Little/big; producer/consumer; and the story of the Smarter City
March 11, 2013 10 Comments
I have a four year old son. By the time I die he’ll be about my age if I’m lucky.
If I could see him now as he will be then; I would struggle to recognise his interactions with the world as human behaviour in the terms I am used to understanding it.
When he was two years old, I showed him a cartoon on the touchscreen tablet I’d just bought. When it finished, he pressed the thumbnail of the cartoon he wanted to watch next.
The implications of that instinctive and correct action are profound, and mark the start of the disappearance of the boundary between information and the physical world.
Just as the way that we communicate with each other has changed increasingly rapidly from the telephone to e-mail to social media; so the way that we interact with information systems will transform out of all recognition as technology evolves beyond the keyboard, mouse and touchscreen.
The Emotiv headset I’m wearing in the photo above can interpret patterns in the magnetic waves created by my thoughts as simple commands that can be understood by computers. My thoughts can influence the world of information; and they can even be captured as images, as shown in this recent work using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI).
And information can influence the physical world. From control technology implanted in the muscles of insects; to prosthetic limbs and living tissues that are created from digital designs by general-purpose 3D printers. As the way we interact with information systems and use them to affect the world around us becomes so natural that we’re barely conscious of it, the Information Revolution will change our world in ways that we are only beginning to imagine.
These technologies offer striking possibilities; and we face striking challenges. The two will come together where the activity of the world is most concentrated: in cities.
In the last revolution, the Industrial Revolution, we built the centres of cities upwards around lifts powered by the steam engine invented by James Watt and commercialised by Matthew Boulton in Birmingham. In the last century we expanded them outwards around the car as we became used to driving to work, shops, parks and schools.
We believe we can afford a lifestyle based on driving cars because its long-term social and environmental costs are not included in its financial price. But as the world’s population grows towards 9 billion by 2050, mostly in cities that are becoming more affluent in what it’s increasingly inaccurate to call “emerging economies”; that illusion will be shattered.
We’re already paying more for our food and energy as a proportion of income. That’s not because we’re experiencing a “double-dip recession”; it’s because the structure of the economy is changing. There is more competition for grain to feed the world’s fuel and food needs; and droughts caused by climate change are increasing uncertainty in it’s supply.
We have choices to make. Do we consume less? Can we use technology to address the inefficiencies of supply chains which waste almost half the food they produce whilst transporting it thousands of miles around the world, without disrupting them and endangering the billions of lives they support? Or do we disintermediate the natural stages of food supply by growing artificial meat in laboratories?
These choices go to the heart of our relationship with the natural world; what it means to be human; and to live in an ethical society. I think of a Smarter City as one which is taking those choices successfully; and using technology to address its challenges in a way that is both sustainable, and sympathetic to us as human beings and as communities.
Three trends are appearing across technology, urbanism, and the research of resilient systems to show us how to do that. The first is for little things and big things to work constructively together.
The attraction of opposites part 1: little and big
Some physical interventions in cities have been “blunt”. Birmingham’s post-war economy needed traffic to be able to circulate around the city centre; but the resulting ringroad strangled it, until it was knocked down a decade ago. It didn’t meet the needs of individuals and communities within the city to live and interact.
By contrast, Exhibition road in London – a free-for-all where anyone can walk, drive, sit, park or catch a bus, anywhere they like – knits the city together. Elevated pedestrian roundabouts and city parks similarly provide infrastructures that support fluid movement by people cycling and walking; modes of transport in which it is easy to stop and interact with the city.
These big infrastructures are compatible with the life of the little people who inhabit the city around them; and who are the reason for its existence.
The same concepts apply to technology infrastructures.
Technology offers great promise in cities. We can collect data from people and infrastructures – the movement of cars, or the concentration of carbon dioxide. We can aggregate that data to provide information about city systems – how fast traffic is moving, or the level of carbon emissions of buildings. And we can draw insight from that information into the performance of cities – the impacts of congestion on GDP, and of environmental quality on life expectancy.
Cities are deploying mobile and broadband infrastructures to enable the flow of this data; and “open data” platforms to make it available to developers and entrepreneurs for them to explore new business opportunities and develop novel urban services.
But how does deploying broadband infrastructure in a poor neighbourhood create growth if the people who live there can’t afford subscriptions to it? Or if businesses there don’t have access to computer programming skills?
Connectivity and open data are the “big infrastructures” of the information age; how do we ensure that they are properly adapted to the “little” needs of individual citizens, businesses and communities?
We will do that by concerning ourselves with people and places, rather than information and infrastructures.
Where civic information infrastructures are successful in creating economic and social growth, they are not deployed; they are co-created in a process of listening and learning between city institutions; businesses; communities; and individuals.
This process requires us to visit new places, such as the “Container City” incubation facility for social enterprise in Sunderland; to learn new languages; and understand different systems of value, such as the “triple bottom line” of social, environmental and financial capital.
If we design infrastructures by listening to and then enabling ideas, then we put the resources of big institutions and companies into the hands of people and businesses in a way that makes it less difficult to create many, more effective “little” innovations in hyper-local contexts – the “Massive Small” change first described by Kelvin Campbell.
By following this process, Dublin’s “Dublinked” partnership between the City and surrounding County Councils; the National University of Ireland, businesses and entrepreneurs is now sharing 3,000 city datasets; using increasingly sophisticated tools to draw value from them; identifying new ways for the city’s transport, energy and water systems to work; and starting new, viable, information-based businesses.
As a sustained process, these conversations and the trust they create form a “soft infrastructure” for a city, connecting it’s little and big inhabitants.
This soft infrastructure is what turns civic information into services that can become part of the fabric of life of cities and communities; and that can enable sustainable growth by weaving information into that fabric that describes the impact of choices that are about to be made.
For example, a project in San Francisco used algorithms that are capable of predicting traffic speeds and volume in the city one hour into the future with 85% accuracy. These algorithms were developed in a project in Singapore, where the resulting predictions were made available to traffic managers, so that they could set lane priorities and traffic light sequences to attempt to prevent any predicted congestion.
But in California, the predictions were made available instead to individual commuters who where told in advance the likely duration of their journey each day, including the impact of any congestion that would develop whilst the journey was underway. This gave them a new opportunity to take an informed choice: to travel at a different time; by a different route or mode; or not to travel at all.
The California project shows that it’s far more powerful to use the information resulting from city data and predictive algorithms not to influence a handful of traffic managers who respond to congestion; but to influence the hundreds or thousands of individual travellers who create it; and who have the power to choose not to create it.
And in designing information systems such as this, we can appeal not just to selfish interests, but to our sense of community and place.
A project in Dubuque, Iowa uses Smart water meters to tell householders whether they are using domestic appliances efficiently; and can detect weak underlying signals that indicate leaks. People who are given this information can choose to act on it; and to a certain extent, they do.
But something remarkable happened in a control group who were also given a “green points” score comparing their water efficiency to that of their neighbours. They were literally twice as likely to improve their water efficiency as people who were only told about their own water use.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs tells us that once the immediate physical needs of our families are secured, our motivations are next driven by our relationships with the people around us. Technology gives us the ability to design new information-based services that appeal directly to those values, rather than to more distant general environmental concerns.
The attraction of opposites part 2: producer and consumer
This information is at our fingertips; we are its producers and consumers. For the last decade, we have used and created it when we share photos in social media or buy and sell in online marketplaces.
But the disappearance of the boundaries between information systems, the physical world and our own biology means that it is not just information that we will be producing and consuming in the next decade, but physical goods and services too.
As a result, new peer-to-peer markets can already be seen in food production; parking spaces; car journeys; the manufacture of custom objects; and the production of energy from sources such as bio-matter and domestic solar panels.
Of course, we have all been producers and consumers since humans first began to farm and create societies with diversified economies. What’s new is the ability of technology to dramatically improve the flexibility, timeliness and efficiency of interactions between producers and consumers; creating interactions that are more sustainable than those enabled by conventional supply chains.
Even more tantalising is the possibility of using new rates of exchange in those transactions.
In Switzerland, a complementary currency, the Wir, has contributed to economic stability over the last century by allowing some debt repayments to be bartered locally when they cannot be repaid in universal currency. And last year, Bristol became the 5th UK town or city to operate its own currency.
These currencies are increasingly using advanced technologies, such as the “Droplet” smartphone payment scheme now operating in Birmingham and London. This combination of information technology and local currencies could be used to calculate rates of exchange that compare the complete social, environmental and economic cost of goods and services to their immediate, contextual value to the participants in the transaction.
That really could create a market infrastructure to support Smarter, sustainable, and more equitable city systems; and it sounds like a great idea to me.
But if it’s such a good idea, why aren’t markets based on it ubiquitous already?
Collaborative governance; and better stories for Smarter Cities
If we are going to use the technologies and ideas I’ve described to transform cities, then technologists like me need to learn from the best of urbanism.
Jan Gehl taught us to design liveable cities not by considering the buildings in them; but how people use the spaces between buildings.
In Smarter Cities our analogous challenge is to concentrate not only on information infrastructures and the financial efficiencies that they provide; not least because “Smart” ideas cut across city systems, and so gains in efficiency don’t always reward those who invest in infrastructure.
Our objective instead is to create the harder to quantify personal, social and environmental value that results when those infrastructures enable people to afford to eat better food or to heat their homes properly in winter; to access affordable transport to places of employment; and to live longer, independent lives as productive contributors to their communities.
These are the stories we need to tell about Smarter Cities.
These stories are of vital importance because the third trend we observe is that cities only really get smarter when their leaders and communities coordinate the use of public and private assets to achieve a collective vision of the future, and to secure external investment in it.
Doing so needs the commitment not just of the owners and managers of those assets, but of the shareholders, voters, employees and other stakeholders that they are accountable to.
To win the commitment of such a broad array of people we need to appeal to common instincts: our understanding of narrative, and our ability to empathise. Ultimately we will need the formal languages of finance and technology, but they are not where we should start.
It’s imperative that we tell these stories to inspire the evolution of our cities. The changes in coming decades will be so fast and so profound that cities that do not embrace them successfully will suffer severe decline.
Luckily, our ability to respond successfully to those changes depends on a technology that is freely available: language, used face to face in conversations. I can’t think of a more essential challenge than to use it to tell stories about how our world can be come smarter, fairer, and more sustainable.
And there’s no limit to what any one of us can achieve by doing this. Because it is collaborative governance rather than institutional authority that enables Smarter Cities, then there are no rules defining where the leadership to establish that governance will come from.
Whether you are a politician, academic, technologist, business person, community activist or simply a passionate individual; and whether your aim is to create a new partnership across a city, or simply to start an independent social enterprise within it; that leadership could come from you.
(This article is based on the script I wrote in preparation for my TEDxWarwick presentation on 13th March 2013).