There is much talk about digitalisation and smart cities, but it is high time we posed some critical questions around how technology is being used, thinks Malin Granath. In early October she defended her thesis on the subject at the University of Linköping.
When five students moved into the HSB Living Lab at the start of June, each of them had decided to be part of research into sustainable living. HSB Living lab is what it sounds like – a living space which is also a place of research.
“Developing Sweden’s research is crucial for the country. This good example of an open research arena allows us to get important habitat innovations out to the market faster,” said Minister for Higher Education and Research Helene Hallmark Knutsson as she spoke during the lab’s official opening on 5 September.
The Living Lab consists of interchangeable modules and will operate for ten years. The idea behind the modules is that you can easily change them to test new types of insulation and materials. The house is situated in Chalmers in Gothenburg, and there are 12 different participants in the research project. The talk is about cubic metres of living space rather than square meters.
The students’ rooms are small in square meterage, but extend far upwards. The five students also share many areas, like washing room and living room. Water will be separated from the kitchen waste and there is a compost bin on the balcony. 15 different research projects will start this autumn and the tenants are well aware that their activities in the house will be measured by its 2000 sensors 24/7.
“For me personally it is really important to be able to contribute to the research which hopefully will result in new innovations and solutions for future living. The fact that everything we do and how we move will be monitored does not bother me at all, it is just fun to be part of it and to add my bit to the development of a sustainable world,” says Rebecca Eurenius, a student and one of the 5 tenants.
She and the others were thoroughly briefed about how the house works before moving in – what will me measured and how it might be like living in a combination of research lab and a home. Moving in is a conscious choice. But if you look beyond HSB Living Lab to the more general debate about digitalisation and smart cities, it is unusual to find concrete examples of what the word means, and what it will mean for people and societies in the future.
That is the conclusion of the theses ‘The smart city – how smart can IT be. Discourses on digitalisation in policy and planning of urban development’ defended by Malin Granath at the University of Linköpings in early October.
“There is quite an optimistic view of digitalisation on all the levels I have studied, from the EU and down. But it is a blurred view which lacks knowledge and focus. So it is difficult to see what digitalisation might mean in practical terms,” says Granath.
She has spent four years analysing the terms digitalisation and smart cities. Her subject is informatics, the social science part of technology which studies the impact of technology on people, businesses and organisations. Malin Granath has studied how the term has been used in different policy documents from an EU level down to the planning of a new area in Linköping called Vallastaden.
The planning of the new Linköping neighbourhood, which aims to link the university with the city, started a few months before Malin Granath started work on her thesis. This has allowed her to document the thinking around how to integrate technology from the very beginning. And IT solutions are indeed mentioned in planning documents, but it is not particularly concrete, she notes.
The technology is mostly viewed as solutions for various functions, for instance how to measure energy use, book laundry time and shared areas though a shared digital platform. But there is no mention of who should have the main responsibility for the digitalisation and keep an overview over what is being measured and link this to something.
“In reality there is no definition of digitalisation. It means different things to different people, and the same goes for the term smart cities. It is a metaphor for something you can relate to, and you can add whatever you like to this dependent on where you’re coming from,” says Malin Granath.
She understands that there is a desire to launch yourself as a smart city and that more and more cities want to define themselves as smart.
“Who wants to be a stupid city, and do they even exist?” Malin Granath asks rhetorically.
“When you define yourself as a smart city you express a desire to attract businesses, residents and labour and to make yourself attractive to citizens,” she says.
Malin Granath believes the thinking around the smart city exists in the policy document in order to create debate and plans for a socially, economically and environmentally sustainable city. It becomes a way of thinking and as such it is quite all right that the term is so unclear and can contain many dimensions. However, she believes it is more serious that digitalisation is being embraced so enthusiastically and pretty naively.
She says the technological development is undergoing a change and mentions Pokémon go as an example. Suddenly you could include sensors in mobile phones which create new interaction between the player and the environment, which also opens up for new uses of technology in other areas.
“I think this is the beginning of something big. Tech people see what is possible and are ready to equip cities with IT solutions and link different functions which can provide enormous amounts of information. But we have to start looking at the consequences of this. Digitalisation is being taken for granted and everyone is bandying the term about, but it is time to put it into context, to discuss who we are doing it for and how it can be done. Is for instance all technology useful?” asks Malin Granath.
Questions needing answers
She provides a long list of examples of questions she reckons will soon become big. Who should own the data? Who will own the distribution channels? What will the impact be on people? Who will drive the development?
“We have to ask the questions and realise we are getting more vulnerable too. What, for instance, is a safe solution?” says Malin Granath.
But will there be space for everyone in the digitised city? What happens to the ill, the very old or other vulnerable groups?
“The gap will not manifest itself in access to technology, but in how we understand it and what we are able to do with it. Will we sign up to everything or stay critical – this is a question of skills and that is where you will find the future gap between people,” says Malin Granath.
She is not negative to neither digitalisation nor smart cities, but wants to inject more than technology into the terms. Business development is not only technology, it is also about the people in the organisation.
“There is strong faith in technology today, and the technology norm is still very strong. But solutions to problems might not always be found in engineering, and that is why it is important to maintain the human aspects and look after the needs of different groups,” she says.