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Information and participation: a virtuous circle

Juan Murillo

03/12/2013 07:52

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Within the wide range of proposals articulated around the smart city concept our vision in BBVA is to be able to obtain, combine, process, use and share all the information generated by urban socio-economic dynamics to create new services. To achieve this, a cooperation framework among all players is the most fertile of environments in order to collect proposals and create new opportunities for citizens, governments and businesses.

The ongoing debate about the necessary and desirable evolution of our cities focuses on a common objective: to resolve the current problems of coexistence and use of cities, and to do so by reducing the amount of resources used, or taking advantage of layers of information which, although they were built up day to day, minute by minute, were not being fully used until now. There is therefore relatively good consensus about this objective - the WHAT..

It is the question of HOW, of how to instrument it, which triggers debates as old as the duality between public and private action, or between top-down centralized decision, and decentralized bottom-up decision-making.

Organizational questions which our society has been debating for almost three hundred years come up, from the Age of Enlightenment to the present day, with counterpoised ideas about possible models for coexistence.

The most extreme positions refer to two concepts: the first considers the individual to be the maximum sovereign, first and last decision-making body, even rejecting the necessary function of organized planning, by intervention. Against this we have the opposite position: centralizing rationalism which occasionally does not consider pre-existences, and which arises from highly bureaucratic government structures in whose administrative procedures popular initiatives can be lost, leaving a technical/political elite to decide what is best for the society.

In contrast with some people's fears, the set of measures associated with the new Smart Cities concept does not include per se an Orwellian centralizing component in line with the second of these two social conceptions. On one hand, the legal framework fortunately guarantees citizen privacy. On the other, identifying and taking advantage of the new opportunities we are afforded through the availability of data and information on how cities work does not necessarily mean that it is a single body which will make use of the information zealously and opaquely kept by this same entity, acting as a monopoly, be it private or governmental.

An example is BBVA's eagerness to share its data with the interested agents, either to analyze them, or to establish new services based on the information registered about the society's economic heartbeat. Being able to know and convey to the interested agents where and when residents of a certain neighborhood will go shopping, what types of stores they will go to, or the average distance they have to travel to buy products and services, can help to make the market more transparent, and improve competition and enterprise, through which the consumer always stands to benefit.

We see it as our contribution towards trying to detect, for example, the current shortcomings in services suffered by new urban extensions, or those in what are already consolidated neighborhoods but which are constantly changing and evolving.

Cities cannot be viewed from only one perspective. The clash between the citizen and the centralizing power is artificial; both actually share common interests, and both are key players. Moreover, by raising this dilemma we are leaving a wide range of players out of consideration who have much to say. Through the associationism loudspeaker ideas and proposals that emanate from the individual amount to clusters of residents, or traders, or consumers/users, not forgetting the business world. They all must play a prominent role in the debate on transforming the consolidated city and improving services and facilities. It is not a question of working in an top-down or bottom-up direction, but of working together in a collaborative framework, which our entity is eager to do.

If the information is available to all agents, and if the system has feedback entered by citizens, then achieving improvements in urban management underpinned by new technologies is not at all incompatible with the city being "of/for citizens" - in fact, these new technologies favor the "bottom up" processes, and can help to ensure that users' proposals are heard , and that their influence and participation are favored and increased. In any event, new channels are opened for both active and passive participation: given that by using the footprint left by a consumer with a certain profile in a specific area at a given time, the consumer is taking part in characterizing certain patterns which if studied can be very useful for the city's managers and planners.

Measuring to be able to understand, and understand to act: it is important to change from fears about the excessive control of the city's heartbeat and consumers' activity (water and energy consumption, mobility, socio-economic dynamics), to being assured that greater monitoring and analysis of data will be able to give rise to new ideas and opportunities which will make all of us lead more comfortable lives.

In conclusion, I would like to point out that we should consider technology to be an essential tool - one which complements but does not substitute the human factor - with enormous potential to be able to improve society, so let us use it and take advantage of all its potential.