Post by Mahreen Zaidi a recent graduate from MA (Hons) Politics at the University of Edinburgh who studied Public Participation in Democracy and Governance with Prof. Oliver Escobar. She now works as part of the Europe Programmes Team at the FCO.
Where are we now and how did we get here?
The opportunities offered by smart cities are often seen in terms of bureaucratic efficiency and the commercial and managerial opportunities presented by big data. From smart lampposts designed to monitor air and noise pollution to self-driving public transport, the proposals are awash with claims of improved efficiency, responsiveness, and sustainability across sectors of public policy.
As cities become ever more dependent on technological innovation, governments find themselves increasingly dependent on corporate heavyweights with the expertise and capacity to drive innovation in the field. Collaboration between public and private sectors and the emergence of new governance partnerships, which often lack democratic accountability, highlight a glaring omission in the discourse. Namely, what role will citizens play in the data-driven future of tomorrow?
What does this mean for citizens?
Critics have argued that the lack of citizen engagement and influence on decision-making processes could furthertechnocratic governance[PDF], consolidate a neoliberal perspective on development, and a reductive oversight of social phenomena. Moreover, technology enthusiasts keen to advocate the objectivity and impartiality of big datatend to ignore critiques that suggest data itself is socially constructed[PDF]. Highly influenced by its context and outlined purpose, different forms of data can reproduce specified conclusions that can mask broader, structural influences[PDF]. Predictive risk models (PRM), used by some UK social servicesto suggest when to intervene in the lives of children and families, exemplify potential concerns of data-driven policy unregulated by citizen consultation. A reportissued by Metrolab Network found that ‘careless or unskilled’ use of these tools, could replicate biases in existing public data sources, and therefore risk subjecting vulnerable people to unnecessary scrutiny by the government.
Both the scale of public funding and use of public information demands attention. With industry resistance to regulation, legislation is often slow to catch-up with fast-paced technological advance. Nonetheless, public outrage over data scandals, like that over Cambridge Analytica, serve as a fair warning to ‘smart city’ enthusiasts that fail to integrate transparent, participatory mechanisms to the ideation, construction, and implementation of data-driven innovations.
What has been tried so far?
Digital ‘crowd-sensing’ initiatives have proved popular attempts at enhancing participation by encouraging citizens to take on the role of the ‘eyes and ears’ of the government by reporting unresolved issuesandinefficienciesin theircommunities directly to central governments[PDF]. However, such initiatives have been criticised for promoting a ‘less curated sense of democratic participation’with a tendency to exclude citizens without access to the necessary technology to contribute. Additionally, as input is fed back through the traditional mechanisms of institutional power, it does little to enhance the democratic agency of citizens as they remain powerless in deciding how the information is used and what conclusions or actions are taken thereafter[PDF].
‘Crowdsourcing’ platforms that encourage ideas or recommendations have been subject to similar critiques, with concerns over the lack of bindingeffect. Due to their constraints, these initiatives can be likened to a process of ‘knowledge transfer’ between ‘the ordinary person’ and the political (and in this case largely technological) elite[PDF] that fails to fulfil the prerequisites of a truly participatoryprocess.
What could work instead?
The lack of democratic control by such approaches suggests the need to implement mechanisms that meaningfully integrate citizens at the levels of development, policy, and decision-making. The term, coined by Weymouth and Hartz Karp, Deliberative Collaborative Governance (DCG)refers to a promising approach that could enhance both participation and the sustainability of ‘smart’ initiatives. Due to the complex networks of actors and interests involved in urban dilemmas, the approach promotes ‘discursive politics’ as a means to ‘co-decide issues that matter’. In essence, it brings together a cross-section of the population with public agencies, and concerned stakeholders to deliberate over options for policy action.
In the case of ‘smart cities’ deliberation would extend to the definition and implementation of attempts to make the city ‘smarter’ requiring the ‘sharing of visions and strategies’ between participants. The holistic approach to governance not only promotes participatory engagement with technological innovation but could prove essential in gauging the nuances of socio-economic differences that would determine the feasibility and appropriateness of ‘smart’ initiatives in addressing the root causes of urban challenges.
What could this mean for the future?
Sceptics of public participation in the design and implementation of ‘smart cities’ question the competenceand effectivenessof the ‘average citizen’ in dealing with technical concepts and terminology. However, such claims are challenged bythe‘practical wisdom’, enthusiasm and legitimacy demonstrated in examples ofDCG,like the Sacramento Water Forum.These claims are further contestedby public consultations that have asserted a heightened need for the ‘democratisation of public dialogue expertise’ in the field of science and innovation. The process of simplifying convoluted, technical language is therefore imperative to avoid the narrowing down of access, centralised control, and top-down institutional framing that would hinder large segments of the population from understanding the changes in their own environments.
Additionally, as ‘smart cities’ begin to exert profound changes to governance structures, public administrations and civil servants must adapt accordingly. Underpinning the success of almost all collaborative and participatory innovations, including DCG, is the presence of trained facilitators and moderators to ensure conversations are fair, structured, and guided towards constructive conclusions. Facilitation is no easy task. Bringing together an array of stakeholders with various, and often competing, interests and abilities requires a generation of civil servants that are trained in the values of discursive communication and can take the role of facilitative leaders with capacity to enable participatory processes that are both inclusive and deliberative.
In sum, along with the promises of an innovative, efficient, and sustainable future, ‘smart cities’ guarantee an era of change in the way we organise and govern our urban communities. Public participation is instrumental to its success, and collaborative governance the fundamental safeguard to preserving citizens’ political agency.
The author would like to express their gratitude to Prof. Oliver Escobar, and his course ‘Public Participation and Democratic Governance’ held at the University of Edinburgh, for its masterful exploration of democratic innovations, and support in writing this publication.