Digital Platforms for Smarter City Market-Making

Local delicacies for sale in Phnom Penh’s central market

There’s been a distinct change recently in how we describe what a “Smarter City” is. Whereas in the past we’ve focused on the capabilities of technology to make city systems more intelligent, we’re now looking to marketplace economics to describe the defining characteristics of Smarter City behaviour.

The link between the two views is the ability of emerging technology platforms to enable the formation of new marketplaces which make possible new exchanges of resources, information and value. Historically, growth in Internet coverage and bandwidth led to the disintermediation of value chains in industries such as retail, publishing and music. Soon we will see technologies that connect information with the physical world in more intimate ways cause disruptions in industries such as food supply, manufacturing and healthcare.

There are two reasons we’ve switched focus from a technology to an economic perspective of Smarter Cities. The first is that these new marketplaces are the way to make both public service delivery and economic growth within cities sustainable. The second is that it’s only by examining the money flows within them that we can identify the revenue streams that will fund the construction and operation of their supporting technology platforms.

The importance of driving sustainable, equitably distributed recovery to economic growth from the current financial crisis was championed by Christine Lagarde, the Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, in her speech ahead of the Rio +20 Summit. She emphasised the role of stability in enabling such a recovery. Instability is change, and managing change consumes resources. So stable systems – or stable cities – consume less resources than unstable ones. And they’re much more comfortable places to live.

(Photo of a Portuguese call centre by Vitor Lima)

This concept explains a shift in the economic strategy of some cities and nations. In recent decades cities have used Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) tools such as tax breaks to incent existing businesses to relocate to their economies. When cities such as Sunderland and Birmingham lost 10%-25% of their jobs in less than two decades in the 1980’s and 1990’s, FDI provided the emergency fix that brought in new jobs in call centres, financial services and manufacturing.

But businesses that find it possible and cost-effective to relocate for these reasons can and do relocate again when more attractive incentives are offered elsewhere. So they tend to integrate relatively shallowly in local economies – retaining their existing globalised supply chains, for example. When they move on, they cause expensive, socially damaging instabilities in the cities they leave behind.

(Photo of the Clock Tower in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter by Roland Turner)

The new focus is on sustainable, organic economic growth driven by SMEs in locally re-inforcing clusters. By building clusters of companies providing related products and services with strong input/output linkages, cities can create economies that are more deeply rooted in their locality. Examples include the cluster of wireless technology companies in Cambridge with strong ties to the local university; or Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter, an incredibly dense cluster of designers, manufacturers and retailers who work with Birmingham City University’s School of Jewellery and Horology and their Jewellery Innovation Centre. Many cities I work with are focussing their economic development resources on clusters in the specific industry sectors where they can demonstrate unique strength.

In order to succeed, such clusters need access to transactional marketplaces for trading with each other; and for winning business in local, national and international markets. The disruptive, disintermediating capabilities of Smarter City technologies could help such marketplaces to work more quickly, at lower cost; to extend the market reach of their members; to find new innovations through discovering synergies across traditional industry sectors; or to support the formation of innovative business models that recognise and capitalise social and environmental value. These marketplaces are also exactly what’s needed to support the transformation to open public services.

(Photo of cattle market in Kashgar, China by By Ben Paarmann)


Marketplaces need infrastructure. In traditional terms, that infrastructure might have consisted – in the case of my local cattle market in Kidderminster say – of a physical building; a hinterland connected by transport routes; a governing authority; a system of payments; and a means of determining the quality and value of goods and services to be exchanged. Smarter City markets are no different. They may be based on technology platforms rather than in buildings; but they need governance, identity and reputation management, payment systems and other supporting services. The implementation and operation of those infrastructure capabilities has a significant cost.

This is where large and small organisations need to partner to deliver meaningful innovation in Smarter Cities. The resources of larger organisations – whether they are national governments, local councils, transport providers, employers or technology vendors – are required to underwrite infrastructure investments on the basis of future financial returns in the form of commercial revenues or tax receipts. But innovations in the delivery of value to local communities are likely to be created by small, agile organisations deeply embedded in those communities. An example where this is already happening is in Dublin, where entrepreneurial organisations are using the city’s open data portal to develop new business models that are winning venture capital backing.

(Photo of the “Container City” incubation hub for social enterprises operated by Sustainable Enterprise Strategies in Sunderland)


In order to replicate at scale what’s happening in Dublin and Sunderland, we need to define the open standards through which agile “Apps” developed by local innovators can access the capabilities of new marketplace infrastructures. Those standards need to be associated with financial models that balance affordability for citizens, communities and entrepreneurial businesses with the cost of operating resilient infrastructures.

If we can get that balance right, then stakeholders across city systems everywhere could work more effectively together to deliver Smarter City solutions that really address the big survival challenges facing us: reliable systems that everyone can use across the rich diversity of our cities, communities and citizens.

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About Rick Robinson
I’m an Executive Architect at IBM specialising in emerging technologies and Smarter Cities. You can connect with me on Linked-In and as @dr_rick on Twitter. The views expressed here are my own.

20 Responses to Digital Platforms for Smarter City Market-Making

  1. Peter Cripps says:

    Rick, Some very nice observations here. Also of interest is how, sometimes run down, brownfield, areas can be encouraged to bring in new entrepreneurs to revitalise an area. The so called Silicon Roundabout (http://www.siliconroundabout.org.uk/) area of Shoreditch, Hoxton and Old Street in London is a classic example. This does not been demolishing all that is there but redeveloping in an economically viable way properties that may have been used for “old industries” so they can be used for the new digital economy. What this should not mean is short term tax breaks, cheap rents and so on which then get hiked up as soon as smaller firms, who cannot up sticks like big organisations can, begin to succeed. I’m also really interested in exploring what the combination of financial incentives, external events, facilities, environmental factors and people that create the “tipping point” for areas such as the Silicon Roundabout to succeed?

  2. Business clustering is a significant part of most modern growth plans. It has survived generations, optimised by the saying “the best place to open a Butchers is next to a Butcher”.

    Certainly technology could help far more. Many ‘base’ services which do not differentiate businesses could be identified using approaches like IBM’s Component Business modelling.

    Obvious examples are on-line connectivity and back-end core business services such as Financials & HR. There will be many others tailoured to the Industry or possibly geography, and those may provide far higher value to the cluster. Such services could apply to any part of the business model: supply-side, or sales related, or process related.

    Provision of such services would be most attractive if they are priced as a shared service. That makes clusters attractive for service providers, though raises questions of lock-in or monopolisation. Co-operative approaches may be attractive for many.

    Given the emphasis placed on business clusters for growth, low-cost facilitation by Governments could easily stimulate such supporting services to accelerate start-ups.

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  4. rickrobinson says:

    Hi Peter, Mike,

    Thanks for really interesting thoughts and comments; you may find this recent Demos report on Silicon Roundabout / Tech City worth a read. I was just sent the link myself, but from what i’ve read so far it reinforces a lot of what you’ve both said. Well worth a few minutes of your time: http://www.demos.co.uk/publications/ataleoftechcity

    Cheers, Rick

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