Today’s Leicester Smart City Community Reporter planning session at Solvers Studio, was a full day of thinking and testing ideas and assumptions about what we can do to help people in Leicester understand what a smart city is, and how it might affect the services that they use. With expert guidance from Carl Quinn, we had a deep dive into the challenge of finding creative and engaging ways to help people understand a complex topic of real concern.
We started by summarising what we’d learnt over the last week since our previous session. High on our list of observations and concerns is the need for our fellow citizens in Leicester to understand what a smart city is, and to have a clear awareness of how their personal data is being collected, how it is being used, who has access to this data, and what the link is between the public use of that data and the commercial use of that data might be.
This got us thinking about how we might engage with people and communities so that they can contribute to an informed conversation about life in a smart city, which we can then share as a podcast or as a radio programme. What must we do to create a trusted environment that allows people to make a positive contribution to an open and emergent discussion about life in a smart city?
We wanted to use this session today to try to figure out if it is possible to create a framework that can facilitate public engagement in a way that is inclusive, encourages participation, and allows people to enjoy sharing their insights and experiences?
Our challenge is to put on a public engagement session on the 20th September that brings a group of invited guests together to discuss what living in a smart city means to them. With careful guidance from Carl, we had a couple of hours to think through what questions we might want to explore, what games or activities we’d like to use, and how we can use media to capture our guest’s on-the-fly thoughts as part of the process of public engagement.
There are many issues tied up with smart cities thinking, and we needed some time to unpack them and to try to anticipate what we think our participants would like to experience, and what they would like to achieve. We agreed that we can’t answer every possible question, and that we can anticipate the needs of the people for whom Leicester is the embodiment of a smart city because it is where they live or work or study.
We wanted to put ourselves in the minds of people who are facing these challenges in similar ways to ourselves. Are we each searching for happiness, satisfaction, wellbeing? If we accept the hype in the media about smart cities, then this is what we might assume is the same for everyone. A life organised for us using AI, data and superfast communications.
We recognised, however, that there is a long list of social objectives that we could discuss, but that for the purpose of our event, we only need to narrow this down to one aspect. As Carl explained, there is a time for convergent questions and a time for divergent questions, we just need to work out when is the appropriate time to ask them.
Smart cities, if all the hype is to be believed, can potentially enrich our social experience by adding to what it means to be a citizen. But this is dependent, we discussed, on having the right kind of infrastructure in place, so that residents and people who use public services in Leicester can do so reliably. This will probably involve a massive process of managing data and assessing what that data is telling us about our shared human experiences. This then implies that we need a robust and appropriate measurement and evaluation set of tools, which can demonstrate clear lessons for policymakers, businesses and citizens alike.
We considered that a smart city might, however, simply be a mirror to society, and that all the technology and data processes will simply reflect the ills that we are avoiding. A smart city will offer considerable benefits of many people’s lives in Leicester, but we agreed that we should not be naive about this, and that there is a politics (i.e. a set of choices and priorities), which will be at play which we must articulate and discuss. We can have all of this information, but if our lives are empty, then so the data will simply reflect this. Therefore, we discussed how it might be better if we focussed on the meaningful and purposeful social experience and relationships that life in a smart city will support.
High on our list is the need to trust the smart city systems and technologies, and the people who are developing and designing them. If we can’t trust the motives and the sense of accountability of the systems developers and operators, then we might not engage with them as fully as we could. This is where transparency and accountability through community media comes in. If we have engaged and accountable forms of community media, then people may feel more confident to share their experiences about smart city life, and discuss their anxieties as well the benefits.
Question: What engenders trust in the smart city?
One problem that we identified is the high levels of distrust that people have with the media, which means that potential contributors are reluctant to come forward and speak. We realised that in order to develop an inclusive sense of public engagement, we are also going to have to figure out how we can inspire people to feel confident about making a contribution to the wider conversation through different forms of community media.
Question: What does our media tell us about the role and purpose of the smart city?
We agreed that media can be antagonistic and divisive, particularly in the way that different parts of the media report social issues related to people from diverse backgrounds and identities. We thought this might be related to the lack of validation for the role of caring in our society, and that to give people some confidence to take part in civic discussions, we also need to ensure that all views are valued, within the boundaries of social accountability and inclusivity. Public engagement isn’t just a process of pretending to listen to people’s concerns, it also has to be something that we can get involved with in a way that allows us to learn, grow and develop as a community.
Question: What builds trust in our media and enables voice confidence?
All too often, we realised in our learning about being a community reporter, many of us lack confidence that our stories will be heard and respected, and that what we need to do is reconfigure our media so that it acts as a ‘wisdom institution,’ which is capable of nurturing and fostering positive social contributions to our community life. The reason that we are asking people to speak now, though, is so we can tell our own stories, before our stories are displaced by other people and media organisations that don’t have our interests at heart.
This means figuring out where narrative power sits in society, and addressing forms of public engagement so that they don’t only listen to and respond to the same people. People whose voices have been well heard in the past. This means having a robust approach that supports ‘mashvara,’ which in Arabic stands for “advice, consultation, counsel.” Without an inclusive approach to dialogue, we agreed, then we won’t get very far in implementing these complex changes that smart cities represent.
Question: What is the purpose of a smart city, and how will citizens interact with one another?
The rest of our session focussed on working out the practical arrangements of planning our consultation event. We need to work out how we can inform potential participants about what we are expecting from them, and how we will capture and share their views and experiences as we take them through a programme of activities. These activities will be designed to provoke ideas and questions, and we hope to get people confidently doing, learning and sharing.
We are putting our plans down on paper over the next couple of days, so we can ensure that we’ve got a handle on the many actions that we need to undertake. We’ve got rooms to book, catering to organise, advanced publicity to write, and people to invite. We’ve also got to record lots of content in advance so that we can share our experience on our community radio programmes and in podcasts.
We are looking forward to our guests to opening up about the challenges of living in a smart city, and for them to feel confident that they can tell us what this means to them. We’ll be sharing this content here on Leicester Stories, so keep an eye out for updates and new messages.
This project is supported by The Alan Turing Institute, whose mission is to promote the understanding of the ethical and social issues arising from the use of data science and artificial intelligence. Professor Edward Cartwright of De Montfort University is leading the project, along with colleagues Dr Swati Virmani and Dr Ruben Martinez Cardenas of the Leicester Castle Business School.