Democratizing the Smart City


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Recent 4CITIES graduate Dillon Martin was just named the winner of the 2021 Stellenbosch Network #IdeasForChange Challenge to make Stellenbosch, South Africa, a ‘Smarter City’.

He received a cash prize as well as a seat in one of the 2022 Stellenbosch University LaunchLab Programmes to help turn his winning idea – developed with Master’s of Urban Studies (MUS) graduate Marta Lekue – into (virtual) reality. Naturally, we wanted to learn more about the project, so Dillon took a few minutes to answer some questions for Field Notes. Enjoy!

Q. Dillon, you were named the winner of the 2021 Stellenbosch Network #IdeasForChange Challenge. Could you tell us a bit about the challenge and about your winning idea?

The challenge was hosted by Stellenbosch Network, an interdisciplinary membership organisation which aims to encourage collaboration and partnership in support of inclusive economic growth for the greater Stellenbosch area. They, in collaboration with Stellenbosch University and LaunchLab (the University-backed incubator), promoted the competition “ideas for change” to encourage young entrepreneurs to start thinking creatively about ways to solve real world problems. It was specifically geared towards the locality of Stellenbosch Smart City (what they call Africa’s first truly Smart City).

Our idea for change is to create an app or platform that acts as a virtual representation of Stellenbosch. More specifically, certain spaces – walls, open spaces, existing buildings, sidewalks, etc. – within Stellenbosch will be identified according to “un(der)used potential” and marked with a QR code that can instantly be read using a Smartphone camera. When your Smartphone scans this code via the app, it opens up a “virtual space” of that specific demarcated physical space. Here, people are presented with the possibility of submitting a proposal for the (re)design of that space. This gives ordinary people the possibility to re-imagine space according to their own needs and desires. Examples of such proposals can vary anywhere from an artistic mural on a blank façade of a building or the installation of a bench along the sidewalk, to the complete (re)design of an entire public space (e.g. park or car parking). The submission of proposals via this procedure can also be in the form of written text and/or sketches (for those who lack the digital skills necessary to submit artistic visualisations), to complete PDF’s of visualisations created on platforms such as Photoshop. The idea is that many of these proposals will fall under the sphere of Tactical Urbanism, namely, low-cost, temporary changes to the built environment, usually in cities, intended to improve local neighbourhoods and urban gathering places.

This idea also solves several problems within urban communities as well as presents several benefits for the Stellenbosch community:

Firstly, local authorities in Stellenbosch are playing an increasingly important role in improving the day to day life of their citizens. However, such efforts are often constrained by a lack of access to resources, funds, expertise, data, etc. Through this app, resources are outsourced to the local community, inviting a kind of entrepreneurialism, while at the same time providing the local community with an increased opportunity to become involved in (re)-imagining the type of city/neighbourhood they would like to live in. Moreover, through the platform, local authorities are increasingly creating a virtual sphere for the collection of data, thus obtaining a better perception regarding the needs and wants of the Stellenbosch community – enabling them to better respond to community concerns. This represents a bottom-up approach regarding public participation, which symbolises an increased ‘citizens’ right to the city’.

Secondly, this app/platform opens possible connections to Stellenbosch University, where students in the fields of urban planning, architecture, design, and art are offered a practical and hands-on opportunity to experiment with applied-knowledge. Studies also show that when theoretical knowledge is given practical outlets, learning becomes more engaging, receptive, and understood. Thirdly, by connecting academia with Stellenbosch (via the app/platform), students are able to build up a professional profile, where businesses can use the app to identify possible future business partners. Lastly, the idea is also that the app can play a significant role in tourism, where different designs are able to generate “likes” (almost in the same way Instagram does), thus creating a virtual tourist space for tourists to navigate Stellenbosch virtually – an eye into a future opportunity.

Q. Why did you choose this idea to submit? What about it is particularly important to you?

Well, it wasn’t as though we thought of one idea from the beginning and drove it all the way to the finish line. The process of arriving at ideas that we thought were practical, feasible, and realistic took a lot of thinking and critical reflection. The night before the competition, we actually submitted a total of three ideas, and we are in fact still looking to promote our other ideas.

So we began by first trying to frame the problems of Stellenbosch (because where there is a problem, there is a solution, and as we’ve seen in the last 10 years, there’s always an app for that). As a student there for 4 years I had a pretty good understanding of the region as well as which parts of the city frustrated me. We came to the conclusion that the biggest problems in Stellenbosch were safety (where we had another idea for an app), traffic and parking (we had another idea here as well), and problems regarding how space is imagined and developed. It was the latter idea that was chosen, and thus we started giving it some more planning and thinking about how we can move forward with the idea – in other words, how to make it not just an idea.

This idea is important to us because throughout 4CITIES and MUS, we were always taught that space is political. And we also understood that often people do not have agency over how space is constructed and formed around them. There are severe gaps when it comes to public participation from the bottom-up, and  various forms of exclusion (gender, racial, class, etc.). The city belongs to the people and should be built by the people. The app works (among other things) as a participatory platform to empower ordinary citizens because we believe that the members of civil society should have the right to decide on the future of their own neighbourhoods.

“Thus, the idea was to re-democratise space by giving more agency and empowerment for ordinary citizens to shape the urban fabric in which they live, while enabling municipalities to more easily understand community needs.”

In a world where data is the new oil, we thought that the platform could act as a viable or more efficient supplement for traditional or outdated methods of data collection (surveys, community meetings etc.) as well as a more democratic alternative to traditional top down methods of the production of space. The application promotes inclusivity (all stakeholders must be engaged) since anyone with a mobile phone can access the portal. Additionally, the time taken to gather data (regarding community needs), and communicate it with local authorities is reduced drastically making decision making more informative and more efficient. Obviously, there are also challenges of the digital divide that would need special attention as well as some consequences such as gentrification. However, we are aware of these and aim to be proactive in tackling such negative consequences that may stem from the idea when/if implemented.

Importantly, we also decided to develop other “branches” of the app, specifically so that its success does not solely rely on municipal cooperation. The idea of the app acting similar to a LinkedIn account was also an idea that stemmed from our own frustration in the difficulty of ‘bridging the gap’ between studies and a career, as well as for those who cannot afford tertiary education.

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Q. The smart city concept has been adopted by many cities around the world, but not without criticism. What is your perspective on the use of technology to resolve urban issues? What types of problems is it well-suited to addressing, and what types is it not?

The technological revolution is no longer knocking at the front door – it’s already inside, and has been for a while. The fourth industrial revolution has been with us since 2016, and now there is already talk about the fifth industrial revolution (I’ll get to the difference in a minute). Yes, it is true that the Smart City concept is not without criticism. Most notably criticized for the naivety of the technological fix – the idea that all problems can find solutions in better and new technologies. And I would agree with this criticism. But saying technology is bad is like saying tongue is bad for kissing: It depends on how you use it. In other words, technology is controlled by social agents, and whether it can be used for good or bad depends on its purpose and the means by which it pursues this purpose (e.g. privacy issues related to Google and Facebook). But I think this is where regulation comes in.

“An important point that I think many Smart City projects forget to emphasize is the human dimension. Smart Cities are meant to solve real world problems by leveraging technology so that the beneficiaries are the people, not the tech companies.”

Technology has already shown its huge potential to make leaps in the field of ‘green’ development (minus the greenwashing) for example. But I think criticizing the Smart City concept is a mistake, it should rather be the means through which these ideas are reached that requires scrutiny. I think some big issues around the concept will deal with questions such as “Who controls the smart city?”, and “What role will ordinary citizens play in Smart Cities?” These questions deal with democracy, and there is definitely fear of citizens voluntarily giving information to an urban database that is controlled and monetized by private tech companies, and the threat this can bring to democracy. Thus, I think that smart cities should not center technology, should not center people with SMET (science, mathematics, engineering, and technology; previous name) or even STREAMi (Science, Technology, Research, Engineering, Arts, Maths, innovation) degrees. Rather it should include social scientists, psychologists, anthropologists and the humanities into the mix. A smart city is not synonymous with a technology city, technology is only a means of bettering the lives of inhabitants.

Coming back to the fourth and fifth technological revolution. I think the acceleration of digitalisation amidst the Covid-19 pandemic and the need to socially distance has edged us into a paradigm shift in where technology is heading. Thus, technology is becoming more suited to including the ‘humanity’ component into its rationale. For example, technology is increasingly being thought of in terms of satisfying the SDGs (UN Sustainable Development Goals). These are the types of problems I think the fifth technological revolution will be well-suited to address, however, aspects such as the gender gap between SMET skills that technological development demands, is something that technology itself cannot resolve. This is the role of state and non-state actors, international organisations, and NGOs.

Q. How do you envision your idea of a virtual representation of Stellenbosch developing over the next 5-10 years?

Right now we are still learning a lot and trying to understand what exactly implementing the idea and creating the app will entail. I think at least the next 5 years will be an intense and difficult learning curve for us. But we really hope to begin implementing the idea before the 5 year mark. I think one of our biggest challenges will be getting the municipality on board, especially since we are not even in the country and do not plan on living there any time soon (but then again, who knows). Thus, we aim to pitch our idea to the Bilbao municipality as well – as they have more departments and funding options to aid young entrepreneurs – with the added benefit of us being able to meet potential partners in person. However, we are definitely not closing the door on Stellenbosch and we have some upcoming meetings as well as a seat in one of the 2022 Stellenbosch University LaunchLab Programmes to the value of R20,000. So we are looking to make use of these avenues and see where it takes us.

To be realistic, in 5-10 years we will be really happy if we can have the app developed and being used by residents and students all over Stellenbosch. But to be optimistic, we would love to start running pilot projects with the app all over the world and start working full time with the idea. Right now we still have to pay rent and put food on the table, so it is rather difficult to give our full attention to extending our ambitions with the idea.

Q. Looking even further into the future, what problems do you anticipate being the most significant for cities over the next 50 years or so?

This is a rather difficult question, especially when you consider the fast pace at which society and especially technology is evolving. If the pandemic has taught me anything, it is that the future is uncertain, and the best thing we can do is plan for this uncertainty. “Change is the only constant”. It is almost impossible to say what the world will be like in 2050, less so in 2072. In fact, most of what we learn today will be irrelevant in the next 50 years. It’s also very likely that the jobs people born now will have do not even exist yet. Thus, my short answer would be that I have no idea. But I will lay out some trends that I think are most likely. Furthermore, the question: “what problems do you anticipate being the most significant for cities over the next 50 years or so?” is a difficult one because what do we mean by cities? Thus, I will attempt to answer the question as best I can by relating several topics to the vague concept of “city”.

Firstly, the labour market. I think there will be a widening gap between the haves and the have nots with greater global inequality, accelerated by the digital divide. I think care work will become more important as machines increasingly put people out of certain job markets – although technology will also create new jobs – these new jobs will demand higher order skills (STEM). Thus, cities in the developing world will need to prepare for this, or else they will be left behind. We are already seeing this trend, but I imagine it becoming more severe over the coming years, especially with an ever growing population.

Secondly, resources. I think the population will reach almost 10 billion people (with the majority living in cities). Thus, cities will be bigger and denser. And since cities will be denser, I think we will start to see a problem with resource distribution.

“I think the sharing economy will be under pressure to handle these problems, as it provides a more sustainable way of organising economic activity. If resources are not shared efficiently, inequality will destabilize society.”

Thirdly, technology. I think that tech companies will increasingly sit in the ‘control room’ of cities (for better or for worse). Privacy and democracy will be under pressure, as well as the widening gap of the digital divide. Policy makers must ensure that no one gets left behind, and this will rely on good governance.

Lastly, climate change and rising sea levels. I think this will be the biggest threat over the coming decade, but also for the foreseeable future. We will learn the hard lesson of not acting when we have the chance.  We will need good and ambitious governance, as well as the political will to start experimenting with alternative economic systems (such as degrowth and circular economies). Meeting the targets set by global climate crisis meetings (COP26) will be one of the biggest challenges. Especially for high CO2 polluting countries such as China and the US.

Q. Are there existing ideas that you think could address these problems if scaled up or mainstreamed? Or any ideas that haven’t yet been put into practice?

Well, I think there are many ideas that could potentially be solutions to these problems, but ideas will stay ideas unless it is backed by political muscle. I think that following the rationale of Marxism, many of the problems we find today are due to aspects related to the idea of endless economic growth, and thus I would like to only briefly share two ideas that I think, if scaled up, could have tremendous benefits for society.

The first is degrowth, a social, economic and political movement that prioritizes social and ecological well-being instead of corporate profits, over-production, and excess consumption. Thus, degrowth demands a radical alteration of our current economic system by reducing global production and consumption and argues for development indicators that go beyond GDP. It is a very broad and loaded concept so I will not go into too much detail here.

The second idea often comes under the umbrella of degrowth: universal basic income. UBI is a government program in which every adult citizen receives a set amount of money regularly. The goal is to alleviate poverty by providing people with enough money to cover their basic needs. This is a very contested idea as many criticise it for being overly utopian and running into “free-rider” problems in society. Originally, I also saw this idea as hopelessly utopian, but after learning more about it I’ve changed my perspective.

Q. What’s up next for you?

Having recently finished our Master’s, we are travelling around the world. We will both be living in Valparaiso, Chile for the next 6 months. I (Dillon) am working online and trying to find a meaningful job somewhat related to my studies. Marta is currently working at the Pontifical Catholic University of Valparaiso where she is assisting with projects in the Innovation, research and entrepreneurial department. After Chile, we will both be looking for more stable jobs (if I have not already found one), while trying to take our virtual Stellenbosch idea further. Maybe we’ll go to South Africa to develop the idea. I seriously don’t know. The future is wide open.