Smart from the Ground-up: or how to avoid smart Nimbyism through digital empowerment

Networks of connected sensors are arriving in cities. Stephen Hilton of Bristol Futures Global considers how to avoid “Smart Nimbyism” by equipping and empowering communities to be smart.

Imagine every street has a sensor box. As I write, there is one mounted on a lighting column outside your home, the Council installed it as part of a “Smart City” Initiative. You are not sure what it does but you think it has something to do with air pollution as this has been in the news. Your daughter shows you an App she has downloaded. One of her friends built it at something called a “Hackathon”. What you see is alarming. For weeks, your home has been in the midst of an area of extreme air pollution; far worse, it appears, than the average for the rest of the city. Your instinct is to stay inside, lock the doors and windows and wrap scarves around the family’s noses and mouths to filter the air. Will this, you wonder, actually do any good? You try Googling but the results don’t tell you what to do. Feeling increasingly angry you call the Council and get through to the Head of Planning: they pick up...

This scenario is not very far fetched, except perhaps for the idea that the Head of Planning might answer their phone! Many cities are experimenting with Smart City initiatives involving connected sensor networks to monitor the urban environment. Until now, cities have deployed sensors only in a limited way. Cost has been a significant barrier. Sensors can be expensive to buy and connecting them to a digital network is an additional overhead. Consequently, sensors have often been stand alone, requiring a person to visit them to collect data manually - another overhead. Power supply has also been a barrier; lighting columns have limited power outlets and modifying them is yet another expense for cities to bear. All in all, the business case for wide scale deployment of accurate environmental sensors has just not stacked up - but this is set to change. 

Innovation in the way sensors are designed and brought together into integrated arrays, along with standards for new low power, wide area networks, mean that every neighbourhood, street and even every home, can have access to affordable, high quality networked sensors. This is potentially a real game-changer.

The Array of Things
In Chicago, the Array of Things (AOT) project is 'instrumenting the city' to enable urban planners, residents, and researchers to monitor and examine Chicago’s environment, including detecting trends and changes over time. The AOT nodes will initially measure temperature, barometric pressure, light, vibration, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide, ozone, ambient sound intensity, pedestrian and vehicle traffic, and surface temperature. AoT will undergo upgrades with new sensors including wind, precipitation, and particles this year.   

LoRaWAN is a Low Power Wide Area Network specification aimed at supporting the data communication requirements of sensors. LoRa networks are far cheaper to deploy than other communication technologies that are designed with larger data streams in mind. A handful of LoRa gateways can provide connectivity across a whole city, enabling sensors to be plugged-in and played without the need for complex local installation. When combined with improvements in battery technologies, which mean low power sensors can now last for years without the need for the battery to be replaced; the result is that large scale deployment of remote sensors is now within reach.

Like it or not, sensors are coming to cities and soon, Planners will have to decide what role to play. Simply allowing the Internet of Things to be imposed in communities is likely to be as problematic as ignoring it altogether. It is not too much of a leap to imagine extremely well informed citizens and community organisations using real-time sensor data to question or block proposed developments and demanding changes to existing infrastructure. So what can City Planners do to avoid such Smart Nimbyism? To find the answer, I believe we should look to my home city of Bristol and to the work of Knowle West Media Centre.

Knowle West Media Centre is located in one of the least advantaged parts of Bristol. For 20 years, the Media Centre has worked with the local community to use digital creativity and technology to build grass roots engagement. It is therefore unsurprising that a new approach to the Internet of Things and sensors has arisen out of the Centre’s work. 

Citizen Sensing  
The Bristol Approach to Citizen Sensing moves the citizens’ perspective to the front in determining how sensors and data are used in a community setting; building capacity and understanding at the very local level.  The methodology is replicable and it should be applied broadly. The Knowle West Vision also goes one step further. Using 3D printing and rapid fabrication techniques – the aim is to skill and equip local “Makers” so they can help build the Smart City, creating genuine ownership and a stake in the future infrastructure of the Smart City.

Let’s imagine this scenario.

You are invited to participate in a “Citizen Sensing” project. You aren’t sure what this is but go along anyway as it sounds interesting. At a workshop, you talk with your neighbours and volunteers who know about technology and data, about the problems that your street faces. In this way, you contribute to the design of a sensor box that collects data about the things that people on the street want to know. The Council makes some suggestions too and all agree that air quality is important. Following the workshop, some people go on to learn new skills; coding, electronics and 3D printing, so that they can help build the sensors. The kids in the street decorate the box and even give it a nickname – “Windy” because, amongst other things, it records the weather. At first, everyone worries when Windy shows how bad the air quality is but a group gets together to discuss what changes they might make. It is agreed to set up a lift sharing scheme so that not everyone has to drive to work separately. The next step is to secure funding for an electric car club and charging points. Parents have started a walking bus so the kids can walk safely to and from school. There is even an attempt to coordinate online shopping deliveries through an innovative App that a local small business has developed. Windy has been programmed to recognise and count different types of vehicles, so can measure what progress is being made. Of course, some big things only the Council can do but the problems feel less scary because everyone is at least trying to sort them out together.

You are Head of Planning, let the phone ring because now is the time to stop and think about the future you are going to create by enabling communities to be smart - but on their own terms.

Stephen Hilton is a Fellow of the University of Bristol Cabot Institute and founder of Bristol Futures Global, a consultancy that supports cities, businesses and communities to be both Smart and Citizen-focused. Email: Twitter: @BristolFutures