Cities are the platforms to save the planet, and a data commons is the best tool they have.
Cities are high on tech these days, and they are also rich in greenwashing rhetoric. Korea just invested $20 billion in a Smart City Ecosystem, and we’re seeing a wave of “green” smart-city projects like Nairobi’s Athi River City and Konza Technopolis, Prospera Tech City in Honduras, and the $500 billion Saudi-funded The Line project between Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt. All claim a smooth blend of tech and environmentally-friendly architecture, available for those who can afford it. Cities all over the world are racing to compete with each other on smartness and sustainability. However, with greater investment in smart-cities tech we need increased scrutiny into the incredible amount of public money invested in programs and to question the ownership of the data that is and will be generated by city-dwellers for years to come.
The global smart-cities market, dominated by establishment US firms like Cisco, IBM and Microsoft, is expected to grow from US$410.8 billion in 2020 to US$820.7 billion by 2025. With renewed federal investment in green infrastructure, it will not be strange to see them adding “green” into their public narratives and building upon the next generation of tech sensors and solutions while free-riding on the exclusive access to public data that their smart cities deployments subsidise.
Cities are where we live, and as procurers of the tech that surrounds us, city governments find themselves in a unique position. They are the custodians of personal and aggregate data from the largest human concentrations of more than half of the world, and this is especially critical in the context of the climate crisis. The UN estimates that about 54% of the world’s 7.7 billion people live in cities or urban areas, and by the end of this decade, two thirds of the world will. Cities are also at the epicentre of the climate crisis. They use a large proportion of the world’s energy supply, and cities are responsible for around 70% of global energy-related greenhouse gas emissions which trap heat and result in the warming of Earth. The huge carbon footprint created by our cities largely results from poor planning and layout.
Cities, while being the main cause of climate change, are also the most affected. 70% of cities are already dealing with the effects of climate change, and nearly all are at risk. Over 90% of all urban areas are coastal, and most cities on Earth are situated near water, putting them at risk from rising sea levels and storms. Good, real-time data shared in common on energy, building and mobility could lead to effective solutions to reduce emissions from all sectors, but it will also be a crucial tool for disaster preparedness, potentially saving thousands of lives. It is only natural to think that having accurate, hyperlocal data associated with such patterns is the only way to craft rapid, efficient and responsive solutions for climate action, and cities have the mandate, power and resources to make it happen. The question is how, since data alone will not lead to change; yet, without data, no change is possible.
Many of the solutions we need will come precisely from smart policies that correct historical design mistakes and underlying economic and social disparities. But to accelerate action and effectiveness we need data plugged into the decision process. Smart-city data, as we define it, is that which is emitted as a result of digital interactions between a city and its citizens, from the personal data derived from a form, a parking payment, a driving lesson, a survey, to the sophisticated, real time data collected by IoT sensors, CCTV cameras, and any other technology deployed as part of the city digital infrastructure, including data on air quality, electricity consumption and mobility.
Such data is often collected and stored using public funds. When the collection is carried out directly, it belongs to the municipality and is governed by the rules overseeing all of its assets, in the absence of privacy and data protection laws. Many municipalities do not even count it as an asset and let potentially highly useful datasets go to waste. Alternatively, data is collected and stored by the companies providing services to a city who then claim ownership over it, simply as a factor of the provision of services; this is the kind of situation where smart-city providers control data collection, analysis, storage, and further use exclusively. In both scenarios, we argue that the data should be shared and reused, belonging to a common pool of city resources, a City Data Commons, instead of being locked up in one company or left as dormant resources, especially at a time when such data is critical to shape climate action.
However, the opposite is happening. It is a sign of the times and the prevalence of Silicon Valley consumer tech companies in the space that, generally speaking, the incorporation of technologies—from individual software applications like Google Sense Home, to scaled up entire Smart City platforms like the failed Toronto Sidewalks project—is somewhat policy-agnostic. It happens without targeted data strategies beyond some privacy rules in the jurisdictions where they most apply. Data is not accounted for by most of the administrations, and it seems that the smart-city industrial complex is the only sector benefiting in real-time from one of the most subsidised data extraction operations in history.
Much like a person’s photography, once posted on Instagram, completely and in perpetuity belongs to the Facebook corporation, when a company like Palantir is hired to deploy systems, cloud services, sensors and other digital infrastructures in a city, the high-quality, real time data it collects definitively, contractually, perpetually remains in its possession on its US servers. Precious urban datasets relating to infrastructure, intense transit during peak hours or high energy consumption levels that could generate social and economic value go to private hands and even to data brokers and henceforth into the fraught ad-tech industry.
But it needn’t be this way. We overcame the first battle, thanks to grassroots efforts in Europe after the General Data Protection Regulation was approved and other nations across the world, from South Africa to Ecuador began to approve privacy laws of varying strength. A growing, more privacy-focused approach by legislators is the best current hope for the world to escape the surveillance city tech of Silicon Valley, and it is catching up on the decades-long advantage of the US technology private sector, and software companies outside the US themselves are making progress, which gives us hope for a decoupling from surveillance tech itself. But what about the extraordinary potential social value that this social data holds? Limiting the “solutions” to a privacy-focused approach will not unlock much power to the people, in a moment of converging global crises where better informed policies—powered by data—might be at the core of solving the world’s most complex global problems.
We need to experiment with different economic and regulatory models for data ownership and reuse. Since cities have vast regulatory autonomy over the rules they apply to providers and to the technology deployed in its territory, they are a natural place to start. This means that with different rules and incentives, the datasets being collected by smart-cities providers could play a fundamental role in the shaping of local public policies and citizen-driven initiatives for climate change. Unleashing the power of city data could lead to solid climate crisis responses from all sectors to create an enormous, real-time pool of data to respond to the climate crisis.
City Data Commons
The City Data Commons vision seeks to unleash troves of city data to be made available to small actors, beyond just the private sector, to unlock the possibilities to compete but also collaborate in building the solutions and digital infrastructure a city needs. It aspires to define city data as commons, instead of property, and enable a space—a data commons space as opposed to a “data marketplace” where collectives can access and get the benefits from high-quality datasets collected with public funds, including data about water quality, the environment, public transport and energy systems, all the data collected by privately-managed bike sharing systems, water sensors, and taxi platforms. The idea behind the movement is that creating a city data commons will boost digital social innovation and ultimately improve the variety and quality of city services, generating social and economic value to the community.
A group of European cities have already begun to leverage the emerging citizen enthusiasm on collecting and working with data to experiment beyond isolated data collection projects in the pursuit of developing solid policy frames for a “city data commons”. With the support of the European Commission, over the last five years, they have piloted approaches to improve the governance of data. Barcelona’s city data commons experimented with crowdsourced principles, with implementation projects running in Helsinki, and technology projects in Amsterdam were subjected to new procurement rules forcing them to share the data generated and collected with public funds, and technologies were deployed to improve the democratic control of citizen data. The projects left us a documented experience to study as a successful prototype that could scale beyond Europe.
While funding was focused on developing policies and data governance models, the vast previous work taking place over a decade in these cities made their success possible. This started with an organised civil society, academia and media about digital rights and freedoms, and organisations like Xnet in Barcelona, Demos in Helsinki and Waag in Amsterdam played key roles. But the other missing element was political will. These projects took place propelled by the access to power of municipal authorities with a sophisticated understanding of digital sovereignty, and incorporating academics into the public sector. The municipalities were included in the design processes and hired local talent to write the code, coordinate the community work with citizens and support the research, and they also offered space and resources to local innovators to experiment with the data made available.
We have only the tools of our time to fight the challenges of our time, but these are already powerful tools. To transcend isolated pilots in rich cities and scale the possibilities a city data commons could offer to the climate crisis, we argue that the response is not only about innovative data governance models or “making data available”. It is important to link the effort to an urgent priority for all sectors in society. With all the discourses and imminent investments around a global Green New Deal and the renewed excitement of the public sector to design and deploy tech and data-driven solutions, the moment is now to push for a radical shift in data ownership and use at the city level.
What else is needed
Together with policy and procurement reforms and a rights-based data governance frame, there are other elements to consider for an effective data-driven, democratic, citizen centric fight against climate change:
- Knowledge. The first building block is knowledge plugged into processes. Cities are epicentres of knowledge of many kinds. Cities concentrate universities, practitioners and experts and, when a city procures data & tech driven solutions, consideration and priority should be given to processes that place the local knowledge above companies offering “in-a-box” solutions produced somewhere else. But there is also incredible potential to understand data, produce datasets where data blindspots exist and improve the efficiency of solutions in local knowledge and indigenous knowledge.
- Sovereignty: The second building block is the ability of a city to build, own and control their own technology (digital sovereignty), audit it and develop internal capacities to adapt it and deploy it, and, in the case of hiring private sector companies in the interim, force them to deploy free software, fully auditable and modifiable algorithms, and block the possibility of privatised datasets generated from public funded projects. Together with it, adding strict environmental, privacy and inclusiveness assessments in all the technology hired by a “Smart City” will not only increase the quality and availability of city data, it will develop local capacities and balance the data power over given territories. It could also be the seed of a new generation of public interest oriented technologists, available to adapt the digital public infrastructure to the upcoming challenges ahead. Together with the data to prevent climate disasters, we need to prepare the human infrastructure that will act on it.
- Innovation: The third building block is public funding, seeding buttom-up public sector innovation and enabling climate tech innovation ecosystems. As the “Smart City” industry boom shows, there is no lack of resources in the public sector to invest in data-driven solutions. But the public sector funds are currently being misdirected to fuel a sector that is privatising public data that should be publicly available.
Those are the building blocks that city networks need to save and craft a better future. In a moment when both “build back better” and “green new deal” programmes begin to roll out, we need to seize the opportunity to push for the profound changes we need in the digital-data space.
For a viable synchrony in the municipal sector to produce data-driven climate action, it is necessary to assume all three, and also to remember the power of digital social innovation to solve complex challenges quickly and efficiently using the latest technology advancements. The first such innovation that valued social data were global “citizen science” efforts. This decade was marked by a trend of citizen science and data crowdsourcing, with powerful initiatives placing citizen-generated data at the centre of projects like Safecast, which monitored radiation after the meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in 2011. Soon enough, cities started allocating funds and efforts to unleash the social power of data generated by citizens’ data collection, such as the Bristol “damp-sensing frogs”, and micro-computers installed in citizens’ homes to assist their city to collect infrastructure decay data. But soon, the attention shifted to the powerful data actor in the room: commercial data extractors.
For a scalable impact, it is urgent to activate the effective city diplomacy mechanisms and engage the largest number of possible cities to achieve the possible. Combining the three building blocks of knowledge, sovereignty and innovation, and activating strategic city networks, cities could create the largest, real-time, federated climate crisis data commons in the world. Cities can also position themselves as the big-tech the public sector needs, not the one that has been given so far, but rather as ideal spaces for testing new models for the green new deal—accelerating the change we need now.
About the Authors
Renata Avila and Guy Weress are the co-founders of The Polylateral Association, a Geneva-based expert network making multilateralism, government and diplomacy more responsive to the challenges of our times.