Ben Lee is the Director of the National Association of Neighbourhood Management and participated in the SmartUrbI Transnational Lab in Lisbon. He reflects in this blog on his Portuguese experiences.
Much discussion of urban policy currently focuses on investment in ‘smart cities’ as incubators of advanced technology, engines of growth, and hubs of innovation. All the mainstream UK political parties have similar ambitions for smart cities – improving quality of life and opportunity today, whilst tackling the big societal challenges of climate, aging, housing, mobility, and maximising technological good. But while significant public and private sums are being invested in developing the ‘hardware’ of smart cities, only a tiny fraction is being invested in the human-ware.
In January 2019 I spent two days in Vale de Chelas as part of a research project led by Birmingham, Edinburgh, Tilburg and Roskilde universities. They are investigating the role played by ‘smart urban intermediaries’. These are the neighbourhood co-ordinators, organisers, and entrepreneurs at work in cities around the world developing the human and participatory elements of smart cities. Often this means ensuring the interests of all communities are fairly treated in city-level decision-making, and that all communities have a chance to benefit from economic growth, improved environments, new jobs and new technology.
Less than a mile from Lisbon city centre, the hillside apartments of Vale de Chelas look smart against a blue Portugal sky. Between the housing blocks the neighbourhood’s shallow valley is taken up by a freshly tarmacked boulevard, scrubby grass and an acre of allotments planted with fruit bushes and vegetables, and dotted with homemade decorations.
Central Lisbon is only 15 minutes on foot and moments by car, but for many residents of Vale de Chelas metropolitan life and wealth seem a world away. One local taxi driver said he’d never been asked to drive here in a decade of working.
In Vale de Chelas the challenge for urban intermediaries like Diogo Mateus (a community worker employed by the ancient Santa casa da Misericordia de Lisboa) goes beyond connecting communities with city services, skills and opportunities.
For people in neighbourhoods like this to be treated equally and not be ‘done to’ requires voices and structures which advocate for multiple interests and build multiple capacities to influence decisions. This is not something the municipal parish has been able to do, its actions stifled by deep distrust between this community and officialdom.
But in Lisbon, as in many cities, investment in this, the human-ware of smart cities is a tiny fraction of the investment in the hardware of communications, transport, technology and housing. Yet if the ultimate goal of smart cities is to enable all citizens to lead better lives then a larger proportion of the investment in smart infrastructure, needs to be invested in smart communities.