No-one wants top-down, technology-driven cities. They’d be dumb, not smart.

("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 storeys 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.)

But “bottom up” is not enough; in order to succeed at scale, grass-roots innovation and localism need support from a new environment of policy, finance, infrastructure and technology.

I took part in a panel discussion last week with Leo Johnson, co-author of “Turnaround Challenge: Business and the City of the Future” (and, coincidentally, the brother of London’s Mayor, Boris Johnson). Leo argued in an impassioned speech that we should avoid overly deterministic “top-down” approaches to developing sustainable cities, and should instead encourage “bottom-up” innovation. His points echoed some of the criticisms levelled at parts of the Smart Cities movement by writers such as Adam Greenfield and Richard Sennett.

But these are arguments against a proposition that I simply don’t think anyone is advocating today.

In all of my contacts across the world, in technology, government and urban design, I don’t know anyone who thinks it would be “smart” for cities to be run wholly by technological systems; who believes that digital data can provide “perfect knowledge” about city systems; or who thinks that cities built and run entirely by deterministic plans driven from the top down would be healthy, vibrant places to live (or indeed are possible at all).

Smart cities are not about putting machines in control, and they are not about imposing an idealistic, corporate way of life. They are simply about harnessing the ever-advancing capabilities of technology in our efforts to create a more sustainable, equitable, resilient world in the cities in which more and more of us are living.

The ultimate purpose of cities is to enable the people who live and work in them to lead safe and rewarding lives with their families. The raw material from which the life of cities is built is therefore small-scale – it is the activity of individual people in their personal and family life or going about their work. Consequently, there is an enormous focus in smart cities and smart urbanism on “bottom-up” thinking : how can we enable private businesses, community innovators and citizen-led initiatives to be successful, and to create sustainable wealth and social value? If the opportunities to do that are widely available, then cities as a whole will be more successful, and, when economic or climate events affect their circumstances, they will be more adaptable and resilient.

But let’s be frank: that’s an awfully big “if”.

There’s nothing new about “bottom-up” creativity – that’s simply what people do as they get on with life, using whatever resources are available to them to craft a living, support their families and build successful businesses. But the truth is that we are not very good at all at creating environments in which everybody has an equal chance of succeeding in those efforts.

For bottom-up creativity to be broadly successful, citizens, communities and businesses must be able to adapt the city infrastructures that provide food, water, energy, transport and resources to serve their specific needs and opportunities. Those infrastructures are vast – they support 3 billion urban lives worldwide today, and will need to scale to support 3 billion more by 2050. Communities and neighbourhoods with persistently low levels of economic activity and social mobility – those most in need of innovative answers to their challenges – are often those who have the least access to those infrastructures, and whose issues can include poor schools, disconnection from transport networks, exclusion from mainstream financial systems, fuel poverty and so on. Those problems will not solve themselves: we will only adapt city infrastructures and institutions to serve these communities better through significant effort from the businesses and governments that control and govern them.

(When planning policy and other regulations allow, urban farms can adapt the physical infrastructure of cities to create new sources of food. A similar combination of policy innovation and grass-roots creativity could enable similarly creative uses of digital infrastructure and information in cities. Photo by ToadLickr)

From the governance of cities, to the policies that affect investment, to the oversight, administration and operation of city infrastructures – these processes work top-down; and in order for us to rely on “bottom-up” creativity improving cities for all of their citizens, we must adapt and improve them to better support that creativity.

Technology plays three roles in this context. Firstly, smartphones, tablets, 3D printers and social media are examples of new consumer and citizen tools that we could barely imagine as recently as a decade ago. They make immense power available to bottom-up, small-scale activity and local innovations, and have resulted in the emergence of significant economic trends such as the “sharing economy” of business models based on peer-to-peer transactions.

Secondly, though, many of those technologies depend fundamentally on the availability of connectivity infrastructure; and that infrastructure is not available everywhere. Some 18% of adults in the UK have never been online; and children today without access to the internet at home and in school are at an enormous disadvantage. Most cities and countries have not yet addressed this challenge. Private sector network providers will not deploy connectivity in areas which are insufficiently economically active for them to make a profit, and Government funding is not yet sufficient to close the gap. This challenge has not and will not be addressed by bottom-up creativity; it requires top-down legislation and investment.

Thirdly, technology can help to open up the operations and infrastructures of big institutions and companies to local innovation – from the provision of “open data” and API interfaces that allow these systems to be adapted to new uses; to the use of technology to measure and trace the social and environmental impact of goods and services in order to inform consumer choice so that it can become a lever to improve the impact of the vast supply chains that supply cities. Unilever and Tesco are just two examples of businesses pursuing this business strategy.

These are the roles of technology that enable a meeting or balance between top-down and bottom-up forces in cities – a balance that Anthony Townsend, author of “Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia” has advocated in our online exchanges.

Smart cities is not a prescriptive, top-down, corporate movement. The perception that it was arose because a handful of early and highly visible examples such as Masdar and Songdo were new, large-scale developments financed by strong economic growth in emerging markets; or because some of the rapid urbanisation taking place today is in countries with strongly hierarchical governance. These examples also gave emphasis to the importance of efficiently and intelligently operating large-scale city infrastructures – without which we’ll never sustainably and resiliently support the 6 billion city inhabitants predicted by the United Nations’ World Urbanisation Prospects report by 2050.

(Delegates at Gov Camp 2013 at IBM’s Southbank office, London. Gov Camp is an annual conference which brings together anyone interested in creating new uses of digital technology in public services. Photo by W N Bishop)

But we must give equal recognition to the vast amount of bottom-up creativity that took place throughout this period; that continues today; and which has exploited technology in strikingly innovative ways.

The “open data” movement has become a force for transparency in government and for addressing social and environmental issues. “Civic hacking” communities have sprung up around the world, using this data to create novel new public services. Many of my colleagues have contributed to that movement, either representing IBM, or simply as personal contributions to the cities in which they live – as have the employees of many other businesses. And community initiatives everywhere now routinely exploit technologies such as social media and crowdfunding; or co-create schemes to apply commercial technologies for their own purposes. For example, in the village of Chale on the Isle of Wight, a community with significant levels of fuel poverty worked together to use smart energy meters to reduce their energy bills by up to 50%.

There are two serious challenges in how we apply these ideas more broadly that demand debate:

And:

The Economist magazine reminded us of the importance of those questions in a recent article describing the enormous investments made in public institutions in the past in order to distribute the benefits of the Industrial Revolution to society at large rather than concentrate them on behalf of business owners and the professional classes.

We have only partially been successful in those efforts. As one measure, it’s common for life expectancy to vary by around 20 years between the poorest and richest parts of the same city in the UK. Scandinavian cities do not show that disparity – their culture and system of taxation, benefits and collective insurance create a more equal opportunity to live. In the UK, the US and other societies that emphasise greater retention of private wealth and the distribution of opportunity through flexible market economies, how can we better approach Scandinavia’s level of equality?

These questions are much more important than perpetuating an adversarial debate between “top down” and “bottom up” thinking. No-one wants top-down, technology driven cities. They’d be dumb, not smart. And no-one believes that digital data can provide “perfect knowledge” – we all understand that perfect knowledge is neither possible nor desirable.

Digital data and technology do much more realistic and exciting things. They allow us to uncover the hidden opportunity to transact locally with people and businesses in our community. They reveal patterns in the messy complexity of social, economic, physical and environmental systems that help us to look ahead to likely outcomes, take proactive measures and do more with less. And they make it possible for us to connect to people around the world who we’ve never met but with whom we share an interest or can create a new opportunity.

A smart city creates an environment in which technology, infrastructure, policies and culture make people safe, and provide the resources and opportunities they need – including better access to technology and information – to create safer and more rewarding lives.

That’s not top-down or bottom-up. It’s common sense. Let’s stop arguing and start applying it.

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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.

14 Responses to No-one wants top-down, technology-driven cities. They’d be dumb, not smart.

  1. “A smart city creates an environment in which technology, infrastructure, policies and culture make people safe, and provide the resources and opportunities they need – including better access to technology and information – to create safer and more rewarding lives”.

    Awesome!

  2. Peter Cripps says:

    Another great post Rick. The challenge is how to get the balance between organic growth, which let’s face it all the great cities of the world have had, and just the right level of top down governance and investment. At least part of this is through making “digitally aware” citizens take more responsibility for the governance aspect of our cities. People with a real understanding of the benefits technology can bring, as well as the potential down sides. I would see this as being a “collective” of enterprise, academic institutions and “enlightened” local government leaders. I also think however there is a huge political challenge here, namely the centralised/decentralised government debate.

  3. Pingback: No-one wants top-down, technology-driven cities. They’d be dumb, not smart. | kwalitisme

  4. Saibal says:

    Hi Rick, Nice to hear from you. Its been a while – or may be it was me mission in action. I wish I had time to write and maintain a such a fantastic quality blog like yours but until I find that , I will use yours to share my own experiences once in a while. I hope you wont mind that :-)

    I think this top down vs Bottom up argument is an old thing now (and often pointless). My experience is that we need both depending on circumstances – and the circumstances could be as long a list and as complex as the city design process itself . However, what works always is a “one system” approach to design, development and management of cities. We have seen success in top down planning but bottom up implementation rule – that we follow.

    Since we are involved in integrated design, financing, development and operations of cities/precincts , it suits us to consider both, but we balance the effort and focus depending on circumstances on a particular project. The top down process will generate opportunities as clusters of catalyst projects which then we break -up into a list of priority sector based projects (buildings, roads, transportation, water, energy, waste ..) next step is the complex one – is the pre-feasibility modelling / investment programming … This is where the top down ends ..

    The bottom up part starts with analysing the operational issues ending at the hard part of reconciliation with the high level projects – we call “incubation” process .. an implementation road map is thus developed together with final feasibility and viability analysis.

    Again, these are our own experience and it could be different for others. It took us three long years of constant work to find what works for us and what does not .

  5. Saibal says:

    Hi Rick,

    Nice to hear from you. Another great post. Its been a while – or may be it was me mission in action. I wish I had time to write and maintain a such a fantastic quality blog like yours but until I find that , I will use yours to share my own experiences once in a while. I hope you wont mind that :-)

    I think this top down vs Bottom up argument is an old thing now (and often pointless). My experience is that we need both depending on circumstances – and the circumstances could be as long a list and as complex as the city design process itself . However, what works always is a “one system” approach to design, development and management of cities. We have seen success in top down planning but bottom up implementation rule – that we follow.

    Since we are involved in integrated design, financing, development and operations of cities/precincts , it suits us to consider both, but we balance the effort and focus depending on circumstances on a particular project. The top down process will generate opportunities as clusters of catalyst projects which then we break -up into a list of priority sector based projects (buildings, roads, transportation, water, energy, waste ..) next step is the complex one – is the pre-feasibility modelling / investment programming … This is where the top down ends ..

    The bottom up part starts with analysing the operational issues ending at the hard part of reconciliation with the high level projects – we call “incubation” process .. an implementation road map is thus developed together with final feasibility and viability analysis.

    Again, these are our own experience and it could be different for others. It took us three long years of constant work to find what works for us and what does not .

  6. Dear Rick

    Reading your articles is always a pleasure and a needed pause for learning and reflection on issues pertaining to sustainable environments. Your style is fluid, lucid, your arguments well substantiated and invariably thought provoking. Please continue to share your wealth of experiences with likeminded people, who will continue, like I will, to fully enjoy your generous intellect.

    Best wishes,

    Sergio Correa

    • Rick Robinson says:

      Hi Saibal and Sergio,

      Thankyou so much for your comments – and Sergio, I am honoured by your feedback! I will certainly continue to write here as often as I can.

      Saibal, thankyou for sharing your experiences; everything I write is only my personal experience and opinion, and I learn the most when others share theirs. I’d be interested to hear how collaborative the “bottom-up” processes that you describe are – have you engaged the communities for whom you’re designing to provide their own analysis of the issues they experience?

      Cheers,

      Rick

  7. Rick Robinson says:

    Hello Peter and Peter!

    Thankyou both for your kind comments;

    Peter, I agree very much with your point about the centralised / decentralised government debate. In the UK I think it is a particular challenge for three reasons: firstly, London, where central government is largely located, is unusually dominant compared to other UK cities – the difference in size between the largest and second largest city is much bigger in the UK than in most other large European countries. Secondly, the proportion of city spending that is controlled by city authorities rather than central government is only 17% – compared to an OECD average of 55%. And thirdly, only a handful of cities have an elected Mayor with governance responsibilities.

    I also think you’re absolutely right to highlight the need to be clear about the potential pitfalls of technology as well as its benefits – unless we’re open and balanced in that debate, people are unlikely to trust what proponents of technology say,

    Cheers,

    Rick

  8. ggt75 says:

    Hello Rick,
    I like your argument, and it is presented lucidly.
    To put technology in control of the human is to put tools above the well-worn chicken and egg situation. i think most of us would agree such a Metropolis is best left to Fritz Lang: to entertain our sense of horror rather than enrich our realities. However, the bottoms-up approach is easier said than done : indeed (and in deed), how does a system enable each and everyone to identify, let alone express, their needs – realistically and coherently. and then to put such ideas into political practice? creativity is only a beginning – it needs to be fertile if it is to be useful. i think this is where a new homo demos requires encouragement. A responsive and responsible citizen who is able to express himself, both as an individual and as part of his society.
    Population density is important – it is a key factor in explaining why the Scandinavian model is relatively advanced, in adopting and maintaining progressive socio-economic values.
    And why this obssession with living in super-cities? They are a salvation for overarching ambition, rather than civilised hopes.
    Finally, i agree with the decentralisation of the state, so as to spread it’s useful influence by de-concentrating its power. Ideally, the state should be reduced to owning and managing public services, which it has retrieved from privatisation. It would be a bottoms-up “render unto Ceasar” more fitting for our era.

  9. Mark Dixon says:

    Another great post…I particularly like your last sentence…=8-)

    I think a key challenge in general is that most public sector leaders really don’t understand digital infrastructure or technology beyond their desktop or mobile device – as I alluded to in my Smarter Computing blog post (http://www.smartercomputingblog.com/smarter-computing/explaining-smarter-infrastructure/). I’m not sure how we fix that…but I do have a stealthy strategy to get my Smarter Local Government and Cognitive Digital Democracy concepts instantiated in local government.

    And at least in America, and elsewhere in the more developed world, we have the issue of overcoming our existing IT infrastructure, which is very messy (especially in the public sector), for many reasons. Its analgous to the wired vs wireless networks…most emerging economies do not have existing infrastructure to maintain, so relatively more money is available for newer technologies which have greater impact.

    All of our 21st Century challenges do not respect political or jurisdictional boundaries – the lines we have drawn on maps. To better govern ourselves and prepare for the issues of the Anthropocene epoch, we must work together and do it faster than we ever have before.

  10. Pingback: No-one wants top-down, technology-driven cities. They’d be dumb, not smart. | The Urban Technologist | {innovation in practise}

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  12. rdn32 says:

    I’m not sure it’s true that no-one wants technology-driven cities: what about people like Kevin Kelly or Ray Kurzweil? Or, to talk like Kelly, what about what the technology itself wants?

    To unpack that second remark a bit, I’d argue it makes sense to be wary of technology going in a direction even if there’s no-one advocating in its favour. Take the Internet, for example, which used to be taken as the paradigm of a decentralized information system. I don’t believe anyone has explicitly argued in favour of using it as a means for a small number of private corporations to keep tabs on as many people, and in as much detail, as they can manage: however, that’s the direction which the logic of targeted advertising pushes things.

    I also have a vague hunch that there’s some sort of cognitive glitch that makes a top-down style of thinking attractive, even to those who explicitly disavow it. This was a point I tried to illustrate with some quotes here: http://rdn32.com/2009/12/11/top-down-stickiness/

  13. Rick Robinson says:

    Hi rdn32,

    I haven’t personally talked to Kevin Kelly or Ray Kurzweil; but I certainly recognise that they are passionate about technology.

    I have spoken and worked with a great variety of people involved in some way with the application of technology to the challenges and opportunities of cities; from people involved in very small-scale community initiatives through local councillors to the global leaders of companies who are prominent in the “smart cities” market. And from that perspective, I stand by my comment: not one of them believes that top-down, technology-led thinking will result in better cities.

    (You make a great point though: it’s very easy to adopt “top-down” thinking even whilst holding a belief that it’s the wrong approach. That’s probably a particularly easy mistake to make for those of us – like me; like most professionals; and like most politicians and public sector employees – who work for large, formal institutions. It just means we have to be self-aware!).

    The final point I think you’re making is that technology is amoral. We allow scientists and technologists a free hand to research what is possible because that’s the best way to create the great discoveries that move the world forward; but by definition that approach means we can’t predict the eventual applications of those discoveries. As Kentaro Toyama famously said: “technology is not the answer; it is the amplifier of human intention”.

    I don’t think there’s any simple answer to that challenge; but I do think the starting point is to engage in open, informed debate about developments in technology and their implications for the challenges and opportunities we face. That’s exactly why I write this blog!

    Cheers,

    Rick

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