Humanizing smart cities with open source

This blog post has been inspired by the following link: The Automation of Rio: Smart City or Digital Tyranny?

The article talks about how technology can contribute to improve the living environment in cities, but, making reference to another article, asks also the question “is it really a good idea to give a computer company (IBM is not an urban planner!) so much control over one of the world’s biggest cities?”

Now, it is a reality that, notably in the global South, in cities there are many brilliant people but not enough jobs. With the surging need to adapt cities to modern technology, the proliferation of ubiquitous tech, the drive towards transparency in municipalities and government (read “Open Government” and “Open Data”), often city administrations resort to big companies to solve their IT problems. And often this results in huge amounts of money paid for proprietary licenses for software for which open source alternatives exist, all the while the solutions offered by those companies are imported.

Often the argument against open source is the missing support in case things go wrong. I was wondering, what if cities, maybe in collaboration with universities, hackerspaces, collectives, institutions, businesses and independent entities, would actually train locals in the administration of the infrastructure for running a city?

A reason why I think this might have huge impact is that locals are much more interested in the city’s flourishing than an external business. The budget for licenses would be spent in training locals, the money would stay in the city and not be drained, while new opportunities would be created. Furthermore, and very important, also the knowledge would remain locally. Being this knowledge based on open source technology, if could be openly documented, maybe involving local library facilities and staff.

And being it open source, we could think of a network of open source cities, where knowledge about running city tech infrastructure would openly be shared. This would offer tremendous advantages for the prosperity and adaptation of new technology.

After all, cities are run by public money. Why not invest this money in public infrastructure? I can imagine that this may increase the level of participation by citizens in city affairs. If this is accompanied by sincere efforts in open government and open data, a new sense of taking responsibility and participation may develop in city inhabitants, blurring the divide between “them” and “us”. Open data anyway is a still undervalued tool not understood by many. Politicians not supporting open data would appear as secretive, as wanting to hide something. Voting for candidates openly advocating open data contributes to improving transparency.

The advantage of open source is that anybody can adapt code to their needs. Thus, if a team of open source technologists are in charge of running the infrastructure, they may come up with new ideas on how to adapt technology to local requirements. Finally, smart, intelligent cities is more about citizens, about humans, rather than technology alone. Thus if the technology is open source, managed and run by local people, the smart intelligent city becomes more than a buzzword for business; rather it has the potential to become reality, in that intelligent people contribute to create the intelligent city they want.

To me this sounds like a very reasonable thing to do, and see it as a tremendous opportunity. But maybe my idealism is again too far away from reality?

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