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Re-creating Communities

Posted on 18 April, 2016

This evening I attended the Melbourne Conversations event Re-creating Communities, which was run in conjunction with the Smart Cities Summit happening in Melbourne this week. Melbourne Conversations have a habit of putting on interesting panel discussions, and even though I may sound a little frustrated in what I’ve written below regarding tonight’s event, I am very grateful for their contributions to this city!

There was certainly some interesting things discussed by the panelists, but it wasn’t quite what I was expecting. I was hoping for a discussion on how to increase interactions between people within their communities, but instead it was more about how use technology to serve communities. The latter is not a bad thing - and indeed, even within that context, the panelists spoke earnestly about putting people first - but the routes to all solutions seemed to be driven by technology, startups, and innovation-as-a-buzzword.

I probably got more value from reading the #melbconvo tweetstream and the thoughts it provoked.

The panelists made a point of highlighting the amount of open data they’re sharing for people to use - whether that be real-time public transport information, or locations of public toilets, or details of every single tree in the city - and that is superb. They also highlighted their ongoing engagement of citizens to step up and contribute to their cities using this data, alongside partnerships with private companies and large corporations. But what does this mean for accountability? Or as Carrie says in her tweet above, citizen data?

Panelist Frans-Anton Vermast of Amsterdam made the excellent point that governments are held accountable by elections. However, other parties (whether they be organisations or citizens) are not. And that may be fine, but when these third-party apps and services - often promoted by governments - become popular and part of many citizens’ lives, is this dangerous? What happens if the financial costs of running such services are too much, and they are switched off? What happens if the data captured by these services is compromised or even sold?

Indeed, these are issues we currently face with any service we already use - social media platforms, e-commerce sites, utility companies. Of course, that doesn’t mean we should ignore the issue!

Vermast also encouraged governments to stick to their ‘natural’ role - and this is what made me pause. Surely a government’s natural role should evolve? Perhaps they could encapsulate some of these new services that are initially provided by citizens, start-ups or corporations?

I wonder if there’s the potential for closer partnerships with governments to ensure the reliability of these services they enable and promote, as well as safeguards for our data that we may share with such services.

One of my concerns with audience questions (for all events, not just this one) is so often they’re couched within agendas. This evening, one audience member asked a question about the potential of co-living in tackling challenges around affordable housing, community engagement, and sharing resources. The problem was that the person asking already knew the answer he wanted to hear (that co-living should be embraced) and expressed it with a heavy dose of generational ego - something @nowvoyager_ found frustrating (as did I).

One panelist asked the questioner to explain what co-living is, and got a buzzword-heavy answer that had far too much fluff but not much in the way of concrete, practical detail. Unsurprisingly, the panel sidestepped the question.

However, that audience member had actually asked an interesting question - spotted by David above - but it just wasn’t clear. From what I caught, that question was along the lines of: “what scarier aspects of smart cities - the downsides, the unexpected problems - have governments and communities come across? And how have they been addressed?” It would have been great to hear the panel answer that!

The final audience question for the night was an expression of concern about how our societies are already so tightly intertwined with technology, and the fact that we’re leaning even more heavily on it as the saviour for our governments and society is worrying. The panel didn’t really provide much in the way of an answer (perhaps due to the fact that they were running out of time), but I think it did highlight an untapped avenue of discussion (and what I was hoping the event would encompass): how do we improve human interactions in our societies, not just the services government provides to us?