Opening access to data will improve smart cities, expert says

Opening access to city data will lead to better smart city technologies, according to a recent blog post by Ben Cave of the Open Data Institute.

Cave said that collecting and releasing public data can tap into the creative potential of greater numbers of people to build solutions to everyday problems. This increases the number of solutions available — and the likelihood that some of these ideas will work.

What’s more, it can save the city time and money by relieving city officials of the burden of creating, operating and paying for some services.

Cave also argues that city leaders should not confuse the ability of technology to let better urban living conditions emerge, with their own ability to deliver specific outcomes. The former produces real benefits in our cities, the latter is an illusion of control, he explained.

The most successful smart cities may well be those given a chance to evolve, rather than those that are intricately planned. It’s all very well having detailed plans for all the digital technologies that make up the smart city infrastructure, but such plans can end up being disrupted by people behaving in ways that were not expected.

One of the challenges with smart cities over the past decade has been the misconception that you can plan a smart city in advance, Cave said in an interview with

They are immensely large, complicated networks of interactions between different things. When our city planners believe they have advance knowledge of how things will work, that’s when we see a breakdown with services not working properly with one another. People have imagined they would be used one way but it turns out they are used in a completely different way.

Making data available for re-use should be a core principle in the evolution of urban services, Cave argues.

What an open city with open data enables is a faster response to the unpredictable nature of our cities. A really smart, open city is one that uses all these technologies in an adaptable way.

It doesn’t try to prescribe a certain plan. It says that whatever happens we can build new solutions and ways of interacting that really complement the way that people want to experience urban living.

The points raised go to the heart of the approach to smart cities – on the one side there is a statist, controlled (or planned) approach to services, data usage and what the consumer wants; on the other is the disruptive, freedom of free choice and development to discover new ways of looking at things and providing new services. While city government does have a role in setting some parameters for the underlying infrastructure, the wider governance approach to smart cities should in my view recognise the power and flexibility of the wider engagement which comes from open source data.

Simon Hobday, Partner

Sign up to our newsletter

Meet our experts