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A vision for a digital city

London is set to become the smartest city in the world - or so claims London mayor Sadiq Khan’s digital masterplan for the city, Smarter London Together.

It’s a vision that embraces digital services, open data, connectivity, digital inclusion, cyber security and innovation. But what is a smart city, really? Should it even be a city? And does smart technology demand a new form of citizenship?

Sharon Kindleysides is the intelligent transport systems coordinator for smart city advocates Cities Forum. At first glance, Kindleysides notes, smart cities and digital citizenship are entirely about technology - but while it’s important to embrace 5G, smart traffic lights and other emerging tech, she says:

“I tend to focus on the human side of things. My definition of a smart city is one that’s driven by technology and accessible to everybody; it’s about using technology for the good of the whole community.”

Smart connections

A smart city is a connected city. But what does that mean to the average employee or student? Kindleysides notes:

“If a young person can only get into college or university by bus, and the service is unreliable, the journey takes 40 minutes, and they’ve then got to walk half an hour the other end – they might not always go. That’s human nature. If we can make that transport smoother, we remove the “can’t be bothered” blocker.

A successful smart city should use tech as an enabler to support education. And if we get the system right for our young people, then our elderly people and our less-mobile people are also going to benefit, stay mobile and stay independent longer.”

But should digital cities even be cities? We need to think beyond the metropolis, says Kindleysides, if we’re to ensure no community is left behind:

“I live relatively rurally. If young people in my community want to go to college, it’s 20 miles away. In the city of the future – or maybe we should be thinking about the county of the future – could it be possible to run some lessons remotely? Could learners have the option to work from local libraries or church halls? Managed correctly, that could be really smart, blending existing infrastructure with new tech to increase access to education for all.”

Smart choices

As well as increasing access, an ambition for digital cities and digital citizen students is also greater diversity of choice. A college usually needs at least five students interested in a subject to make it viable to run at A-level. Can we get around that by using a digital classroom, bringing students together from all over?

That might mean the less-mainstream subjects can be taught online to those with the interest and aptitude, giving young people niche knowledge. This might revive education in rarer languages, say, or targeted areas such as further maths, as well as enabling educators to improve the match between employers’ detailed needs and what an institution can offer.

Smart ethics

But smart technology comes with trade-offs. Gary Henderson, director of IT at Millfield School in Somerset, has concerns around the blur between ethics and commercial, the blur between privacy and convenience.

"Those things could be quite dangerous. Would you be happy with your medical data being shared online? For most people, the immediate answer is probably no. But what if that data helped inform a new cure for cancer? Well, then maybe you’d say yes.

We need to have these philosophical debates, and through discussion allow students to make their own decisions with some awareness and thought. Do you want a doorbell with a video camera on it? Does the benefit of never missing a delivery outweigh the potential risk of that data about your home and your habits being hacked?”

Maybe it does, Henderson reflects, but students need to go out into our increasingly data-informed, technology-led world with their eyes open. Sure, the goalposts may then move, but at least they’re starting from a considered position.

Smart educators

Educators need support in this journey, too, but the conversations have to go a lot further and deeper than they do currently, and we need to make more resources available for greater discussion. Henderson says:

“The hardest bit is recognising that all educators and all citizens have to model best practice and take responsibility for embedding these conversations into their everyday interactions with young people. It still feels to me that responsibility falls on computing and IT staff. We should be trying to tackle problems collectively.”

Smart citizens

Susan Halfpenny, teaching and learning manager for the University of York’s information services department, adds to the ethical considerations of digital citizenship:

"How have our perceptions of public and private changed? What is the impact on our security and freedom? Does technology present a threat to our democracy or open us to a global community of information-sharing and collaboration?

We’re travelling the utopian and dystopian landscapes of the digital world in search of the answer to how we might all become empowered digital citizens. In our digital age, the ability to effectively use, manipulate and produce digital content is fast becoming a requirement for participation in social, economic and political activities. It is therefore essential to develop the skills for this engagement to become digital citizens.”

People first

Smarter London Together might seem fully tech-driven but the first of its five declared missions is about putting users at its heart. After all, a city, or a rural community, is ultimately about its people - its digital citizens. Or should be. As Henderson asserts:

“Fundamentally, we’re talking about rights and responsibilities, safety, contributing to society, consideration for the environment, and an awareness of community. You could argue that, in fact, the word ‘digital’ is almost redundant to any conversation about digital citizenship.”

Jisc's edtech extravaganza, Digifest, is taking place at the Birmingham ICC, 10-11 March. Head to Hall 3 to experience Jisc’s vision of a digital city. On day one, delegates can take part in Gary Henderson’s workshop ‘Digital Citizenship’ at 11.40 and attend Susan Halfpenny’s session ‘Becoming a digital citizen: research, opinions and fairytales’ at 14.10. Sharon Kindleysides is contributing to the Smart Cities panel debate at 11.30 on day two.