Five steps to a Smarter City; and the philosophical imperative for taking them

(Photo of digital lights in “The Place” in Beijing by Trey Ratcliff)

This year more and more cities have started on the road to getting Smarter. In part that momentum has been catalysed in the UK by the Technology Strategy Board’s “Future Cities Demonstrator” competition, in which thirty cities have been awarded small grants to carry out feasibility studies for a £24 million demonstrator project; and across Europe it has been encouraged by continuing investment from the European Union.

Over the last few months I’ve written articles on many of the challenges and considerations faced by cities setting out on this journey. This week I thought it would be useful to look back and summarise how they fit together into an overall approach consisting of five steps; and then to revisit the reasons why it is so vitally important that we take those steps.

1. Define what a “Smarter City” means to you

Many urbanists and cities have grappled with how to define what a “Smart City”, a “Smarter City” or a “Future City” might be. It’s important for cities to agree to use an appropriate definition because it sets the scope and focus for what will be a complex collective journey of transformation.

In his article “The Top 10 Smart Cities On The Planet“, Boyd Cohen of Fast Company defined a Smart City as follows:

“Smart cities use information and communication technologies (ICT) to be more intelligent and efficient in the use of resources, resulting in cost and energy savings, improved service delivery and quality of life, and reduced environmental footprint–all supporting innovation and the low-carbon economy.”

This definition shares a useful distinction that was made to me by the Technology Strategy Board‘s Head of Sustainability, Richard Miller: a “Smart City” is one that transforms itself into a “Future City” by using technology. In IBM we use the phrase “Smarter City” to describe a city that is making progress on that path.

As is frequently quoted, more than half of the world’s population now lives in urban areas; and in the UK where I live, that’s true of more than 90% of us. So its not surprising that so many people have strong views on what Smart, Smarter and Future Cities should be.

Personally I think that a useful and holistic definition of a “Future City” needs to include the following concepts:

  • A Future City is in a position to make a success of the present: for example, it is economically active in high-value industry sectors and able to provide the workforce and infrastructure that companies in those sectors need.
  • A Future City is on course for a successful future: with an education system that provides the skills that will be needed by future industries as technology evolves.
  • A Future City creates sustainable, equitably distributed growth: where education and employment opportunities are widely available to all citizens and communities, and with a focus on delivering social and environmental outcomes as well as economic growth.
  • A Future City operates as efficiently & intelligently as possible: so that resources such as energy, transportation systems and water are used optimally, providing a low-cost, low-carbon basis for economic and social growth, and an attractive, healthy environment in which to live and work.
  • A Future City enables citizens, communities, entrepreneurs & businesses to do their best; because making infrastructures Smarter is an engineering challenge; but making cities Smarter is a societal challenge; and those best placed to understand how societies can change are those who can innovate within them.

If those objectives provide – an admittedly very generic – view of what a “Future City” is, then a “Smarter City” is one that uses technology to accomplish them.

Creating a more specific vision is a task for each city to undertake for itself, taking into account its unique character, strengths and challenges. This process usually entails a collaborative act of creativity by city stakeholders.

(The members of Birmingham’s Smart City Commission)

2. Convene a stakeholder group to create a specific Smarter City vision

For a city to agree a shared “Smarter City” vision involves bringing an unusual set of stakeholders together in a single forum: political leaders, community leaders, major employers, transport and utility providers, entrepreneurs and SMEs, universities and faith groups, for example. The task for these stakeholders is to agree a vision that is compelling, inclusive; and specific enough to drive the creation of a roadmap of individual projects and initiatives to move the city forward.

This is a process that I’m proud to be taking part in in Birmingham through the City’s Smart City Commission. I discussed how such processes can work, and some of the challenges and activities involved, back in July in an article entitled “How Smarter Cities Get Started“.

3. Populate a roadmap that can deliver the vision

In order to fulfill a vision for a Smarter City, a roadmap of specific projects and initiatives is needed, including both early “quick wins” and longer term strategic programmes.

Those projects and initiatives take many forms; and it can be worthwhile to concentrate initial effort on those that are simplest to execute because they are within the remit of a single organisation; or because they build on cross-organisational initiatives within cities that are already underway.

In my August article “Five roads to a Smarter City” I gave some ideas of what those initiatives might be, and the factors affecting their viability and timing, including:

  1. Top-down, strategic transformations across city systems;
  2. Optimisation of individual infrastructures such as energy, water and transportation;
  3. Applying “Smarter” approaches to “micro-city” environments such as industrial parks, transport hubs, university campuses or leisure complexes;
  4. Exploiting the technology platforms emerging from the cost-driven transformation to shared services in public sector;
  5. Supporting the “Open Data” movement.

A roadmap consisting of several such individual activities within the context of a set of cross-city goals, and co-ordinated by a forum of cross-city stakeholders, can form a powerful programme for making cities Smarter.

4. Put the financing in place

A crucial factor in assessing the viability of those activities, and then executing them, is putting in place the required financing. There are many ways in which that can be done, and I’ve described several of them in two articles over the last two weeks:

In “Ten ways to pay for a Smarter City (part one)“:

And in “Ten ways to pay for a Smarter City (part two):

I’m a technologist, not a financier or economist; so those articles are not intended to be exhaustive or definitive. But they do suggest a number of practical options that can be explored.

(Meeting with social entrepreneurs in Sunderland who create local innovations in the city)

5. Thinking beyond the future: how to make “Smarter” a self-sustaining process

Once a city has become “Smart”, is that the end of the story?

I don’t think so. The really Smart city is one that has put in place soft and hard infrastructures that can be used in a continuous process of reinvention and creativity.

In the same way that a well designed urban highway should connect rather than divide the city communities it passes through, the new technology platforms put in place to support Smarter City initiatives should be made open to communities and entrepreneurs to constantly innovate in their own local context. I described that process along with some examples of it in “The amazing heart of a Smarter City: the innovation boundary“.

When it works well, the result is the ongoing creation of new products, services or even marketplaces that enable city residents and visitors to make choices every day that reinforce local values and synergies. I described some of the ways in which technology could enable those markets to be designed to encourage transactions that support local outcomes in “From Christmas lights to bio-energy: how technology will change our sense of place“. And the money-flows within those markets can be used as the basis of financing their infrastructure, as I discussed in “Digital Platforms for Smarter City Market-Making“.

Birmingham’s Smart City Commission is due to meet again in two weeks’ time. Since it last met I’ve been discussing its work with entrepreneurs, academics and urbanists in the city. I hope that together we can successfully help the UK’s second city along this path.

(Artist’s impression of a vertical urban farm shared by Curbed SF)

A philosophical imperative

It’s worth at this point reminding ourselves why we’re compelled to make cities Smarter. I’ve often referred to the pressing economic and environmental pressures we’re all aware of as the reasons to act; but they are really only the acute symptoms of an underlying demographic trend and its effect on the behaviour of complex systems within cities.

The world’s population is expected to grow towards 10 billion in 2070; and most of that growth will be within cities. The physicist and biologist Geoffrey West’s work on cities as complex systems showed that larger, denser cities are more successful in creating wealth. That creation of wealth attracts more residents, causing further growth – and further consumption of resources. At some point it’s inevitable that this self-reinforcing growth triggers a crisis.

If this sounds alarmist, consider the level of civic unrest associated with the Eurozone crisis in Greece and Spain; or that in the 2000 strike by the drivers who deliver fuel to petrol stations in the UK, some city supermarkets came within hours of running out of food completely. Or simply look to the frightening global effects of recent grain shortages caused by drought in the US.

Concern over this combination of the cost of resources and uncertainty in their supply has lead to sustainability becoming a critical economic and social issue, not just a long-term environmental one. And it demands changes in the way that cities behave.

As an example of just how far-reaching this thinking has become, consider the supply of food to urban areas. Whilst definitions vary, urban areas are usually defined as continuously built-up areas with a population of at least a few thousand people, living at a density of at least a few hundred people per square kilometer. Actual population densities in large cities are much higher than this, typically a few tens of thousands per square kilometer in developed economies, and sometimes over one hundred thousand per square kilometer in the largest megacities in emerging economies.

In contrast, one square kilometer of intensively farmed land with fertile soil in a good climate can feed approximately 1000 people according to Kate Cooper of the New Optimists forum, which is considering scenarios for Birmingham’s food future in 2050. Those numbers tell us that, then unless some radical new method of growing food appears, cities will never feed themselves, and will continue to rely on importing food from ever larger areas of farmland to support their rising populations.

(Photo by TEDxBrainport of Dr Mark Post explaining how meat can be grown artificially)

As I’ve noted before, such radical new methods are already appearing: artificial meat has been grown in laboratories; and the idea of creating “vertical farms” in skyscrapers is being seriously explored.

But these are surely scientific and engineering challenges; so why do I refer to a philosophical imperative?

I’ve previously referred to artificial meat and vertical farming as examples of “extreme urbanism“. They certainly push the boundaries of our ability to manipulate the natural world. And that’s where the philosophical challenge lies.

Do we regard ourselves as creatures of nature, or as creatures who manipulate nature? To what extent do we want to change the character of the world from which we emerged? As the population of our planet and our cities continues to rise, we will have to confront these questions, and decide how to answer them.

Geoffrey West’s work clearly predicts what will happen if we continue our current course; and I think it is likely that scientists and engineers will rise to the challenge of supporting even larger, denser cities than those we currently have. But personally I don’t think the result will be a world that I will find attractive to live in.

Organisations such as Population Matters campaign carefully and reasonably for an alternative path; an agenda of education, access to opportunity and individual restraint in the size of our families as a means to slow the growth of global population, so that more orthodox solutions can be affective – such as increasing the efficiency of food distribution, reducing food wastage (including our personal food wastage) and changing dietary habits – for instance, to eat less meat.

I don’t claim to know the answer to these challenges, but I’m thankful that they are the subject of urgent research by serious thinkers. The challenge for cities is to understand and incorporate this thinking into their own strategies in ways that are realistic and practical, in order that their Smarter City programmes represent the first steps on the path to a sustainable future.

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.

7 Responses to Five steps to a Smarter City; and the philosophical imperative for taking them

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