OPEN SMART CITIES AND SYSTEMS THINKING
What is common about networked urbanism as seen in the Master Innovation and Development Plan for the Quayside Project, the promotional material of big vendors, the offers of smart city consultancies and the early smart city plans in Canada; but is also seen in most of the submissions to the Infrastructure Canada Smart City Challenge and the Open Smart Cities Guide is systems based thinking. Regardless of whether they are technologically solutionist as is the case for the Quayside Project, vendors and consultancies, or whether there is more community engagement and openness, in the case of the Challenge or the Open Smart City Project. Systems thinking means interconnections between nodes and networks in a system, it means cross cutting components seen in large infrastructure such as the electrical grid, transportation, but also the urban plan, social cohesion that includes justice, accessibility and equity, economics and innovation that means both business and social investment, as well as environment. Systems thinking requires conceptualizing in this case, that a smart city is a large social and technological system, and solutions should consider system wide impacts and implications.
For example, the new Government of Canada Algorithmic Impact Assessment is useful when automating a social welfare intake system to some extent, but it will not be useful to assess whether or not the rules in the system are biased or not, nor does it take into account the full data life cycle process of a predictive policing system where there may be an over representation of some groups of people in the datasets, and it may not address broader issues with the benefits and the pitfalls of those systems. Furthermore, policing may not even be included in the smart city plan although, if a safe city approach is offered, we can also expect that this approach will lean toward a surveillance city as seen with the Social Score in China. In other words, only assessing the automated decision making in a city will miss these broader issues.
Some systems in a city are already smart, for example the Paramedic Communication Centres, or the Traffic Control Centres but they operate autonomously and are often not included in smart city visions or plans, and their good data governance practices are not referred to when it comes to designing systems city wide. Systems thinking would not only bring all of these together in an enterprise architecture, but policies, practices and norms would be codified and mapped across the institution. Systems thinking would not only be the purview of the Information Management/Information Technology (IM/IT) operations led by the Chief Technology Officer, but it would be part of the urban plan and vision.
In other words the ‘smart’ technology part is no longer just about operations it is about governance, governance of the data, the processes, the infrastructure, and the outcomes of processes and decisions, which means how smart technologies impact citizens, residents and visitors. Are these systems in the public interest and for the public good? And what are the benefits and the downfalls, not only of each individual part for specific institutions, but for all of those in a city when these things become interoperable and interconnected?
The Open Smart City Guide is about applying system thinking toward the creation of a city where residents, civil society, academics, and the private sector collaborate with public officials to mobilize data and technologies when warranted in an ethical, accountable and transparent way to govern the city as a fair, viable and liveable commons and balance economic development, social progress and environmental responsibility. That requires integrated social and technological system thinking and doing.