The simple idea behind Smarter Cities: take better-informed, more forward-looking decisions

(Photo by Tanakawho)

I’m sometimes staggered by the sheer breadth of topics that we concern ourselves with in working to make cities Smarter. We encompass technology, social systems, the individual motivation of citizens, financial models, and the really big challenges of demographics and sustainability in our thinking.

I’m also struck by the level of sophistication of some of that debate. This week, I finally read the great paper by Geoffrey West and colleagues on urban scaling laws, “Growth, innovation, scaling and the pace of life in cities“. The paper applies to cities techniques that I recall from my Doctoral studies in the Physics and Engineering of Superconducting Devices for studying the emergent properties of self-organising complex systems. (Translate that to “understanding the outcomes of the interactions between the 100,000s or millions of human beings with free will who inhabit cities” and I hope you can see the similarity).

The paper is a less intimidating read than it might sound, and draws fascinating conclusions about the relationship between the size of city populations; their ability to create wealth through innovation; sustainability; and what many of us experience as the increasing speed of modern life. It’s well worth reading, as are David Roberts’ recent thoughts on the same subject on the Birmingham Science City blog.

However, I like to keep my feet on the ground; and there’s a very simple way of thinking about what’s really important about Smarter Cities.

I’m not thinking of the challenges facing our cities and societies – I’ve touched on those in numerous other blog posts, especially here and here. Rather, I’m concerned with what I think is the straightforward elegance of the proposition that technology offers us to address them.

Technology has developed in recent years at an incredible rate in three ways that are relevant to this discussion. For a long time, IBM has termed them “Instrumented, Interconnected and Intelligent”.

“Instrumented” refers to our increasingly sophisticated ability to connect Information Technology systems with the physical world; whether that’s through sensors that measure the performance of environmental infrastructures; through integrating technology more closely with our own bodies; or through controlling the physical environment via technologies such as actuators and 3D printing.

“Interconnected” refers to the continued growth in the bandwidth and coverage of communication infrastructures, particularly the internet. Whilst very, very significant challenges remain – such as the lack of access to broadband connectivity of large swathes of the population, or the lack of cheap, low-power connectivity at ground level where the components of environmental infrastructures are located – in general, communication and connectivity have improved out of all recognition in recent years.

(IBM’s Watson computer challenges human opponents in the US TV quiz show Jeopardy)

“Intelligent” refers to our capability to make sense of the ever increasing volume of data made available by instrumented, interconnected systems. Computers can now process data to the extent that they can compete successfully against human beings in general knowledge TV game shows; predict the occurrence of crime; and help healthcare professionals make accurate diagnoses based on research literature they’ve never read. Throughout my life I’ve read a lot of science fiction that has predicted a lot of amazing things; but none of it foresaw anything as impressive as these achievements.

I can sum up all of this in a single sentance that encapsulates the value technology brings to Smarter Cities:

By making more complete and accurate information available to decision makers, we can enable them to take better-informed, more forward-looking decisions.

Simple common sense tells us that if we implemented that idea across city systems, we would improve any number of social, environmental and financial outcomes. Real examples of enacting that principle already exist in such diverse areas as preventative social care in Medway and enabling commuters to take better travel choices in California.

(The city operations centre in Rio de Janeiro provides the city’s management team with incredibly rich information on which to base decisions.)

A really exciting possibility for the future lies in the ability of local currencies and trading systems to enable consumers and citizens to take such choices more frequently throughout their everyday lives. Such systems can incorporate regional social and environmental impact in the apparent cost of goods and services. Whilst today that ability is limited to goods and services created within the scope of the trading system, in future the Open Data movement will increasingly make the social and environmental footprint of all goods and services transparent such that local trading schemes can incorporate them. For my money, that’s a truly exciting prospect for the future.

The challenge that prevents us from enacting this principle more frequently is implicit in my description of it. Providing more complete and accurate information has an upfront cost; but the financial returns that follow from “more forward-looking” decisions by definition are realised after some period of time. Worse; the organisational and budgetary structure of cities imply that the organisations responsible for those upfront costs are rarely the ones that are able to realise the consequent financial benefits.

In the last couple of points, my focus shifted from “social, environmental and financial” outcomes to “financial benefits”. The former might be the ultimate objectives of cities considering Smarter City initiatives; but they will only win investment funding where they can demonstrate short term financial returns for investors.

So in arguing that there’s a simple way to describe the core idea that underpins Smarter Cities, I’m not arguing that it’s a simple matter to secure the funding to implement it. However, securing such funding from decision makers and investors who are short of time and who are not from a technical background could certainly be made easier by communicating to them a simple idea that’s rooted in common sense.

And that’s exactly how I think we can and should describe Smarter Cities; so I’ll do it again for completeness: use more complete and accurate information to take better-informed, more forward-looking decisions.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it?

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About Rick Robinson
I’m the Director of Technology for Amey, one of the UK's largest engineering and infrastructure services companies, and part of the Ferrovial Group. Previously, I was IBM UK's Executive Architect for Smarter Cities. You can connect with me on Linked-In and as @dr_rick on Twitter. The views expressed here are my own.

6 Responses to The simple idea behind Smarter Cities: take better-informed, more forward-looking decisions

  1. Pingback: Can Birmingham break Geoffrey West’s laws of urban scaling? « Birmingham Science City

  2. Pingback: Can cities break Geoffrey West’s laws of urban scaling? « The Urban Technologist

  3. Pingback: Five roads to a Smarter City « The Urban Technologist

  4. Pingback: Four avatars of the metropolis: technologies that will change our cities « The Urban Technologist

  5. Pingback: Four avatars of the metropolis: technologies that will change our cities « Birmingham Science City

  6. Pingback: Ten ways to pay for a Smarter City (part one) « The Urban Technologist

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