When we talk about the ‘smart city’, we talk about the ‘smart’ more than we talk about ‘the city’. We lean heavily on digital innovation to create the biggest impact with the smallest digital insert.
Or so we’d hope. Mostly we make assumptions, targeting broad and rough sketches of city users, what they want, to what they have access, how immediately we can expect change to happen or money to be saved.
Libraries are seen as irrelevant to the ‘smart’ conversation; expensive, under-used, unnecessary. Who needs a library when you have a phone, the internet and Amazon Prime? This plays into a one-sided discourse around digitalisation, which ends up helping the city users who need the least intervention. It assumes that every citizen has access to a safe place in which to engage with free public information.
A system is only as resilient as its parts. Citizens are active generators of a city’s data economy, as well as its economic flow and function. A function of smart city development is to automate city services, providing swiftly and cost-effectively for the needs of these citizens. At their core, smart cities mean to help citizens help themselves: make it easier to apply online, to search, get directions, to buy tickets or commodities.
And yet, 10 per cent of UK households have no internet access at home, and only 66 per cent now have access to a desktop computer or laptop, according to the Office for National Statistics. Around 48 per cent of DE classified households do not use the internet at all. These figures are likely a significant underestimate, as there is no UK body that consistently measures internet usage and rates of literacy in those who are homeless or in temporary housing. Inability to self-manage and self-inform significantly affects health and mortality rates, let alone economic stability.
Government digital standards often targets ‘accessibility’; how to design for different user requirements, impairments and specific needs on multiple devices. But They rarely considers access in terms of facilitating self-management through a computer, printer, internet, reading. Citizens who do not possess the individual advantages necessary to navigate smart cities are losing access to an infrastructure and service that is leaving them behind. To encourage citizen health and independence in the smart city’, we need to build a foundational understanding of what constitutes minimum viable access.
To enable optimal measures of active city engagement, citizen-centred design practice, research and innovation must consider service access beyond the screen; how to increase happiness, independence, and self-care, and how to intervene when it is most appropriate. What is necessary for a baseline access? What touchpoints, emotions, or events drive engagement through digital and non-digital formats?
While smart city strategists discuss city kiosks and building information hubs, properly funded, open and trained library spaces remain a culturally significant baseline, or safety net, for struggling city users to engage safely and competently, with the information-centric world that we need to keep up with.
With the appropriate resources, libraries have the ability to help users learn to engage with and manage information at varying levels of comfort – from accessing books, to printing benefits claims on a local computer, to ordering a replacement mobile phone, to giving children a warm, supervised place to read while training for work.
Libraries are also an effective arena in which to carry out democratised smart city research for digital tools targeted at hard-to-reach communities, such as busy parents or older persons. A library is an information hub, and an innovation hub. This is essential to the foundations of a smart city.
And yet, this established and recognised infrastructure of library spaces, culturally and historically viable information hubs with varied means of access, is under threat. The UK has experienced a £66m cut in library spending over the last year, with 105 libraries closing between 2016 and 2017.
We shouldn’t still be arguing for the necessity of safety, space and book access for young people. The argument is a vital one on its own in terms of social mobility and citizen worth. However, as we automate and digitise public services, local authorities looking for a business case must also recognise what drives and what hinders healthy engagement for their citizens.
To create a robust and resilient digital and local economy, local authorities are required to optimise possibilities for interaction with the information that is being shifted to digital – and required to optimise the confidence and capabilities to do so, too. To reengage citizens who might be falling out of the economic flow of the city, requiring extra support and enabled access, the first point of focus might not be further automation. Instead it should be targeted ‘smart’ intervention using the traditional, recognised, non-digital and pre-built infrastructures of a city.
Hannah Kaner is smart cities strategist at digital agency Orange Bus.
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