Three mistakes we’re still making about Smart Cities

(David Willets, MP, Minister for Universities and Science, launches the UK Government’s Smart Cities Forum)

(I was asked this week to contribute my view of the present state of the Smart Cities movement to the UK Government’s launch of it’s Smart Cities forum, which will report to the Government’s Information Economy Council. This article is based on my remarks at the event).

One measure of how successfully we have built today’s cities using the technologies that shaped them over the last century – concrete, steel and the internal combustion engine – is the variation of life expectancy within them. In the UK, people born in the poorest areas of our large cities can expect to live lives that are two decades shorter than those born in the wealthiest areas.

We need to do much better than that as we apply the next generation of technology that will shape our lives – digital technology.

The market for Smart Cities, which many define as the application of digital technology to city systems, is growing. Entrepreneurial businesses such as Droplet and Shutl are delivering new city services, enabled by technology. City Councils, service providers and transport authorities are investing in Smart infrastructures, such as Bradford’s City Park, whose fountains and lights react to the movements of people through it. Our cities are becoming instrumented, interconnected and intelligent, creating new opportunities to improve the performance and efficiency of city systems.

But we are still making three mistakes that limit the scale at which truly innovative Smart City projects are being deployed.

1. We don’t use the right mix of skills to define Smart City initiatives

Over the last year, I’ve seen a much better understanding develop between some of the creative professions in the Smart Cities domain: technologists, design thinkers, social innovators, entrepreneurs and urban designers. Bristol’s “Hello Lamppost” is a good example of a project that uses technology to encourage playful interaction with an urban environment, thereby bringing the life to city streets that the urbanist Jane Jacobs‘ taught us is so fundamental to healthy city communities.

Internationally, cities have a great opportunity to learn from each others’ successes: smart, collective, sustainable urbanism in Scandinavia, as exemplified by Copenhagen’s Nordhavnen district; intelligent city planning and management in Asia and increasingly in the United States, where cities such as Chicago have also championed the open data movement; and the phenomenal level of small-scale, non-institutional innovation in communities in UK cities.

But this debate does not extend to some important institutions that are also beginning to explore how they can contribute towards the social and environmental wellbeing of cities and communities. Banks and investors, for example, who have the funds to support large-scale initiatives, or the skills to access them; or supermarkets and other retailers who operate across cities, nations and continents; but whose operational and economic footprint in cities is significant, and whose supply chains support or contribute to billions of lives.

It’s important to engage with these institutions in defining Smart City initiatives which not only cut across traditional silos of responsibility and budgets in cities, but also cut across the traditional asset classes and revenue streams that investors understand. A Smart City initiative that is crafted without their involvement will be difficult for them to understand, and they will be unlikely to support it. Instead, we need to craft Smart initiatives with them.

(The masterplan for Copenhagen’s regeneration of Nordhavnen, which was co-created with local residents and communities. Photo by Thomas Angermann)

2. We ask researchers to answer the wrong challenges

University research is a great source of new technologies for creating Smart solutions. But our challenge is rarely the availability of new technology – we have plenty of that already.

The real challenge is that we are not nearly exploiting the full potential of the technology already available to us; and that’s because in many cases we do not have a quantified evidence base for the financial, social, economic and environmental benefits of applying technology in city systems. Without that evidence, it’s hard to create a business case to justify investment.

This is the really valuable contribution that research could make to the Smart Cities market today: quantify the benefits of applying technology in city systems and communities; identify the factors that determine the degree to which those benefits can be realised in specific cities and communities; align the benefits to the financial and operating models of the public and private institutions that operate city services and assets; and provide the detailed data from which clear businesses cases with quantified risks and returns can be constructed.

3. We don’t listen to the quiet voices that matter

It’s my experience that the most powerful innovations that make a difference to real lives and communities occur when “little things” and “big things” work well together.

Challenges such as transport congestion, social mobility, responsible energy usage or small business growth are often extremely specific to local contexts. Successful change in those contexts is usually created when the people, community groups and businesses involved create, or co-create, initiatives to improve them.

But often, the resources available locally to those communities are very limited. How can the larger resources of institutional organisations be made available to them?

In “Resilience: why things bounce back“, Andrew Zolli describes many examples of initiatives that have successfully created meaningful change; and characterises the unusual qualities of the “translational leaders” that drive them – people who can engage with both small-scale, informal innovation in communities and large-scale, formal institutions with resources.

It’s my hope that we can enable more widespread changes not by relying only on such rare individuals, but by changing the way that we think about the design of city infrastructures. Rather than designing the services that they deliver, we should design what Service Scientists call the “affordances” they offer. An affordance is a capability of an infrastructure that can be adapted to the needs of an individual.

An example might be a smart grid power infrastructure that provides an open API allowing access to data from the grid. Developers, working together with community groups, could create schemes specific to each community which use that information to encourage more responsible energy usage. My colleagues in IBM Research explored this approach in partnership with the Sustainable Dubuque partnership resulting in a scheme that improved water and energy conservation in the city.

We can also apply this approach to the way that food is supplied to cities. The growing and distribution of food will always be primarily a large-scale, industrial operation: with 7 billion people living on a planet with limited resources, and with more than half of them living in dense cities, there is no realistic alternative. An important challenge for the food production and distribution industry, and for the technology industry, is to find ways to make those systems more efficient and sustainable.

But we can also act locally to change the way that food is processed, prepared and consumed; and in doing so create social capital and economic opportunity in some of the places that need it most. A good example is “Casserole Club“, which uses social media as the basis of a peer-to-peer model which connects people who are unable to cook for themselves with people who are willing to cook for, and visit, others.

These two movements to improve our food systems in innovative ways currently act separately; what new value could we create by bringing them together?

We’re very poor at communicating effectively between such large-scale and small-scale activities. Their cultures are different; they use different languages, and those involved spend their working lives in systems focussed on very different objectives.

There’s a very simple solution. We need to listen more than we talk.

We all have strong opinions and great ideas. And we’re all very capable of quickly identifying the aspects of someone else’s idea that mean it won’t work. For all of those reasons, we tend to talk more than we listen. That’s a mistake; it prevents us from being open to new ideas, and focussing our attention on how we can help them to succeed.

New conversations

By coincidence, I was asked earlier this year to arrange the agenda for the annual meeting of IBM’s UK chapter of our global Academy of Technology. The Academy represents around 500 of IBM’s technology leaders worldwide; and the UK chapter brings 70 or so of our highest achieving technologists together every year to share insights and experience about the technology trends that are most important to our industry, and to our customers.

(Daden's visualisation of the new Library of Birmingham, created before construction started and used to familiarise staff with the new building they would be working in. Taken from Daden's brochure describing the work more fully).

(Daden’s visualisation of the new Library of Birmingham, created before construction started and used to familiarise staff with the new building they would be working in. Taken from Daden’s brochure describing the work more fully).

This year, I’m bringing them to Innovation Birmingham for two days next week to explore how technology is changing Britain’s second city. We’ll be hearing about Birmingham City Council’s Smart City Strategy and Digital Birmingham‘s plans for digital infrastructure; and from research initiatives such as the University of Birmingham’s Liveable Cities programme; Aston University’s European Bio-Energy Research Institute; and Birmingham City University’s European Platform for Intelligent Cities.

But we’ll also be hearing from local SMEs and entrepreneurs creating innovations in city systems using technology, such as Droplet‘s smartphone payment system; 3D visualisation and analytics experts Daden, who created a simulation of Birmingham’s new Library; and Maverick Television whose innovations in using technology to create social value include the programmes Embarrassing Bodies and How to Look Good Naked. And we’ll hear from a number of social innovators, such as Localise West Midlands, a not-for-profit think-tank which promotes localisation for social, environmental and economic benefit, and Hub Launchpad, a business-accelerator for social enterprise who are building their presence in the city. You can follow our discussions next week on twitter through the hashtag #IBM_TCG.

This is just one of the ways I’m trying to make new connections and start new conversations between stakeholders in cities and professionals with the expertise to help them achieve their goals. I’m also arranging to meet some of the banks, retailers and supply-chain operators who seem to be most focussed on social and environmental sustainability, in order to explore how those objectives might align with the interests of the cities in which they operate. The British Standards Institute is undertaking a similar project to explore the financing of Smart Cities as part of their Smart Cities programme. I’m also looking at the examples set by cities such as Almere whose collaborative approach to urban design, augmented by their use of analytics and technology, is inspirational.

This will not be a quick or easy process; but it will involve exciting conversations between people with passion and expertise. Providing we remember to listen as much as we talk, it’s the right place to start.

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 Three mistakes we’re still making about Smart Cities

  1. kwalitisme says:

    Reblogged this on kwalitisme and commented:
    Good insight!

  2. stevenboxall says:

    Rick, as usual interesting and comprehensive thoughts.

    But is it really how we are using last century’s technologies of concrete, steel and internal combustion engines etc which causes the variation of life expentancy within our cities? Isn’t it more the political, social and economic systems we choose to use?

  3. Rick Robinson says:

    Hi Stephen,

    It’s good to hear from you, and as usual you make an important and thoughtful comment!

    For example, I was struck the first time I visited Plymouth by the extent to which the city centre is dominated by 1960s concrete buildings – more so than any other city that I know. This didn’t seem terribly attractive to me. But when I mentioned it to a town planner who knew the city well, he asked whether I’d spent much time walking around the centre. That made me realise that in all my visits to Plymouth that I’ve found it extremely easy to walk between the places I need to visit. The planner then told me that Plymouth is the only city in the UK that completely carried-out it’s post-World War 2 rebuild according to a single, cohesive plan. So there are many ways in which it works extremely well.

    So to reply, I think that it is a combination of the deployment and distribution of technology within political, social and economic systems that leads to the success, or otherwise, of our cities; and I think that variation in life expectancies tells us that in the past those systems have not worked together to produce an outcome that is as equitable as it should be.

    We have a new generation of technology that’s more complex and changing more rapidly than anything that we’ve experienced before; and I think we need to work very hard to understand how to adapt our political, social and economic systems such that it’s benefits are distributed more evenly.

    Cheers,

    Rick

  4. Pingback: Three mistakes we’re still making about Smart Cities | keithbracey

  5. Pingback: Three mistakes we’re still making about Smart Cities | Almere

  6. Ian AD says:

    Just a thought on your point 2: ‘ We ask researchers to answer the wrong challenges’ Many cities get misguided by the attraction of ‘Growth’ as the thing that will help the city sort out it future. A city certainly needs to be alive and healthy, however just having growth is commonly known as a cancer. Perhaps the real focus of the city challenge is around creating ‘prosperity’. Certainly it is about doing more with different but also it is about creating more value in the city than the city captures for itself. Good public transport does this, a good livable environment does this, city culture does this – just building more houses does not do this.

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