbanisation as seen in Europe today. Currently cities account for over 70% of GHG emissions and 60-80% of global energy consumption. If ICT is to help us reduce emissions then cities must be a key focus of the necessary innovation. The “smart city” concept envisages urban areas where digital technology drives efficiency in transport, buildings and energy by ubiquitous monitoring, analysis and integration.

Unsurprisingly, the key drivers of the concept have been the vendors of the enabling technologies, including IBM, Intel and Oracle. However European policy makers are increasingly engaged. In 2011 the EU launched its Smart Cities and Communities Initiative, with a budget of €81 million for demonstration projects in the transport and energy sectors. From 2013 this budget has been increased significantly to €365 million and initiative broadened to include the ICT sector.

Smart cities are a key intersection of digital innovation and public policy, as the public sector is of necessity a key partner. However much of the running to date has been made by the technology vendors, and it is a condition of the EU Smart Cities and Communities programme that consortia bidding for funding must be industry-led. The mismatch in scale and technical know-how between technology vendors and municipal authorities, let alone local communities, makes the question of who should drive smart city projects problematic. In particular it raises the question of who is deciding what outcomes are desirable from the roll-out of smart city technology.

Speaking at the IIEA last year, the British Internet technologist and analyst Ben Hammersley addressed this point:

At present, ‘Smart Cities’ are being built on the foundation of the cultural values of the vendors that are selling the technology to collate the data around things that they think people should be optimizing […] However, people might not want to optimize their route to work on the basis of measures such as time, they might want to take the most aesthetically pleasing route.

This problem is acknowledged within the industry itself. At another IIEA event this year, Accenture’s global lead for Intelligent Cities Strategy, Simon Giles noted that “the discourse on smart cities has been created and dominated by technology vendors and integrators”. He identified lack of engagement with communities and urbanists as a barrier to bringing the smart cities concept to scale, creating the prospect of “death by pilot”.

Steve Jobs famously didn’t believe in asking people want they want before developing a product. “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them”. European policy on smart cities and ICT generally might be said to be following Jobs’s approach: people will see the benefits of smart cities, smart grids and smart meters once they are in place. The focus is on innovators and policy makers working together to roll out demonstration projects (“lighthouses”).

There is validity to this approach: practical examples of smart technology in action are needed to fully communicate their benefits. However a smart city is not a product you can put in somebody’s hand to take or leave. It implies changes in how citizens interact with their urban and home environments, which at a minimum requires meaningful prior consultation. More fundamentally, however, it should be built on a foundation of shared values between citizens and municipal authorities, facilitated but not dictated by technology providers. The desired outcomes of smart city projects must be set out in human terms, incorporating not just energy efficiency but other needs of citizens such as increased public safety, more leisure time, usable public space. Similarly, the trade-offs including potential loss of privacy must be understood and agreed.

As Simon Giles put it:

I think we lack a narrative. We really don’t understand what it is and we can’t articulate what the value proposition is and until we understand that this is never going to go above pilot and into scale.

In other words, the problem is essentially that technology vendors and to some extent municipal authorities understand what it’s possible to do but they are less clear on why you would want to do it in the first place. If the smart city concept is to reach the scale necessary to have any meaningful impact on emissions we must learn how to integrate it from the outset with the basic needs and desires of urban citizens: to introduce the missing human element. Demonstration projects are certainly needed, but we also need a shared understanding of what smart cities are intended to achieve, how they will be used by citizens, and what the benefits will be in human terms.

Of course this is easier said than done. One way of ensuring the human element is included is to work in collaboration with citizens and communities to develop a set of indicators or success factors for smart city projects. The existing EU Smart Cities Stakeholder Platform is already considering these issues and may be the vehicle for such an effort.

Open data and citizen innovation

Another way of involving citizens is to put the technology and data in more hands to allow innovation at the level of the citizen. If our lifestyles and the way we interact with our urban environments have to change in order to achieve sustainability, the role of ICT should be to make these changes easier, more appealing and more convenient. To make this happen we need an explosion of innovation at a consumer level. Such innovation can be catalysed by making the underlying data on urban life accessible to more people as open data.

As I argue here, the great promise of open data is that it breaks the one-to-one relationship between those who produce data and those who provide services based on that data. Allowing small-scale developers to develop applications based on data gathered by public authorities or infrastructure providers can greatly expand the uses to which this data is put. Putting intelligent transport or energy-efficiency apps in the hands of citizens can provide a feedback loop between citizen and city, giving citizens the tools to drive the smart city agenda.

The case for public data – generated and stored at public expense – being openly available is easily made and the EU has recently adopted new rules on this basis. However to really fuel an explosion of “smart citizen” innovation, data collected by the private sector must be included, and policy makers will have to consider what incentives and safeguards should be in place to facilitate this.

This post was written for the IIEA‘s Environment Nexus web site. View the original post

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