Strategist, Speaker, Designer, Instigator

Internet of neighbourhoods, part 1 [post 19/100]

In 2012 and 2013, Martin and I did a couple of workshops on the topic of Smart cities, taking a bit of an unconventional approach. Most Smart Cities projects that I’m aware of concentrate primarily on infrastructure, transport and security, with a bit of commercial enablement on the side. They don’t seem to spend a lot of time on the citizens, and to my mind, a ‘smart’ city should improve the quality of life for its citizens in order to be considered a success. Of course this is problematic because quality of life means different things to different people, and can’t (and really shouldn’t) be dictated from on high.

The workshops yielded some very interesting results, mostly suggesting that there’s a hell of a lot more work to be done on this topic. But one thing seemed clear: the real magic wasn’t going to happen until the citizens, as individuals and groups, interacted directly with the city’s tech.

Over the past few years I’ve returned to this topic several times, and now it seems there is a bit of groundswell to get something going – I’ve been in conversation recently with a few people about launching a project. This and a few other posts will start to lay the groundwork for that, and I invite commentary on all that I’m about to say.

Any sociologist will tell you that quality of life means different things to different people, and that people gravitate naturally to communities that share their values. The strongest communities work together toward their common goals, whether those are related to beauty, child-friendliness, culture, security or environmental responsibility. I think it would be interesting to use connected technologies to support these natural proclivities, specifically to

  • Help identify patterns within communities, indicators that might help newcomers to a city or area decide where to visit or where they might want to live
  • Give people modular tools that they can use to ‘mark up’ and monitor what’s important to them – whether that’s embedding history into the physical environment (personal or official), keeping track of noise and pollution levels, or planting and maintaining communal gardens

The idea of the project would be to design and prototype a small set of hardware and software tools that could be given to a community and then used by them in whatever way made the most sense. Beacons might be used to solicit opinions about new playground equipment, or to embed memories in places that are of special significance, or to notify residents that a particular fruit or vegetable is ready for picking in the garden they’re passing, or anything else people dream up for them. Sensors could be either planted in fixed locations or worn by residents (or anything in between), depending on the goals of the measurements. We’d then monitor usage to learn about what actually is important (as opposed to our hypotheses), and develop new modules accordingly.

It would be possible to, eventually, make connections between communities that are geographically distant but socially/ideologically similar – a suburb of Manchester and a suburb of Chicago might be able to learn from and build on each other’s efforts on child care and safety; a neighbourhood in Amsterdam and a neighbourhood in North London might learn from each other’s beekeeping and gardening efforts.

People living in communities already do these things, and the internet has opened up lots of opportunities to learn from those who are far away but similar. Embedding some of that knowledge into the physical fabric of a community could reinforce what’s great about human communal living, enabling us to live better, whatever that means to each one of us. And happy, engaged citizens make cities great.