Ben Cave is not a fan of intricate planning for smart cities; he believes that they need a chance to evolve, and that making public data available for re-use has to be one of the principles of the evolution.
A common perception of the smart city is that using all those digital technologies to make everything run more smoothly demands detailed plans to ensure all the pieces fit together. But Cave, who is taking a lead on the issue for the Open Data Institute (ODI), says the plans can easily be undone by people behaving in ways that were not expected.
“One of the challenges with smart cities over the past decade has been the misconception that you can plan a smart city in advance,” he says.
“They are immensely large, complicated networks of interactions between different things. When our city planners believe they have advance knowledge of how things will work, that’s when we see a breakdown with services not working properly with one another. People have imagined they would be used one way but it turns out they are used in a completely different way.
“What an open city with open data enables is a faster response to the unpredictable nature of our cities. A really smart, open city is one that uses all these technologies in an adaptable way.
“It doesn’t try to prescribe a certain plan. It says that whatever happens we can build new solutions and ways of interacting that really complement the way that people want to experience urban living.”
The ODI is exploring the link between smart cities and open data in a one day course next month. It wants to share some of its own understandings, but also to learn from others and clarify its policy position. Cave, who is running the course, says the key idea is that “any smart city is an open city”.
The underlying idea is that cities make their public data available for businesses or community developers to re-use it in providing apps to support the public in using services, and more sophisticated solutions to align services at city-wide level.
Open data's big advantage is that it can reflect the unpredictable nature of cities, opening the door for people to come up with a range of solutions to problems, the best of which will be widely used. Cave says the evolution of a smart city could be relatively fast.
But it also prompts thoughts about the dangers of a free-for-all, and whether people will create a lot of parts that don’t fit together. Cave acknowledges this, but is optimistic that an interoperability between the new services can emerge.
“If you have the data, you enable everyone’s solutions, whether used by one person or a million, to work with each other,” he says. “That data provides a common denominator, a base layer for the interoperability of services.
“It’s not a bad thing for different people to design different services. A truly smart city is one that takes the best services on offer.