On the 22nd of June, Professor Edward Cartwright and Rob Watson of Decentered Media, hosted a workshop: “Empowering Communities: How to Design a Smart City that Works for All,” at De Montfort University in Leicester. Facilitated by Dr Swati Virmani and Dr Ruben Martinez Cardenas, the event was an exploration into the role of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in smart city development and the paramount necessity for the inclusion of diverse voices in the consultation, engagement, and development process.
The workshop underscored the breathtaking speed of urban life and information systems conjoining, underlining the role of data and its manipulation in the design of the smart city. With the integration of systems and data reshaping how we interact, there is an undeniable allure in the potential of AI and integrated network systems. But the workshop emphasised the importance of ensuring these advancements are inclusive, considering the diverse needs and perspectives of the communities they serve.
Why is engagement so important in smart city design? The workshop stressed that engagement is a cornerstone of effective smart city design. Involving a wide range of voices, including marginalised communities and local organisations in decision-making processes, is crucial to ensure that smart city initiatives address real challenges and needs.
However, engaging diverse voices in smart city design isn’t without its obstacles. Challenges include the lack of representation and inclusion, especially for marginalised groups, overcoming language barriers, accessibility issues, ensuring equal participation, and the necessity of thoughtful planning, resources, and commitment from all involved parties. It’s essential to address the digital divide that separates people and potentially forces them to use technologies they have no concern for, and ensure communities have the necessary digital literacy, skills, and access to participate meaningfully in smart city initiatives.
The workshop, recorded as a podcast, captured a range of public views, expressing different concerns about AI and smart cities. These ranged from ecological challenges, fears of government authoritarianism, a lack of trust in the media, to worries about the replacement of people with automated tools that don’t understand the human condition.
The workshop highlighted the Community Reporter Model as a potent tool for engaging diverse voices in smart city design. This model, involving the recruitment and training of community reporters who act as intermediaries between the community and decision-makers, fosters dialogue and empowers communities in the design process. Community reporters organise interactive events to encourage the exchange of ideas and co-creation of solutions, disseminate information via community media platforms, and assess the impact of community reporting initiatives.
The community reporter model provides a platform for diverse perspectives to be heard, making decision-making processes more inclusive and representative. It also engenders a sense of empowerment and ownership within the community, as they actively participate in shaping their smart city future.
The discussions in the workshop highlighted the imperative for AI and smart city technologies to serve the needs of the community. Involving community members in media platforms creates spaces for dialogue, information sharing, and feedback that are accessible to all. This ensures the design and implementation of smart city technologies are driven by the real needs and aspirations of the community. Moreover, community participation in the media promotes transparency, accountability, and critical thinking, which are essential for responsible and ethical smart city innovation.
The workshop was a meaningful exploration of how AI could be harnessed to create sustainable, people-centric smart cities, with a strong emphasis on engaging and empowering communities. However, it also recognised the challenges and concerns brought about by rapid technological development, stressing the importance of addressing these issues through inclusive and transparent processes.