Are Smart Cities Broken?

Are Smart Cities Broken? We asked this question during Nesta Future Fest 2018. Now we take it as starting point for the activities and projects we will conduct in the next months, aiming to actively contribute to the development of futures cities and communities.

Digital technologies, AI and Big Data are changing the way in which we manage, live and understand our cities and the urban environment. The debate around the usage of this type of technologies has been critical and controversial, but we believe in the potential of these technologies to sensibly reshape our individual and interpersonal behaviour, thanks to a multitude of informations which can produce new types of public services.

However, we recognise that these same technologies are the cause of growing social exclusion, modifying the dynamic of powers between local governments, citizens and private companies. The clash takes place between, on the one hand, phenomena related to strong international political and financial interests and, on the other, the need to adapt services and tools useful to support human capital in the transition towards an increasingly digital society. Keeping in mind the gaps and differences between the cities, neighborhoods and populations that inhabit them.

In this blogpost we want to illustrate why we believe this is a relevant issue, the ideal approaches to contribute to this matter and where we will open spaces for debate and confrontation for policy makers, practitioners and citizenship. 


Can technological innovation, urban sustainable development and open and inclusive policy making guarantee more livable cities?

How can we shape and regulate, on a local level, the usage of big data, machine learning and AI? How can we face the ethical and social implications of using this innovative tools in the urban space?

We believe there’s the need to build a new language in urban policy making, in order to collect ideas and feedback from citizens; enhancing partnership and shared responsibility between private and public actors, enhancing collective intelligence mechanisms enabling the development of strategic partnerships, facilitating shared responsibilities between public and private players.

What kind of approach?

In order for cities to achieve these goals, they could operate following three lines of work: new labs of collective intelligence, ecosystems supporting digital social innovation and AI for social goods tools. 

The first line concerns innovation labs and the application of collective intelligence principles, both to decision making and problem setting by urban policies agencies. We need to reshape our policy making culture, to make it more open and accessible to a variety of actors who can concur in solving problems like poverty, public service offering, environmental issues and access to resources. 

In recent years multiple innovation labs have been created, both inside and outside of local and national governments. Many different organisations collaborate with these labs to solve relevant social issues for which traditional policy tools can’t provide a solution. 

Depending on their structure, innovations labs are also known as innovation team, units or city experiment fund. Even if different in dimension and shape, they share a common experimental method for solving social problems, which is articulated in four phases:

  • The definition of key problems, priorities and expertise
  • Designing ideas which can impact on a defined area
  • Testing and developing prototype
  • Promoting a systemic change by means of shared responsibilities

A study on the different types of innovation labs shows how they have proved successful in different geographic areas. The experimentations run by these labs have offered a tool for the rapid development of ideas and projects to face deeply rooted local issues. 

In this framework the key project at Nesta Italia is Collective Lab, a decentralised social innovation lab whose objective is to catalyse multisectorial partnerships, local resources and skills. The lab, coordinated by Nesta Italia, operates through local City Leads comprising public and private actors and independent organisations to create cluster of expertise in those areas we identified to be rich in innovation practices. 

The second line of work deals with creating ecosystems and initiatives for public institutions and corporates to promote technological driven social innovation. This, in particular, is a critical issue for Italy, where there’s a heavy unbalance between the availability of resources, devices and expertise from one region to another. 

This is a matter we are working on, basing our research on the data provided by Nesta’s study on Digital Social Innovation (DSI) ecosystems. 

It has emerged that digital technologies are particularly helpful to challenge social issues since they can connect communities, share resources and re-allocate power. A report on DS ecosystems in Europe shows the existing variety of digital technology solutions for big social challenges, like social networks for chronic illnesses patients; online platforms for active citizenship and participation to decision making processes; open data for transparency about public fundings usage. 

To promote the growth and diffusion of these DSI tools, we believe it is necessary to build a common conceptual framework for the management and openness of these tools, such as protocols, standards and regulations. The rise of initiatives for funding allocation – crowdfunding, challenges and calls for ideas – and economic support to spaces for open innovation – community hub, fab lab, makerspace – contribute in equal way to the growth of DSI ecosystems.  Related to this context is our programme Torino Social Impact, which aims to sustain social impact and  tech-intensive oriented enterprises.

The third line of work concerns emerging AI based practices for the improvement of life quality in cities and for the communities which will benefit from them in the future. Belong to this type of practices those tools able to detect the conditions and improve the performances of buildings and infrastructures.  The core issue in this context is to create local systems of data management, to make people more aware and in control of the personal information they share online. Nesta’s project Decode works exactly in this direction. 

At Nesta Italia, we started our research on AI for social good with a call for visionary ideas, to collect projects worth to be experimented at local level. Among them Kimap, an algorithm which use mapping systems for the detection of suitable paths – both indoor and outdoor-  for people affected by motor disabilities.

Where we will talk about this?

On the 16th of March at Milano Digital Week, during an open panel about AI and Future Communities, from 9.30 am. In the morning we will alternate inspirational talks and debates. In the afternoon we will held a free workshop to explain AI to people out of the field.

From the 27th to the 29th of March in Florence, at Eurocities’ Economic Development Forum. Inside the City Lab, Nesta Italia will coordinate the working group How can the technological sector (Civic-tech, Industry 4.0, Software developers) contribute to a local innovation ecosystem”. Our objective is to draw the guidelines for the European Agenda concerning the collaboration of local authorities and tech corporates for the support of innovation ecosystems. 

The 12th and 13th of April on the occasion of Nuove Pratiche Festival (held at Cantieri Culturali Zisa in Palermo), where we will conduct a panel debating the role of city organisations in a sustainable and inclusive urban development.