Collective ingenuity serving smart cities

The townspeople are the experts

‘Smart City: Materials, Technology & People’ is the title of the exhibition-event on the intelligent city held in Milan from 17 April to 12 May. It was an opportunity to reflect on sustainable and smart urban mobility and, in this context, FLOWS arranged three discussions exploring the subject through the words of the designers and experts called on to talk about their experience and take an international look at the city and tomorrow’s mobility.
An extract is given below of the Smart Citizenship Strategist Santiago Martin Caravaca’s talk
‘Smart Cities. Resilienza e ingegnosità collettiva per la sostenibilità e la mobilità urbana’ (‘Smart Cities. Resilience and collective ingenuity for sustainability and urban mobility’), given on 11 May 2018 and also involved Piero Pelizzaro, Chief Resilience Officer of the Municipality of Milan, and Francesco Ventura, Environment and Renewable Energy Manager of OICE. Leonardo Previ, Chairman of Trivioquadrivio, chaired the event.

I made my first flight at the age of 5. The passengers smoked during the flight but no-one took any notice, it was normal. Today, although lighting a cigarette on a plane would be inconceivable, breathing smog in cities is not – and we’re not talking about third-world cities but cities that account for almost 20% of GDP which are, however, impotent in the face of pollution. In turn, townspeople seem increasingly sensitive to these problems but don’t have enough tools to act. Pollution is just one of the challenges that an administration can no longer resolve independently but only through public participation. 

What is participation? Looking beyond the formal definitions, participation is what fuels a smart city. In the near future, talents will decide to live in cities where the participation process will increase the quality of life and make urban areas more dynamic, creative and lively. In short, where collective energy is seen as an essential, intangible resource to solve the challenges that cities share. Many centuries ago, in ‘The History of the Peloponnesian War’ by Thucydides, Pericles indicated the nature of Athenian democracy, where all citizens had the right to take part and be players in political life. This is why Athens was superior to the neighbouring polis. Even today, cities investing in participation will have a competitive advantage over those that don’t.

Change of mindset
However, that’s not enough. Public administrations must be able to understand how and when to find a balance between bottom-up participation and top-down processes, i.e. situations where political leadership is used legitimately to carry out action that satisfactorily influences public interest. Nevertheless, work must be done to initiate a change of mindset in both institutional representatives and citizens.

On this, defining the ideal relationship between government and citizen, the American philosopher John Dewey said,

The man who wears the shoe knows best where it pinches, even if the expert shoemaker is the best judge of how the trouble is to be remedied.

From this perspective, it is first and foremost the public administrations which will have to start a change in the approach to the government of the area, in which the figure of the experts increasingly coincides with that of the townspeople. And this is the direction that the Madrid administration moved in through Decide Madrid, whose aim is to invite citizens to present projects they would like to see created in the city. There are various ways of taking part; for example, through ‘collaborative legislation’, participatory budgeting with a budget of Euro 100 million, or the spontaneous suggestions of townspeople submitted for assessment by the population of Madrid, where only those obtaining votes equivalent to 1% of registered voters, i.e. 27,662 people, pass to the next stage of creation. This is a very successful model for stimulating participation from the bottom up, now applied in more than 70 cities and regions around the world.

If we read the list of the projects promoted by townspeople through the Decide Madrid portal, we can see that the suggestions made show awareness of the neighbourhood and concern with creating a greener, friendlier city. These are projects which would never have been fulfilled had it depended only on the decision of the politicians.

Sometimes, the population suggests (and votes for) complex projects that require considerable commitment from the administration in the initial stages, discussions with many stakeholders and new planning of some public sectors which, however, undoubtedly generate an improvement in the city. One example is the project which enabled there to be a single ticket for public transport in Madrid, thus preventing citizens from having to buy different tickets for different means of transport. At other times, the citizens’ needs are so simple that the public administration has difficulty in intercepting or interpreting them correctly. For example, the first of the projects approved in the Hortaleza area of Madrid in 2017 was for 16 ‘normal’ swings and slides with an overall value of € 75,000. What does this mean? Politicians and technicians tend to want ‘design’ projects, and swings while the population wants standard swings and slides. Why not listen to them? It’s a question of opening management to participation to spend better on what the townspeople, i.e. the experts, want.

There’s a void without strategy
Cities which are responding positively to the challenges of participation have had the support and guidance of their mayors, who have succeeded in making changes in the administrative structure to strengthen and connect the teams responsible for transparency and the participation of townspeople with the other municipal departments. We shouldn’t forget, however, that the participatory process should not just be ‘citizen centric’ but also ‘public official centric’ as, at times, the problem is not that of receiving suggestions from citizens but knowing how to manage them correctly in the municipality. Lastly, it is essential to adopt an agile, lean attitude that allows communication and other relevant Key Performance Indicators (KPI) to be constantly measured so that such action can be corrected and improved making the city more participatory and smarter.

Santiago Martin Caravaca

Smart Citizenship Strategist, founder of the blog, Caravaca directed the Smart City programme for the elections in Madrid in 2015. Today, he is part of the Decide Madrid work group. He is a partner of Trivioquadrivio. He taught ‘Smart City and Public Marketing’ for the Master in Public Administration Leadership and Management at the National Public Administration Institute in Madrid. He has been a speaker at various international meetings in the field of smart cities, particularly in the area of civic participation. He started his professional career in the legal field, where he worked as a lawyer expert in Information Technology Law; he was then Operating Group Lead in Accenture. He is a member of the European Legal Tech Association.