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Many of the prevailing social and environmental challenges today are the outcomes of rapid economic growth, and well beyond the grasp of individuals. This situation is increasingly apparent in cities.

In 2009, for the first time in human history, urban populations overtook rural population numbers around the world. However, while cities are where these problems are most acute, they also offer a natural collaboration setting for solving society’s greatest challenges.

Smart Communities

As is the human answer to so many issues, the modern solution for urban problems is technology, most now falling under the term “smart city”. There can, of course, be little doubt that successive generations of digital technology have and will continue to transform how cities are run.

As we discussed in a recent article The Evolution of the Smart City: Top-down to Bottom-up, many of the smart city ideas have taken a wrong turn and advocates of smart cities have often faced criticism for being too concerned with hardware rather than with people.

Too often, companies are trying to find uses for new technologies rather than discovering technologies that can solve actual problems, and too often emphasising marketing and promotion at the expense of hard evidence and testing solutions in the real world. The “smart refrigerator”, for example, has been around, and continually re-released, since 1999 but remains unpopular because there is very little need for it.

The rush to create smarter cities could end-up causing more problems than it solves, if we don’t stop imposing solutions on people, rather than allowing the people to inspire solutions to their problems.

The tide, however, seems to be changing in the case of smart cities, as individuals, often through community initiatives and start-up organisations, are using new technological innovation to solve the issues they face on a regular basis. Now, national and municipal governments are beginning to see the benefits of the organic development of smart cities, where their role is simply to create a platform upon which citizens can create the applications that will help them most.

Community leaders in Ottawa, Canada’s capital city, observed that most other major cities were taking a “top-down approach” – using digital initiatives and smart technology services by purchasing very expensive infrastructure, putting it into place, and then pushing out smaller, use case implementations downstream. Ottawa’s community wanted to take an opposite “bottom-up approach”.

Working with the team at Flybits, the initial goal of their smart city project was to utilise existing infrastructure in order to communicate relevant traveller information based on a motorist’s location and situation, in a safe, reliable and convenient fashion. With the same ultimate goal of becoming a fully connected smart city.

“This project, and the city’s bottom-up approach, was much more cost-effective because it did not require them to purchase expensive infrastructure”, said Hossein Rahnama, the founder of Flybits. “They were able to start small, test it, and then increase the use cases and investment once it proved its worth”. So far there has been considerable adoption by citizens as well as by other city entities that have connected their services to the ecosystem, making the city more connected and smart. According to Rahnama, the technology is now being introduced to cities in Europe.

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In Seoul, South Korea, the city government is helping residents make better use of the things they own with the Sharing City Seoul initiative. It has supported a range of projects from local car–sharing company SoCar to websites like Billiji that help people share things with their neighbours. The goal of these services is to provide people with an alternative to owning things they rarely use.

In Beijing residents can use the ‘I love Beijing’ app to report issues such as broken streetlights and potholes to the city government. The app extends the features offered by successful issue reporting apps like FixMyStreet in the UK, by also including a map of, and information about, the city’s informal food markets.

In Reykjavik, Iceland, citizens can use the Better Reykjavik website to propose, debate and vote on ideas for improving the city. Each month the city council debates the most popular ideas from the website and the city government has so far spent €1.9 million on developing more than 200 projects proposed by citizens.

In Paris, Madame Mayor, I have an idea is a crowd-sourcing and participatory budgeting process that lets citizens propose and vote on ideas for projects in Paris. The process will allocate 500m Euros between 2014 and 2020. Through this process the city government has recently invested €2 million in vertical garden projects after they received over 20,000 votes through the participatory budgeting app.

While many of these initiatives are still in their very early stages, the list is long and growing rapidly. The common theme among these most successful community driven projects is, unsurprisingly, a city government that listens and reacts to the plethora of good ideas emerging from their city’s residents.

It may sound like basic politics and governance but the best city is one in which the authorities create a platform for it’s people to make it great… or smart.