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Citizen-centric cities for a better tomorrow

Source: PSE Feb/March 2018

Mark Collin, group director of Ventures at ThoughtWorks, discusses how governments can learn from a bottom-up, citizen-focused approach to digitally transform their cities.

It’s clear that interest in digital cities is on the rise, and may soon become a mainstream focus for governments to improve life for citizens in increasingly urban, congested environments. Yet whilst nearly every city holds a 2020 digital strategy today, there is a disconnect between strategy and effective execution.

The initial vision of a ‘digital city’ originated from tech-driven companies pushing technology first, rather than putting citizens at the core of the design. For a digital city strategy to work in practice, citizens must be at the core. This means assessing people’s needs, designing solutions that meet those needs, and deploying a bottom-up approach that utilises citizen science, start-ups and the open source community to use data as a public resource.

There are towns and cities that are leading the way with this approach and demonstrating the far-reaching potential of citizen-centric design.

Digitising frontline services

Digital transformation of frontline services remains a challenge, but can be achieved if organisations embrace agile principles and open standards.

In 2012, the UK’s Government Digital Service merged hundreds of government agency websites into a single, easy-to-use platform. This simple, citizen-driven design increased weekly visitors by 62% and reduced yearly operational cost by £50m.

Tap into an existing ecosystem

Barcelona has long held a reputation for being at the front of digital transformation and innovation. A key to its success is its willingness to embrace the concept of the ecosystem, utilising open platforms and existing services, start-ups and communities. Sentilo is an open-source sensor network that was created in Barcelona from the bottom up, a standardised operating service for cities in which any developer can access and use the data. The city of Barcelona is currently running pilots on the Sentilo platform in different areas such as energy, noise monitoring, water metering, rubbish collection and parking to help optimise the sensor network through development and testing.

Elsewhere, London has open-sourced all of its transport data, resulting in over 600 apps that solve mobility problems for citizens.

Privacy and data ownership

When information is held by a small number of companies, it can lead to economic inefficiencies and inequalities, and inhibit creative problem-solving for society’s needs. Decode, a cross-city project set up by the European Commission led by 14 partners including ThoughtWorks, aims to tackle this by giving citizens ownership of their personal data, allowing individuals to decide whether they keep it private or share it for the public good.

Decode’s pilots, taking place in Barcelona and Amsterdam, are focusing on the sharing economy, the Internet of Things, and open and participatory democracy to both protect individual privacy and benefit wider society.

Democracy and social inclusion

Decidim, a platform being deployed in Barcelona as part of the Decode project, is demonstrating how technology can move us towards a more participatory democracy system.

The open-sourced platform makes it possible for thousands of people to organise democratically by making proposals, joining public meetings, voting and even making decisions on how to spend from a public budget. It can also remove citizens’ fear of revealing true political beliefs using blockchain, which allows voters to remain anonymous whilst verifying their eligibility to vote. Whilst it is at an experimental stage, this pilot demonstrates the immense potential to engage people in a democratic system.

Instead of thinking of a digital city as a destination, leaders should focus on making their cities into citizen-centric organisations using shared, secure infrastructure to create better, healthier lives for generations to come.




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