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The “political dimension” of the Internet of Things (IoT) and smart cities is now becoming increasingly apparent as city authorities and citizens are forced to wake up to the social changes that connected technology brings.

That’s according to Léan Doody, associate director at consulting engineering firm Arup, speaking at the Internet of Things Business Summit 2016 last week. She suggested that the realities of the IoT are now moving slowly beyond mere local authority posturing to changes that affect society.

Uber

“Government is now looking at smart cities to help with economic development of cities, how we can create jobs, attract technology hubs and companies, and make indigenous companies more successful. That’s a big part of what we can see from this”, Doody told delegates during her speech.

A wave of international technology platforms and Web based companies are causing a stir in local business sectors, and their societies, in cities around the world. Local taxi drivers are having unprecedented discussions about the massive impact of Uber on local firms; as they see business diminish in the face of the technology platform which no doubt offers a more convenient service for the smartphone empowered millennial generation.

“We’re also now seeing the political dimension – the disruption caused by a lot of these companies. Uber is a just a technology platform, but the effect on the taxi network has been huge. Traditional taxi companies often have the support of the mayor, and this all has huge implications”, Doody continued. In fact “Uber” is replacing the word “taxi” as people regularly “get an Uber home”, in the same way someone might suggest “you Google it”, instead of “search it”, to find your answer. Demonstrating the scale of change and the scale of competition, for local taxi companies.

This juxtaposition of government’s support for local business and it’s embracing of the smart city movement is not confined to Uber. Local hotels and B&Bs have long been feeling, and succumbing to, the Airbnb effect. Many city governments have been fighting a losing battle with users of the accommodation rental platform for tax collection and in order to support those local businesses losing out. Such is the popularity of the platform that those city governments are caught defying what could be a significant majority of residents while trying to support local businesses.

The fact is that the growing majority of modern urban citizens, especially the millennials, feel more a part of the Uber and Airbnb generation than they feel attached to local, often old fashioned, businesses. Is this clever marketing from these new global technology platforms, is it an inevitable and beautiful product of our globalised connected world, or is it simply the lack of adaptation by local businesses to a changing society? Most likely, all of the above.

In our capitalist world those who innovate and win over business deserve that business. While it is a case of corporation verses the little guy, there is nothing immoral or illegal taking place that would demand a strong defence from local government. As such, municipal governments may be torn between encouraging their tech-savvy, global residents or sustaining their traditional, local businesses. The answer, as usual, probably lies in the middle. Governments should be helping create the platforms on which local businesses can compete with these tech-enabled, fast-becoming global corporations.

“What we do know is there are some great disruptors out there; we’ve only got to look at the likes of Uber or Airbnb to see how those models have been very successful at disrupting to provide added value for consumers of a service”, said Michael Keegan, chairman of the UK & Ireland region for Fujitsu. “That level of disruption is good, is healthy, that’s the natural way of things in the IT industry and I think government’s more interested than ever before in listening”.

Keegan argues that SMBs need to demonstrate they’re capable of disruption by going out and doing things, rather than waiting for the government to dictate what needs to be done. “It’s up to the SMBs. If you’re going to disrupt, you’ve got to go and disrupt and you can’t expect government to do your job for you”, he explained.

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In her speech last week, Doody also referenced mayor of Rio de Janeiro Eduardo Paes and his concept of “polisdigitocracy”. “The idea of the online and offline use of technology to encourage debate and a two-way exchange of views between citizens and politicians”, Doody reflected, citing how Paes’ work has flagged up another issue for citizens: the correct use of data.

“I think the other aspect is the disruption caused by different technological inventions. Uber is one example, but also in privacy we’re going to see more and more pushback from citizens in terms of how their data is used, because at the moment citizens don’t really know. I think we’ll see more activity around that once citizens and politicians wake up”.

What is clear among all this, is that the ongoing disruptive and debate-provoking effect of the IoT stands as a “signifier” of its progress. Smart cities and the IoT will likely be forced upon us until we start welcoming it with open arms.