While it is exciting to see Scotland embracing Smart Cities, it’s important not to become purely technology-driven but instead first define the social outcomes we want these investments to achieve.

An acute example is MK:Smart. Milton Keynes smart city initiative had been widely acclaimed as the poster child of the trend but as this recent UK Authority news demonstrates, even the most advanced of technologies ultimately must justify its investment in practical business and social benefit terms, and for senior decision makers, Smart Cities are still yet to cross this chasm.

Poverty in Scotland

We don’t have to look very far to identify a myriad of pressing social needs that the public sector could address via these innovations. With a devastating rise in child poverty in Scotland it’s clear the current government approaches to tackling social inequalities simply aren’t working, and new thinking is needed.

Although cities pack millions of people closely together into small geographic areas, they still live in entirely separated worlds. Many drive along their streets, travelling from their homes to their work, to the gym and to the supermarket and back again, but live in a bubble elevated from the realities of those who live on them.

Therefore to identify transformative change we need to look more at these human dynamics, ie. what would bridge these isolated worlds, what would help encourage the people in cities to better connect with and help one another? What can bridge these digital and social divides?

Technology advances of that nature will truly transform our societies as they will transform the lives of the individuals who live there.

Social Smart Cities

In his presentation to the Smart City track at the TM Forum industry conference, Dr Jonathan Reichental, CIO for the City of Palo Alto, described ‘Creating a New Operating System for Cities‘.

He also explores the topic in this blog for TMF Inform, highlighting that in addition to the automation of operations, like smart traffic lights and refuse collection, the vision of a Digital City is one much broader and deeper in scope, also encompassing civic engagement and innovation.

Other keynote presentations captured this critical design goal, ensuring that they include and meet the social innovation needs of cities too, making them ‘Social Operating Systems’. In the Power of Social Innovation the team from the Smart Social City initiative demonstrated how this can be accomplished.

Harnessing Social Business Computing

This new operating system can be implemented through cities teaming up with ‘Social Technology’ entrepreneurs, within an overall context of the emerging trend of ‘Social Business’.

In my guest post to the Social Stock Exchange, a flagship example of the trend, I describe how this represents an evolution that fuses the best parts of both socialism and capitalism, to better achieve the goals of both.

Scotland already boasts pioneers in the field, such as the headline example of Social Bite, a cafe that employs the homeless inspired and founded by Josh Littlejohn as a Social Business. As the Guardian writes the experiences have led Josh on to a second Social Business project, the Social Bite Village, a purpose built village for the homeless intended to help break the vicious cycle faced by those who are homeless.

So we can see this brings a fresh perspective and source of innovation for tackling chronic city issues like homelessness, and Social Technology can further augment and accelerate the effect, such as the NY Times suggesting how it could help tackle income inequality.

There are small pockets of innovation, like utilizing mobile techchatbots or the blockchain to help the homeless, and the opportunity is to collaborate globally to scale these ideas like commercial startups, the ‘unicorn’ ventures like Uber Taxis funded with $ billions and operating globally.

This context highlights another of Scotland’s up and coming Social Technology pioneers, Gavin Neate and the Neatebox. As described in our feature article Gavin has applied these innovative technologies in a simple fashion to a well defined social market need, helping improve city facilities like road crossings for the visually impaired, and also changing retail store culture to be better equipped at welcoming those with disabilities.

It doesn’t even have to be the most advanced of technologies, even smarter use of the most simple tools such as WordPress, can be leveraged to achieve significant social impact. As a very popular web content management system it’s mainly been used for blogs and corporate web sites but could also power the use of a publishing platform for ‘social storytelling’, like this example, the NY Times ‘Invisible Child‘ long form article, which vividly tells the story of homeless children in New York in a highly engaging manner through this innovative media format.

The persistance of issues like homelessness in modern cities that are plentiful in resources is due to a lack of deeper social connectedness, caused by harsh stereotypes and ingrained prejudices and in particular by not providing an adequate voice to those in need. Therefore impact will be achieved not through applying technology to automate logistical functions but instead to enable better needs reporting, break down social barriers and build new societal dynamics, achievable via the many innovations described in this article and forming a new social operating system for cities.

By Neil McEvoy, Founder of DigitalScot.news, an industry forum for accelerating Digital Transformation in Scotland.

Digital Society 2017 on 05 Oct in Glasgow will explore how digital technology can be used to reduce poverty and inequality. Book your ticket now.