Smarter City myths and misconceptions
July 14, 2013 14 Comments
Part of my job is to communicate the ideas behind Smarter Cities, and to support those ideas with examples of the value they create when applied in cities such as Sunderland, Dublin, Birmingham and Rio.
In doing so, I often find myself countering a few common challenges to the concept of a Smarter City that I believe are based on a misconception of how Smarter Cities initiatives are carried in practise out by those involved in them.
Everyone that I know who works in this space – for technology vendors, for city Councils, Universities, charities, social enterprises, small businesses, or for any of the other institutions who might be involved in a city initiative – understands one thing in particular: that cities are incredibly complicated. Understanding how to apply any intervention to achieve a specific change or outcome in them is extremely difficult.
I know technology very well; and I have no difficulty imagining new ways in which it could be used in cities. But understanding how in practise people might respond to those ideas is more complex. Will they be motivated to adopt a new technology, or a new technology-enabled service? Why? Will they appropriate it for some purpose other than it was intended? Is that a good or a bad thing? What might the side effects be?
In the case of real innovations, it’s not always possible to answer those questions definitively, of course; but it’s important to consider them in the course of the design process. And to do so we need the skills not just of technologists and businesspeople but social scientists, urban designers, economists, community workers – and, depending on the context, any number of other specialisms.
However, we are still going through the process of creating a shared understanding of Smarter Cities between all of those disciplines; and of communicating that understanding to the world at large. In the conversations taking place today as we try to do that, here are five of the most common challenges that I encounter to the idea of Smarter Cities; and why I think those challenges are based on misconceptions of how we actually go about building them.
I’ll start with the misconception that I’m most guilty of myself:
I spend most of my professional life working on Smarter Cities projects; it’s easy for me to forget that most people aren’t even aware of the concept, let alone convinced by it.
I doubt that many of the one third of the world’s population who aren’t connected to the internet, for example, are particularly familiar with the term Smarter Cities; nor the 14% of UK adults who’ve never used it. For many of them – and, I suspect, billions of other people who may be internet users, but who spend most of their energy focussing on their busy social, working and family lives – it will simply not have reached their attention.
This matters because whilst most people do not spend their time considering the ideas we discuss in the world of Smarter Cities, most of them nevertheless use city systems and technology.
As most people reading this blog will know, according to sources including the World Health Organisation, more than half of the world’s population now lives in urban areas; and in the UK where I live, that’s true of more than 90% of us. So most people live in cities; and many who don’t are employed in occupations such as farming and transport which are increasingly dominated by the need to support the populations of cities.
Similarly, by the end of this year, ABI Research estimate there will be 1.4 billion SmartPhone users in the world; there are already 5 billion mobile phone users. Most people happily adopt the latest consumer technologies relatively quickly once they become affordable.
Every person who lives in a city is a target customer for private sector service providers; a taxpayer or voter for city officials; a potential campaigner or activist; or the leader or employee of an organisation providing city services. Politicians, businesses and public officials will only deliver Smarter Cities when people want them; and people won’t want them until they know what they are, and why they matter to them as individuals.
Simon Giles of Accenture was quoted recently in an article on UBM’s Future Cities site that the Smarter Cities industry has not done a good enough job of selling the benefits of its ideas to a wide audience; I think that’s a challenge we need to face up to, and start to tell better stories about the differences Smarter Cities will make to everyday lives.
Of course, there are also many people who are perfectly aware of the Smarter Cities movement, but who disagree with its ideas. In practise, I often find that such disagreements are less to do with the specific characteristics of any of the technologies involved, but arise from a concern that in principle Smarter Cities represents a technocratic assertion that we should change the way we design and build cities by putting the capabilities of technology ahead of the needs of citizens.
That’s simply not the case; and I’ll argue why it’s not by describing a few more misconceptions I’ve encountered.
Urbanists such as the architect and town planner Tim Stonor and Enrique Peñalosa, former mayor of Bogotá, have argued powerfully for city design to shift its emphasis towards human behaviour, and away from a focus on the last technology that transformed them: the car.
That debate about the role of technology in cities, then, is far from new. Jane Jacobs, writing in the 1960s when she was concerned that rapid growth in road transport was dominating the thinking of planners, quoted at length an essay on the development of cities in the Industrial Revolution to illustrate the extent to which, a century earlier, city streets were dominated by the previous generation of transport technology – the horse.
As human beings we have used technology since we first made tools from stones and wood. From there we embarked on a complex process of socio-technological evolution that continues today.
What is arguably a new characteristic of that evolution in current times is what appears to be the prolonged exponential growth we’ve experienced in the capability of digital technologies over the past few decades.
In his 2011 book “Civilization“, Niall Fergusson comments that news of the Indian Mutiny in 1857 took 46 days to reach London, travelling in effect at 3.8 miles an hour. By Jan 2009 when US Airways flight 1549 crash landed in the Hudson river, Jim Hanrahan’s message on Twitter communicated the news to the entire world four minutes later; it reached Perth, Australia at more than 170,000 miles an hour. The astonishing speed and ease of communication which we take for granted has led to an explosion of information; more new information was created in 2007 than in the preceding 5000 years.
Only history will tell if the speed and societal impact of the developments we’re experiencing in digital technology constitute a historical tipping point in the form of an “Information Revolution”, or if we’re simply experiencing an increase in speed of a process that begin with the development of language and includes the inventions of writing and the printing press.
It’s useful sometimes to be reminded of that historical perspective, and to remember that the evolution of human beings, human behaviour, technology and cities is a single process.
In describing to her readers the role of horse-drawn transport in shaping the cities of the Industrial Revolution, Jane Jacobs reminded them that it’s impact on them was similar to that of the motor car in the 20th Century: horses were physically dangerous to pedestrians; took up a lot of space; created effluent pollution in city streets that we would find unthinkably repellent today; and that their hooves and cobbles were incredibly noisy.
However, her point was that none of this was evidence that either horse-drawn transport or cars destroy cities. On the contrary, they enable cities to grow.
Technology and cities have evolved together through history entirely as a consequence of our natural behaviour as individuals: we have dense cities with busy streets because people want to move and interact, not because someone invented the elevator or the car or first harnessed a horse.
Our challenge is always to bring the benefits and the impact of technology to an acceptable balance on behalf of people and communities. Fifty years on, Jacobs’ work should still remind us to focus not on technology, or planning, or pollution; but on the needs and behaviour of people.
There is nothing inhuman about technology; but is not always the case that we design technological services in a way that shows understanding and empathy of the human requirements of their end users. Whilst that is itself an eminently human failing, it is one that we must challenge. Digital privacy and e-commerce are just two examples of technologies that can have such a profound effect on the physical health and vitality of cities that it is imperative we employ them intelligently.
And we are fully capable of doing so. The residents of Stockholm voted to extend a road-use charging pilot to a permanent scheme after it was shown to reduce journey times and increase their reliability. And amongst the stories of successful community initiatives in the Birmingham Community Lovers’ Guide are several that depend on social media technology.
Smarter city initiatives succeed when they result in services that are well-designed to meet the needs of people; when people are involved in their co-creation; or when people are free to choose when and how to use the technologies available to them. Many urban and technology professionals would say that those statements simply repeat the principles of good design in their field.
In 2011 FastCompany named Songdo, South Korea, as the Smartest City in the World. Songdo, like Masdar in the United Arab Emirates, has been newly constructed using extremely high technology techniques in planning, construction and operation to create a liveable, efficient city. However: both have come in for criticism for being “inhuman”.
In my view, they are neither the Smartest Cities in the world, nor inhuman. Like everywhere else, they fall between those two extremes. But they are also absolutely necessary explorations of what we can achieve; and the people designing and building them are seeking to do so in the best interests of their inhabitants.
According to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, by 2050, the world’s population will grow by 3 billion, mostly in cities with populations of 1 to 30 million inhabitants in rapidly growing economies in Asia, Africa and South America. We have never before engineered urban infrastructures to support such growth.Whenever we’ve tried to accommodate rapid, urban growth before, we’ve also failed to provide adequate infrastructure. Slums are the inevitable result of that failed urbanisation; and while some aspects of their self-organizing economies work very effectively, they don’t provide their inhabitants with a quality of life that most of us consider acceptable.
Masdar and Songdo are attempts to support rapid, sustainable urbanisation that should be applauded. They may not get everything right – but who does?
I recently asked a respected architect why it was that so many new urban developments seem not to take adequately into account the natural behaviour of the people expected to use them. He replied that new developments rarely work immediately: our behaviour adapts to make the best of the environment around us; when that environment changes, it takes time for us to adapt to its new form. Until we do so, that new form will not appear to suit us.
Being “Smarter” is most fundamentally about doing things in a different way: by challenging preconceptions, and by making intelligent use of available resources. Today, those resources include digital technologies: the “Internet of Things“, which allows us to collect data from and interact intimately with physical systems; “big data“, which allows us to draw sophisticated insight from that data; and social media, which puts the power of those insights into the hands of people, businesses and communities.
But the concept of “Smart” pre-dates those technologies, just as it pre-dates Songdo and Masdar. I spent a day discussing Smarter Cities with social scientists from around the world recently at a workshop at the University of Durham. From their perspective the idea is more than a decade old, and emerged from thinking about the innovative use of more basic technologies in stimulating economic growth and urban renewal.
I’m tremendously excited about the power we could unleash by making the capabilities of the sophisticated infrastructures of cities such as Masdar and Songod as accessible to and appropriateable by small-scale, local innovators as “mundane” technologies already are. That’s what happens in Dublin when the information shared by local authorities and services providers in the Dublinked partnership is made available to people and businesses as Open Data; and in Rio when the information provided by 30 city agencies and analysed in the city’s new operations centre is shared through social media.
No, it won’t.
As public and private sector institutions evolved through the previous period of urbanisation driven by the Industrial Revolution they achieved mixed results: standards of living rose dramatically; but so unequally that life expectancy between the richest and poorest areas of a single UK city often varies by 10 to 20 years.
Why should we expect more equitable outcomes this time when the challenges facing us are of such enormous magnitude and taking place so quickly?
Many city leaders, businesspeople, activists and innovators recognise the need for new thinking to align the objectives of the business models that define the majority of the world’s economy with the need for what Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, described as sustainable, equitably distributed growth.
Consequently, new organisational models and co-operative ecosystems are emerging to deliver Smarter initiatives:
- Community Interest Companies for managing shared assets such as land, natural resources, or locally-produced food or energy, such as the Eco-Island initiative on the Isle of Wight; or similar models internationally such as Waste Concern in Bangladesh.
- Social Enterprises, which develop financially sustainable business models, but which are optimised to deliver social, environmental or long-term economic benefits, rather than the maximum short-term financial return.
- New partnerships between public sector agencies; educational institutions; service and technology providers; communities; and individuals – such as Dublinked; or the Dubuque 2.0 sustainability partnership in where the city authority, residents and utility providers have agreed to share in the cost of fixing leaks in water supply identified by smart meters.
There are also, of course, enormous roles for traditional public and private sector organisations to play as they evolve their existing operations.
Local authorities define the planning, policy and procurement frameworks that define the criteria that private sector investments in cities must fulfil. I was recently asked by a city I work closely with to contribute suggestions for how those frameworks could reflect the role of “Smarter City” ideas. I identified 23 candidate design principles for requiring that investments in physical infrastructure in the city not only conform to the city’s spatial strategy; but also contribute to its Smarter City vision, including the deployment of a cohesive civic technology infrastructure. That’s just one example of the many ways public sector authorities are evolving their policies to accommodate new challenges and new technologies.
And whilst their responsibility to shareholders is to achieve profitability and growth, many private sector businesses do so whilst balancing positive social and environmental impacts. As Smarter solutions demonstrate their ability to support business operations more efficiently through exploiting advanced technology, more businesses seeking that balance will adopt them.
But to what extent does market demand incent businesses to seek that balance?
In Collapse, Jared Diamond explores at length the role of corporations, consumers, communities, campaigners and political institutions in influencing whether businesses such as fishing and resource extraction are operated in the long term interests of the ecosystem containing them – including their communities and natural environment – or whether they are being optimised only for short term financial gain and potentially creating damaging impacts as a consequence.
Diamond asserted that in principle a constructive, sustainable relationship between such businesses and their ecosystems is perfectly compatible with business interest; and in fact is vital to sustaining long-term, profitable business operations. He described at length Chevron’s operations in the Kutubu oilfield in Papua New Guinea, working in partnership with local communities to achieve social, environmental and business sustainability. The World Resources Institute’s recent report, “Aligning profit and environmental sustainability: stories from industry” contains many other examples.
However, the investment markets and shareholders are – to grossly oversimplify the issue – relatively ambivalent to these concerns, compared to their primary interest in financial returns over the short or medium term.
This is perhaps one of the most contentious issues in the domain of Smarter Cities; and one of the most important for us to resolve.
Some would say that the enormous market demand created by 2050 by those 3 billion new inhabitants of emerging market megacities will incent the private sector to develop sustainable services to supply them. Bill McKibben, writting in Rolling Stone magazine last year on “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math“, argued that, on the contrary, trillions of dollars of investment are already locked into unsustainable business models.
Diamond himself argued that consumer choice could influence businesses to adopt sustainable models; but only when accurate, reliable information about the social and environmental impact of resources, goods and services flows through supply networks to inform consumers at the point where they are able to choose. Others argue that new approaches such as social enterprise are required.
I personally think that all of those positions have some validity; and that we’ll need to both develop new business models and adapt existing ones if we are to create successful, sustainable cities. Doing so will require the intelligent application of all of the skills and technologies at our disposal.
I’ll conclude this article by issuing a challenge: help me to find the misconceptions in my own thinking.
In working in this domain – and in particular in writing this blog – I offer opinions that go far beyond the areas of technology in which I consider myself expert, and extend into the other professional domains that are relevant to Smarter Cities.
I’ve described here the misconceptions and over-simplifications of Smarter Cities that I encounter in my work; I have no doubt whatsoever that in turn I harbour misconceptions in areas that are not my speciality.
I would be delighted for those shortcomings to be exposed: I have always found conversations with people who disagree with me in interesting ways to be the most effective way to learn. And there’s still much more that I don’t know about Smarter Cities than I do.