Smart citizens and smart cities

Tuesday 14 May 2019

back of smart citizens walking in the sunlight on a pathway

SCRI researches new routes for smart citizens to embrace urban design and decision-making as fully enfranchised participants (Image: oneinchpunch/Adobe).

In summary

  • A smart city uses information communication technology (ICT) to enhance the quality and performance of urban services
  • Swinburne’s Smart City Research Institute (SCRI) seeks to help citizens be more engaged in urban design and decision-making
  • SCRI is working to promote collaborative decision-making between key stakeholders and end-users

What is a ‘smart city’ and who are its ‘smart citizens’? 

A smart city typically uses information communication technology (ICT) to provide innovative and efficient services, reduce human impact on the environment, promote sustainability and raise the standard of living, while helping citizens to be more engaged.

Swinburne’s Smart City Research Institute (SCRI) examines all of these areas. It also looks at ways to increase interaction between citizens who can use IT to participate more richly in the decision-making that affects their urban futures.

As part of this research, SCRI also looks beyond the technology to explore the social implications of how digitalisation takes society away from familiar real-world equivalents.

SCRI’s research is a firm basis for helping to define what a smart citizen is, and enabling these citizens to understand, prepare for and embrace the effects of digitalisation across all aspects of a well-functioning society.

The Institute’s core aim is to assist the community to play a more active role in urban design and decision-making. The goal is for people to participate rather than simply engage with the inevitable social changes wrought by technology in a way not previously possible. 

A smart city is more than technologically-enabled infrastructure.  It is the wonderfully diverse collective of smart citizens that live within that infrastructure. Smart citizens are the smart city.

SCRI’s key research

SCRI’s four key research program areas are:

  1. Future urban decision-making 
    Research into engaging citizens in the design and management of the urban environment
  2. Future urban mobility
    Creating safe and resilient urban transport and mobility solutions
  3. Future spaces for living
    Research into the design of living and working spaces for the future city through interactive technologies that represent and respond to the needs of the citizens who live there
  4. Future urban infrastructure
    Research into new technologies for building systems integration.

Benefitting from emerging digital technologies

The ‘smart’ in smart cities refers to the use of ubiquitous technology – the so-called ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) – and the vast pools of real-time and historical data that such technology provides.

The processing of such huge and varied amounts of big data is still in its early days and presents opportunities for analysis not previously available. This data, which relies on emerging technology and still expanding computational power, can be analysed and visualised to reveal alternative and beneficial courses of action.

Participation versus engagement

While engagement is defined as a legal or moral obligation or an attachment to a process, SCRI wants citizens to have more than a sense of obligation. Its goal is participation – smart citizens being actively interested in and part of the process.

SCRI researches new routes for citizens to embrace urban design and decision-making as fully enfranchised participants.

Engaged citizens typically contribute within a ‘top-down’ framework. Participating citizens sit at the table with key stakeholders and experts. They use emerging digital technologies to inform the group of new knowledge affecting a situation and its likely implications.  Together, they test scenarios in real-time to speculate on and evaluate plausible outcomes. 

The challenge of combining expertise with non-expert end-users

Combining professional expertise with non-expert end-users’ perspectives is no small challenge. It requires entirely new methods to curate the dialogue, so that no party feels uninvolved or that their time is wasted. 

Swinburne’s SCRI promotes vibrantly original information-sharing environments across the university, designed to promote collaborative decision-making between key stakeholders and end-users.

We focus on the social as well as the technical dimension because social enquiry is as much a component of smart city research as the technologies of data capture, analysis, and visualisation.

The role of the university

Why should a smart cities research institute be part of a university rather than a major science or accountancy institute?

Transdisciplinary research is essential for researching complex future-oriented transformations such as the smart city. 

Only a university can genuinely offer transdisciplinary research which, by definition, involves collaborative investigation by at least two different disciplines to create innovative, practical approaches in a research environment to address a common problem.

For greatest possible impact, transdisciplinary research is deeply associated with an external partner with a major smart cities stakeholder.

The creation of a virtual institute such as SCRI establishes vital critical mass and draws on the uniquely wide talent pool that only universities can offer.  Universities are home to a wide range of disciplines at all levels of capability, and they collectively pursue excellence through their resident intellectual capital, from emerging researchers to professors. 

Additionally, universities provide a neutral ground for critical debate because, whatever position individuals may have, the institution itself has none other than the pursuit of excellence under an umbrella of intellectual rigour. 

SCRI exploits this attribute and draws on the full range of Swinburne’s research expertise, notably the existing research centres that focus on urban technology, design and communication, computer and data science, health and psychology and social science.

By Professor Mark Burry AO FSTE AIA, Director of the Smart Cities Research Institute, Swinburne University of Technology.