From Christmas lights to bio-energy: how technology will change our sense of place

(Photo of Vancouver from the waterfront in Kitsilano by James Wheeler)

Why do we care about cities?

Why are private sector companies, public sector authorities and organisations such as the European Union making such enormous investments in “Smarter Cities“, “Sustainable Cities” and “Future Cities”?

Usually we would say it’s because of a combination of social, environmental and economic challenges facing us all. But there’s a powerful personal force at work too: where we live matters to us.

The choices that the 7 billion of us who share the planet make that are affected by our relationship with the places where we live have an incredible impact, especially when they are concentrated in cities. For example, the combined carbon impact of those who commute into cities to work each day because they choose to live in the less densely populated areas outside them is immense.

If we’re going to succeed in facing the significant challenges facing us, we need to exploit the powerful connections between people and places to motivate us to choose and behave differently.

The super-rich own houses around the world and have the means to travel between them as they choose or as their business demands it; and some professionals or tradespeople choose or accept a life that involves constant travel in the interests of work and employment. But on the whole, these are the exceptions.

Humans are physical not virtual. Whilst we move or travel from time to time out of choice or necessity, most people work and live day-by-day within a place. Some people and communities face challenges of social and transport mobility, and simply have no choice about where they live. Others may have some choice of location, but are limited by means to investing in living in one place. To a greater or lesser degree we all want to make the most of that investment, and don’t want to relocate too often or travel too far or frequently away from home in order to work.

The value we perceive in our connections to places is determined by their physicality, economics and communities. Many cities and regions exploit this by publicising the attractive qualities of the environment that they can offer – to individuals looking for homes, or to businesses looking for locations to operate from. Whilst the qualities of natural geography are certainly an important contributor to the quality of those environments, many of the other factors are to do with the people within them.

The choices and actions of people can have unusual effects on their environment; for example, the residents of Broadwater Road in Southampton choose collectively to mount striking lighting displays on their houses every Christmas. Or local regulations can constrain the choices of residents to achieve sometimes impressive results, such as in the beautiful urban village of Bourneville in Birmingham.

(Photo of the beautifully maintained frontage of houses in Bournville, Birmingham, by C. Wess Daniels)

Place and economy have many and complex influences on each other. The “Silicon Roundabout” cluster of entrepreneurial technology businesses in London exists where it does because of a combination of proximity to London’s financial services sector – and its venture capitalisists – and the availability of cheap flats, pubs and food outlets. These latter make it an affordable, attractive place to live for the young people with technology skills that start-up companies need to hire.

In other cases, the influences are less constructive. London’s economy has succeeded through businesses that rely on higly educated, skilled people; who in turn are recompensed with some of the highest wages in the country. Accordingly, house prices are extremely high. This it turn makes it difficult or impossible for many people in careers with more modest salaries to afford housing – for example, teachers. If there’s one thing that educated, successful people can be pretty much guaranteed to care about, it’s providing a high quality education for their children. But their success and affluence makes it hard for teachers to live nearby and provide it.

Modern communication technologies provide new opportunities for communities to form and interact in ways that give them more insight into and control over the impact of their interactions. Somewhere between the inventions of the telegraph and virtual worlds, we passed a tipping point: the earliest technologies were simply means to pass messages between people who already knew each other; the ones we have now – especially social media – enable people to identify, contact and transact with complete strangers based on some common interest.

Some simple examples of these technologies allowing communities to behave in more sustainable ways are the recycling network Freecyle, the LandShare initiative that provides access to untended land to people who want to grow food but don’t have gardens, and Carbon Voyage, one of many platforms that promote the sharing of cars, taxis and other forms of transport.

These technologies gives us the opportunity to build new marketplaces and currencies which can be used to encourage transactions that create social, environmental and economic value for communities. For example, organisations such as Big Barn and Sustaination are building new business-to-consumer and business-to-business marketplaces to encourage more sustainable food production and consumption.

(Photo of a 3D printer at work by Media Lab Prado)

What’s even more interesting is to look ahead to emerging technologies that could make it possible for such community markets to create some very surprising disruptions in the way city systems and some industries work. Smart materials and 3D printers, combined with the reduction in cost differentials between emerging and mature markets, are bringing some striking changes to manufacturing; meaning that in some cases it is more important to be able to manufacture customised items locally in immediate response to individual demand than it is to globally source the lowest cost manufacturer of commodity items.

New innovations in user interfaces are also making it easier to connect people to digital information and services. Whilst significant challenges remain in making such services truly accessible to all, it’s already striking to see tablet computers and e-readers being widely used by people who would never choose to buy or use a laptop. And once you’ve seen how naturally very young toddlers interact with tablet computers in particular, you realise how significantly the world will change in future years.

(Photo of me wearing the Emotiv headset)

Technology has already advanced even further; Emotiv‘s headset, which measures brain activity, has already been used by my colleagues to drive a London Taxi around an airfield by using the headset to monitor their thoughts; and Professor Kevin Warwick of Reading University has pioneered the use of computing technology embedded in our bodies as a means of interacting with information systems in our environment. As such technologies mature and spread they’ll have impacts that are impossible to predict.

The New Optimists, a community of scientists and industry experts came together in Birmingham recently to explore the opportunities that new technologies offer for highly distributed energy production systems in communities. Domestic solar panels are an obvious means to do this; but geo-thermal energy, wind and tidal energy are other candidates. Southampton is already producing its own geo-thermal energy, for example, and Eco-Island are attempting to harness several such approaches to make the Isle of Wight not just self-sufficient in terms of energy, but a net exporter. The European Bio-Energy Research Institution (EBRI) at Aston University in Birmingham is developing new, more efficient means of producing energy from biological waste material such as discarded food. A prototype power-plant is already providing energy to 800 households in Shropshire. The New Optimists discussion looked ahead to the possibility that such technologies could be scaled-down even further for use in individual homes.

The systems exploiting these technologies in communities are winning investment because they are market-based: they create money-flows and revenue streams against which investments can be justified. Whilst their focus is local, it is not isolated: complete self-sufficiency will probably never be achieved, and is usually not the goal. Rather, it’s to maximise the benefits of local trading whilst making the impact of import and export more transparent so that more informed choices can be made.

Such place-based trading networks could connect the choices we make every day more directly with their impact on the places in which we live and work; exploiting our consciousness of the investments we’ve made in those places to persuade us to choose differently to protect and improve them. And if they’re linked sufficiently to the industrial national and international supply chains that provide what can’t be sourced locally, they could take into account the wider social and environmental impact of imported goods and services too. Of course, that will only be achieved if those systems are made more transparent, but the pressure to do that already exists. And the more we have the means to exploit transparency, the more effective that pressure will be.

We want to make our cities and lives more sustainable because we’re conscious of the environmental, social and economic challenges facing our planet; we’re most likely to do so through choices that have positive impacts we can see on the places where we live. Technology will continue to provide new mechanisms that can make such choices available to us; but its down to us as individuals and communities to harness and use them.

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.

13 Responses to From Christmas lights to bio-energy: how technology will change our sense of place

  1. rickrobinson says:

    Hi James,

    It’s great to hear from you again! Thankyou for reblogging my post!

    Cheers, Rick

  2. Ed Buijs says:

    Rick, thank you. Very relevant information for a community trying to find out how to mix local resources with global resources.

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