Will Smart Cities lead us to Subtopia?

Why you must influence the Smart City agenda where you live

In 1955 critic Ian Nairn wrote a piece for Architecture Review called “Outrage”, in which he coined the term “Subtopia”:

Subtopia is the annihilation of the site, the steamrollering of all individuality of place to one uniform and mediocre pattern

Nairn was calling for the preservation of characteristic places, fearful that if things were allowed to continue then “…the end of Southampton will look like the beginning of Carlisle; the parts in between will look like the end of Carlisle or the beginning of Southampton.”

Over 60 years later the New Economics Foundation (NEF) has found that 41% of our town high streets are clones, full of national identikit chain stores and devoid of local character, with another 23% well on their way.

Just a few months ago a survey in my home town of Reading revealed that 60% of businesses felt that Reading “lacks a clear identity” – perhaps the bigger surprise being that 40% of business believe Reading HAS a clear identity!

What do high streets have to do with high tech Smart Cities?

The cultural identity and heritage of towns and cities is once again under threat – this time from the impending roll-out of Smart City technology.

Nobody sets out to deliberately damage local culture and heritage, but it is inevitable if global IT companies are allowed to impose their top-down “Smart City Vision” onto city councils and local authorities. The cost to the council of implementing a sensitively tailored smart city will be prohibitive, and so they will opt for the off-the-peg, cookie-cutter option. They literally have no choice – councils are obliged to deliver best value, and unfortunately culture and identity are difficult to price.

But Southampton is not Carlisle, Birmingham is not Brighton – these places have different styles and different challenges, and it must be up to the people who live and work there to determine how their smart city should look and feel.

Cities (and towns) compete amongst each other to attract growing businesses and talented workers. Having rich culture and a strong identity are valuable differentiators, something that the smartest cities develop and capitalise upon.

Council staff, residents, organisations and businesses urgently need to get a good grip on what Smart City technology can do for them, what opportunities it opens up, and what concerns it may raise.

The hugely successful IT firms and their vision for Smart Cities are necessary and valuable partners. But if our cities are going to work with them then we all need to be Smart Customers!

Becoming a Smart Customer

There are some popular misconceptions about Smart Cities and the Internet of Things that prevent people from getting involved:

“It’s all a bit too technical for me…I wouldn’t know where to start”

We need to stop people feeling like Smart Cities is all complex, high tech stuff that is only something the geeks understand.

It wasn’t so long ago that computers were something that only scientists, programmers and the word processing pool touched. But now the veil has been lifted and we all carry computers with us and using them is second nature. You don’t even hassle your IT dept to install a programme for you any more – you just pay a small monthly fee to use it online, wherever you are.

Smart City technology is currently shrouded in mystery, firmly in the clutches of fee earning experts in consultancy firms, and seemingly out of reach for residents and local businesses. But there is no great mystery, there is just a veil.

“Smart Cities doesn’t really affect me”

It does and it will. Wake up. Energy companies are installing smart meters in our homes, and by monitoring your usage of electricity, gas, water will know all kinds of things. They will be able to tell you when your fridge is about to break, for example. This could be really useful for you to know – it might save the big family dinner. It could be really annoying if they told Google or Facebook and all you see are fridge adverts and get inundated with appliance insurance phone calls for 3 weeks! So you might want a say in how companies use the data they gather about you.

There are ethical issues around this kind of technology and access to the data it gathers. It raises all kinds of questions about rights, responsibilities and consent. For example, it may be reassuring to put a location tracker on a person with dementia that is prone to getting lost and frightened, but who decides, and who gets to monitor their whereabouts? What if the data reveals something that they would rather not share – for example that they visit a secret lover on Tuesday afternoons? Is it acceptable to put a similar tracker on a toddler when they are away from their parents, for example at playschool? At what age do you remove it?

If you live in a city you will be affected indirectly whether you want to or not, so it is in your interest to be informed. Maybe there are opportunities that would benefit you – perhaps you can see exactly when the bus is coming and avoid standing in the rain, or can check your home is safe and your tomatoes are watered when you are on holiday.

“Don’t we all just need the same thing?”

To a point, yes.

We all want our cities to run efficiently, and to provide good services at a reasonable cost. But each city or town will have different priorities that it wants to focus on, they might prioritise cycling in Cambridge and recycling in Rotherham, services for the elderly in Eastbourne and local enterprise in Liverpool.

Just like we all have a basic need to be clothed, when it comes to Smart Cities one size does not fit all.

Three steps to becoming a Smart Customer

Councils need to be knowledgeable, empowered customers when designing and implementing their Smart City agenda. They need to strike the right mix of top-down “vision” brought by the experts in the huge technology companies, and the bottom-up views and innovations offered by their residents and local businesses.

Local businesses and residents need to be knowledgeable and willing to consult with the council on the kind of Smart City they would like to live and work in.

Here is a simple 3-step approach to becoming a Smart Customer that you can start right now:

  1. De-mystify the Internet of Things and Smart Cities for your team
  2. Start small – experiment with a variety of Smart City ideas
  3. Evaluate, refine and and scale-up the most promising initiatives

1. De-mystify the Internet of Things and Smart Cities for your team

Nothing de-mystifies technology like getting your hands on it and doing it yourself. By far the most effective way we have found is to run a hands-on workshop where in just a few hours your group can build simple sensors and have them sending real data to a website on the Internet.

The Head of Innovation in a global software company headquartered locally asked Thingitude to run a workshop for 16 staff – half technical, half marketing and finance. They were so pleased with the results they ran a company-wide hackathon to take some of the ideas forward. The winning project from the hackathon was presented at their Global Summit in Chicago. All this took place in the space of just a few months, which shows how quickly a well-resourced organisation can move when it is excited.

2. Start small – experiment with a variety of Smart City ideas

Not all your initial ideas will be brilliant, or even possible! Allow time to play with the technology first, conduct a few experiments and build demonstrations that show the potential of the idea to learn whether people can see the value and get excited.

Building demonstrations is a very cost effective way of proving or disproving an idea. The original prototype for Thingitude’s device to count people in a space was built in less than a week with off-the-shelf parts costing around £100. This particular idea carried on into production. Another device for tracking hedgehogs didn’t get beyond the first prototype, but found a use tracking a mobile information kiosk.

It is important to build and show people your ideas – by making it real you let people interact and give concrete feedback on what they’ve seen and saves time and money in the long run. Feedback from the demonstrations will make it clear which ideas sparked enthusiasm, and which should be scrapped.

3. Evaluate, refine and scale-up the most promising initiatives

At this point you can confidently expand the trial, and invest in some design and development skills to make your devices and apps more robust and user-friendly. It needn’t be expensive but you are going to put your prototypes in the hands of friendly users and ask for their involvement and feedback. It is important that you give them something that is more finished than your original proof of concept.

For small production runs of physical devices we use a creative 3d-printer service to design and make the case, and an experienced electronics designer to produce the circuit board. We develop an outline business case and broaden our thinking to consider security/access to the data, and the full customer journey – installation of the device, usability of the apps, how to support the users in the trial, and how to gather feedback.

By evaluating the user trial objectively, you can decide whether to refine the solution and put it into your Smart City plans; or to run a larger trial; or to scrap the project. In this way you control costs and limit your exposure to risk.


Smart City technology aims to make a city or town a better place to live and work, but it is vital that in implementing these improvements we don’t lose the character and culture that gives the place its own unique identity. We need to avoid creating Nairn’s Subtopia with off-the peg, cookie cutter Smart Cities.

Engaging with residents, community organisations and local businesses on what kind of a Smart City they would like, and proving ideas before committing to the cost of supporting a large implementation is a winning approach.

The Smart City / IoT marketplace is rapidly evolving and big investments in any area of Smart City technology are high risk. Our councils, and the residents and businesses they represent need to equip themselves as Smart Customers in order to be able to get the very best from their technology partners.

Bottom-up, community driven experiments and trials are a low risk and low cost way to engage with citizens and learn what works for your area.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *