Socially smart cities: Making a difference in urban neighbourhoods

Alison Gilchrist

The ‘smart cities’ movement has emphasised the contribution that technologies can make to tackling complex problems at the interface between urban institutions and the people who live and work in cities. Policy and funding has directed attention to issues such as traffic movement, air quality, social care provision, public participation, etc. within complex systems of micro-decision making and service delivery that need smooth and speedy co-ordination of demand and response. Using online or artificial intelligence, smart city models harness the latest technological developments to integrate information across a range of sources and to mobilise big data to broker diverse interests and deliver services on the ground.  But this is not enough to solve the major challenges facing many urban neighbourhoods.

Recent research in four northern European cities has revealed the crucial role played by ‘socially smart’ individuals working to improve life for the residents of challenging, but vibrant, neighbourhoods. These ‘smart urban intermediaries’ (SUIs) work with communities to devise ‘win-win’ strategies that tackle problems that both public authorities and private market forces find difficult to address.

The research team worked closely with forty individuals over nearly two years: observing their practice, exploring motivations and reflecting on some of the factors that enabled or obstructed their work. In many ways the SUIs are all different, with different motives and approaches, tailored to different times and circumstances. Nonetheless, they do have common practices and traits. The project compared experiences in similar neighbourhoods and found remarkable overlaps between how the smart urban intermediaries operate and what drives their commitment to social progress. Most have dedicated many years to improving the lives of the most disadvantaged residents of specific areas.  Two examples illustrate the courage and creativity of SUIs, using their networks to assemble the people and resources needed to improve life for residents.

In Copenhagen, a brave tenant led a campaign to rid her area of gangs openly dealing drugs and using knives and guns to threaten anyone who got in their way. She mobilised her neighbours through street protests and organised community actions to reclaim community spaces. The group also lobbied the police and city mayor to take more responsibility and to help residents to defend the neighbourhood against criminal activities.

Health problems among the Asian communities in Birmingham have caused concern for many years. A local initiative, the Saheli hub led by a community worker, has developed a range of fitness and adventure activities for women of all backgrounds to try out new experiences and challenges, such as cycling, running and kayaking.

The SUIs are passionate about improving life for their neighbours and challenging social injustices.  They nurture social relations and use these to bring together ideas, assets and expertise to develop projects that meet local needs and aspirations. This is possible because the smart urban intermediaries are trusted and respected. They invest time and effort in a web of connections with people who can provide advice, encouragement and practical help, often for free or very little financial cost. By working across sectors, traditional policy and institutional divisions, SUIs can be innovative, but sometimes struggle to maintain momentum because funding runs out, volunteers move on or they themselves experience ‘burn out’.

So, how can this vital, but hidden, role of SUIs be supported? Policy-makers and funders  might better recognise and respect their contribution to neighbourhood lifeThey might help to sustain the work of SUIs who are valued locally but struggle to make ends meet. And finally, they might invest in cross-sectoral initiatives that renew and align what is out there already. Smart cities rely on the latest technologies to enhance services and transform infrastructure. They also need socially smart urban intermediaries who understand local conditions and can spark community action around specific issues. Until that connection is made, smart city strategies will have a people-shaped void at their centre.

Alison Gilcrist

Alison Gilchrist is Research Fellow at INLOGOV as part of the Smart Urban Intermediaries project. Formerly Director of Practice development at the UK’s Community Development Foundation.

 

 

This blog originally appeared on the Smart Urban Intermediaries website. With thanks to them for allowing cross-posting. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and not INLOGOV or the University of Birmingham.

 

 

The Need for Good Data: Challenges of Making Public Policy in Argentina and Venezuela

By Milagros Gimenez and Gustavo Paniz

One of the aspects that most struck us as Latin American students while reading for our Master of Public Management at the University of Birmingham was the importance of having access to reliable data for making public policies. Current trends in public administration and the Evidence-Based Policy movement posit that the most efficient way to produce and increase the quality of public values ​​is through the rigorous and comprehensive use of “scientific evidence” (Head, 2017, p. 77).

Throughout our interaction in class with colleagues from diverse nationalities and backgrounds, we noticed that unlike other countries, a common characteristic of public administration in Argentina and Venezuela is the absence of reliable information regarding key economic and social indicators. During our dissertation research, we identified that this situation was not only due to a lack of technical or professional capacity but due to a deliberate intention of the ruling elites to hide and manipulate information in order to create narratives that support their political and economic interests.

In Argentina during 2007-2015, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s government is said to have manipulated official statistics such as inflation and growth rates and directly stopped measuring poverty rates to hide the country’s serious social crisis (Economist, 2016; Lanacion.com, 2016). In Venezuela, the government stopped publishing the main macroeconomic indicators for four years to hide a hyperinflationary spiral that exceeded 1,000,000% in 2018 (Casey, 2018) reaching inflation rates similar to Germany in 1923 or Zimbabwe in 2000.

It is undeniable that distorting social and macroeconomic indicators causes irreparable damage to society because of the direct impact of indicators on public services. Without data it is impossible to properly target the coverage of services, the frequency of provision and ensure quality of service, for example. Thus, hindering the possibility of learning from practice, being accountable for performance and being able to research how to improve the services. The lack of data might provide insight and contribute to why countries such as Argentina and Venezuela rank among the most unequal countries in the world (worldbank, 2019). This inequality means in practice very few people have access to high-quality public service provision and most of the country experience insufficient access to basic public services. For example, in the author’s experience in their Argentinian home town, having stable electricity is the exception during the summer (where average temperatures reach 34°-40°C), and power outages and water supply cuts are normal. As there is no access to public data to report and then monitor this type of situation, holding people to account for these issues remains difficult and the situation continues.

As it was explained, public statistics with reliable information are the starting point to address any wicked issue (poverty and inequality being two important ones).  Restoring the system of statistical indicators is not a simple task but it certainly needs political will combined with technical capacity and organized civil society playing an active role in the supervision and control of the political system.

Milagros Gimenez and Gustavo Paniz are both Chevening Scholars and recent graduates of the INLOGOV MSc in Public Management.

The views in this blog are those of the authors and not those of INLOGOV or the University of Birmingham.

Grassroots democracy in Syria: the experience of democratic confederalism

Nathalie Colasanti discusses her award winning journal article:

When my coauthors and I started researching democratic confederalism in Northern Syria, we found that it wasn’t a well-known topic in the Western academic community; today, I’m sure most will have heard about it following the recent military operation conducted by Turkey across the Syrian border.

We carried out our investigation with the objective of raising awareness on this innovative, inclusive model which is based on three key pillars: grassroots democracy, ecology and women’s liberation. The difference between democratic confederalism and previous experiments with grass-roots democracy is that its evolutionary pattern aims to include heterogeneous local communities living in the same territories, with the objective of becoming an administrative model for the whole Syrian country, without shattering its national constitution. In fact, the evolution of the political and administrative system and the introduction of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria were specifically aimed at including all ethnicities and not focusing on the Kurdish population only. Democratic participation is ensured by the bottom-up organisation of the administrative model, which is based on communes (the most “local” level, usually the size of a village or a neighbourhood). These are autonomous in decision-making and self-organisation, and they coordinate through various levels of higher administrative and federal structures. The main idea of democratic confederalism is that the commune is the democratic centre, and higher institutions tend to serve as coordinating structures. The continuous educational work led by activists, aimed at commune residents, allows them to overcome the “democratic problem” according to which the people are not educated and conscious enough of their choices to positively participate in direct democratic processes. In fact, the structure of democratic confederalism allows them to eliminate the disconnection between participatory practices and formal decision-making forums as the two coincide and participation results in decision-making.

Another very interesting aspect is the role of women and the principle of dual leadership, according to which any leadership position has to be jointly held by a man and a woman. Moreover, a 50% presence of women is mandatory is any assembly or committee. In parallel with people’s assemblies and councils, there are women-only councils at all organisational levels, which are responsible for any issue regarding women. Thus, women’s self-determination is truly possible, and their participation is motivated by the acknowledgement of their previous marginalisation.

Democratic confederalism provides an innovative model that is based on participation to decision-making and the centrality of the local, grassroots level. Democracy is defined as an element that is organic to society, that shapes every aspect of organisational and administrative institutions and that is practised on a daily, continuous basis by all those who want to be involved. Everyone can participate to democratic processes and decision-making in their communities, and in fact the greater the participation, the more the common interest for effective and representative decisions is reached. The experience of Northern Syria overcomes limitations linked to the lack of inclusion in participatory experiences, as everyone is encouraged to take part in decision-making. At the same time, democratic confederalism presents itself as an alternative public management system, providing interesting insight for reflecting on the current crisis that democracy is facing at a global level.

Finally, I would like to acknowledge the invaluable support provided by UIKI Onlus (uikionlus.com), the Italian Office for Information on Kurdistan, in helping me to access first-hand data and interviews.

nathalie1Nathalie Colasanti is a post-doc researcher at the University of Rome “Tor Vergata”. Her research interests include public management and governance, the commons, workers’ self-management and platform cooperativism. Her article, with co-authors, Grassroots democracy and local government in Northern Syria recently won the prize for best article of Vol 44 of Local Government Studies, by an early career researcher.

 

 

 

 

 

The views in this blog are those of the author and not those of INLOGOV or the University of Birmingham.

 

The Fallacies of Blue Labour

by Jon Bloomfield

In Britain and across Europe, the social alliances that sustained progressive politics for a century are disintegrating. The financial crisis of 2007–8 showed that Labour and its ‘third way’ European followers had got the economics of modern capitalism wrong. With the mainstream left compromised, it has been the nationalist right that has benefitted, re‐defining politics around issues of nation, culture and identity. What is surprising is the number of influential voices across the centre and left of politics who have accepted much of this far‐right analysis and adopted its language and terminology.

These trends, especially post‐Brexit, have crystallised in the UK around the label of ‘Blue Labour’. They have bought into this binary divide: the choice is either neoliberal hyper‐globalisation or a patriotic nationalism. The Brexit argument has served to crystallise and harden these divisions. The possibility of any different types of globalisation has been denied. Rather, there has been a variant of the Thatcherite mantra: there is no alternative to globalisation, the only option is to reject it.

As popular doubts about the UK’s headlong embrace of neoliberal globalisation grew, elements of left opinion such as Maurice Glasman shaped their critiques within this nationalist framework. Whatever its initial concerns, this new way of framing politics quickly gave primacy to cultural and national identity rather than the economic or social. The initial flurry of interest within Labour waned, as did its brief ‘Red Tory’ counterpart, Phillip Blond. However, the Brexit debate, with its focus on national sovereignty, has given the label new vigour and a purchase stretching well beyond Labour’s ranks. David Goodhart has been the leading protagonist. His 2017 book The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics ,develops this argument and provides the bedrock of Blue Labour thinking post‐Brexit.

For Goodhart, the world is basically divided between the ‘Anywheres’, ‘the upper professional class’ with their global world outlook and the ‘Somewheres’, with their preference for place, stability and nation. These are Britain’s ‘two value blocs’ and the book is a paean of praise for the preferences and prejudices of the latter. Paul Collier, a development economist, articulates similar views as does Matthew Goodwin and they find increasing space in the New Statesman.

My recent article in Political Quarterly examines the fallacies and flaws of the Blue Labour tendency in four key areas—class, economy, family and race.  To take one example on the family.  Blue Labour asserts that there is an essential, unchanging bedrock of common sense and small “c” conservative views on social and cultural issues at the core of the working class, which Anywheres do not understand and that this marks a key fault line between the ‘metropolitan elite’  and the working class living in industrial towns. It is a frequently repeated but false assertion. The reality is that vast swathes of the population have shifted their attitudes over the last half‐century and that the key determinant has been age.

I take two indicators from the last census: the numbers of people co‐habiting and the number of lone parent households and look at the figures for the big metropolitan cities and their smaller industrial neighbours. They are broadly comparable. In Birmingham, co‐habitation stands at 8 per cent of all households, a little below the figure for Wolverhampton, Sandwell, Walsall and Dudley. In Manchester, the co‐habitation rate of 10.9 per cent is below that for Wigan at 11.4 per cent, while in Leeds, at 10.6 per cent it is below that of Wakefield’s 11.5 per cent. The figures for lone parents tell a similar story. The Birmingham rate 14.6 per cent is slightly higher than its neighbours, notably Dudley at 10.6 per cent, but similar to Wolverhampton’s 14.0 per cent; while Manchester’s at 14.0 per cent is slightly above Oldham at 13.1 per cent and Wigan at 12.1 per cent. Leeds at 10.9 per cent is a touch below Wakefield at 11.0 per cent. What this data suggest is that the trends towards greater variety of family forms, people living together outside marriage, more divorce, separation and single parent households are broadly common across urban England. The Blue Labour story that there is a gulf between the hedonistic big cities and the socially conservative, working class industrial towns is a myth.

I challenge Blue Labour claims similarly on class, the economy and race, explain how Brexit has crystallised these arguments and led Blue Labour into the welcoming arms of the hard Right. I conclude by suggesting that alternative ways forward should seek to forge rather than disrupt alliances between the working class and new social movements.

Those interested in the full read can find it here.

Jon Bloomfield HeadJon Bloomfield is an INLOGOV Associate. He is an expert on a range of European issues including cities, climate change and migration, who advises European agencies, carries out research in the EU and contributes to post-graduate programmes.

 

The views in this blog are those of the author and not those of INLOGOV or the University of Birmingham.

What’s in a name? Ask the Japanese!

By Chris Game

I happened recently to read two seemingly unconnected news stories in swift succession.  One reported Japan’s instantly historic victory over Ireland in the Rugby World Cup, with frequent mentions of the name by which the Japanese players (average weight: 100kg) are improbably known: the Brave Blossoms. Hold on to that image!

The second story was of a district council’s proposal to change its name in a bid to eliminate confusion and “give it a clear identity” (Local Government Chronicle, September 19th) – my first thought here being: Oh yes, and which of the dozens of possibilities might that be?

Maybe one of the 40-plus vague compass-point names: North Warwickshire, South and East Staffordshire, and the like.  Or one of those geographical feature names of the very last places you’d think of looking for a council HQ – Wyre Forest, Malvern Hills, Staffordshire Moorlands, High Peak, Three Rivers.

Or one of the almost-lost-in-the-mists-of-time names – like Birmingham’s neighbouring borough, Sandwell, its councillors and officers finally despairing of explaining that it’s absolutely not West Bromwich, just one of its six towns, but a commemoration of the sadly less-than-universally-famous Benedictine Sandwell monastery.  Or my personal favourite, Kirklees (Huddersfield in old money), whose real Kirklees Priory is the fictional burial place of the fictional outlaw Robin Hood – from Nottingham, 70-odd miles away down the M1. No confusion there, then.

It’s cheap and unfair, though, to mock the products of the task that faced local officers and councillors in 1972-4, when up to seven councils at a time, with real or long-established place names, were statutorily merged into inevitably artificial constructs – and required new, preferably meaningful but at least minimally divisive, district identities.

It was a near-impossible ask, the only slam-dunk winners being toponymists.  For theirs is the profession – the study of place name origins – charged with preserving a place’s culture through the origins, meaningfulness or associations of, in this case, its new name.

Like all professions, toponymists have an extensive jargon, which I’ll dip into here, focusing on Suffolk, given that one of its seven 1974 districts is the belated name-change seeker: Babergh (pronounced ‘Bayber’, please – that’s part of its problem!).  It’s predominantly rural – think ‘Constable Country’ extended north – with two main towns, Hadleigh and Sudbury, both of which lost their own councils in the five-council merger and neither name on its own being politically acceptable for the new contrived creation.

Of the other Suffolk districts, Ipswich was easy, barely changed since the Anglo-Saxon Gippeswich.  Almost equally historic Bury St Edmunds switched from one Eponym – a place named after a person – to another, St Edmundsbury, after its cathedral.

But then there’s Forest Heath.  If Babergh has an identity problem, then pity Forest Heath, which could be in almost any county in the country.  Toponymically it’s a composite Geonym, named after two geographical features: bits of Thetford Forest and the heathlands of Breckland.  Except it isn’t any more, having been merged yet again in April with St Edmundsbury to become West Suffolk DC – population 180,000, which seems quite large for a district … until you see East Suffolk.

Which brings us to Waveney. A six-and-a-half council merger in 1974, it was one of many that politically just couldn’t take the name of the largest and most recognisable, Lowestoft, and so opted for a Hydronym – a place named after something watery, here the River Waveney.

Probably almost as unrecognisable as Babergh, but then, again this past April, something toponymically rather touching happened.  A second ginormous district, West Suffolk, was created – its 250,000 population making it the biggest in the country – by combining one Hydronym with another, Suffolk Coastal.  How simpatico, I thought, though whether it’s compensation for the loss of nearly 250 councillors since 1974 is, I suppose, for residents to decide.

So, after all this, what or who is or was Babergh?  Well, it’s another Geonym, in that there is a Babergh Heath around the Waldingfield villages. But that name itself was seemingly a Choronym – a place named after a large geographical or administrative unit of land. Here it was Babergh Hundred, one of the areas of (very) roughly 100 square miles into which Saxon counties like Suffolk were for centuries divided for administrative purposes. And – pause for drumroll – that area was originally known as ‘Baberga’, or the ‘mound of a man called Babba’, and thus another Eponym.

So, Quite Interestingly, ‘Babergh’ turns out to be a Geonym AND a Choronym AND an Eponym.  Which, though it’s nothing whatever to do with me, still made me slightly sad: all that history and toponymy jettisoned in the ambition of becoming … the utterly bland and imprecise ‘South Suffolk’.

I know, moreover, exactly what my Japanese friends would say. Follow the Brave Blossoms!  Give up the pointless search for a name with some tenuous connection with the arbitrary boundaries of your area.

Check out the names of Japanese local authorities, and go instead for something beautiful, memorable, or both: Aomori – famous for expensive tuna, but named ‘Blue Forest’; Kagawa – home of Udon, the Japanese wheat noodle, but answers to ‘Fragrant River’; and even Fukushima – scene of the 2011 nuclear disaster, but still ‘Good Luck Island’.  Toponymists – who needs them!

chris game

Chris Game is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.

The views in this blog are those of the author and not INLOGOV or the University of Birmingham.

An earlier version of this blog appeared in Local Government Chronicle. 

Our disenfranchised student generation

Chris Game

This week, were I still a university degree convenor, I would be meeting and re-greeting the first three-year generation of undergraduates to have missed out almost entirely on voting in the referendum whose consequences will significantly shape their remaining lives – much longer lives than most of those who collectively created the narrow Leave majority in that 2016 EU referendum.

I would be lecturing to many of them – David Cameron’s timely memoir at hand – about the workings of UK Government and explaining, early on, how institutionally this situation came about.

First would be context. How did EU membership, that five years ago, however badged – Common Market/EU/Europe/Single European Currency – just 8% of us considered ‘important’ in Ipsos MORI’s monthly Issues Index, become an apparently unavoidable subject for only the third national referendum in UK history?

Secondly, how did our quaint, uncodified, make-it-up-as-you-go-along British Constitution allow a hubristic Prime Minister to call a constitution-changing referendum with fewer conditions attached than their student bus passes?  For Cameron, any plurality would do.

Any written national constitution, which suddenly seems a whole lot more contemplatable than a week ago, would have explicit written safeguards regarding constitutional referendums.  Cameron still defends his rejection of, say, a 60% vote threshold, because Leavers, with their 51.9%, would have seen it as a ‘stitch-up’.  Never mind Remainers, with their 48.1%. Oh yes, and anyway, the referendum was only ‘advisory’!  He could, though, simply have followed a turnout-based precedent, like that imposed by Parliament on the 1979 Scottish devolution referendum.

Then, a near-identical majority (51.6%) voted for a devolved Assembly, but Parliament’s hurdle required 40% of all registered electors – hardly an outrageous figure for so momentous a decision.  The 64% turnout, though, meant a full-electorate Yes vote of under 33%, and that first devolution bid failed.

The same formula applied to the higher 72% EU referendum turnout would have produced a 37% Leave vote – and changed history, and my student audience’s lives.  For them, though, that’s barely the half of it.

Third topic, therefore, would be how two-thirds of their three-year student generation were deprived even of this say in their own futures by a collection of unelected, unaccountable, predominantly Conservative Lords (average age 70+) voting in what they openly acknowledged was their own party’s perceived electoral interests.

To recap, the law had been changed to enable 16- and 17-year olds to vote in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum.  And to no one’s great surprise, this cohort of probably the most politically aware and informed teenagers in history participated enthusiastically – moreover, in greater numbers than 18-24s.

Which was the Cameron Government’s problem, when all parties but the Conservatives in the House of Lords voted to lower the voting age similarly for the EU referendum.  Yes, 16/17s would probably vote disproportionately to Remain, but, much worse, it would be difficult to avoid later making the same concession for a general election – when many of this potentially 1.6 million might well vote other than Conservative.

After serious arm-twisting, therefore, the Lords’ vote was overturned – in what then, if hardly by today’s standards, seemed a particularly cynical manoeuvre.  Also excluded, and again in contrast to the Scottish referendum, were tax-paying EU citizens resident in the UK and longer-term British expats living in the EU, some of whom aired their material interests during the PM’s recent Luxembourg visit.

Even then the Lords’ coercion was called a disgrace, and, were a repeat contemplated in a second EU referendum – well, select your own noun. Personally, as someone with strong views on the issue but also a septuagenarian, I’d readily, were it legally allowable, have given my vote unconditionally to a 16/17-year old and would again.

Scotland subsequently – and unanimously, with the Ruth Davidson-led Conservatives changing their minds – extended the 16/17-year old franchise to the Scottish Parliamentary and local elections, and Wales is following suit.

England and Northern Ireland aren’t, apparently reasoning that, despite being responsible enough to pay taxes, marry, enlist, and face criminal charges, you have to be 18 to grasp the complexities of voting in about the world’s most simplistic electoral system – and that, like 19th Century women, the way to develop their political maturity is to bar their participation.

We will obviously never know how, or how decisively, the 16/17-year olds might have voted in the referendum.  There were certainly claims, usually based on somewhat questionable surveys, that the “result would have been Remain had votes been allowed at 16”. But crude arithmetic suggests otherwise.

The gap between Leave and Remain was 1.27 million votes – which, incidentally, Cameron’s memoir insists on calling “only 600,000 votes in it”.  In one specific sense – if only 600,000+ Leavers had voted Remain – it’s true, but potentially misleading to the casual reader.

Assuming a two-thirds turnout – slightly higher probably than in a General Election, because life-affecting causes energise teenagers more readily than party manifestos – a 70-75% Remain vote would have cut the 1.27 million majority to probably under 500,000 or 1.5%.  Which even most Brexiteers might have hesitated to label the ‘clear’, ‘conclusive’, ‘definitive’ Voice of the British People – initially anyway.

Not to worry. We know, thanks to NOP pollster supreme, Peter Kellner, that by mid-January this year the whole 1.27 million had disappeared anyway, at around 1,350 a day, through enough mainly Leave voters dying and enough mainly Remain young voters reaching voting age – and without one 2016 Remainer changing their mind.

Currently, however, the odds against a second In/Out referendum this year (12/1) are still enormously longer than on a General Election (3/1 on). This despite Boris Johnson’s failure to secure his 15th October date, carefully calculated to exclude significant numbers of potentially Labour-voting students who would fail to meet the 27th September registration deadline and be disinclined to journey home to vote.

That was the first Prime Ministerial plan to backfire spectacularly. Because it virtually guaranteed that student Welcome Weeks and Freshers’ Fairs everywhere will have their NUS/Electoral Commission ‘Got5?’ (minutes to register to vote) and partisan voter registration drives, social media campaigns, and even website info on whether their vote will be more effective from their uni or home address. What fun!

chris game

Chris Game is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.

 

The views in this blog are those of the author and not INLOGOV or the University of Birmingham.