Tea, trust, and hacking – how Birmingham is getting Smarter
October 3, 2012 13 Comments
As I described in my last article on this blog, the second meeting of Birmingham’s Smart City Commission last week addressed the question: “what will make Birmingham a Smart City, not just a place where a few “smart things” happen?
A large part of our discussion was concerned with the way a city-level Smart initiative can engage in and enable the communities and individuals who are already creating innovations in the city.
Nick Booth of Podnosh told the Commission about his work running social media surgeries in Birmingham. Nick helps these conversations to take place across the city’s communities; their purpose is to share an understanding of the power that social media can offer to communities to share resources more effectively and create social value. Nick and the volunteers he works with were recently honoured by the UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, with a “Big Society Award” in recognition of their work.
Social media is not the answer to all the challenges of Smarter Cities; but it still has tremendous unrealised potential to contribute to them. I’ve written many times on this blog about the fundamental changes that internet and social media technologies have caused in industries such as publishing, music and video over the last decade; but there are still many communities who are not yet making full use of them.
The physicist and biologist Geoffrey West’s work has shown that the nature of human social behaviour creates a feedback loop that will lead to ongoing growth in the size and density of city populations; and this in turn will create ongoing increases in the consumption of resources. As I remarked recently, there’s a growing consensus that we cannot continue to consume resources at the rate that this growth suggests. The solution, according to Professor West, is to create changes in the way that social and urban systems work. He is not prescriptive about what those changes should be; but in my view we have already seen enough examples of the use of social media to create sustainable systems to suggest that it could be at least part of the solution. Examples include Carbon Voyage‘s system for sharing taxis; the business-to-consumer and business-to-business markets in sustainable food production operated by Big Barn and Sustaination; and the Freecycle recycling network.
The social media surgeries that Nick runs in Birmingham are helping communities to create similar innovations for themselves. What makes them work is the personal philosophy that’s applied by those who engage in them: a willingness to “turn up and have something to offer” in an informal conversation.
In answer to the question “what could make Birmingham a Smart City?”, Nick went so far as to reply “having more conversations over cups of tea”.
Among the maxims on Lord Naoshige’s wall there was this one: Matters of great concern should be treated lightly. Master Ittei wrote: Matters of small concern should be treated seriously.
The point is that behaving “lightly” and taking the trouble to go to meet people in the environments where they are comfortable are profoundly important components of the approach that makes social media surgeries work. They create trust, and invite contribution and co-creation. And they encourage those who receive help at one surgery in turn to offer help at another.
Several of us came together in Birmingham last weekend for another conversation to create value in the city: the “Smart Hack” organised by Gavin Broughton at Birmingham Science Park Aston - an example of the increasingly common “hackathons” in which developers contribute their time and expertise to create new “apps” for the cities where they live. I was really pleased that IBM helped to fund the facilities and catering for the event.
(As a brief aside: the word “hacking” can mean many things; but when it is used by computer programmers in this context, it means using technology in a clever and innovative way to solve a problem. It is a very positive activity. Some programmers would even describe the astonishing technology innovations that made it possible to land on the moon in 1969 as “hacks”, and would consider doing so to be a demonstration of their deep respect and admiration for the scientists and engineers involved).
Following a series of introductory provocations about Open Data and Smarter Cities technologies, about thirty of us discussed the challenges and opportunities facing Birmingham that such approaches could apply to. Within a short time, an idea had been proposed which seemed viable – could an “app” be created to connect charities that distribute food to catering services who might have leftover food to spare?
The importance of addressing wastage and efficiency in urban food systems is something that I’ve written about before on this blog. The idea the Smart Hack team created was carefully formulated as a way to reduce food wastage that would be compliant with food safety and hygiene legislation. A smaller team of 10 or so coders subsequently spent Saturday and Sunday building an app based on the idea, fuelled by beer and pizza – and by their own willingness to contribute to their city.
In Birmingham’s Smart City Commission we discussed how conversations such as social media surgeries and the “Smart Hack” lead to innovation; and asked whether they represent a “soft infrastructure” for Smarter Cities in which it is just as worthwhile to invest as the “hard infrastructure” with which we are perhaps more familiar – open data portals, network infrastructure and so on. I certainly think they do. I’ve spent today at the “Smart Infrastructure” summit organised by IBM and the Start Initiative having a similar discussion focussed on challenges, opportunities and communities in Glasgow, and the same thinking seemed to apply there.
This approach of engagement through conversation also offers cities a chance to deliver new “hard” infrastructures for Smarter Cities that are better suited to the needs of communities, innovators, citizens and businesses: by becoming a “listening” city, and by understanding and then removing some of the barriers that make it hard for small organisations to create successful innovations. That might mean investing in broadband or wireless internet coverage in areas that don’t have it; making public sector procurement processes more open to small businesses; or simply helping communities to win funding to build better places in which to come together to communicate and create ideas, such as the new “Container City” incubation facility for social enterprises in Sunderland.
The European Union recognised the importance of supporting social innovation this way in a recent report, “Empowering people, driving change – social innovation in the European Union“, and the European Commission’s president José Manuel Barroso will launch a social innovation competition on 1 October, the “Europe Social Innovation Prize“. The Guardian newspaper in the UK wrote an interesting article about these annoucements, and offering several other examples of the power of community-based social innovation.
If we are really going to make our cities “Smarter” and more successful, then we must allow all of the individuals and communities in cities to participate in that process. The way to start doing that is through conversations that build trust and create the environment for inclusive innovation. Tea, trust and hacking. It’s what will make Birmingham – and every other city – Smarter.
(This article and the events it describes are the result of the activities of many people, several of whom appear in the photographs I’ve used by Sebastian Lenton: Nick Booth of Podnosh; Gavin Broughton; David Roberts of DropletPay; James Cattell who following his great work on Open Data for Digital Birmingham has recently joined the Government Digital Service; Andy Mabbett; Oojal Jhutti of iWazat – who first suggested the idea for the food “app” at the “Smart Hack” event; and Andy Cowin of Sanfire who has forgotten more about creating innovation through conversations than I’ll ever know. I also owe a deep debt of thanks to Tom Baker and his colleagues at Sunderland City Council for introducing me to some of the amazing social innovators in Sunderland at the start of our work on Sunderland’s “City Cloud” – they have been an inspiration to me ever since).