The visions we get about future cities are inevitably "smart," generally slick, and frequently lonely. Data helps individuals to glide their way around a city smoothly without the crippling embarrassment of asking for directions, or indeed talking to anyone.
So where is everyone else? What does the future city say about future communities? After all, no matter how much we grumble or bury ourselves in digital distractions on the daily commute, we're social creatures. Part of the buzz about being in a city is the chance to meet and connect with new communities. A group of social tech ventures we have funded at Nominet Trust is finding innovative ways for technology to go beyond giving us information about the local environment, and instead enable communities to shape the cities of the future.
For example, a new wave of social tech ventures, such as The Housing Association Charitable Trust (HACT), are using data science to help discover what is happening in our cities and deliver more effective support to disadvantaged communities. This organization is now using big-data analytics to get a rich and nuanced picture of its residents, to identify risks as part of predictive modelling, and to deliver support to residents before they run into problems.
While this type of just-in-time support has great potential, things get even more exciting when people are able to create and analyze the data themselves. Projects like the Internet of Things Academy support people designing and working with others to create data collections using all sorts of wirelessly connected devices. It is a platform that is accessible to everyone--from complete beginners to experts -- and enables each person to contribute to projects that can make a difference. This sort of citizen science puts agendas -- and data collection -- back in the hands of the everyday person.
Knowledge is the first step, and other social ventures are focusing on how communities can go further still, and actively shape their urban environments. Sometimes this is about creating more inclusive interactions between local institutions and local people. For example, Commonplace has been developing new ways for us to feed into community planning and consultation by using mobile platforms that encourage broader and more democratic participation.
However, with modern lives, it's just as important to find new ways of promoting interaction between communities directly. The Neighbours Can Help platform, for instance, offers a way for people to ask neighbors for help and to reconnect with the local community. Open Utility is taking this idea deeper by building a peer-to-peer marketplace for people who are producing their own energy, for example, through local community solar panels.
In all this we have to remember that the type of relationship we have with our cities is as important as anything else. Rather than being data-driven with a furrowed brow, many enterprises are finding playful ways that we can now relate to our cities and to each other. Hello Lamppost was part of the Pervasive Media Studio's playable cities program. It found fun ways people could interact with landmarks and important places in their urban localities.
Projects such as this remind us that, when thinking about future cities, it's certainly useful to think about what technology can enable us to do -- but it's also just as important to think about how we can go about it.
— Kieron Kirkland is Development Research Manager for the UK "tech for good" funder, Nominet Trust.