Pens, paper and conversations. And the other technologies that will make cities Smarter.

(Akihabara Street in Tokyo, a centre of high technology, photographed by Trey Ratcliff)

(Akihabara Street in Tokyo, a centre of high technology, photographed by Trey Ratcliff)

A great many factors will determine the future of our cities – for example, human behaviour, demographics, economics, and evolving thinking in urban planning and architecture.

The specific terms “Smart Cities” and “Smarter Cities”, though, are commonly applied to the concept that cities can exploit technology to find new ways to face their challenges. Boyd Cohen of Fast Company offered a useful definition in his article “The Top 10 Smart Cities On The Planet“:

“Smart cities use information and communication technologies (ICT) to be more intelligent and efficient in the use of resources, resulting in cost and energy savings, improved service delivery and quality of life, and reduced environmental footprint–all supporting innovation and the low-carbon economy.”

Some technology developments – such as Service-Oriented Architecture and distributed computing are technically cohesive and can be defined by a particular architecture. Others, however, are more loosely defined. For instance, “Web 2.0” – a term associated with the emergence of social media, smartphones and businesses such as e-Bay, Facebook and Twitter – was coined by Tim O’Reilly in 2003 as a banner to capture the idea that internet and related technologies had once again become valuable sources of innovation following the “dot.com crash”.

So what are the technologies that will make cities Smart?

To answer that question, we need to examine the convergence of two domains of staggering complexity, and of which the outcomes are hard to predict.

The first is the domain of cities: vast, overlapping systems of systems. Their behaviour is the aggregated behaviour of their hundreds of thousands or millions of citizens. Whilst early work is starting to understand the relationship between those systems in a quantitative and deterministic way, such as the City Protocol initiative, we are just at the start of that journey.

(An early example of the emerging technologies that are blurring the boundary between the physical world and information: Professor Kevin Warwick, who in 2002 embedded a silicon chip with 100 spiked electrodes directly into his nervous system. Photo by M1K3Y)

The second domain is technology. We are experiencing phenomenal growth in the availability of information and the invention of new forms of communication. In 2007, more new information was created in one year than in the preceding 5000 years. And whilst the telephone, invented in the mid-19th Century, took around 100 years to become widespread, internet-based communication tools such as Twitter can spread to hundreds of millions of users within a few years.

If we define a “new form of communication” as a means of enabling new patterns of exchange of information between individuals, rather than as a new underlying infrastructure, then we are inventing them – such as foursquareStumbleUpon, and Pinterest – at a faster rate than at any previous time in history.

The discovery and exchange of ideas enabled by these technologies is increasing the rate of invention across many other fields of endeavour, including science and engineering. Indeed, this was deliberate: the evolution of the internet is closely entwined with the need of scientists and engineers to collaborate with each other. I recently surveyed some of the surprising new technologies, and their applications in cities, that are emerging as a result – including materials that grow themselves, 3D printing and mind-reading headsets.

So whilst common patterns are emerging from some Smarter City solutions – for example, the “Digital Cities Exchange” research programme at Imperial College, London; the “FI-WARE” project researching the core platform for the “future internet”; the “European Platform for Intelligent Cities (EPIC)“; and IBM’s own “Intelligent Operations Centre” all share a similar architecture – there is no single platform, architecture or technology that defines “Smart Cities”. Rather, the term defines a period in time in which we have collectively realized that it is critically important to explore the application of new technologies to change the way city systems work to make them more efficient, more equitable and more resilient in the face of the economic, environmental and social challenges facing us.

My own profession is information technology; and I spend much of my time focussed on the latest developments in that field. But in the context of cities, it is a relatively narrow domain. More broadly, developments in many disciplines of science, engineering and technology offer new possibilities for cities of the future.

I find the following framework useful in understanding the various engineering, information and communication technologies that can support Smart City projects. As with the other articles I post to this blog, this is not intended to be comprehensive or definitive – it’s far too early in the field for that; but I hope it is nevertheless a useful contribution.

And I will also find a place in it for one of the oldest and most important technologies that our species has invented: language; and it’s exploitation in “Smart” systems such as pens, paper and conversations.

1. Re-engineering the physical components of city systems

(Kohei Hayamizu’s first attempt to capture energy from pedestrian footfall in Shibuya, Tokyo)

The machinery that supports city systems generally converts raw materials and energy into some useful output. The efficiency of that machinery is limited by theory and engineering. The theoretical limit is created by the fact that machinery operates by transforming energy from one form – such as electricity – into another form – such as movement or heat. Physical laws, such as the Laws of Thermodynamics, limit the efficiency of those processes.

For example, the efficiency of a refrigerator is limited by the fact that it will always use some energy to create a temperature gradient in order that heat can be removed from the contents of the fridge; it then requires additional energy to actually perform that heat removal. Engineering challenges then further reduce efficiency – in the example of the fridge, because its moving components create heat and noise.

One way to improve the efficiency of city systems is to improve the efficiency of the machinery that supports them; either by adopting new approaches (for example, switching from petrol-fuelled to hydrogen-fuelled vehicles), or by increasing the engineering efficiency of existing approaches (for example, using turbo-chargers to increase the efficiency of petrol and diesel engines).

Examples of this approach include:

  • Using new forms of energy exchange, for example, capturing energy from vibrations caused by footfall;
  • Using more efficient energy generation or exchange technologies – such as re-using the heat from computers to heat offices, or using renewable bio-, wind-, or solar energy sources;
  • Using new transport technologies for people, resources or goods that changes the economics of the size and frequency of transport; or of the endpoints and routes – such as underground recycling networks;
  • Replacing transport with other technologies – such as online collaboration;
  • Reducing wastage and inefficiencies in operation,such as the creation of heat and noise – for example, by switching to lighting technologies such as LED that create less heat.

2. Using information  to optimise the operation of city systems

In principle, we can instrument and collect data from any aspect of the systems that support cities; use that data to draw insight into their performance; and use that insight to improve their performance and efficiency in realtime. The ability to do this in practical and affordable ways is relatively new; and offers us the possibility to support larger populations at a higher standard of living whilst using resources more efficiently.

There are challenges, of course. The availability of communication networks to transmit data from where it can be measured to where it can be analysed cannot be assumed. 3G and Wi-Fi coverage is much less complete at ground level, where many city infrastructure components are located, than at head height where humans use mobile phones. And these technologies require expensive, power-hungry transmitters and receivers. New initiatives and startups such as Weightless and SigFox are exploring the creation of communication technologies that promise widespread connectivity at low cost and with low power usage, but they are not yet proven or established.

Despite those challenges, a variety of successful examples exist. Shutl and Carbon Voyage, for example, both use recently emerged technologies to match capacity and demand across networks of transport suppliers; thereby increasing the overall efficiency of the transport systems in the cities where they operate. The Eco-Island Community Interest Company on the Isle of Wight are applying similar concepts to the supply and demand of renwable energy.

Some of the common technologies that enable these solutions at appropriate levels of cost and complexity, are:

3. Co-ordinating the behaviour of multiple systems to contribute to city-wide outcomes

Many city systems are “silos” that have developed around engineering infrastructures or business and operational models that have evolved since city infrastructures were first laid down. In developed markets, those infrastructures may be more than a century old – London’s underground railway was constructed in the mid 19th Century, for example.

But the “outcomes” sought by cities, neighbourhoods and communities – such as social mobility, economic growth, wellbeing and happiness, safety and sustainability – are usually a consequence of a complex mix of effects of the behaviour of many of those systems – energy, economy, transport, healthcare, retail, education, policing and so on.

As information about the operation and performance of those systems becomes increasingly available; and as our ability to make sense of and exploit that information increases; we can start to analyse, model and predict how the behaviour of city systems affects each other, and how those interactions contribute to the overall outcomes of cities, and of the people and communities in them.

IBM’s recent “Smarter Cities Challenge” in my home city of Birmingham studied detailed maps of the systems in the city and their inputs and outputs, and helped Birmingham City Council understand how to developed those maps into a tool to predict the outcomes of proposed policy changes. In the city of Portland, Oregon, a similar interactive tool has already been produced. And Amsterdam and Dublin have both formed regional partnerships to share and exploit city information and co-ordinate portfolios of projects across city systems and agencies driven by common, city-wide objectives.

(A video describing the “systems dynamics” project carried out by IBM in Portland, Oregon to model the interactions between city systems)

We are in the very early stages of developing our ability to quantitatively understand the interrelationships between city systems in this way; but it is already possible to identify some of the technologies that will assist us in that process – in addition to those I mentioned in the previous section:

  • Cloud computing platforms, which enable data from multiple city systems to be co-located on a single infrastructure; and that can provide the “capacity on demand” to apply analytics and visualisation to that data when required.
  • Information and transaction integration technologies which join up data from multiple sources at a technical level; including master data management, and Service Orientated Architecture.
  • Information models for city systems that model the quantitative and semantic relationships between those systems.
  • Service brokerage capabilities to co-ordinate the behaviour of the IT systems that monitor and control city systems; and the service and data catalogues that make those systems and their information available to those brokers.
  • Federated security and identity management to enable citizens and city workers to seamlessly interact with services and information across city systems.
  • Dashboards and other user interface technologies which can present information and services from multiple sources to humans in an understandable and meaningful way.

4. Creating new marketplaces to encourage sustainable choices, and attract investment

As I’ve argued on many occasions on this blog, it is often important or useful to conceive of Smarter City solutions as marketplaces. Such thinking encourages us to consider how the information associated with city services can be used to influence individual choices and their collective impact; and the money-flows in marketplaces can be used to create business cases to support investment in new infrastructure.

The examples in transport innovation that I mentioned earlier in this article, Shutl and Carbon Voyage, can both be thought of as business that exploit information to operate new marketplaces for transport capacity. Eco-island have applied the same concept in energy; Streetline in car-parking; and Big Barn and Sustaination in business-to-consumer and business-to-business models for food distribution.

In addition to those I’ve previously described, systems that operate as transactional marketplaces often involve the following technologies:

Conversations, paper, technology

The articles I write on this blog cover many aspects of technology, future cities, and urbanism. In several recent articles, including this one, I have focussed in particular on issues concerning the application of technology to city systems.

I believe these issues are important. It is inarguable that technology has been changing our world since human beings first used tools; and overall the rate of change has been accelerating ever since. That acceleration has been particularly rapid in the past few decades. The fact that this blog, which costs me nothing to write other than my own time, has been read by people from 117 countries this year – including you – is just one very mundane example of something that would have been completely unthinkable when I started my University education.

But I absolutely do not want to give the impression that technology is the most important element of the future of cities; or that every “Smarter City” project requires all – or even any – of the technologies that I’ve described in this article.

Cities are about people; life is about people. Nothing matters unless it matters to people. In themselves, these are obvious statements; but consequently, our future cities will be successful only if they are built by consensus to meet the needs of all of the people who inhabit them. “Smarter” solutions will only achieve their objectives if they are designed and implemented so as to seamlessly integrate into the fabric of our lives. And sometimes the simplest ideas, using the simplest technology – or no technology at all – will be the most powerful.

Smarter Cities start with conversations between people; conversations build trust and understanding, and lead to the creation of new ideas. Many of those ideas are first shaped on pen and paper – often still the least invasive technology for co-creating and recording information that we have. Some of those ideas will be realised through the application of more recent technologies – and in fact will only be possible at all because of them. That is the real value that new technology brings to the future of cities.

But it’s important to get the order right, or we will not achieve the outcomes that we need. Conversations, paper, technology – that might just be the real roadmap for Smarter Cities.

(I would like to thank Steven Boxall for his comments on a previous article on this blog, “No-one is going to pay cities to become Smarter“, in the Academy of Urbanism‘s discussion group on Linked-In. Those comments helped me to shape the balance that I hope that I have achieved in this article between the roles that technology, people and conversations will play in creating the future of our cities).

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.

13 Responses to Pens, paper and conversations. And the other technologies that will make cities Smarter.

  1. Rick, thanks for the name check – I wasn’t expecting that so was surprised (in a nice way) to see my name at the end.

    Totally agree with you that ‘cities are about people; life is about people. Nothing matters unless it matters to people.’ I found myself saying more or less the same (if we are not making people’s lifes better we might as well all give up and go home), in a public meeting a few weeks ago. I wished more people thought this way about economics.

    Good article.

    Like

  2. Rick Robinson says:

    Thanks Steven,

    You’re welcome; our conversation on Linked-In genuinely made me think – and it continues to do so! I hope we can continue it.

    Glad you liked the article,

    Cheers,

    Rick

    Like

  3. samjgarforth says:

    A content rich post with some inspiring and clear thoughts about the past and the future.

    Like

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