The sharing economy and the future of movement in smart, human-scale cities

("Visionary City" by William Robinson Leigh)

(William Robinson Leigh’s 1908 painting “Visionary City” envisaged future cities constructed from mile-long buildings of hundreds of stories connected by gas-lit skyways for trams, pedestrians and horse-drawn carriages. A century later we’re starting to realise not only that developments in transport and power technology have eclipsed Leigh’s vision, but that we don’t want to live in cities constructed from buildings on this scale.)

One of the defining tensions throughout the development of cities has been between our desire for quality of life and our need to move ourselves and the things we depend on around.

The former requires space, peace, and safety in which to work, exercise, relax and socialise; the latter requires transport systems which, since the use of horsedrawn transport in medieval cities, have taken up space, created noise and pollution – and are often dangerous. Enrique Penalosa, whose mayorship of Bogota was defined by restricting the use of car transport, often refers to the tens of thousands of children killed by cars on the world’s roads every year and his astonishment that we accept this as the cost of convenient transport.

This tension will intensify rapidly in coming years. Not only are our cities growing larger and denser, but according to the analysis of city systems by Professors Geoffrey West and Louis Bettencourt of the Los Alamos National Laboratory and Professor Ian Robertson’s study of human behaviour, our interactions within them are speeding up and intensifying.

Arguably, over the last 50 years we have designed cities around large-scale buildings and transport structures that have supported – and encouraged – growth in transport and the size of urban economies and populations at the expense of some aspects of quality of life.

Whilst standards of living across the world have improved dramatically in recent decades, inequality has increased to an even greater extent; and many urbanists would agree that the character of some urban environments contributes significantly to that inequality. In response, the recent work of architects such as Jan Gehl and Kelvin Campbell, building on ideas first described by Jane Jacobs in the 1960s, has led to the development of the “human scale cities” movement with the mantra “first life, then space, then buildings”.

The challenge at the heart of this debate, though, is that the more successful we are in enabling human-scale value creation; the more demand we create for transport and movement. And unless we dramatically improve the impact of the systems that support that demand, the cities of the future could be worse, not better, places for us to live and work in.

Human scale technology creates complexity in transport

As digital technology pervades every aspect of our lives, whether in large-scale infrastructures such as road-use charging systems or through the widespread adoption of small-scale consumer technology such as smartphones and social media, we cannot afford to carry out the design of future cities without considering it; nor can we risk deploying it without concern for its affect on the quality of urban life.

Digital technologies do not just make it easier for us to communicate and share information wherever we are: those interactions create new opportunities to meet in person and to exchange goods and services; and so they create new requirements for transport. And as technologies such as 3D printing, open-source manufacturing and small-scale energy generation make it possible to carry out traditionally industrial activities at much smaller scales, some existing bulk movement patterns will be replaced by thousands of smaller, peer-to-peer interactions created by transactions in online marketplaces. We can already see the effects of this trend in the vast growth of traffic delivering goods that are purchased or exchanged online.

Estimates of the size of this “sharing economy“, defined by Wikipedia as “economic and social systems that enable shared access to goods, services, data and talent“, vary widely, but are certainly significant. The UK Economist magazine reports one estimate that it is a $26 billion economy already, whilst 2 Degrees Network report that just one aspect of it – small-scale energy generation – could save UK businesses £33 billion annually by 2030Air B’n’B – a peer-to-peer accommodation service – reported recently that they had contributed $632 million in value to New York’s economy in 2012 by enabling nearly 5,000 residents to earn an average of $7,500 by renting their spare rooms to travellers; and as a consequence of those travellers additionally spending an average of $880 in the city during their stay. The emergence in general of the internet as a platform for enabling sales, marketing and logistics for small and micro-businesses is partly responsible for a significant rise in self-employment and “micro-entrepreneurial” enterprises over the last few years, which now account for 14% of the US economy.

Digital technology will create not just great growth in our desire to travel and move things, but great complexity in the way we will do so. Today’s transport technologies are not only too inefficient to scale to our future needs; they’re not sophisticated and flexible enough to cope with the complexity and variety of demand.

Many of the future components of transport systems have already been envisaged, and deployed in early schemes: elevated cycleways; conveyor belts for freight; self-driving vehicles and convoys; and underground pneumatic networks for recycling. And to some extent, we have visualised the cities that they will create: Professor Miles Tight, for example, has considered the future living scenarios that might emerge from various evolutions of transport policy and human behavioural choices in the Visions 2030 project.

The task for the Smarter Cities movement should be to extend this thinking to envision the future of cities that are also shaped by emerging trends in digital technology and their effect on the wider economy and social systems. We won’t do that successfully by considering these subjects separately or in the abstract; we need to envision how they will collectively enable us to live and work from the smallest domestic scale to the largest city system.

(Packages from Amazon delivered to Google’s San Francisco office. Photo by moppet65535)

What we’ll do in the home of the future

Rather than purchasing and owning goods such as kitchen utensils, hobby and craft items, toys and simple house and garden equipment, we will create them on-demand using small-scale and open-source manufacturing technology and smart-materials. It will even be possible – though not all of us will choose to do so – to manufacture some food in this way.

Conversely, there will still be demand for handmade artisan products including clothing, gifts, jewellery, home decorations, furniture, and food. Many of us will earn a living producing these goods in the home while selling and marketing them locally or through online channels.

So we will leave our home of the future less often to visit shops; but will need not just better transport services to deliver the goods we purchase online to our doorsteps, but also a new utility to deliver the raw materials from which we will manufacture them ourselves; and new transport services to collect the products of our home industries and to deliver supplies to them.

We will produce an increasing amount of energy at home; whether from existing technologies such as solar panels or combined heat and power (CHP) systems; or through new techniques such as bio-energy. The relationships between households, businesses, utilities and transportation will change as we become producers of energy and consumers of waste material.

And whilst remote working means we will continue to be less likely to travel to and from the same office each day, the increasing pace of economic activity means that we will be more likely to need to travel to many new destinations as it becomes necessary to meet face to face with the great variety of customers, suppliers, co-workers and business partners with whom online technologies connect us.

What we’ll do in the neighbourhoods of the future

As we increasingly work remotely from within our homes or by travelling far away from them, less of us work in jobs and for businesses that are physically located within the communities in which we live; and some of the economic ties that have bound those communities in the past have weakened. But most of us still feel strong ties to the places we live in; whether they are historical, created by the character of our homes or their surrounding environment, or by the culture and people around us. These ties create a shared incentive to invest in our community.

Perhaps the greatest potential of social media that we’re only begin to exploit is its power to create more vibrant, sustainable and resilient local communities through the “sharing economy”.

The motivations and ethics of organisations participating in the sharing economy vary widely – some are aggressively commercial, whilst others are “social enterprises” with a commitment to reinvest profits in social growth. The social enterprise sector, comprised of mutuals, co-operatives, employee-owned businesses and enterprises who submit to “triple bottom line” accounting of financial, social and environmental capital, is about 15% of the value of most economies, and has been growing and creating jobs faster than traditional business since the 2008 crash. There is enormous potential for cities to achieve their “Smarter” objectives for sustainable, equitably distributed economic growth through contributions from social enterprises using technology to implement sharing economy business models within their region.

Sharing economy models which enable transactions between participants within a walkable or cyclable area can be a particularly efficient mechanism for collaboration, as the related transport can be carried out using human power. Joan Clos, Exective Director of UN-Habitat, has asserted that cities will only become sustainable when they are built at a sufficient population density that a majority of interactions within them can be carried out in this way (as reported informally by Tim Stonor from Dr. Clos’s remarks at the “Urban Planning for City Leaders” conference at the Crystal, London in 2012).

The Community Lovers’ Guide has published stories from across Europe of people who have collaborated to make the places that they share better, often using technology; and schemes such as Casserole Club and Land Share are linking the supply and demand of land, food, gardening and cooking skills within local communities, helping neighbours to help each other. At local, national and international levels, sharing economy ideas are creating previously unrealised social and economic value, including access to employment opportunities that replace some of those traditional professions that are shrinking as the technology used by industrial business changes.

Revenue-earning businesses are a necessary component of vibrant communities, at a local neighbourhood scale as well as city-wide. At the Academy of Urbanism Congress in Bradford this year, 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?”

(“Makers” at the Old Print Works in Balsall Heath, Birmingham, sharing the tools, skills and ideas that create successful small businesses)

So whilst we work remotely from direct colleagues, we may chose to work in a collaborative workspace with near neighbours, with whom we can exchange ideas, make new contacts and start new enterprises and ventures. As the “maker” economy emerges from the development of sophisticated, small-scale manufacturing, and the resurgence in interest in artisan products, community projects such as the Old Print Works in Balsall Heath, Birmingham are emerging in low-cost ex-industrial space as people come together to share the tools and expertise required to make things and run businesses.

We will also manage and share our use of resources such as energy and water at neighbourhood scale. The scale and economics of movement of the raw materials for bio-energy generation, for example, currently dictate that neighbourhood-scale generation facilities – as opposed to city-wide, regional or domestic scale – are the most efficient. Aston University’s European Bio-Energy Research Institute is demonstrating these principles in the Aston district of Birmingham. And schemes from the sustainability pilot in Dubuque, Iowa to the Energy Sharing Co-operative in the West Midlands of the UK and the Chale community project on the Isle of Wight have shown that community-scale schemes can create shared incentives to use resources more efficiently.

One traditional centre of urban communities, the retail high street or main street, has fared badly in recent times. The shift to e-commerce, supermarkets and out-of-town shopping parks has led to many of them loosing footfall and trade, and seeing “payday lenders“, betting shops and charity shops take the place of traditional retailers.

High streets needs to be freed from the planning, policy and tax restrictions that are preventing their recovery. The retail-dominated highstreet of the 20th century emerged from a particular and temporary period in the evolution of the private car as the predominant form of transport supporting household-scale economic transactions. Developments in digital and transport technology as well as economy and society have made it non-viable in its current form; but legislation that prevents change in the use of highstreet property, and that keeps business taxes artificially high, is preventing highstreets from adapting in order to benefit from technology and the opportunities of the sharing economy.

Business Improvement Districts, already emerging in the UK and US to replace some local authority services, offer one way forward. They need to be given more freedom to allow the districts they manage to develop as best meets the economic and social needs of their area according to the future, not the past. And they need to become bolder: to invest in the same advanced technology to maximize footfall and spend from their customers as shopping malls do on behalf of their tenants, as recommended by a recent report to UK Government on the future of the high street.

The future high street will not be a street of clothes shops, bookshops and banks: some of those will still exist, but the high street will also be a place for collaborative workers; for makers; for sharing and exchanging; for local food produce and artisan goods; for socialising; and for starting new businesses. We will use social media to share our time and our resources in the sharing economy; and will meet on the high street when those transactions require the exchange of physical goods and services. We will walk and cycle to local shops and transport centres to collect and deliver packages for ourselves, or for our neighbours.

The future of work, life and transport at city-scale

Whilst there’s no universally agreed definition, an urban areas is generally agreed to be a continuously built-up area with a total population of between 2,000 and 40 million people; living at a density of around 1,000 per square kilometre; and employed primarily in non-agricultural activities (the appendices to the 2007 revision of the UN World Urbanisation Prospects summarise such criteria from around the world; 38.7 million is estimated to be the population of the world’s largest city, Tokyo, in 2025 by the UN World Urbanisation Prospects 2011).

(An analysis based on GPS data from mobile phones of end-to-end journeys undertaken by users of Abidjan’s bus services. By comparing existing bus routes to end-to-end journey requirements, the analysis identified four new bus routes and led to changes in many others. As a result, 22 routes now show increased ridership, and city-wide journey times have decreased by 10%.)

That is living at an industrial scale. The sharing economy may be a tremendously powerful force, but – at least for the foreseeable future – it will not scale to completely replace the supply chains that support the needs of such enormous and dense populations.

Take food, for example. One hectare of highly fertile, intensively farmed land can feed 10 people. Birmingham, my home city, has an area of 60,000 hectares of relatively infertile land, most of which is not available for farming at all; and a population of around 1 million. Those numbers don’t add up to food self-sufficiency; and Birmingham is a very low-density city – between one-half and one-tenth as dense as the growing megacities of Asia and South America.

Until techniques such as vertical farming and laboratory-grown food become both technically and economically viable, and culturally acceptable - if they ever do - cities will not feed themselves. And these techniques hardly represent locally-grown food exchanged between peers – they are highly technical and likely to operate initially at industrial scale. Sharing economy businesses such as Casserole Club, Kitchen Surfing, and Big Barn will change the way we distribute, process and prepare food within cities, but many of the raw materials will continue to be grown and delivered to cities through the existing industrial-scale distribution networks that import them from agricultural regions.

We are drawn to cities for the opportunities they offer: for work, for entertainment, and to socialise. As rapidly as technology has improved our ability to carry out all of those activities online, the world’s population is still increasingly moving to cities. In many ways, technology augments the way we carry out those activities in the real world and in cities, rather than replacing them with online equivalents.

Technology has already made cultural events in the real world more frequent, accessible and varied. Before digital technology, the live music industry depended on mass-marketing and mass-appeal to create huge stadium-selling tours for a relatively small number of professional musicians; and local circuits were dominated by the less successful but similar-sounding acts for which sufficiently large audiences could be reached using the media of the time. I attempted as an amateur musician in the pre-internet 1990s to find a paying audience for the niche music I enjoyed making: I was not successful. Today, social media can be used to identify and aggregate demand to make possible a variety of events and artforms that would never previously have reached an audience. Culture in the real-world is everywhere, all the time, as a result, and life is the richer for it. We discover much of it online, but often experience it in the real world.

(Birmingham’s annual “Zombie Walk” which uses social media to engage volunteers raising money for charity. Photo by Clare Lovell).

Flashmobs” use smartphones and social media to spontaneously bring large numbers of people together in urban spaces to celebrate; socialise or protest; and while we will play and tell stories in immersive 3D worlds in the future – whether we call them movies, interactive fiction or “massive multi-player online role-playing games” – we’ll increasingly do so in the physical world too, in “mixed reality” games. Technologies such as Google Glasscognitive computing and Brain/Computer Interfaces will accelerate these trends as they remove the barrier between the physical world and information systems.

We will continue to come to city centres to experience those things that they uniquely combine: the joy and excitement of being amongst large numbers of people; the opportunity to share ideas; access to leading-edge technologies that are only economically feasible at city-scale; great architecture, culture and events; the opportunity to shop, eat, drink and be entertained with friends. All of these things are possible anywhere; but it is only in cities that they exist together, all the time.

The challenge for city-scale living will be to support the growing need to transport goods and people into, out of and around urban areas in a way that is efficient and productive, and that minimises impact on the liveability of the urban environment. In part this will involve reducing the impact of existing modes of transport by switching to electric or hydrogen power for vehicles; by predicting and optimising the behaviour of traffic systems to prevent congestion; by optimising public transport as IBM have helped AbidjanDublin, Dubuque and Istanbul to do; and by improving the spatial organisation of transport through initiatives such as Arup’s Regent Street delivery hub.

We will also need new, evolved or rejuvenated forms of transport. In his lecture for the Centenary of the International Federation for Housing and Planning, Sir Peter Hall spoke eloquently of the benefits of Bus Rapid Transit systems, urban railways and trams. All can combine the speed and efficiency of rail for bringing goods and people into cities quickly from outlying regions, with the ability to stop frequently at the many places in cities which are the starting and finishing points of end-to-end journeys.

Vehicle journeys on major roads will be undertaken in the near future by automated convoys travelling safely at a combined speed and density beyond the capability of human drivers. Eventually the majority of journeys on all roads will be carried out by such autonomous vehicles. Whilst it is important that these technologies are developed and introduced in a way that emphasises safety, the majority of us already trust our lives to automated control systems in our cars – every time we use an anti-lock braking system, for example. We will still drive cars for fun, pleasure and sport in the future – but we will probably pay dearly for the privilege; and our personal transport may more closely resemble the rapid transit pods that can already be seen at Heathrow Terminal 5.

Proposals intended to accelerate the adoption of autonomous vehicles include the “Qwik lane” elevated highway for convoy traffic; or the “bi-modal glideway” and “tracked electric vehicle” systems which could allow cars and lorries to travel at great speed safely along railway networks or dedicated “tracked” roads. Alternative possibilities which could achieve similar levels of efficiency and throughput are to extend the use of conveyor belt technology – already recognised as far more efficient than lorries for transporting resources and goods over distances of tens of miles in quarries and factories – to bring freight in and out of cities; or to use pneumatically powered underground tunnel networks, which are already being used in early schemes for transporting recyclable waste in densely populated areas. Elon Musk, the inventor of the Tesla electric supercar, has even suggested that a similar underground “vacuum loop” could be used to replace long-distance train and air travel for humans, at speeds over 1000 kilometres per hour.

The majority of these transport systems won’t offer us as individuals the same autonomy and directness in our travel as we believe the private car offers us today – even though that autonomy is often severely restricted by traffic congestion and delays. Why will we chose to relinquish that control?

(Optimod's vision for integrated, predictive mobile, multi-modal transport information)

(Optimod‘s vision for integrated, predictive mobile, multi-modal transport information)

Some of us will simply prefer to, finding different value in other ways to get around.

Walking and cycling are gaining in popularity over driving in many cities. I’ve personally found it a revelation in recent years to walk around cities rather than drive around them as I might previously have done. Cities are interesting and exciting places, and walking is often an enjoyable as well as efficient way of moving about them. (And for urbanists, of course, walking offers unparalleled opportunities to understand cities). Many of us are also increasingly conscious of the health benefits of walking and cycling, particularly as recent studies in the UK and US have shown that adults today will be the first generation in recorded history to die younger than their parents because of our poor diets and sedentary lifestyles.

Alternatively, we may choose to travel by public transport in the interests of productivity – reading or working while we travel, especially as network coverage for telephony and the internet improves. As the world’s population and economies grow, competition and the need to improve productivity will lead more and more of us to this take this choice.

It is increasingly easy to walk, cycle, or use public or shared transport to travel into and around cities thanks to the availability of bicycle hire schemes, car clubs and walking route information services such as walkit.com. The emergence of services that provide instant access to travel information across all forms of transport – such as the Moovel service in Germany or the Optimod service in Lyon, France - will enhance this usability, making it easier to combine different forms of transport into a single journey, and to react to delays and changes in plans whilst en route.

Legislation will also drive changes in behaviour, from national and international initiatives such as the European Union legislation limiting carbon emissions of cars to local planning and transport policies – such as Birmingham’s recent Mobility Action Plan which announced a consultation to consider closing the city’s famous system of road tunnels.

(Protesters at Occupy Wallstreet using digital technology to coordinate their demonstration. Photo by David Shankbone)

Are we ready for the triumph of the digital city?

Regardless of the amazing advances we’re making in online technology, life is physical. Across the world we are drawn to cities for opportunity; for life-support; to meet, work and live.  The ways in which we interact and transport ourselves and the goods we exchange have changed out of all recognition throughout history, and will continue to do so. The ever increasing level of urbanisation of the world’s population demonstrates that there’s no sign yet that those changes will make cities redundant: far from it, they are thriving.

It is not possible to understand the impact on our lives of new ideas in transport, technology or cities in isolation. Unless we consider them together and in the context of changing lifestyles, working patterns and economics, we won’t design and build cities of the future to be resilient, sustainable, and equitable.  The limitation of our success in doing that in the past is illustrated by the difference in life expectancy of 20 years between the richest and poorest areas of UK cities; the limitation of our success in doing so today is illustrated by the fact that a huge proportion of the world’s population does not have access to the digital technologies that are changing our world.

I recently read the masterplan for a European city district regarded as a good example of Smart City thinking. It contained many examples of the clever and careful design of physical space for living and for today’s forms of transport, but did not refer at all to the changes in patterns of work, life and movement being driven by digital technology. It was certainly a dramatic improvement over some plans of the past; but it was not everything that a plan for the future needs to be. 

Across domains such as digital technology, urban design, public policy, low carbon engineering, economic development and transport we have great ideas for addressing the challenges that urbanisation, population growth, resource constraints and climate change will bring; but a lot of work to do in bringing them together to create good designs for the liveable cities of the future.

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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.

8 Responses to The sharing economy and the future of movement in smart, human-scale cities

  1. Pingback: Sharing economy in Smart Cities |

  2. Clare White says:

    Hi Rick, very useful and good to read a paper that is so up to date!
    regards
    Clare

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