Digital Placemaking for Smart Places

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Jo Morrison

Jo Morrison

Director of Digital Innovation & Research

Digital Placemaking

Digital Insights

On a duck egg blue background, the design shows a hub of people around a building that is supposed to demonstrate the city farm cafe being the hub of the visit. There are references to technology in the image too - perhaps the farm shop is the only place people can connect or plug their phones in, hence the hub.

Back in May, the Edinburgh Futures Institute, the Data-Driven Innovation programme, and the Edinburgh Living Lab launched Smart Places—an illustrated blog series published on Medium that highlights placemaking, citizen engagement, and the groundbreaking uses of technology.  

Every week from May to June, one expert in this field contributed an article that detailed their thoughts on the challenges of building smart places and how their approach can be effectively used to improve places in a world rocked by uncertainty. 

I was invited to join the programme and published “Digital Placemaking for More Inclusive and Accessible Cities” on the 12th of June (the fifth in the series), where I talked about digital placemaking and how it can help communities prosper and identify the technologies citizens want and need. I proposed a citizen engagement project called ‘Smart City Farm’ where people would be supported to explore how digital technologies and AI could help mitigate climate change and biodiversity loss.

For this article, I’ll dive into the Twitter Q&A – based around my article – that I hosted on the 19th of June, also referred to as a “TweetUp,”  highlighting the incredible insights I gathered from followers around the world. 

Laptop on a desk showing the Twitter bird logo as a wallpaper
Source: unsplash.com

Citizen Engagement

Question: “My article discusses #citizenengagement to shape our future smart places. Introduce yourself and tell us about any project from anywhere in the world (at any scale) that has enabled #communities to explore their future physical+digital neighbourhoods.” 

I was pleased to find out so many examples of projects that empower citizens to see how digital technologies can help their communities. 

The Parklife Project, run by The Edinburgh Living Lab, installed interactive physical-digital notice boards in four of the 145 parks in Scotland’s capital—Leith Links, Saughton Park, Inverleith Park, and the Meadows. Sensors collected live data about each park, which are then posted on the notice boards, giving park users the avenue to suggest changes and help managers improve these spaces for the people.

Another initiative from The Edinburgh Living Lab, in collaboration with The City of Edinburgh Council this time, involved using data and design to help the Council gather community perceptions, especially with bringing more value to public buildings. Through this new method, data can now be used for public sector decision-making, insights from stakeholders can be integrated with machine-readable data, and citizen engagement is improved.

I was also introduced to several existing digital tools that have enabled citizen engagement. 

The Knowle West Media Centre, for one, created You Decide, a free digital tool that allows users to share their thoughts on what’s currently going on in their neighbourhoods and suggest changes. PetaBancana.id, meanwhile, is a web-based crowdsourcing platform for Indonesians to provide real-time updates during emergency events to help residents, the government, and humanitarian agencies make informed decisions during these critical moments.

Digital Technology’s Role in Connecting People with Nature

Question: “ #SmartCityFarm communities will explore #climatechange and #biodiversity. Digital tech is often seen as being at odds with nature. How are #digital technologies enabling us to connect with nature, from people in parks to scientists in savannahs?” 

There is a wide variety of mobile apps out in the market that help users get better acquainted with the wildlife around them: 

PlantSnap, for one, can identify 90% of plant and tree species we know of today (e.g. flowers, cacti, succulents, etc). Seek, created by iNaturalist in collaboration with National Geographic and The California Academy of Sciences, encourages users to go out and explore by letting them earn badges for every type of plant and animal they upload. Just Ahead is an audio app that lets users turn their devices into GPS audio tour guides whenever they visit US national parks.

We also discovered Nature Smart Cities, the world’s first end-to-end open-source system for monitoring bat species around the UK using smart detectors. Run by experts from University College London and several people whose passion lies in animal conservation, Nature Smart Cities will be deployed in East London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.

Since sound pollution is something we don’t usually give as much importance to as air pollution, Silent Cities is a welcome surprise from the TweetUp. It is a collaborative project that will allow researchers to analyse how much urban soundscapes have changed during lockdown through audio recordings uploaded by individuals from their homes.

GROW Observatory, meanwhile, is the first continental-scale Citizens’ Observatory that aims to mitigate climate change effects on soil, so people can take proper action. This crowdsourced platform installed in 13 European countries uses more than 6,000 low-cost ground-based soil sensors and a dataset of 516 million rows of soil data.

AI and Big Data as Tools to Mitigate Climate Change

Question: “We have powerful new technologies, eg #ArtificialIntelligence, #robotics and #bigdata; how might they be integrated into our public realm in ways that mitigate #climatechange and support #biodiversity?” 

There is no escaping the use of AI and big data these days. While this particular question didn’t pull out too many responses given the level of technical know-how it requires, it’s undeniable how these technologies will be helpful especially for mitigating climate change. 

The Alan Turing Institute has several projects underway that will help the UK become more resilient to climate change through the use of machine learning and data science. With these technologies, we can have a better digital picture of our environment, allowing people to monitor how climate change affects land, oceans, cryosphere, agriculture, and biodiversity.

I have also written previously on how digital placemaking can be used to help people living in urban areas appreciate nature more, as inspired by the words of Sir David Attenborough, by using digital tools they can run safely from their homes (e.g. image-recognition apps, various web platforms).

This question also brings to mind French-Brazilian architect and urbanist Elizabeth de Pontzamaparc’s argument that AI-driven development can encourage social isolation. To remedy this, human intelligence should, therefore, drive smart city design, with AI only used as a tool to facilitate innovation. 

Ethics and Powerful Technologies

Question: “What policies, principles, regs or laws exist (worldwide) to prevent new powerful tech from causing social harm, exacerbating discrimination or reinforcing inequalities? Think about ongoing concern re facial recognition tech deployed in public spaces. Share links”

This is yet another tough question, but I appreciate the thoughtful responses from TweetUp’s participants. The ethical controversies surrounding powerful technologies are constant reminders for us to be vigilant and mindful of how we design, develop, deploy, and use these innovations. 

A couple of related instances that happened recently include Toronto’s Quayside smart city project, wherein an oversight panel questioned their “frustratingly abstract” proposal as it puts citizen data and privacy at risk – ultimately the project was pulled. Another example is the Indian government’s questionable decision allowing Huawei to conduct 5G trials in the country, despite the telco giant’s ongoing security violations resulting in their ban from several countries. 

Organisations like the Ada Lovelace Institute exist to ensure that data and AI are used ethically for the betterment of people and society. Their aim is to promote education among the citizens so that people will understand the impact of these technologies to different groups in society. 

There are also workshops held across the globe similar to The Alan Turing Institute’s Uses and Misuses of Connected Devices workshops, wherein the ethics of emerging technologies like the Internet of Things are dissected (e.g. capturing data, data protection, etc.). 

Landscape image of a sky scraper buildings in twilight, shot from a low angle from the road, with street lights lighting up the road set against the city skyline of these building blocks - a road sign shows that this is near Tokyo.
Source: unsplash.com

Getting Smart Places Off The Ground

In the coming years, we will see an increase in the development of smart places and smart cities in the world. This, of course, brings to fore the questions of ethics and the methods by which these will be built – and how/if all citizens will have a voice in their realisation.

The next stage for me, in relation to my article, is to develop the Smart City Farm project that I proposed – using the amazingly rich and textured insights shared by the TweetUp participants. Thank you all!

We all have to keep in mind the absolute need and urgency to develop people’s understanding of smart technologies and realise that citizens have the agency to affect change.