Nathan Coyle, New Union – Can smart city thinking be cohesive to urban Councils?

Nathan Coyle - Director of New UnionAs nearly every city authority in the country has either looked to, or is implementing their own smart city project could this kind of smart thinking translate to an urban area?

Like many post-industrial areas in Great Britain it has its own share of social issues with unemployment and deprivation. In the last Multiple Deprivation Ranking in 2015 Sandwell ranked 13th in the country and it is one of the most densely populated areas of the UK.

But the place boasts one of the most wonderfully diverse places in the UK, a population that is younger than the national average and a will to forge something better with a neighbourhood narrative with the truest sense of community – and that is the cornerstone of our digital agenda.

With this in mind, digitalisation is so important, you can argue even more than our city regions who already boast far stronger civic, commercial and educational infrastructure.

But are there some aspects of the smart city that are of use to our places?

This type of thinking can translate to areas such as Sandwell, but instead of taking a high-end tech mindset, we can lend it to community development, especially around supporting the third sector to upskill their own staff to transfer this learning to the people they support. This helps us manage capacity in regard to skilled staff and increase social impact on beneficiaries.

In order for ideologies like smart cities, civic technology and conversing open data to community activists to work. It is important to recognise national social trends and admit that what is sometimes cast aside as anti-intellectualism is to understand residents do not want to look at Local Government and watch them making decisions on their behalf, they want to be included.

Let’s face it ‘smart cities’ does not have an official meaning, to me a ‘smart city’ is whatever the place needs it to be. For the area – it’s also okay to look at how other people work, completely step it back and then reconstruct it, so it works for your area.  It is also important that we translate our work clearly and language has been very important. Open data for example, can be a powerful tool for community groups and activists in regard to funding, monitoring their impact and collecting evidence.

In a lot of our workshops we give working examples but we do not necessarily talk about the academic side of the process until the voluntary sector showcased a need for it, which they did and in turn we bought in the help of Data Brew, a not for profit organisation who is looking at simplifying the open data process to run a learning and mapping session.

The approach is incredibly hands-on and citizen-facing because it needs to be, we believe we are building a foundation we can build on to not only improve digital skills in the region but enhance economic value for our citizens such high quality jobs and new types of industry.

The majority of the employed people in Sandwell work within the manufacturing sector, while this is completely fine, we want to offer more opportunities to our young people and residents and encourage new industries to come to the area, which starts with people.

With iSandwell, Sandwell Council and New Union is mixing the digital inclusion agenda with open governance, giving the citizens via a series of activities to not only access support and training but to actually influence the project on a whole, even codesign it.

This is done with a series of activities that include offering micro grants to community groups in the region to create civic tech projects along with tailored mentoring, extensive training in the form of an open education program, a series of events and hackathons along with a network of Digital Champions who are a team of 167 satellite volunteers who collect storytelling data which we can use for consultation and resident focused policy formation.

During the lifetime of iSandwell we have incubated a varied range of community created projects such as young people raising awareness to the power of positive role models using digital, Sandwell centric data toolkits and visually impaired people forming their own people’s digital policy via hack type events, to name a few.

We have been lucky to gain recognition for our work from Government level, including Margot James MP Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries stating “A crucial part of the development of the digital agenda is the third sector. As both the private and public sectors up-skill and develop their use of digital, so must the third sector to continue to achieve the great successes that organisations up and down the country achieve on a daily basis. In order to do that we must involve local communities and projects like iSandwell can help to perform that function.”

iSandwell participants

Along with Tom Watson MP Shadow Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport commenting “you are putting the citizen at the heart of policy, because I think digitisation is about emancipating people by giving them the power of their own lives and you are doing that with this project.”

There is learning other Councils who have a similar demographic and resource can learn from our experiences in regard to using this kind of innovation in urban areas and we are completely happy to share this knowledge.

Having a collaborative nature with our residents and third sector has been instrumental to grow the iSandwell agenda and installing a new way of thinking which would have been would have been impossible with heavy engagement with the community.

We are happy to expend that to our partner Councils, because without community, we are nothing.

Nathan Coyle
Director – New Union
[email protected]
Twitter: @newunion_org