SOCIETY | Jan 30, 2018

Smart Cities in the era of digital transformation: what change of meaning for our cities?

Considerations on the sidelines of Municipia's Kickoff Meeting 2018

On the one hand there is digital transformation: a concept which – also because of the marketing of vendors and consulting firms, some of which have seen a further opportunity to sell either hardware and software and others “sound advice” – is still struggling to find a consolidated and really shared definition. On the other there are Smart Cities. And even in this case, given that in Italy (and not only) really “smart” cities – whatever these might mean – are few and far between, the difficulty in finding a definition is not trivial.

No wonder then that trying to decline the concept of digital transformation in an area such as Smart Cities is an exercise which, if we are not careful, is likely to resemble a little too much the attempt to describe the effect of a fantasy on a hypothesis. However, if we really want to build cities where intelligence is not only present in light poles in version 2.0, we cannot afford not to do so. Finding a clear answer to certain questions thus begins to become a priority for identifying the direction of choices whose outcomes depend on the way we will design the cities of tomorrow and, perhaps even more importantly, will redesign those of today. This was discussed during the Municipia Kickoff Meeting which was held yesterday in Florence and was an opportunity for addressing the following consideration.

What is digital transformation?

A revolution of meaning. There is no simpler answer. Unless we want to fall into the anything but accidental misunderstanding of those who try to pass off this phenomenon as generic digitization of the company. Digitization aimed at automating processes or – at best – maybe even re-engineering them. But if this definition were the right one, it would really be difficult to understand what is new with respect to what one tries to do with informatics which, not by chance, has meant precisely automatic information ever since the first computer came into being. In fact, there is more. Much more. Digital transformation is a concept that describes the transformative impact of technologies on society, business, relationships, cities and every aspect of our lives.

An impact that generates a change based on two fundamental elements:

  • Firstly, it has a dimension that is exogenous to the organization. It is worth clarifying that digital transformation does not depend on the will of a single company. Unlike digitization, it is not an endogenous choice. It is not the organization – whether public or private – that decides on digital transformation. At most, it can choose to ride the phenomenon trying to reap the benefits, or suffer negative feedback. But digital transformation – like all great social phenomena – does not depend on the choice of a single player. It has a dimension of context and system that makes the change transversal to social players and, although dependent on collective action (because we must not think that digital transformation is the realm of technological determinism), completely independent of the choices of the individual. Automating a process through digital is an endogenous choice of organizations. Digital transformation is a phenomenon that is exogenous to the organization which produces transversal impacts on society and on the players that populate it.
  • Secondly, it concerns the “what”. Digital transformation does not concern the way in which organizations perform their tasks, it does not concern the “how” something is done, but it concerns the “what” that makes sense to do. In other words, if the digitization to which informatics has accustomed us is a (sometimes obligatory) choice of the  organization oriented towards optimizing its processes or redesigning them to make them more effective, digital transformation goes much further. It requires organizations to reflect on the meaning of what they do. This is why digital transformation is a revolution of meaning. Because it requires all players involved – economic, political, social – to rethink their role in order to understand whether in the changed context scenario this role still has a meaning and, on the contrary, what is their meaning in a society which, downstream of the technological revolution under way, has seen its balances and user value system change. If the question in the information age was “how can I develop an effective information system for achieving my goals?”, today it is “what have my goals become today?”. It is a question that many companies have not posed in recent years. And they have failed. They have failed because they felt that the current digital revolution was certainly important, but concerned someone else. But it concerns all of us. Without exception.

What is happening in cities?

For years  the role of cities in the digital age has been considered. There has been talk of smart cities, smart communities and smart services. It was thought that it was enough to add the prefix “smart”, pumping computational capacity into systems in order to solve the problem of any service. And we found ourselves with cities full of smart technologies, but not for this reason more intelligent. It was even forgotten that cities are the sphere of development of social relations of those who live there, reaching the point of forgetting what a Smart City should be and believing that in order to solve the problem it was enough to buy (quite) a bit of hardware, perhaps drawn on some public funding. And our cities have become increasingly computerized, but paradoxically less intelligent. Also because the ever-increasing availability of data, unaccompanied by the ability to manage them, has often brought decision-makers to a standstill. And the reason is that the Smart City phenomenon has been interpreted, ascribing it to the sphere of digitization of the PA, rather than to its digital transformation. There has not been enough reflection on the meaning of digital transformation applied to urban contexts, and this has led to a technocentric and digicentric approach to actions, almost always aimed at rethinking processes without wondering if these processes really still had meaning in a changed context scenario. But thinking of an intelligent city today means thinking of a city that simplifies the lives of those who live in it, ensures processes of social inclusion that are both resilient and flexible, and ensures processes of participatory choiceBecause only through the participation of all the players in the field (administrators, citizens, economic and social players) can we think that simplicity, resilience, participation and inclusiveness are something more than just buzzwords to be used in conferences or worse, given the period, in rallies.

In this context, a central role is obviously played by the Public Administration. A PA that must rethink all levels because, also and above all, it requires a revolution of meaning. In fact, thinking about digital transformation applied to cities means understanding that it is not enough or necessary to transform office files into click days. It is not enough or necessary to use digital tools for automating processes designed for an analog world. It is not enough or necessary to redesign services if no thought is given to the world and the context in which these services are provided. Instead, we need reflection on the profound meaning of things and roles.  A reflection that has a profoundly political dimension and that concerns the vision of the city, its system of services, the organizational model, the dynamics of participation and, of course, also the technological model.

Who will the digital urban planners be?

In a scenario that does not shine for its simplicity, another question becomes a priority: who will be the urban planners to lead this transformationAnd also in this case, the answer is anything but simple. What is certain is that to manage the complexity of digital transformation, a multidisciplinary approach will be needed increasingly, in which architects and engineers, urban planners and computer scientists, psychologists and sociologists, designers and economists are called on to reflect together to identify solutions that respond to the problems dictated by the changed meaning scenario into which we have been catapulted by digital transformation.

And in this context, as explained well by Stefano De Capitani, President of Municipia: “Partners of the PA must also change approach completely. Whether they are companies or other administrations, universities or research centers, Italian administrations and municipalities do not need technology suppliers. Cities do not need technical solutions for big data, artificial intelligence platforms or cloud tools. They need – vice versa – operational solutions aimed at truly addressing the problems of those who live there”.

For far too long, cities have been the subject of the race to sell solutions in search of problems, with the result that after hundreds of millions of euro spent on “smart” projects, more has been done for Italian Smart Cities by a simple service like Google Maps, which has the merit of representing the tool through which millions of citizens interact with the territory, which is more than has been done by dozens of “smart” services implemented in cities. But  can we allow our services to be managed – clearly completely legitimately – by players who develop a process of substantial uberization of PA functions? In some cases, this is not only possible but also desirable, but cities must keep control of some of their inhabitants’ data, and rethink their system of services flanked by players who, just as Google has done with Google Maps for citizens, do not propose themselves as suppliers of technologies but as problem solvers. An administration does not need to implement a big data management solution, but use it to deal with the problem of traffic. And this also means rethinking the supply chains and business models of PA partners, through the use of different and new project financing tools such as Pre Commercial Procurement or Procurement for Innovation, which lead PA partners to be so for real, also sharing project risk based on the effectiveness thresholds reached, and not only configuring the partnership relationship as a more elegant definition of what is – more prosaically – a supply relationship.

The challenge of digital transformation is a complex challenge, but to grasp it one must first understand that digital transformation is a revolution of meaning, and the task of all of us is to try to provide an interpretation of things that is compatible with the new economic, social and technological scenario and that – in the case of Smart Cities – really puts the citizen “at the center”.

Stefano Epifani