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Democracy, people-power and the rise of the smart city

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A recent event addressed the fact that the world's liberal democracies are faltering.

Many of the problems that result from this are acutely felt in cities. And if we look at some of the more dramatic fallouts of the crises, we see that there are the people using their combined "people-power" to try and demand change. We see this now daily in Hong Kong, London, Barcelona, Santiago, Beirut — just to mention the current major flashpoints.

'Power, Hope and Social Change: The Rise of the City?' was the title of an event organised by Sydney Ideas and the University of Sydney’s Policy Lab. The aim of the Policy Lab is to improve lives by equipping people with leadership qualities so they can serve our communities at every level.

The event was organised working closely with the Sydney Alliance. This is a diverse coalition of community organisations, religious organisations, unions and schools, using community organisation to make the city a better place to live. 

My interest in this event is linked to the work I do with cities, based on new technology developments that allow us to create smarter cities.

I believe cities are the best places to safeguard our democratic values. There is, generally, fewer examples of party politics that stalls progress, and a real chance to work very closely with voters — the citizens. Strategically organised people-power can be very effective in facilitating the structural changes that are needed in our societies and, in cities, we can start at the community level.

My involvement with cities is on a strategic level with my key suggestions of what is needed in order to create a smart city, are as follows:

  • political leadership from the mayor and administrative leadership from the city CEO:
  • changes that are needed to cut through the bureaucratic silos, in order to create a holistic approach to the challenges cities are facing; and
  • a collaborative approach on various levels — between the three levels of government; between the city, businesses, local stakeholders and universities, and above all, with the citizens.

Let me start by saying that none of this is easy and that so far very few cities around the world (and only a handful in Australia) have a good smart city strategy in place. The reason for this is that the structures that are currently in place don’t work. There are significant structural changes needed at all levels before you can truly build a smart city.

What this event taught me is that I am not alone in my frustration with this ineptitude. We do have all the tools, in general terms, and the money is available. However, there are no structures that allow us to use those resources in a smarter way. We have to follow the traditional political, bureaucratic, procurement and business models. For example, models based on collaboration are actively prohibited. Changing such structures is the single most important and most difficult element of creating smart cities.

Rather than depending on the traditional citizen engagements systems from local councils, we should look more closely at organisations such as Sydney Alliance and, for example, Citizens UK to see how they can assist in transforming cities. In relation to my specific work in smart cities, adding technologies to that mix that will assist in building more liveable, affordable and sustainable communities.

A good example is Barcelona — a city that is perhaps the most advanced in restructuring its systems and using smart city strategies for those purposes. I have met Barcelona's smart city team twice and the last time under the new leadership of Mayor Ada Colou, who was elected mayor in 2016 for exactly those socio-economic reasons. It is a very difficult task that she has undertaken and she is facing the same problems — how to make those structural changes in order to achieve the outcomes she wants for her city.

At the event, we also heard from similar developments in cities such as Cape Town, London, Cardiff, Chicago and Atlanta. Other cities to watch are Amsterdam and Copenhagen, which have also implemented advanced citizen-led structures.

I am keen to incorporate these new citizen-based developments in my smart city work and will actively stimulate the leading smart cities – which are already more advanced in their thinking – to explore how to best work cooperatively together.

Paul Budde is managing director of independent telecommunications research and consultancy organisation Paul Budde Consulting. You can follow Paul on Twitter @PaulBudde.

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