THE BLOG
09/05/2014 13:27 BST | Updated 09/07/2014 06:59 BST

Are Smart Cities Too Clever for Their Own Good?

Smart Cities are hot news with many examples where innovation and technology have been drivers of growth and sustainability. But are Smart Cities heading for an 'Uncanny Valley' where the lack of consultation with citizens can lead to alienation and rejection by the very people that these initiatives are designed to help?

Europe is often considered to be a leader in Smart Cities with numerous examples of the way in which technology has been used to deliver real benefits to citizens. Amsterdam, for example, recently collaborated with MIT to develop a smart bike equipped with sensors to deliver to provide real-time info on air contamination and traffic congestion. Vienna has a "Citizen Solar Power Plant" initiative of generating 50% of the city's energy from renewables by 2030 in part by developing a crowd-funding model whereby individual citizens can buy half or whole panels and receive a guaranteed return of 3.1% annually.

But to what extent are citizens actively involved in these initiatives? Dr Alison Powell of the LSE considers that the power relationship Smart Cities are breeding is potentially problematic as 'It's not about individual access to information. It's more about the individual as a creator of the data which in aggregate becomes valuable to the city since it then knows all sorts of things about what people are doing.' This places us firmly in the middle of a broader debate about the way in which our personal data is used. So perhaps governments and NGOs may start finding themselves in a similar position to many retailers and indeed most internet brands whose business model is predicated on leveraging the value from personal data. In these cases consumers are starting to question the way in which their data is being used and want more active participation beyond signing up to T&C's which no-one is really qualified or inclined to read.

At GfK we have been researching consumer attitudes towards this issue and find evidence of an Uncanny Valley that potentially lies in wait for brands and other organisations that use personal data. This concept was first mooted by robotics researcher, Masahiro Mori who discovered that whilst people initially liked some elements of a more human-like robot, the more human it become then the there was a point at which reactions to the robot become negative, as people started to feel 'creeped out' by the robot. Preliminary research we conducted looking at the way in which brands use personalised marketing found a similar phenomenon - initially consumers liked the personalisation but there was a point at which the personalisation become too invasive and 'creepy'.

The Uncanny Valley has been used to describe the town of Celebration in Florida, built on the design principles of New Urbanism where everything is carefully designed right down to the signage to project a 'heart warming familiarity'. The problem was that this attention to detail came across to many as over-constructed and creepy, the same kind of reaction that we have observed to human-like robots and hyper-personalised marketing. Other examples of smart cities that have been built with the best possible design intentions include Masdar, in the United Arab Emirates and Songdo, in South Korea. Professor Richard Sennet makes a similar point about these cities when he says that 'This version of the city can deaden and stupefy the people who live in its all-efficient embrace. We want cities that work well enough, but are open to the shifts, uncertainties, and mess which are real life.'

Meanwhile in the UK, marketing company Renew was obliged to shut down a programme that tracked individuals movements if they walked through the City of London via sensors installed in recycling bins. Whilst the company's chief executive argued that people could opt-out, many questioned the premise of opting out of something that they were not aware was taking place.

Technologists are clearly starting to get this issue. Cisco's head of their smart cities team, Wim Elfrink, warned that if cities did not give citizens the choice of whether or not to allow the government to use their data, they might opt-out of future initiatives, "Having security policies, having privacy policies is a given. I think you have to first give the citizens the right to opt-in or opt-out," he said. IBM's Rick Robinson is a frequent blogger about Smart Cities and points to the rise of the Sharing Economy as being fundamental to a more human oriented city. He argues that no-one wants top down, technology driven cities and points to human-centred initiatives initiatives such as Casserole Club, where technology connects people who are willing to cook with others in their neighbourhood that are less well off or able than themselves.

Despite these very positive noises, it feels to me as if the Smart Cities agenda has been appropriated by technologists without due consideration to the very real issues that exist when it comes to considering the human angle. It's not just about grass roots citizen engagement vs top down corporate technology solutions. In my mind the issue that has been ignored is about the way in which personal data is used. Smart City initiatives are increasingly about the use of personal data to deliver benefits for citizens as a whole but just what do we think about this? Is there a danger of over engineering data usage in way that makes us uncomfortable in the same way that there appears to have been design over-engineering of places such as Celebration, Masdar and Sohnda? History is littered with initiatives that failed to consider the human perspective - Smart Cities depend on the participation of citizens in order to work. We ignore this at our peril.