Can We Crowdfund Our Way to Smarter Cities?

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Whether you want to transform a playground, bring an old building back to life, spruce up a park, repurpose an unused area or create something completely new, crowdfunding enables people to attract support for projects that make places distinctive, lively and loved.

Niraj Dattani is Head of Community Development at Spacehive, a crowdfunding platform for civic projects. During his stint with the company, Niraj has worked in almost every part of Spacehive, and now grows the community of users, from cities to businesses to local people trying to shape their communities. In his spare time, he is a local councillor in Harrow, with a specific focus on engagement and innovation, which gives him a good understanding of local government and the challenges and opportunities they face, and has allowed him to develop Spacehive's partnerships in cities accordingly.

I spoke to Niraj, ahead of his presentation at the RE•WORK Connected City Summit this month, to hear more about cities, citizens, challenges and more.

What was your motivation behind getting involved in Spacehive?
I was one of the first employees at Spacehive - at a time when we didn’t even have a website! The idea of building something from scratch which fundamentally changes how things are done in an area of life which affects us all, in way that tips the power balance in the favour of people, was – and still is - incredibly exciting.

How have recent technological developments aided to the progress of Spacehive?
The evolution in online payment platforms technically made crowdfunding possible, but more practically has been the evolution in the culture surrounding e-commerce and digital/internet based platforms generally. People are much more comfortable – even expectant - now with purchasing goods, creating products, managing projects, and reaching consumers online than let’s say 3 or 4 years ago.

The fact that big institutions understand that they need to engage with this world or be left behind has made the potential to create change using a digital platform much greater. For that, you can also thank infrastructure development such as broadband speeds, mobile data and touchscreen technology.

What elements of the connected city do you feel are ripe for disruption?
Disruption is often borne out of a sector wide complacency which ultimately results in the consumer bearing the brunt of an increasingly irrelevant and inadequate product or service. The energy sector is a classic case of this. We are already seeing huge leaps in the development of solar energy, kinetic energy and anaerobic digesters. As the lives of consumers change with more power and technology in their hands, expectations only rise and so innovation must never stop. This is just the start and we can expect to see lots of disruption in this area going forward.

Other prime candidates for disruption include areas which have a huge influence on our lives - local government, physical infrastructure, and people. With the latter, if we can square the data privacy circle then the potential for crowdsourcing is huge.

What new developments in our cities can we expect to see in the next 5 years?
You can already see it happening but in 5 years time our buildings, streets, monuments and other physical assets will be much “smarter”. By that, I mean they will be connected to us or each other, working for us rather than being worked by us, and will start to play a proactive role in influencing how we interact with the city beyond their actual physical location.

For example, they could be collecting and distributing information or energy, or reacting to our behaviour or the elements around them.

What do you feel are the most urgent challenges connected cities need to address?
I think energy is an obvious one. A plethora of devices have become a staple in our lives and this trend will only continue. With more devices being “digitised”, the global rise of developing countries, and the environmental impact of traditional energy producing methods, this will continue to be an area of importance.

Infrastructure challenges around connectivity and data will also be huge tough nuts to crack.

In densely populated cities the pressures are huge. So one challenge that I feel cities and the tech sector should never lose of sight of addressing is improving people’s quality of life. If this is the driver to innovate, the unintended consequences could be magical.

How can these challenges be solved with emerging technologies?
Tough question! I’ve already touched on energy but what we’re moving towards is seeing technology moving into many areas where it can deliver on the principles of renewing energy.

With our quality of life, this is too wide ranging to get into specifics. However, collecting information through sensors, IoT, and mobile devices is a starting point and surfacing that information in consistent, thorough and easy to access & interpret data sets is a key next step. Once we know what the specific rub points are, we can start designing solutions. In order for this to happen, people and institutions will have to get more comfortable with sharing and our relationship with corporates has to be repaired – we have serious trust issues!

Getting finance to social entrepreneurs is another key pillar to this – with things like crowdfunding playing a huge part.

What is the role of citizens in creating future cities?
Citizens are the future of future cities! They will create them, and they will consume them. Make the lives of citizens better and they will give back and in turn make the future city better. A cycle of improvement.

Do you feel the smart city stakeholders are addressing citizen engagement effectively? What could be improved?
There are some reasons to be optimistic. The way that local government are trying to devolve power and influence to citizens in areas such as the one we work in – civic space improvement – is encouraging. Big corporates – especially tech companies – can be doing more to engage with citizens. It’s all very well when you’re keeping to yourself and improving your service or product for your users, but when you get into the realms of tax avoidance then you disconnect yourself from most citizens. There is quite clearly a bucket of power/influence that these organisations have, and they should be using it to represent their consumers rather than inadvertently shifting costs to them.

The number one stakeholder that could, and should, be driving forward an agenda of effective citizen engagement is politicians. They have a legal and cultural mandate to represent and if they pushed things onto the agenda like an open data contract for citizens, or started seeing the public as users and themselves as reps of product and service providers – citizens would be more engaged. Politicians, as always, can be improved!

Niraj Dattani will be speaking at the 3rd annual RE•WORK Connected City Summit in London on 16-17 March 2016. Other speakers include Julie Alexander, Siemens; Suzanne Wilson, Bristol is Open; Laurence Kemball-Cook, Pavegen; Neal Coady, British Gas; Brian Kilkelly, Climate–KIC and more.

Tickets are limited for this event, for more information and to register please visit the event page here.

Future Cities Smart Cities Urban Infrastructure Connected City Summit Smart Citizens Crowdsourcing


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