No-one wants top-down, technology-driven cities. They’d be dumb, not smart.
April 8, 2014 16 Comments
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.
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.
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:
- How do we create the institutional practises and policies that ensure that the benefits of those investments are genuinely widely distributed, and enable and support “bottom-up” innovations everywhere?
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.