Zen and the art of messy urbanism

(Children playing in the “Science Garden” outside Birmingham’s Science Museum at Millenium Point; part of the new Eastside City Park, a vast urban space surrounded by education, culture and manufacturing.)

Over the past few months and weeks, some interesting announcements have been made concerning emerging frameworks and protocols for Smarter Cities.

Perhaps the highest profile was the formation of the “City Protocol” collaboration in Barcelona, which will be formally launched at the Smart City Expo later this month. The protocol has been established to identify and capture emerging practises and standards to promote interoperability across city systems and enable progress towards city-level goals to be stimulated, coordinated and measured.

More recently, UN-HABITAT, the United Nations agency for human settlements which promotes socially and environmentally sustainable towns and cities, and a source frequently referred to for statistics concerning the progress of urbanisation, published its “State of the World’s Cities 2012/2013″ report, which includes extensive consultation with cities around the world. It proposes a number of new mechanisms which are intended to assist decision makers in cities.

These resources of knowledge and experience will be key to helping cities face the grand challenge of demographics, economics and sustainability that is becoming acute. In a paper published in the respected, peer-reviewed scientific journal Nature, Professors Geoffrey West and Luis Bettencourt described it as “the greatest challenge that the planet has faced since humans became social“; and we have already seen evidence of its urgency. The “Barnett graph of doom“, for example, famously predicted that within 20 years, unless significant changes in public services are made, cities will be unable to afford to provide any services except social care; the UK’s energy regulator Ofgem’s recently warned that the country could experience power shortages in the winter of 2015-2016; and there is concern that this year’s drought in the US will once again cause food shortages across the world.

However, we should not expect that cities will reach a sustainable future state through the process of city leaders and institutions adopting a deterministic framework or method. Such an approach may work when applied to the transformation of organisations and their formal relationships with partners; but cities are more fundamentally complex “systems of systems” incorporating vast numbers of autonomous agents and interrelationships.

The Collective Research Initiatives Trust (CRIT) recently produced a fascinating piece of research, “Being Nicely Messy“, about the evolution of Mumbai’s economy in this context. As a background for the transformative changes taking place, they state that:

“While the population in Mumbai grew by 25% between 1991 and 2010, the number of people traveling by trains during the same years increased by 66% and number of vehicles grew by 181%. At the same time, the number of enterprises in the city increased by 56%. All of this indicates a restructuring of the economy, where the nature of work and movement has changed.”

Rather than focus on the policies and approaches of the city’s institutions, CRIT’s research focussed on the activities of everyday entrepreneurs in Mumbai – average people, finding a way to make their livelihood within the city:

“… new patterns of work emerged as the new entrepreneurs struggled to survive and settle. they occupied varied locations and blurred the distinction between formality and informality; legality and illegality as all of them produced legitimate commodities and services.”

“… the entrepreneurs of Mumbai have innovatively occupied city spaces maximizing their efficiency …”

“… the blurry / messy condition … contributes to the high transactional capacity of the urban form.”

“… mumbai’s urbanism is like a froth with overlapping ecosystems of geographies, legislations, claims, powers, kinships, friendships & information.”

Crucially, CRIT relate this “messy” innovative activity to the ability of individuals within the city to access opportunities to create their own wealth and livelihood within the city and its changing economy:

“… mobility or to mobilize is the ability to navigate the complex urban ecosystem of geographies, legislations, claims, powers, relationships and information to construct one’s path for the future amidst these movements.”

(Photo by lecercle of a girl in Mumbai doing her homework on whatever flat surface she could find. Her use of a stationary tool usually employed for physical mobility to enhance her own social mobility is an example of the very basic capacity we all have to use the resources available to us in innovative ways)

This sort of organic innovation takes place continuously in cities, and increasingly exploits technology resources as well as the capacity of the physical urban environment and its transport systems. For example I wrote recently about the community innovation that’s taking place in Birmingham currently; including “social media surgeries” and “hacking” weekends. There is currently a considerable hope that this adoption of technology by community innovators will enable them to achieve an impact on cities as a whole.

But creating sustainable, scalable new enterprises and city services from these innovations is not straightforward. After analysing the challenges that have caused many such initiatives to achieve only temporary results, O’Reilly Radar wrote recently that cities seeking to sustainably exploit open data and hacktivism need to invest in “sustainability, community, and civic value”; and San Francisco announced a series of measures, including both legislation for open data and the appointment of a “Chief Data Officer” for the city, intended to achieve that. I have previously argued that in addition, cities should analyse the common technology services required to support these innovations in a secure and scalable way, and make them available to communities, innovators and entrpreneurs.

For this to happen, new relationships are required between city institutions, their service delivery and technology partners, communities, entrepreneurs, businesses, social enterprises and all of the other very varied stakeholders in the city ecosystem. I’ve previously described the conversations and creation of trust required to build these relationships as a “soft infrastructure” for cities; and new models of collaborative decision-making and activity such as “constellations” and “articulations” are emerging to describe them.

It’s very important to not be too structured in our thinking about soft infrastructure. There is a temptation to revert to thinking in silos, and assume that city communities can be segmented into areas of separate concern such as neighbourhoods, sectors such as “digital entrepreneurs”, or service user communities such as “commuters”. To do this is to forget where and how innovation and the creation of new value often occurs.

Michael Porter, creator of the famous “five forces” model of business, and his colleagues have written that new value is often created when capabilities – and technologies – are converged across sectors. In 2006,  IBM’s worldwide survey of CEOs in public and private sector carried out with The Economist’s Intelligence Unit identified several different areas of innovation: products and services, markets, operations and business models. In particular, innovations that use new business models to offer products and services that transcend and even disrupt existing market structures have the potential to create the most value.

The CRIT research recognised this need to blur boundaries; and went further to state that imposing formal boundaries inhibits the transactions that create value in the economy and society of cities. Tim Stonor has written and presented extensively on the idea that a city should be a “transaction engine”; and many urbanists have asserted that it is the high density of interactions that cities make possible that have led to the city becoming the predominant form of human habitation.

(Photo by Halans of volunteers collecting food for OzHarvest, who redistribute excess food from restaurants and hotels in Australian cities to charities supporting the vulnerable.)

Human thinking creates boundaries in the world; our minds recognise patterns and we impose those patterns on our perceptions and understanding. But this can inhibit our ability to recognise new possibilities and opportunities. Whilst many useful patterns do seem to be emerging from urban innovation – a re-emergence of bartering and local exchanges, social enterprises and community interest companies, sustainable districts, for example – it’s far too early for us to determine a market segmentation for the application of those models across city systems. Rather than seeking to stimulate innovation within specific sectors, CRIT argue instead for the provision of catalogues of “tools” that can be used by innovators in whatever context is appropriate for them.

The European Bio-Energy Research Institute in Birmingham, for example, is seeking to establish a regional supply chain of SMEs to support its work to develop small-scale, sustainable technology for recovering energy from waste food and sewage; in Mexico City, a new bartering market allows residents to exchange recyclable waste material for food; and in the UK the “Eco-Island” Community Interest Company is establishing a local smart-grid on the Isle of Wight to harness sustainable energy sources to enable the entire island to become self-sufficient in energy. These very different models are converging city systems such as food, waste and energy and disrupting the traditional models for supporting them.

In “The Way of Zen“, Alan Watts comments of Zen art that “the very technique involves the art of artlessness, or what Sabro Hasegawa has called the ‘controlled accident’, so that paintings are formed as naturally as the rocks and grasses which they depict”. Just as the relentless practise of technique can enable artists to have “beautiful accidents” when inspiration strikes; so cities should look to provide more effective tools to innovators for them to exploit in whatever context they can create new value. We should not expect the results always to be neat and tidy; and nor should our approach to encouraging them be.

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.

11 Responses to Zen and the art of messy urbanism

  1. Peter Cripps says:

    There’s an interview with Norman Foster in this quarters ‘Intelligent Life’ magazine where Foster says “we only appreciate urbanity when we have the opportunity to experience the opposite”. He goes on to say, in discussing the challenge of building new cities, especially in Africa, that this challenge is “to get that balance of greenery, vegetation, animals, space, silence, light and dark”. Foster seems to recognise this aspect of “messy urbanism” and hopefully architects like him will begin designing cities that are not neat and tidy but build in the other aspects that we as humans need to coexist in urban environments, not just with other people but nature as well. The whole article is worth a read by the way. Particularly interesting was that it asks whether Foster would be the architect he is, or even if he would be an architect, if he had not grown up in the messy city that was Manchester in the thirties and forties.

  2. rickrobinson says:

    Thanks Peter,

    It’s really interesting to hear those comments coming from such an authoritative voice; I don’t suppose you have a link to the article online?

    Cheers,

    Rick

  3. Pingback: Inspirational Simpli-City « The Urban Technologist

  4. Pingback: Happy Christmas, and thankyou, from the Urban Technologist « The Urban Technologist

  5. Pingback: The six steps to a Smarter City; and the philosophical imperative for taking them (updated 9th January 2013) « The Urban Technologist

  6. Mark Dixon says:

    Nice post…sayeth the DigitalDruid

    Messy is the boundary between order and chaos…it is where all innovation occurs. Order is not messy…and chaos is beyond messy. Messy is good…for a while. Messy represents experimentation to create value…recall my concept of “mass customization of place”. Ginni said it recently in another way in her address to the Council of Foreign Relations.

    That said, the issue of revisiting the old “order” to see if it can be improved significantly, thereby expanding the area in which order and chaos interact and hence promote more innovation, is worthy of investigation and positive exploitation.

    That is why I am looking to make real my Smarter Local Government and Cognitive Digital Democracy concepts.

    In biological terms, I want to speed up this “punctuated equilibrium” period of rapid, massive change humanity seems to be going through at the present time and “lock-in” some of the efficiencies we know can be done, which hopefully should free up more resources for innovation and service delivery to citizens…wish me luck. =8-)

    • Rick Robinson says:

      Thankyou Mark; you know I’m an admirer of your Smarter Local Government work – I hope we can continue to bounce ideas off each other!

      Cheers – and good luck!

      Rick

  7. Pingback: A design pattern for digital urbanism: City-Centre Enterprise Incubation | The Urban Technologist

  8. Pingback: Seven steps to a Smarter City; and the imperative for taking them (updated 8th September 2013) | The Urban Technologist

  9. Pingback: Six ways to design humanity and localism into Smart Cities | The Urban Technologist

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 324 other followers

%d bloggers like this: