How to build a Smarter City: 23 design principles for digital urbanism
June 17, 2013 14 Comments
At the same time that cities everywhere are seeking funds for Smarter City initiatives, and often relying on central government or research grants to do so, I know of literally billions of Pounds, Euros, and Dollars that are being spent on relatively conventional development and infrastructure projects that aren’t particularly “smart”.
Why is that?
One reason is that we have yet to turn our experience to date into prescriptive, re-usable guidance. Many examples of “Smarter City” projects have demonstrated that in principle technologies such as social media, information marketplaces and the “internet of things” can support city-level objectives such as wellbeing, social mobility, economic growth and infrastructure resilience. But these individual results do not yet constitute a normalised evidence base to indicate which approaches apply in which situations, and to predict in quantitative terms what the outcomes will be.
And whilst a handful of cities such as Portland and Dublin have implemented information platforms on which sophisticated research can be carried out to predict the effect that technology and other interventions will have on a specific city, elsewhere we are in the early stages of considering the strategic role that technology should play in the overall design, planning and governance of cities.
We have been in this position before. In her seminal 1961 work “The Death and Life of Great American Cities“, Jane Jacobs wrote of the extant planning regime that in her opinion was impeding, or even destroying, the growth of healthy, urban cities in favour of a misguided faith in the suburban “Garden City” vision and its derivatives:
“Private investment shapes cities, but social ideas (and laws) shape private investment. First comes the image of what we want, then the machinery is adapted to turn out that image. The financial machinery has been adjusted to create anti-city images because, and only because, we as a society thought this would be good for us. If and when we think that lively, diversified city, capable of continual, close- grained improvement and change, is desirable, then we will adjust the financial machinery to get that.”
Similarly, today’s planning and procurement practises do not explicitly recognise the value of the Smart City vision, and therefore are not shaping the financial instruments to deliver it.
This is not because those practises are at fault; it is because technologists, urbanists, architects, procurement officers, policy-makers and planners need to work together to evolve those practises to take account of the new possibilities available to cities through technology.
I was recently asked by a city that I work closely with to contribute suggestions for how their next planning strategy could reflect the impact of the technology agenda. Drawing on experiences and conversations with cities, Universities, government bodies and professional organisations over the last year, including the “Digital Urbanism” workshop help at the Academy of Urbanism Congress 2013 in Bradford, UK on 16th May, I put together a set of intentionally provocative candidate “design principles” for them to consider.
I’ve reproduced those principles in this article. They will not be universally accepted, and it is not possible yet to provide a mature body of evidence to support them. Whilst some will seem obvious, some may be controversial – or simply naive. Many will change or be discarded in time; some will be found to be misguided or unworkable. Because the outcomes we are seeking are often qualitative – “vibrant communities”, for example – and because research into city systems and the work of standards bodies is still ongoing, many of them are aspirational and subjective. But by presenting active principles rather than passive observations, my hope is to stimulate a useful debate.
A final caveat: my profession is technology, not the architecture of buildings and structures, urban design or town-planning. I therefore lack the depth of background in urban thinking that will be shared by many of those who I hope to engage in this debate; and as a consequence, some of this material may duplicate well-established thinking; be unsophisticated in content or expression; or just plain wrong. I hope that you will forgive and accept the attempts of a passionate newcomer to contribute thinking from a new domain into one that is well established; and help me to improve on this first attempt.
Candidate Design Principles for Digital Urbanism
The importance of “place” in town planning and urban design has come to encapsulate experience from a variety of domains about what makes urban environments successful from the perspective of the people, businesses and communities who use them. It was summarised by Copenhagen’s City Architect, Tina Saaby, in her address to the Academy of Urbanism Congress 2013 as “Consider urban life before urban space; consider urban space before buildings”.
In identifying “urban life” as the starting point, I think Tina was reminding us to begin always by considering the needs and behaviour of individual people, and then their interactions with each other. This was the basis of Jane Jacobs’ understanding of cities and systems such as their economies and governments; and more recently it has been used by Professor Geoffrey West of the Sante Fe Institute to perform detailed, quantitative analyses of the performance of city systems.
It’s equally important to use urban life and “place” as our starting points when guiding the application of technology in city systems, and so by analogy, a candidate principle for the digital agenda in cities could be:
Principle 1: Consider urban life before urban place; consider urban place before technology.
Recent scientific work has shown that the rate of change is increasing in modern society – and specifically in cities as they grow. For example, Geoffrey West’s work shows that larger cities create more wealth, more efficiently, than smaller cities. In doing so, they attract residents, grow bigger still, and accelerate wealth creation further. This self-reinforcing process results in an ever-increasing demand for resources. It powered the growth of cities in the developed world through the Industrial Revolution; it is powering the growth of cities in emerging markets today; and it is driving the overall growth in global population. Professor Ian Robertson of Trinity College Dublin has even shown that as cities get bigger, people in them walk faster.
So in the many cities which are growing both organically and by continuing to attract immigration, two further candidate principles could be:
Principle 2: Demonstrate sustainability, scalability and resilience over an extended timeframe.
Principle 3: Demonstrate flexibility over an extended timeframe.
Physical Infrastructures and Construction
A difficulty in most existing buildings is to adapt them to support new technology infrastructures – to update wiring, or to add cabling for new network technologies, for example. Any specific prediction concerning our needs for such infrastructures in the future will likely be wrong; but it is certain that those needs will be different from today; and so:
Principle 4: New or renovated buildings should be built to contain sufficient space for current and anticipated future needs for technology infrastructure such as broadband cables; and of materials and structures that do not impede wireless networks. Spaces for the support of fixed cabling and other infrastructures should be easily accessible in order to facilitate future changes in use.
Furthermore, broader trends that are influenced by technology – such as mobile working, collaborative working spaces, pop-up shops and the demise of some traditional retail enterprises - are evidence that the rate of change in the uses to which we want to put buildings and urban spaces is increasing. This leads to another candidate principle:
Principle 5: New or renovated buildings should be constructed so as to be as functionally flexible as possible, especially in respect to their access, infrastructure and the configuration of interior space; in order to facilitate future changes in use.
Connectivity and Information Accessibility
Sources as respected as McKinsey and Imperial College have asserted that we are entering an age in which economic value will be created through the use of the digital information that is increasingly ubiquitous not just in our online activities but in the systems that operate physical services such as transport, utilities and buildings.
A fundamental requirement to participate in the information economy is to be connected to digital networks, leading to candidate design principle six:
Principle 6: Any development should ensure wired and wireless connectivity is available throughout it, to the highest standards of current bandwidth, and with the capacity to expand to any foreseeable growth in that standard.
Organisations of all types and sizes are competing for the new markets and opportunities that digital information creates – that is simply the natural consequence of the emergence of a new resource in a competitive economy. Much of that information results from data created by the actions and activities of all of us as individuals; so we are the ultimate stakeholders in the information economy, and should seek to establish an equitable consensus for how our data is used.
However, in most cases converting the data that is created by our actions into useful information with a business value requires either a computing infrastructure to process the data or human expertise to assess it. Both of those have a cost associated with them that must be borne by some individual or organisation.
Those forces of the information economy may only ever be resolved in specific contexts rather than in universal principle. But any new development or supporting technology system that adds to the cost of allowing data associated with it to be openly exploited in principle adds a potential impediment to future economic and social productivity. So, even if the means to bear the costs associated with providing useful information are not agreed initially:
Principle 7: Any new development should demonstrate that all reasonable steps have been taken to ensure that information from its technology systems can be made openly available without additional expenditure. Whether or not information is actually available will be dependent on commercial and legal agreement, but it should not be additionally subject to unreasonable expenditure. And where there is no compelling commercial or legal reason to keep data closed, it should actually be made open.
A central tenet of the Smarter Cities movement is to create value by integrating systems. The integration of technology systems is made simpler and less expensive when those systems conform to standards for the format, meaning, encoding and interchange of data. However, standards for interoperability for Smarter City systems are in the early stages of development, including contributions from initiatives such as the British Standards Institute’s Smarter Cities Strategy, the City Protocol Society, and IBM’s SCRIBE Research project into city information models. Candidate principle eight therefore states that:
Principle 8: The information systems of any new development should conform to the best available current standards for interoperability between IT systems in general; and for interoperability in the built environment, physical infrastructures and Smarter Cities specifically.
There is much debate as to whether, beyond basic network connectivity, higher-level digital services should form part of a national or civic infrastructure to support businesses and communities in creating growth through digital technologies. The EU “Future Internet” project FI-WARE and Imperial College’s “Digital Cities Exchange” research programme are both investigating the specific digital services that could be provided as enabling infrastructure to support this growth; and the British Standards Institute is exploring related standards to encourage growth amongst SMEs.
A further candidate principle expresses the potential importance of this research to the economic competitiveness of cities in the information economy:
Principle 9: New developments should demonstrate that they have considered the commercial viability of providing the digital civic infrastructure services recommended by credible research sources.
The price of energy is expected to rise in the long term until new energy sources are scalably commercialised; and the UK specifically is expected to experience power shortfalls by 2015. Many urban areas are already short of power, limited simply by the capacity of existing delivery subsystems.
Overall it is clear that it is economically and environmentally sensible to reduce our use of energy. One way to do so is to make better use of the information from city systems and buildings that describe energy usage. Property developers in Amsterdam used such information to lower the cost of energy infrastructure for new developments by collaborating to create an investment case for smart grid infrastructure.
Candidate principle ten is therefore:
Principle 10: Any data concerning a new development that could be used to reduce energy consumption within that development, or in related areas of a city, should be made open.
As consumer awareness of energy costs and sustainability has increased, developers of residential communities that have provided state-of-the-art technologies for sustainable living have reported strong demand, leading to a further candidate principle:
Principle 11: Property development proposals should indicate how they will attract business and residential tenants through providing up-to-date sustainable infrastructures for heat and power such as CHP, smart metering, local energy grids and solar energy.
Developments carried out according to plans developed in collaboration with existing residents have provided some of the most interesting examples of successful placemaking. Social media, virtual reality and other digital technologies offer the opportunity to enable richer, more widespread consultations and explorations of planned developments by the communities that they will effect. Candidate principles twelve and thirteen express the possibility for these technologies to contribute to placemaking and successful urban developments:
Principle 12: Consultations on plans for new developments should fully exploit the capabilities of social media, virtual worlds and other technologies to ensure that communities affected by them are given the widest, most immersive opportunity possible to contribute to their design.
Principle 13: Management companies, local authorities and developers should have a genuinely engaging presence in social media so that they are approachable informally.
City communities are not passive observers to the Smarter City phenomenon. They may be crowd-sourcing mapping information for OpenStreetMap; running or participating in hacking events such as the Government Open Hackday in Birmingham last year; or they may be creating new social enterprises or regional technology startups, such as the many city currencies and trading schemes that are appearing.
But access to and familiarity with social media is far from ubiquitous; the potential for new communities to adopt and benefit from such technology is enormous, and need not be expensive. Informal programmes to spread awareness and provide education, such as the social media surgeries started by Podnosh in Birmingham, can have a powerful effect helping communities to exploit social technology to uncover hidden synergies and connections.
Principle 14: Local authorities should support awareness and enablement programmes for social media and related technologies, particularly “grass roots” initiatives within local communities.
Local food initiatives – in which local food processing is more important than local food growing in cities with limited open space but plentiful manufacturing space - have the potential to strengthen community ties; provide employment opportunities; promote healthier diets; and reduce the carbon impact of food supply systems. They can be supported by measures such as the provision of generous gardens, allotments or public space in the physical environment; and by the use of technology to enable online food markets or related distribution systems.
Such initiatives are generally operated by private sector organisations – often small-scale entrepreneurial or social enterprises; but their formation may be facilitated by local authorities or developers during the course of development or regeneration programmes. Candidate principle fifteen is therefore:
Principle 15: Urban development and regeneration programmes should support the formation, activity and success of local food initiatives by cooperating with local community and business support programmes to support the infrastructures they need to succeed and grow.
Demographic and economic trends indicate that we are living longer and needing to support ourselves later in life. A variety of technologies can provide or contribute to that support:
Principle 16: Residential accommodation should incorporate space for environmental monitoring, interactive portals, and connectivity to enable remote support, telehealth systems and homeworking.
Economic Development and Vitality
In his address to the Academy of Urbanism Congress, economist Michael Ward, Chair of the Centre for Local Economic Strategies, asserted that:
“The key task facing civic leaders in the 21st Century is this: how, in a period of profound and continuing economic changes, will our citizens earn a living and prosper?”
For cities to provide jobs, they need successful businesses; and technology will have a dramatic effect on what it means to be a successful business in the 21st Century.
Over the last two decades, the internet, mobile phone and social media have redefined the boundaries of the communications, technology, media, publishing and technology industries. The companies that thrived through those changes were those who best understood how to use technology to merge capabilities from across those industries into new business models. In the coming decade as digitisation extends to industries such as manufacturing through technologies such as 3D printing and smart materials, more and more industry sectors will be redefined by similar levels of disruption and convergence.
So how are the economies of our cities placed to be successful in that world of change?
Many have the mix of technology, creative and industrial capabilities to be successful in future economies in principle; but in practise those capabilities are in separate geographical locations, between which it is difficult for serendipitous interactions to create new innovations – I discussed these issues in the context of Birmingham, my home city, in an article a few weeks ago.
Spatial modelling techniques can predict the impact of planned developments on these characteristics of the cities surrounding them – i.e. whether they will improve or worsen connectivity between value-creating districts in different economic sectors. Candidate principles seventeen and eighteen express how these techniques could be used:
Principle 17: New developments should demonstrate through the use of the latest urban modelling techniques that they will increase connectivity – particularly by walking and cycling – between important value-creating districts and economic priority zones that are adjacent or near to them.
Principle 18: Developments should offer the opportunity of serendipitous interaction and innovation between stakeholders from different occupations.
The nature of work, business and employment in many industries is changing, driven by technology. Whilst these changes may not take place at the same speed in all businesses, in all industries, in all places; it will become increasingly important over time that cities and districts provide the facilities that future enterprises will require:
Principle 19: Developments should provide, or should be adaptable to provide, facilities to enable the location and success of future ways of working including remote and mobile working, “fab labs” (3d printing facilities), “pop-up” establishments and collaborative working spaces.
Most urban spaces and developments do not succeed immediately; time is required for them to attract and adapt to the uses that they will eventually successfully support. That condition of success will be more rapidly achieved or new developments, and will be sustained for longer, if it is possible to easily adapt them. Such adaptability is particularly important given the speed of change and innovation that digital technology can enable, leading to candidate principle twenty:
Principle 20: Planning, usage and other policies governing the use of urban space and structures should facilitate innovation and changes of use, including temporary changes of use.
Privacy and Public Safety
Privacy and security are perhaps the greatest current challenges of the digital age; but that is simply a reflection of their importance in all aspects of our lives. Jane Jacobs’ description of urban systems in terms of human and community behaviour was based on those concepts, and is still regarded as the basis of our understanding of cities.
But new technologies are changing the relationship between physical and digital environments with the consequence that a failure in privacy or security digital systems could affect community vitality or public safety in cities. So candidate principle twenty-one is:
Principle 21: Any information system in a city development should provide a clear policy for the use of personal information. Any use of that information should be with the consent of the individual.
There is a truth about social media, information marketplaces and related “Smarter City” technologies that is far too rarely explored, but that has serious implications. It is that rather than removing the need to travel and transport things, these technologies can dramatically increase our requirements to do so. Candidate principle twenty-two expresses the need for transport plans to take account of this potential:
Principle 22: Transport plans supporting new developments should demonstrate that they have not only provided for traditional transport demand, but also that which might be created by online business models and other social technologies.
This article is an early attempt to express candidate design principles for Smarter Cities; and I have not attempted to systematically address all of the potential domains of city systems where technology may have a role to play. Such an exercise would undoubtably yield further candidate principles. In addition, many other efforts are underway to encode emerging knowledge about the successful use of technology in city systems through organisations such as the City Protocol Society and the British Standards Institute or research programmes such as Imperial College’s Digital Cities Exchange. And so a final candidate principle encourages continuous awareness of the progress of such initiatives:
Principle 23: New developments should demonstrate that their design takes account of the latest best and emerging practises and patterns from Smarter Cities, smart urbanism, digital urbanism and placemaking.
When I first began to extract candidate design principles from my workshop and meeting notes, I doubted whether I would identify more than a handful; I was certainly not expecting to identify more than twenty. I think that it is encouraging to observe that there is so much that can be stated positively about the potential of technology to create value in cities.
My sense, though, is that an overarching set of five to ten principles would be much more useful in defining an approach to Smarter Cities that could be broadly adopted. In order to identify what those principles should be, I will need to more clearly define their audience and purpose. Such an exercise will probably form the basis of a subsequent article for this blog.
But in the meantime, I hope that I have offered food for thought; and I look forward to hearing your views.