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A recent RSA event explored the idea of cities moving beyond the ‘Smart City’ concept in future, going from data-driven to people-powered in what we call ‘Networked Cities’. Technology will still play a role, but we imagine it being used to connect people through peer-to-peer (P2P) platforms, bringing them together to solve social and economic challenges in pursuit of inclusive growth.

The city as a computer

Over the past decade, ‘Smart Cities’ have captured the imaginations of city leaders, urban planners, and tech enthusiasts. A Smart City was conceived of as a city that integrates information and communication technology (ICT) and the Internet of Things to help manage a city’s assets. With big data came the promise of greater control, enabling cities to cut down on costs, energy, and crime.

In some Smart Cities, such as Barcelona and Glasgow, the technology is arguably benign. Both cities use sensors as a way to make the city more environmentally friendly. In Barcelona, sensors embedded into the ground direct drivers to available parking spaces, reducing congestion and emissions as drivers are spared from circling around in search of a free spot. In Glasgow, the sensors are used in intelligent streetlights, which turn on and off at night depending on footfall in order to save energy.

However, in other Smart Cities like Singapore and Rio the use of technology may be considered more problematic. Singapore has deployed countless sensors and cameras across the city-state to allow government to monitor and collect data on everything from the cleanliness of public spaces to the density of crowds. These sensors can also track the movement of every locally registered vehicle. In Rio, IBM built a high-tech operations centre enabling real-time tracking of conditions in the city by combining data from over 30 urban agencies and installing cameras across the city. It was intended to be a tool to predict rain and manage flood response, but instead has become a way to keep a close eye on people and events.

These sorts of examples have provoked critiques from the likes of scholars like Adam Greenfield about whether Smart City advocates are simply trying to turn cities into computers and assuming that urban planning can be reduced to algorithms. Concerns have been raised about the level of surveillance and the lack of transparency about how data is being used. In recognition that the use of technology can be disempowering for citizens of Smart Cities, the RSA is proposing a different way for cities to make the most of technology with citizens at the forefront.

The city as a network of people

Whereas citizens were once passive bystanders to technology, in ‘Networked Cities’ the use of peer-to-peer technology means that citizens must actively consent to and participate in its use. Examples of P2P technology might include sharing economy platforms, crowdfunding, and citizen engagement tools such as Pol.is or Wazoku. These peer-to-peer platforms empower people through connecting them to one another through a network.

Smart Cities were critiqued because big technology companies were driving a top-down approach determined by the sort of technology they were producing, but what’s exciting about peer-to-peer technology is that the network is ultimately decentralised and distributed. The purpose of a network can be shaped, but there is a lot more scope for grassroots, bottom-up movements to emerge as well.

To a certain extent, P2P technology is already being embraced in ‘Sharing Cities’, like Seoul for example. The purpose of ‘Sharing Cities’ is to encourage and invest in shared resources, such as lending libraries, bike sharing schemes, and co-working spaces. While P2P technology is not always required, in some cases it is a conduit – it is seen as a way of helping to achieve a particular aim.

We envision that in Networked Cities, P2P technology would be embedded in systems akin to the technology of Smart Cities, but would enable a collaborative approach to problem-solving, as it has in Sharing Cities.

In Networked Cities, however, the goal citizens are working towards is broader than managing shared assets and resource; the ambition here would be to apply P2P technology to support inclusive growth. While cities have long been drivers of growth, in recent years they have also struggled with widening inequality, compelling cities to pursue a new agenda that rebalances social objectives and economic priorities. Under the banner of achieving inclusive growth, cities must find solutions to emerging problems of health, housing, the environment, ageing and other demographic change.

At the RSA, we’d argue that Networked Cities goes beyond simply rethinking the Smart City or Sharing City in terms of the tools or technologies that we use, or how we engage citizens, because we are also redefining the problems and challenges being tackled. The Networked City is about more than managing public space and population growth or enabling resource efficiency; rather it takes into account wider social challenges that cities are confronting in their pursuit of a more equal society.

There may be some people here wondering if we really need yet another term to describe the future of the City, but it is helpful to create some distance from the Smart City concept and to distinguish this clearly from what governments are trying to achieve with Sharing Cities. For us, this is about reconsidering the problem and creating solutions that reflect the importance of inclusive growth in the UK.

Over the course of this new project on Networked Cities, we will bring together P2P technology platforms like Airbnb and Beam with inclusive growth stakeholders like Core Cities, so that there is a shared understanding of what is possible with P2P technology as well as the social and economic challenges that cities have identified as priorities. We want to encourage platforms and inclusive growth stakeholders to explore new ways of working together towards common goals. The question being asked is how we can harness budding and existing networks for new purposes that support cities in achieving inclusive growth.

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