Should technology improve cities, or should cities improve technology?

(Photo of the Queens Arms in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter by Ian Edwards)

I was honoured this week to be invited to join the Academy of Urbanism, a society of professionals, academics and policy makers from a variety of backgrounds whose work is concerned in some way with cities. As a technology professional who has increasingly worked in an urban context over the past few years, I try to be as conscious of what I don’t know about cities as what I do; and I’m hoping that the Academy will offer me the opportunity to learn from its many expert members.

In fact, in a discussion today with an expert from the property development sector, I found myself reversing my usual direction of thinking concerning the relationship between technology and cities: when asked “how can technology contribute to improving property development” I replied that I was more interested in the question “how can property development improve technology?”.

I spend a lot of my time working both with City Councils and with the ecosystems of entrepreneurs and small businesses in cities; especially those businesses that create or use technology. Such businesses are – rightly, in my view – seen as the heart of a sustainable economy by many cities. They create innovate products and services in high value markets; they often operate in local networks of supply and demand that create self-reinforcing growth in the city economy; and they export products and services nationally and internationally.

Almost by definition these businesses create value in a way that is agile and closely linked to local market and cultural context; they are the antithesis of the sort of large-scale, process-driven, technology work that it is easy and cost-effective to describe in writing in order that its delivery can be commissioned from the lowest cost supplier internationally. These are amongst the reasons that the excellent Microsoft-sponsored “Developing the Future” report in 2007 cited this sector as key to growth in the UK economy.

It’s obvious that making office space and technology infrastructure such as broadband connectivity available to businesses of this sort is important; what’s less obvious is what else is required in order to create a successful, sustainable, growing cluster of such businesses with the capability to have a significant overall impact on a city economy.

Two aspects of that challenge that have been interesting me recently are: how do cities attract the young, skilled people who might start or work for such businesses? And: how can cities make themselves attractive places for those people to grow older, mature their business and professional skills, and start families?

Whilst I often write on this blog about my own work in the UK, I spoke at length with a colleague this week who is helping a fast-growing African city to contemplate these precise issues. In a single, global economy, they matter to cities everywhere.

By coincidence, the Urban Repairs Club visited the Jewellery Quarter in my home city of Birmingham this week. Their report of what they found is insightful and very relevant to this subject. I moved to Birmingham in 1990, just in time to annoy shoppers in the city’s old Bullring shopping centre by busking as a university student, before it was replaced by the new Bullring which revitalised the city’s retail centre. The Urban Repairs Club article well reflects both the changes for the better since that period; and the challenges that remain.

(Photo of machines from the industrial revolution in Birmingham’s Science Museum by Chris Moore)

Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter was at the heart of the Industrial Revolution; it is where the powered mass-manufacture of designed items (such as badges, coins, and belt buckles) was first invented, in between the creation of one-off objects of art and the mass production of undecorated functional items.

It retains that industrial heritage today in a way that is entirely uncontrived and that has not been “restored” or recreated as a homage to history. It contains green spaces; some of Birmingham’s most interesting restaurants and evening venues; and affordable housing. In many ways it reminds me of the comments made by London-based technology entrepreneurs in the recent Demos “Tale of Tech City” report describing what attracts them to Shoreditch – and what will not necessarily attract them to use the facilities of the Olympic legacy sites.

At the risk of entering into a controversial debate in my home city, one of its challenges is that the attractions of the Jewellery Quarter are less than ideally connected to some key economic areas in Birmingham, such as the technology incubation campus at Birmingham Science Park Aston; or the hearts of the digital media and creative sectors around Fazeley Studios and the Custard Factory. The Urban Repairs Club report discusses some of the features of Birmingham’s urban landscape that cause this separation: it is possible to walk between all of these areas, for example; but it is not pleasant to do so, and it is not a walk I would undertake on a dark autumn or winter evening with my family. That reluctance might arise more from my perception of the area’s character than its reality; but it’s on the basis of perception that such decisions are taken.

A colleague in Birmingham commented that the deficiencies of urban environments such as those highlighted by the Urban Repairs Club are often impacts of decisions in property development and transport that are driven by financial and economic outcomes and that don’t adequately recognise the importance of social mobility, social cohesion and sustainability.

Those comments reminded me of a passage in Jared Diamond’s 2005 book, “Collapse“. In it, Diamond is concerned with the ways in which societies respond to environmental challenges that threaten their survival. As historic examples, he studies Easter Island and Norse Greenland, and in the present day he discusses the situations of Australia and the US State of Montana.

(Photo by Stefan of Himeji, Japan, showing the forest that covers much of Japan’s landmass enclosing – and enclosed by – the city)

In particular, his comments on Japan’s successful slowing of population growth and reversal of deforestation between the 17th and 19th Centuries struck me:

“… a suite of factors … caused both the elite and the masses in Japan to recognise their long-term stake in preserving their own forests, to a degree greater than for most other people.”

He goes on to say that those factors included the fact that the ruling Tokugawa shoguns:

“… having imposed peace and eliminated rival armies at home, correctly anticipated that they were at little risk of a revolt at home or an invasion from overseas. They expected their own Tokugawa family to remain in control of Japan, which in fact it did for 250 years.”

Unless I’m misreading the current political situation, 250 years of hereditary governance is not something that’s likely to happen in the UK; but there’s a hint of the modern-day expression of that stability of vested interest in the Urban Repair Club’s report. In it, they highlight that the property section of Birmingham’s newspaper, the Birmingham Post has the subtitle: “EdgbastonHarborneHerefordshireStaffordshireSolihullWarwickshireShropshireStourbridgeWorcestershire”; and that if these are the areas that Birmingham’s citizens are thought to aspire to live in, then it’s notable that only two of them (Edgbaston and Harborne) are in Birmingham; the others are mostly nearby market towns and the counties that surround them.

This is a typical consequence of the trend in the UK for those who are approaching middle-age, and becoming more experienced businesspeople and professionals, to leave cities as they also become parents; in the search for more space, better schools and a more peaceful lifestyle. Edward Glaesar referred to the same drive in “The Triumph of the City” and reflected that he himself had moved from a city centre to a suburb for precisely these reasons.

If we could counter that trend, we might help cities to address two challenges: the loss from the city-centre economy of some of their most important business talent (as highlighted in the Centre for Cities reports “Outlook for Cities 2012” and “Hidden potential: Supporting growth in Sunderland & other mid-sized cities“); and the development of longer-term relationships between people and place; particularly those people whose careers advance to the point that they are in the position to take the investment and property development decisions that shape our cities.

(Photo byC. Wess Daniels of Bournville, the urban village created by the long-standing relationship between the Cadbury family and the area of Birmingham in which their chocolate factory is located)

The Urban Repairs Club article suggests that some of the Corporations responsible for modern developments in Birmingham act in their own short-term financial interest, and not in the city’s interest. In contrast to this are the attitudes expressed recently by Sir Roger Carr, president of the Confederation of British Industry and chair of Centrica, the UK’s largest energy company; and Gianpiero Petriglieri, Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD. Recognising the reality that we live in a globalised world with a single capitalist economy, both Sir Roger and Professor Petriglieri are meditating on the opportunity for business to be a force for good; and on the importance of globally mobile leaders retaining a prolonged, local sense of place. I suspect that the truth is complex and consists of elements of all of these perspectives.

To return to Jared Diamond, in an analysis of the factors common to successful responses to environmental challenges, he comments:

“Leaders who don’t just react passively, who have the courage to anticipate crises or to act early, and who make strong insightful decisions of top-down management really can make a huge difference to their societies. So can similarly courageous, active citizens practicing bottom-up management.”

Achieving that balance will help cities such as Birmingham, and others across the world, to be successful in achieving many of their goals, including the creation of high-value, sustainable local economies – whether in the technology sector or elsewhere.

The relationships between sustainability and economy are many-faceted. Diamond comments that his analysis included examples in which:

“one society succeeded while one or more societies practising different economies in the same environment failed”

And that therefore:

“not only the environment, but also the proper choice of an economy to fit the environment, is important.”

Correspondingly, the right urban environment is needed to support the economy. Not just one in which the technology and transport infrastructure is available to support distribution, services and operations; but one that attracts people to live and work; and that provides both physical and social mobility for everyone. Those are challenges that in some ways technology can assist – through the provision of more complete, holistic information, for example – but they will not be solved by technology. They’ll be solved – I hope – by the combination of talent and disciplines represented in organisations such as the Academy of Urbanism; or that in some cases come together naturally in city communities to create enlightened “bottom-up” activism.

I’m hoping to learn much more about all of these possibilities as I get to know my fellow Academicians.

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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.

5 Responses to Should technology improve cities, or should cities improve technology?

  1. Saibal D. Chowdhury says:

    It is a two way street . Technology has been shaping our cities and many cities today are the fountain of innovation in technology. Technology creates opportunities and problems in the cities spurs innovation. The challenge is how we manage , harness and nurture.

    There are few good examples in this part of the world : Singapore, Songdo , Iskandar

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  4. pnache says:

    I have to agree with Saibal; it’s a two way street. One of the failings of urban and city based thinking is that it often doesn’t adequately consider the relationship with the peri urban and rural hinterland. Subsequently we end up with the view that cities are places that we visit and the countryside is somewhere we go to retire. As your piece suggests this doesn’t really benefit either. This mindset (meme?) is one of the reasons why city regions approaches will continue to fail until there is a genuine effort to understand the synergies between the different environments.

    In the technology world the increasing impact of the Internet of Things as it relates to sustainable food supply, value chains, supply chains and the environment will mandate that the urban/rural interface is understood more clearly.

    Technology also impacts on our personal relationship with the city. As a rural dweller my interface with the city is often through technology. As it happens I know Birmingham particularly well but even now a journey will involve technology. Even more so when I visit a city with which I am less familiar my first port of call is my smart phone and the knowledge that the city makes available through that channel.

    The urban environment can leverage technology in a way that mediates my relationship with a place and reducing the potential for friction points as I make my way through that landscape. As you point out, the nicer that landscape is the more often I am likely to visit.

    In terms of mediating the relationship with the rural idyll and leveraging the benefits that accrue from understanding the connectedness between the two – therein lies the justification for investment in infrastructure and I don’t see that anywhere; do you?

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  5. Rick Robinson says:

    Hi Paul,

    Thankyou for such an interesting and insightful comment. Having spent about half of my life living in villages bordering the New Forest and half living in Birmingham, I hope I can appreciate a little of both environments, and the interactions between them ;-).

    I really do think that investment is a challenge – it’s proving hard enough to fund the deployment of broadband across the less prosperous areas of cities, let alone across the less densely populated areas of the country.

    And I do agree that the interrelationships need to be understood; on the one hand, Jean Clos of UN Habitat has asserted that for a growing world population to be supported sustainably, it needs to be housed and provided with employment primarily in dense urban environments. On the other hand Kate Cooper of New Optimist has collected some interesting evidence to demonstrate that the food to feed such populations will never be grown in such densely populated environments – she has a great TEDx talk: http://www.tedxwarwick.com/2013/speaker.php?id=9

    Another challenge in addressing this is that of political boundaries. Investments in infrastructure are often politically coordinated, and between cities and regions are an explosion of boundaries between (in the UK’s case) City, District, Borough, Town and County Councils; Local Enterprise Partnerships; regional transport authorities etc.

    I don’t believe there’s a simple way to address that complexity; I think that some parts of the answer will be provided by the University-led research efforts into building an evidence base for the value created by new technology infrastructures in domains such as economic and social development; and some by the collaborations that have formed between institutions that serve the same area driven by trends such as shared services in public sector. The Dublinked information partnership in Ireland is perhaps a good example of both those ideas combined – http://www.dublinked.ie/ .

    Certainly your comments have given me food for thought so perhaps it’s a topic I’ll return to soon in another article.

    Cheers,

    Rick

    Like

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