The six steps to a Smarter City; and the philosophical imperative for taking them (updated)

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

(This article originally appeared in September 2012 as “Five steps to a Smarter City: and the philosophical imperative for taking them“. Because it contains an overall framework for approaching Smart City transformations, I’ll keep it updated to reflect the latest content on this blog, and ongoing developments in the industry. It can also be accessed through the page link “Six steps to a Smarter City” in the navigation bar above). 

As I remarked last week, in the past months some interesting announcements have been made concerning emerging frameworks and protocols for Smarter Cities – such as the “City Protocol” collaboration which will be formally launched at the Smart City Expo this week in Barcelona.

There are now a wide variety of established and emerging repositories of experience and practise relevant to Smart Cities in such domains as sustainability, technology, community engagement and economic development. Some are open collaborations; some are research programmes; and some are published position papers from consultancies and service providers. It therefore seems an opportune time to update the article “Five steps to a Smarter City” I wrote in September, to include a sixth step: “Structure your approach to a Smart City by drawing on the available resources of expertise“:

  1. Define what a “Smarter City” means to you
  2. Convene a stakeholder group to create a specific Smarter City vision
  3. Structure your approach to a Smart City by drawing on the available resources of expertise
  4. Populate a roadmap that can deliver the vision
  5. Put the financing in place
  6. Thinking beyond the future: how to make “Smarter” a self-sustaining process … and a philosophical imperative for doing so

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. Structure your approach to a Smart City by drawing on the available resources of expertise

Any holistic approach to a Smarter City needs to recognise the immensely complex context that a city represents: a rich “system of systems” comprising the physical environment, economy, transport and utility systems, communities, education and many other services, systems and human activities.

In “The new architecture of Smart Cities” I laid out a framework  for thinking about that context; in particular highlighting the need to focus on the “soft infrastructure” of conversations, trust, relationships and engagement between people, communities, enterprises and institutions that is fundamental to establishing a consensual view of the future of a city.

In that article  I also asserted that whilst in Smarter Cities we are often concerned with the application of technology to city systems, the context in which we do so – i.e. our understanding of the city as a whole – is the same context as that in which other urban professionals operate: architects, town planners and policy-makers, for example. An implication is that when looking for expertise to inform an approach to “Smarter Cities”, we should look broadly across the field of urbanism, and not restrict ourselves to that material which pertains specifically to the application of technology to cities.

So whilst  “City Protocol” seems to be the strongest emerging initiative to determine frameworks and standards for approaching Smarter Cities – and certainly should be considered by any city starting on that path – there are other resources that can be drawn on.

UN-HABITAT, the United Nations agency for human settlements, recently published its “State of the World’s Cities 2012/2013” report. UNHABITAT promote socially and environmentally sustainable towns and cities, and their reports and statistics on urbanisation are frequently cited as authoritative. Their 2012/2013 report includes extensive consultation with cities around the world, and proposes a number of new mechanisms intended to assist decision-makers. It focuses extensively on South America, Africa, Asia and the Middle East; but also considers a number of European and North American examples.

(The components of a Smart City architecture I described in “The new architecture of Smart Cities“)

The World Bank’s Urban Development page contains a number of reports covering many aspects of urbanisation relevant to Smarter Cities, such as “Transforming Cities with Transit”, “Urban Risk Assessments: Towards a Common Approach” and a forthcoming report in December to promote “sustainable urban development through cross-sector integration by focusing on the careful coordination of transit and land development”. At the Bank’s “Rethinking Cities” symposium in Barcelona in October, they also announced that they would be publishing a book of the same title containing a set of viewpoints on similar themes.

The Academy of Urbanism, a UK-based not-for-profit association of several hundred urbanists including policy-makers, architects, planners and academics, publishes the “Friebrug Charter for Sustainable Urbanism” in collaboration with the city of Frieburg, Germany. Frieburg won the Academy’s European City of the Year award in 2010 but its history of recognition as a sustainable city goes back further. The charter contains a number of useful principles and ideas for achieving consensual sustainability that can be applied to Smarter Cities.

A number of current research programmes are seeking to define more technical standards for achieving the interoperability between city systems that underpins many Smarter City ideas. Imperial College in the UK have established the Digital City Exchange initiative; Imperial have a depth of expertise across urban systems such as transport and energy, and are working with a number of academic and industry partners.

The European Union Platform for Intelligent Cities (EPIC) project is similarly researching  architectures and standards for Smart Cities technology infrastructure – my colleagues in IBM and at Birmingham City Universityare amongst the participants. Finally, the “FI-WARE” project, also funded by the European Union, is researching architectures and standards for a “future internet platform”: one of its focusses is the integration of city systems, and particularly how cities can provide technology infrastructures on which SMEs and entrepreneurs can base innovative new city services.

With the UK Technology Strategy Board continuing to invest through it’s “Future Cities” programme (link requires registration) and the EU announcing new investments in Smart Cities recently, research activity in this area will surely grow.

Consultancies, technology and service providers also offer useful views. IBM’s own perspectives and case studies can be found at http://www.ibm.com/smartercities/; Arup have published a number of viewpoints, including “Information Marketplaces: the new economics of cities“; and McKinsey’s recent report “Government designed for new times: a global conversation” contains a number of sections dedicated to technology and Smarter Cities.

Finally, the large number of “Smart Cities” and “Future Cities” communities on the web are good sources of emerging new knowledge, such as UBM’s “Future Cities” site; the Sustainable Cities Collective; and Linked-In discussion Groups such as “Smart Cities and City 2.0“, “Smarter Cities” and “Smart Urbanism“.

4. 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.

5. 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 described several of them in two articles in September:

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)

6. 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“.

(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.

2 Responses to The six steps to a Smarter City; and the philosophical imperative for taking them (updated)

  1. Rick Rybeck says:

    With regard to financing, you might want to include the following article, “Using Value Capture to Finance Infrastructure and Encourage Compact Development.” It can be found at https://www.mwcog.org/uploads/committee-documents/k15fVl1f20080424150651.pdf

    The article mentions how infrastructure can become self-financing and create incentives for more affordable and sustainable land use.

  2. Great article Rick. I especially liked the philosophical bit “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?”

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