Process, Place and Relationships – The purposeful Smart City – by Jane Eckford, public servant and industry mentor

In preparing for the Wind Up and dissolution of Scotland’s first New Town, East Kilbride, the chair, Mr J Allan Denholm, reflected on the achievements of the New Town Development Corporations, with words that have much resonance today. 

‘The measure of a mature and successful community is its ability to sustain growth and support the aspirations of its people throughout periods of change and challenge as well as in times of stability and prosperity …

‘…It is people in every part of this community who have created East Kilbride’s success and whose hands its future will lie’.

The New Town model had been based on land and property development to meet housing needs over-spilling from Glasgow but more than this, to provide community infrastructure, social cohesion and employment opportunities through inward investment.

 It provided places for people and business to thrive – a platform of place based and harmonious participation from a wide variety of stakeholders with the purpose of building ‘good’ and sustainable growth. It was a model of working, using many different levers and capabilities, skills and viewpoints, to marry lofty policy with the practical, physical delivery of a new town which served the common good. It influenced many of us officers who were embarking on our own public service careers. And it certainly remains part of the local government policy through to delivery model of local place shaping governance.

It was those final words about people which seemed the most poignant and important for people like me, a corporation employee, and and who also part of the community we were serving.  Our work felt personal ….and it was personal.

That annual report of 1994 certainly captured all the big, high-profile economic development successes of EKDC but the real yardstick of success was really how the people of East Kilbride felt about each other and the place.  

Since that point I have been, and will remain, a flag bearer for ‘emotional connectedness’ we learned as part of that journey – and for designing people ‘in’ and not ‘out’ in increasingly digital or technology enabled service or policy solutions.

Now, following the trauma following  the Covid-19 pandemic, we see the need to create community platforms of a different kind.  The emergence of Smart City solutions for urban spaces, a next generation on from the green field development corporations, provides new possibilities to improve how we live – but only if we take great care not to export across into the new future, all the old biases, injustices, prejudices and labels, that the algorithms might project from our past and flawed structures.

And only if we take great care not to use digital capability to govern by remote control without real, sincere, empathetic human engagement to negotiate ongoing change.

The past is no longer a good indicator of what will come.  Patriarchal organisational strategies based on past performance will not readily accommodate emerging questions.

A definition of Smart Cities is currently  ‘an urban area that uses different types of electronic data collection sensors to supply information which is used to manage assets and resources efficiently. 

Key dimensions of current Smart City capabilities focus on Smart Energy, Smart Transport, Smart data, Smart infrastructure, Smart mobility and Smart IoT with sensing and reporting devices being attached to existing urban infrastructure. 

Using anonymised data there are some wholescale insights which can be made about behaviour and use.  Indeed the current narratives supporting Smart Cities centre around driving more efficient use of resources and reducing cost in comparison with current behaviours. 

The current narratives around design of Smart technologies to understand homelessness, as an example, are really interesting in this regard with rationales ranging from reducing demand on hospitals, social care and other services to being able to track individuals movements to providing help at park benches, to connecting homeless people with hostels and help via mobile and smartphone technology.  

But whilst we are demonstrating ‘capability’ it might be a good time to discuss ‘purpose’.

Referencing the Scottish New Town model of community connectedness I would ask how kindness, dignity and compassion can characterise our decision making and actions – some key values to underpin a just, inclusive and fair society.

In my mind there are some key questions which might be usefully debated including;

  1. Can technology platforms include the capability to develop emotional intelligence, empathy and connectedness of people?
  2. Is  our emotional connectedness to place important or necessary for thriving communities?
  3. Who owns data and insight in a democratic environment, and how do we all ensure it is deployed for the common good.
  4. What degree of empathy and interpersonal skill do we need to see in those developing new technology to reduce the level of marginalisation of people across society

The EKDC Chair observed over 30 years ago that ‘…there is a danger that high profile, international and national flagship projects will become the yardstick by which community success is measured’.  This seems to be a highly prescient challenge for us all now.