Information sharing for smart places

James Cornford, Senior Lecturer
University of East Anglia 

James Cornford, senior lecturer in organisational behaviour at the University of East Anglia introduces us to the concept of Smart Places and the importance of information sharing. The seminars are part of the Centre of Excellence for Information Sharing academic seminar series in partnership with the ESRC and KITE.

If you are interested in exploring this question, and others that emerge from considering how places can share information in ways that can empower and challenge, as well as efficiently manage, you can sign up here for the ESRC sponsored workshop “Information Sharing for Smart Places: What Kinds of Information Sharing for What Kinds of Places?” at the University of East Anglia, Norwich on July 2, 2015.

The idea of smart places – smart cities, smart regions – has excited a wide constituency of interest. Smart cities come on the back of a wide range of other smart things – smart houses, smart buildings, smart watches, smart phones.

What makes these things smart is usually their capacity to share or exchange information internally and externally and then to use that information to make decisions. The sharing of information and data is therefore at the heart of the smart places agenda.

To say that something is smart is, of course, a metaphor, thinking of one thing in terms of another. When we try to envisage a city or region as ‘smart’ we are thinking about it in terms of the human brain. We can contrast this with other ways of thinking about the city, for example as a machine which can be fixed or as an organic entity that can be nurtured. We use our brains to compute and to calculate and it sometimes seems that this is the only aspect of the brain metaphor on which smart places draw. However, our brains also allow us to feel emotions, to tell stories, to imagine and dream. In fact, as Daniel Kahneman has recently reminded us, our brains are actually not very good at detailed calculation, when compared with their capacity for quick, but messy heuristic decision-making.

For the advocates of smart places, smart often seems to mean cognitively smart, sometimes it seems to be reduced to the idea of being simply computationally adept, able to use masses of data to compute the most efficient paths or outcome. This is the kind of thinking that early “smart city” visions were based, with their focus on basic infrastructures – transport, power, safety and security – and the necessary calculations to achieve goals such as keeping traffic safely flowing or managing sustainable energy usage.

The hard, factual information that is used to achieve these goals often comes from sensors, CCTV cameras and other monitoring devices. It is shared among the large bureaucracies who deliver hard infrastructure. When processed by algorithms, this data can control traffic lights or turn off lights or heating in building with little or no intervention from the drivers and inhabitants so affected. While there can be much of value in this agenda, it has proved hard to implement in a reliable way, has introduced new failure modes, and has raised concerns about privacy and consent. It can, it is argued, lead to cities that are, as Anthony Townsend has recently argued in his publication Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers and the Quest for the New Utopia, “brittle, buggy and bugged.”

More recently some voices have sought to challenge this version of smart places and to include a wider range of concerns, a wider range of actors and, importantly for us, a wider range of forms of information and information sharing. New objectives such as health and wellbeing have emerged alongside raw efficiency and economic growth; a new emphasis on citizen engagement and the political, rather than algorithmic, aspects of decision making has come to the fore; and the need to share new kinds of richer information – opinions, arguments, conversations – has become apparent in this new context.

These developments are changing our view of what a smart place might look and feel like. Social psychologists, such as Howard Gardener, have long argued that we need to identify a range of kinds of intelligence. In addition to the mathematical-logical and visual-spatial intelligences that the first wave of smart cities drew on, we could envision cities that are, for example, emotionally intelligent or perhaps even spiritually intelligent. What would such a city look like and what kinds of information would it need to share?