The amazing heart of a Smarter City: the innovation boundary

(Photo of a mouse by pure9)

Innovation has always been exciting, interesting and valuable; but recently it’s become essential.

The “mouse” that defined computer usage from the 1980s through to the 2000s was an amazing invention in its time. It was the first widely successful innovation in human/computer interaction since the typewriter keyboard and video display which came decades before it; and it made computers accessible to new communities of people for the first time.

But whilst the mouse, like the touchscreen more recently popularised by the iPhone and iPad, was a great innovation that increased the usability and productivity of personal computers, it wasn’t really necessary for a greater and pressing purpose. Its benefits came later as we explored its capabilities.

We now have a greater purpose that demands innovation: the need to make our cities and communities more sustainable, vibrant and equal in the face of the severe economic, environmental and demographic pressures that we face; and that are well described in the Royal Society’s “People and the Planet” report.

We have already seen those pressures create threats to food and energy security; and in recent months I’ve spoken to city leaders who are increasingly concerned with the difference in life expectancy between the most affluent and most deprived areas of their cities – it can be 10 years or more. There are much worse inequalities on a global scale, of course. But this is a striking local difference in the basic opportunity of people to live.

Barnett Council in North London famously predicted recently that within 20 years, unless significant changes in public services are made, they will be unable to afford to provide any services except social care. There will be no money left to collect waste, run parks and leisure facilities, clean streets or operate any of the other services that support and maintain cities and communities. I have spoken informally to other Councils who have come to similar conclusions.

All the evidence, including the scientific analysis of the behaviour and sustainability of city systems by the Physicist Geoffrey West, points to the need to create innovations that change the way that cities work.

But where will this innovation come from?

I think innovation of this sort takes place at an “innovation boundary”: the boundary between capability and need.

When a potentially transformative infrastructure such as a Smarter City technology platform is designed and deployed well, then the services it provides precisely embody that boundary.

This idea is fundamental to the concept of Smarter Cities, where we are concerned with the capability of technology to transform cities. Technology vendors – including, but not limited to, my employer IBM – are sometimes expected to use the Smarter City movement as a channel through which to sell generic technology platforms. As vendors, we do deliver technology platforms for cities, and they are part of the capability required to transform them. But they are not the only part – far from it. And they must not be generic.

(A smartphone alert sent to a commuter in a San Francisco pilot project by IBM Research and Caltrans that provides personalised daily predictions of commuting journey times – and suggestions for alternative routes.)

As I hope regular readers of this blog will know, I often explore the role of people and communities in transforming how cities work. A city is the combined effect of the behaviour of all of the people in it – whether they are buying food in a supermarket, traveling to work, relaxing in a park, planning an urban development or teaching in a school. No infrastructure – whether it is a road, a building, a broadband network or an intelligent energy grid – will have a transformative effect on a city unless it engages with individuals in a way that results in a change of behaviour. Work by my colleagues in IBM on transportation in California (pictured, left) and on water and energy usage in Dubuque, Iowa provide examples of what can be achieved when technology solutions are designed in the context of individual and community behaviour.

The innovations that discover how technology can change behaviour are sometimes very localised. They can be specific to the nature, challenges and opportunities of local communities; and are often therefore created by individuals, entrepreneurs, businesses and social enterprises within them. The “civic hacking” and “open data” movements are great examples of this sort of creativity.

But this is not the only sort of innovation that is required to enable Smarter City transformations. The infrastructures that support cities literally provide life-support to hundreds of thousands or millions of individuals. They must be highly resilient, performant and secure – particularly as they become increasingly optimised to support larger and larger city populations sustainably.

The invention, design, deployment and operation of Smarter City infrastructures require the resources of large organisations such as technology vendors, infrastructure providers, local governments and Universities who are able to make significant investments in them.

The secret to successfully transforming cities lies at the boundary between local innovations and properly engineered platforms. “Smarter City” transformations are effective when new and resilient information infrastructures are designed and deployed to meet the specific needs of city communities. One size does not fit all.

A technology infrastructure is no different in this regard to a physical infrastructure such as a new urban highway. In each case, there are some requirements that are obvious and generic – getting traffic in and out of a city centre more efficiently; or  making superfast broadband connectivity universally accessible. But other crucially important requirements are more complex, subtle and varied. How can a new road be integrated into the existing environment of a city so that local communities benefit from it, and so that it does not divide them? What access points, support and funding assistance are needed so that communities can use superfast broadband networks; and what services and information can be delivered to them using those networks that will make a difference?

If we understand those requirements, we can design infrastructures that properly support the innovation boundary. Doing so demands that we address three challenges:

Firstly, we must identify the specific information and technology services that can be provided to individuals, communities, entrepreneurs, businesses and social enterprises to help them succeed and grow. I’ve referred many times to the Knight Foundation’s excellent work in this area; it has inspired my own work with entrepreneurs and social enterprises in Sunderland and elsewhere.

(Meeting with social entrepreneurs in Sunderland to understand how new technology can help them)

Secondly, we need to understand and then supply the heavily engineered capabilities that are beyond the means of local communities to deliver for themselves; but that which enable them to create innovations with real significance.

At the 3rd EU Summit on Future Internet, Juanjo Hierro, Chief Architect for the FI-WARE “future internet platform” project, addressed this topic and identified the specific challenges that local innovators need help to overcome, and that could by provided by city information infrastructures. His challenges included: real-time access to information from physical city infrastructures; tools for analysing “big data“; and access to technologies to ensure privacy and trust. As we continue to engage with communities of innovators in cities, we will discover other requirements of this sort.

Finally, the boundary needs to be defined by standards. Many cities will deploy many information infrastructures, and many different vendors will be involved in supplying them. In order that successful local innovations can spread and interact with each other, Smarter City infrastructures should support Open Standards and interoperability with Open Source technologies.

It will take work to achieve that, of course. It is very easy to underestimate the complexity of the standards required to achieve interoperability. For example, in order to make it possible to safely change something as simple as a lightbulb, standards for voltage, power, physical dimensions, brightness, socket shape and fastening type, fragility and heat output are required. Some standards for Smarter City infrastructures are already in place – for example, Web services and the Common Alerting Protocol – but many others will need to be invented and encouraged to spread. Fortunately, the process is already underway. As an example, IBM recently donated MQTT, a protocol for connecting information between small devices such as sensors and actuators in Smarter City systems to the Open Source community.

(The first “Local Gov Camp” unconference in 2009, attended by community innovators with an interest in transforming local services, held in Fazeley Studios in Birmingham. Photo by s_p_a_c_e_m_a_n)

In the meantime, the innovation boundary is an amazing place to work. It puts me in contact with the leading edge of technology development – with IBM Research, and with new products such as the Intelligent Operations Centre for Smarter Cities. And it offers me the chance to collaborate with the academic institutions and thought-leaders who are defining the innovation boundary through initiatives such as “disruptive business platforms” (see this work from Imperial college, or these thoughts from my colleague Pete Cripps).

But more importantly, my work puts me in touch with innovators who are creating exciting and inspiring new ways for cities to work; often in the communities that need the most help, such as Margaret Elliott in Sunderland; Mark Heskett-Saddington of Sustainable Enterprise Strategies; and the team at Droplet in Birmingham.

I count myself terrifically honoured and lucky to have the privilege of working with them.

About Rick Robinson
I’m the Director of Smart Places for Jacobs, the global engineering company. Previously, I was the UK, Middle East and Africa leader of the Digital Cities and Property business for Arup, Director of Technology for Amey, one of the UK’s largest engineering and infrastructure services companies and part of the international Ferrovial Group, and before that IBM UK’s Executive Architect for Smarter Cities.

23 Responses to The amazing heart of a Smarter City: the innovation boundary

  1. Pingback: The amazing heart of a Smarter City: the innovation boundary | Komal Anand Doshi

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  3. gshowell says:

    Very interesting, from the perspective of majority world cities, is there any way a Smarter City network could be put in place without ‘breaking the bank’?

    This also reminds me of Project Cybersyn developed by Stafford Beer for Chile in the 1970’s, perhaps because what we are essentially discussing here is the implementation of cybernetic regulation systems.

    Utopically, I would also like to see Smarter Cities grids somehow linked in with citizen accountability and citizen responsibilisation. As part of a democratisation of information about government promises / spending priorities / future investments, and collaborative citizen government solution building for the challenges facing future cities. As technology gets cheaper this is all somehow feasible, in fact we could look at it the other way around, if smart city initiatives are not undertaken, then things will get really chaotic.


  4. rickrobinson says:

    Hi George,

    Thankyou for your comments. I think you are absolutely right that as Smarter City systems are implemented it will be key to establish governance around such indicators as spending, performance, quality and other criteria concerning the delivery of city services in an increasingly complex “system of systems” incorporating public sector and private sector organisations.

    I think that the infrastructures that support Smarter City systems will be put in place through two routes;

    Firstly, through cross-city investments supporting by City authorities working together with local stakeholders – such as I’ve discussed here and here

    And secondly, through more traditional business investments in market-based systems to exchange commodities such as food, energy and expertise, as I’ve discussed here and here

    These are early days, though; and while I think those opinions are valid, they are based on the experience of the cities that have made progress so far; it may take time to overcome the challenges other cities face in following them.




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