A three step manifesto for a smarter, fairer economy

(United States GDP plotted against median household income from 1953 to present. Until about 1980, growth in the economy correlated to increases in household wealth. But from 1980 onwards as digital technology has transformed the economy, household income has remained flat despite continuing economic growth)

(United States GDP plotted against median household income from 1953 to present. Until about 1980, growth in the economy correlated to increases in household wealth. But from 1980 onwards as digital technology has transformed the economy, household income has remained flat despite continuing economic growth. From “The Second Machine Age“, by MIT economists Andy McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson, summarised in this article.)

(Or, why technology created the economy that helped Donald Trump and Brexit to win, and why we have to fix it.)

The world has not just been thrown into crisis because the UK voted in June to leave the European Union, and because the USA has just elected a President whose campaign rhetoric promised to tear up the rulebook of international behaviour (that’s putting it politely; many have accused him of much worse) – including pulling out of the global climate accord that many believe is the bare minimum to save us from a global catastrophe.

Those two choices (neither of which I support, as you might have guessed) were made by people who feel that a crisis has been building for years or even decades, and that the traditional leaders of our political, media and economic institutions have either been ignoring it or, worse, are refusing to address it due to vested interests in the status quo.

That crisis – which is one of worklessness, disenfranchisement and inequality for an increasingly significant proportion of the world’s population – is real; and is evident in figures everywhere:

… and so on.

Brexit and Donald Trump are the wrong solutions to the wrong problems

Of course, leaving the EU won’t solve this crisis for the UK.

Take the supposed need to limit immigration, for example, one of the main reasons people in the UK voted to leave the EU.

The truth is that the UK needs migrants. Firstly, with no immigration, the UK’s birth rate would be much lower than that needed to maintain our current level of population. That means less young people working and paying taxes and more older people relying on state pensions and services. We wouldn’t be able to afford the public services we rely on.

Secondly, the people most likely to start new businesses that grow rapidly and create new jobs aren’t rich people who are offered tax cuts, they’re immigrants and their children. And of course, what will any country in the world, let alone the EU, demand in return for an open trade deal with the UK? Freedom of immigration.

So Brexit won’t fix this crisis, and whilst Donald Trump is showing some signs of moderating the extreme statements he made in his election campaign (like both the “Leave” and “Remain” sides of the abysmal UK Referendum campaign, he knew he was using populist nonsense to win votes, but wasn’t at all bothered by the dishonesty of it), neither will he.

[Update 29/01/17: I take it back: President Trump isn’t moderating his behaviour at all. What a disgrace.]

Whatever his claims to the contrary, Donald Trump’s tax plan will benefit the richest the most. Like most Republican politicians, he promotes policies that are criticised as “trickle-down” economics, in which wealth for all comes from providing tax cuts to rich people and large corporations so they can invest to create jobs.

But this approach does not stand up to scrutiny: history shows that – particularly in times of economic change –  jobs and growth for all require leadership, action and investment from public institutions – in other words they depend on the sensible use of taxation to redistribute the benefits of growth.

(Areas of relative wealth and deprivation in Birmingham as measured by the Indices of Multiple Deprivation. Birmingham, like many of the UK's Core Cities, has a ring of persistently deprived areas immediately outside the city centre, co-located with the highest concentration of transport infrastructure allowing traffic to flow in and out of the centre.)

(Areas of relative wealth and deprivation in Birmingham as measured by the Indices of Multiple Deprivation. Birmingham, like many of the UK’s Core Cities, has a ring of persistently deprived areas immediately outside the city centre, co-located with the highest concentration of transport infrastructure allowing traffic to flow in and out of the centre)

Similarly, scrapping America’s role in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal is unlikely to bring back manufacturing jobs to the US economy at anything like the scale that some of those who voted for Donald Trump hope, and that he’s given the impression it will.

In fact, manufacturing jobs are already rising in the US as the need for agility in production in response to local market conditions outweighs the narrowing difference in manufacturing cost as the salaries of China’s workers have grown along with its economy.

However, the real challenge is that the skills required to secure and perform those jobs have changed: factory workers need increasingly technical skills to manage the robotic machinery that now performs most of the work.

Likewise, jobs in the US coal industry won’t return by changing the way the US trades with foreign countries. The American coal mined in some areas of the country has become an uncompetitive fuel compared to the American shale gas that is made accessible in other areas by the new technology of “fracking”. (I’m not in favour of fracking; I’d prefer we concentrate our resources developing genuinely low-carbon, renewable energy sources. My point is that Donald Trump’s policies won’t address the job dislocation it has caused).

So, if the UK’s choice to leave the EU and the USA’s choice to elect Donald Trump represent the wrong solutions to the wrong problems, what are the underlying problems that are creating a crisis? And how do we fix them?

The crisis begins in places that don’t work

When veteran BBC journalist John Humphreys travelled the UK to meet communities which have experienced a high degree of immigration, he found that immigration itself isn’t a problem. Rather, the rise in population  caused by immigration becomes a problem when it’s not accompanied by investment in local infrastructure, services and business support. Immigrants are the same as people everywhere: they want to work; they start businesses (and in fact, they’re more likely to do that well than those of us who live and work in the country where we’re born); and they do all the other things that make communities thrive.

But the degree to which people – whether they’re immigrants or not – are successful doing so depends on the quality of their local environment, services and economy. And the reality is that there are stark, place-based differences in the opportunity people are given to live a good life.

In UK cities, life expectancy between the poorest and richest parts of the same city varies by up to 28 years. Areas of low life expectancy typically suffer from “multiple deprivation“: poor health, low levels of employment, low income, high dependency on benefits, poor education, poor access to services … and so on. These issues tend to affect the same areas for decade after decade, and they occur in part because of the effects of the physical urban infrastructure around them.

eu-uk-regional-funding

(The UK’s less wealthy regions benefit enormously from EU investment; whilst it’s richer regions, made wealthy by London’s economy, are net contributors. The EU acts to redistribute UK taxes to the regions that need them most, in a way that the national Government in Westminster does not)

The failure to invest in local services and infrastructure to accommodate influxes of migrants isn’t the EU’s fault; it is caused by the failure of the UK national government to devolve spending power to the local authorities that understand local needs – local authorities in the UK control only 17% of local spending, as opposed to 55% on average across OECD countries.

Ironically, one of the crucial things the EU does (or did) with the UK’s £350 million per week contribution to its budget, a large share of which is paid for by taxes from London’s dominant share of the UK economy, is to give it back to support local infrastructure and projects which create jobs and improve communities. If the Remain campaign had done a better job of explaining the extent of this support, rather than trumpeting overblown scare stories about the national, London-centric economy from which many people feel they don’t benefit anyway, some of the regions most dependent on EU investment might not have voted to Leave.

Technology is exacerbating inequality

We should certainly try to improve urban infrastructure and services; and the “Smart City” movement argues for using digital technology to do so.

But ultimately, infrastructure and services simply support activity that is generated by the economy and by social activity, and the fundamental shift taking place today is not a technological shift that makes existing business models, services or infrastructure more effective. It is the transformation of economic and social interactions by new “platform” business models that exploit online transaction networks that couldn’t exist at all without the technologies we’ve become familiar with over the last decade.

Well known examples include:

  • Apple iTunes, exchanging music between producers and consumers
  • YouTube, exchanging video content between producers and consumers
  • Facebook, an online environment for social activity that has also become a platform for content, games, news, business and community activity
  • AirBnB – an online marketplace for peer-to-peer arrangement of accomodation
  • Über – an online marketplace for peer-to-peer arrangement of transport

… and so on. MIT economist Marshall Van Alstyne’s work shows that platform businesses are increasingly the most valuable and fastest growing in the world, across many sectors.

The last two examples in that list – AirBnB and Über – are particularly good examples of online marketplaces that create transactions that take place face-to-face in the real world; these business models are not purely digital as YouTube, for example, arguably is.

But whilst these new, technology-enabled business models can be extraordinarily successful – Airbnb has been valued at $30 billion only 8 years after it was founded, and Über recently secured investments that, 7 years after it was founded, valued the company at over $60 billion – many economists and social scientists believe that the impact of these new technology-enabled business models is contributing to increasing inequality and social disruption.

As Andy McAfee and Erik Bryjolfsson have explained in theory, and as a recent JP Morgan survey has demonstrated in fact (see graph and text in box below), as traditional businesses that provide permanent employment are replaced by online marketplaces that enable the exchange of casual labour and self-employed work, the share of economic growth that is captured by the owners of capital platforms – the owners and shareholders in companies like Amazon, Facebook and Über – is rising, and the share of economic growth that is distributed to people who provide labour – people who are paid for the work they do; by far the majority of us – is falling.

The impact of technology on the financial services sector is having a similar effect. Technology enables the industry to profit from the construction of increasingly complex derivative products that speculate on sub-second fluctuations in the value of stocks and other tradeable commodities, rather than by making investments in business growth. The effect again is to concentrate the wealth the industry creates into profits for a small number of rich investors rather than distributing it in businesses that more widely provide jobs and pay salaries.

Finally, this is also ultimately the reason why the various shifting forces affecting employment in traditional manufacturing industries – off-shoring, automation, re-shoring etc. – have not resulted in a belief that manufacturing industries are providing widespread opportunities for high quality employment and careers to the people and communities who enjoyed them in the past. Even whilst manufacturing activity grows in many developed countries, jobs in those industries require increasingly technical skills, at the same time that, once again, the majority of the profits are captured by a minority of shareholders rather than distributed to the workforce.

(Analysis by JP Morgan of 260,000 current account customers earnings from 30 sharing economy websites over 3 years. Customers using websites to sell labour do not increase their income; earnings from sharing economy websites simply replace earnings from other sources. Customers using sharing economy websites to exploit the value of capital assets they own, however, are able to increase their income. This evidence supports just one of the mechanisms explored by Andy McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson through which it appears that the digital economy is contributing to increasing income inequality)

(Analysis by JP Morgan of 260,000 current account customers’ earnings from 30 sharing economy websites over 3 years. Customers using websites to sell labour do not increase their income; earnings from sharing economy websites simply replace earnings from other sources. Customers using sharing economy websites to exploit the value of capital assets they own, however, are able to increase their income. This evidence supports just one of the mechanisms explored by Andy McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson through which it appears that the digital economy is contributing to increasing income inequality)

That is why inequality is rising across the world; and that is the ultimate cause of the sense of unfairness that led to the choice of people in the UK to leave the EU, and people in the USA to elect Donald Trump as their President.

I do not blame the companies at the heart of these developments for causing inequality – I do not believe that is their aim, and many of their leaders believe passionately that they are a force for good.

But the evidence is clear that their cumulative impact is to create a world that is becoming damagingly unequal, and the reason is straightforward. Our market economies reward businesses that maximise profit and shareholder return; and there is simply no direct link from those basic corporate responsibilities to wider social, economic and environmental outcomes.

There are certainly indirect links – successful businesses need customers with money to spend, and there are more of those when more people have jobs that pay good wages, for example. But technology is increasingly enabling phenomenally successful new business models that depend much less on those indirect links to work.

We’re about to make things worse

Finally, as has been frequently highlighted in the media recently, new developments in technology are likely to further exacerbate the challenges of worklessness and inequality.

After a few decades in which scientific and technology progress in Artifical Intelligence (AI) made relatively little impact on the wider world, in the last few years the exponential growth of data and the computer processing power to manipulate it have led to some striking accomplishments by “machine learning”, a particular type of AI technology.

Whilst Machine Learning works in a very different way to our own intelligence, and whilst the Artificial Intelligence experts I’ve spoken to believe that any technological equivalent to human intelligence is between 20 and 100 years away (if it ever comes at all), one thing that is obvious is that Machine Learning technologies have already started to automate jobs that previously required human knowledge. Some studies predict that nearly half of all jobs – including those in highly-skilled, highly-paid occupations such as medicine, the law and journalism- could be replaced over the next few decades.

(Population changes in Blackburn, Burnley and Preston from 1901-2001. In the early part of the century, all three cities grew, supported by successful manufacturing economies. But in the latter half, only Preston continued to grow as it transitioned successfully to a service economy. From Cities Outlook 1901 by Centre for Cities)


(Population changes in Blackburn, Burnley and Preston from 1901-2001. In the early part of the century, all three cities grew, supported by successful manufacturing economies. But in the latter half, only Preston continued to grow as it transitioned successfully to a service economy. If cities do not adapt to changes in the economy driven by technology, history shows that they fail. From “Cities Outlook 1901” by Centre for Cities)

Über is perhaps the clearest embodiment of these trends combined. Whilst several cities and countries have compelled the company to treat their drivers as employees and offer improved terms and conditions, their strategy is unapologetically to replace their drivers with autonomous vehicles anyway.

I’m personally convinced that what we’re experiencing through these changes – and what we’ve possibly been experiencing for 50 years or more – is properly understood to be an Information Revolution that will reshape our world every bit as significantly as the Industrial Revolution.

And history shows us we should take the economic and social consequences of that very seriously indeed.

In the last Century as automated equipment replaced factory workers, many cities in the UK such as Sunderland, Birmingham and Bradford, saw severe job losses, economic depression and social challenges as they failed to adapt from a manufacturing economy to new industries based on knowledge-working.

In this Century many knowledge-worker jobs will be automated too, and unless we knowingly and successfully manage this huge transition into an economy based on jobs we can’t yet predict, the social and economic consequences – the crisis that has already begun – will be just as bad, or perhaps even worse.

So if the problem is the lack of opportunity, what’s the answer?

If trickle-down economics doesn’t work, top-down public sector schemes of improvement won’t work either – they’ve been tried again and again without much improvement to those persistently, multiply-deprived areas:

“For three generations governments the world over have tried to order and control the evolution of cities through rigid, top-down action. They have failed. Masterplans lie unfulfilled, housing standards have declined, the environment is under threat and the urban poor have become poorer. Our cities are straining under the pressure of rapid population growth, rising inequality, inadequate infrastructure, and failing systems of urban planning, design and development.”

– from “The Radical Incrementalist” by Kelvin Campbell, summarised here.

One of the most forward-looking UK local authority Chief Executives said to me recently that the problem isn’t that a culture of dependency on benefits exists in deprived communities; it’s that a culture of doing things for and to people, rather than finding ways to support them succeeding for themselves, permeates local government.

This subset of findings from Sir Bob Kerslake’s report on Birmingham City Council reflects similar concerns:

  • “The council, members and officers, have too often failed to tackle difficult issues. They need to be more open about what the most important issues are and focus on addressing them;
  • Partnership working needs fixing. While there are some good partnerships, particularly operationally, many external partners feel the culture is dominant and over-controlling and that the council is complex, impenetrable and too narrowly focused on its own agenda;
  • The council needs to engage across the whole city, including the outer areas, and all the communities within it;
  • Regeneration must take place beyond the physical transformation of the city centre. There is a particularly urgent challenge in central and east Birmingham.”

One solution that’s being proposed to the challenges of inequality and the displacement of jobs by automation is the “Universal Basic Income” – an unconditional payment made by government to every citizen, regardless of income and employment status. The idea is that such a payment ensures a good enough standard of living for everyone, even if many people lose employment or see their salaries fall; or chose to work in less financially rewarding occupations that have strong social value – caring for others, for example. Several countries, including Finland, Canada and the Netherlands have already begun pilots of this idea.

I think it’s a terrible mistake for two reasons.

Firstly, the proposed level of income – about $1500 per month – isn’t at all sufficient to address the vast levels of inequality that our economy has created. Whilst it might allow a majority of people to live a basically comfortable life, why should we accept that a small elite should exist at such a phenomenally different level of technology-enabled wealth as to be reminiscent of a science fiction dystopia?

Andy McAfee and Erik Brynjofflsson best expressed the second problem with a Universal Basic Income by quoting Voltaire in “The Second Machine Age“:

“Work keeps at bay three great evils: boredom, vice, and need.”

A Universal Basic Income might address “need”, to a degree, but it will do nothing to address boredom and vice. Most people want to work because they want to be useful, they want their lives to make a difference and they want to feel fulfilled – this is the “self-actualisation” at the apex of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Surely enabling everyone to reach that condition should be our aspiration for society, not a subsidy that addresses only basic needs?

Our answer to these challenges should be an economy that properly rewards the application of effort, talent and courage to achieving the objectives that matter to us most; not one that rewards the amoral maximisation of profits for the owners of capital assets accompanied by a gesture of redistribution that’s just enough to prevent civil unrest.

(Maslow's

(Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs”)

Three questions that reveal the solution

There are three questions that I think define the way to answer these challenges in a way that neither the public, private nor third sectors have yet done.

The first is the question at the heart of the idea of a Smart City.

There are a million different definitions of a “Smart City”, but most of them are variations on the theme of “using digital technology to make cities better”. The most challenging part of that idea is not to do with how digital technology works, nor how it can be used in city systems; it is to do with how we pay for investments in technology to achieve outcomes that are social, economic and environmental – i.e. that don’t directly generate a financial return, which is usually why money is invested.

Of course, there are investment vehicles that translate achievement against social, economic or environmental objectives into a financial return – Social Impact Bonds and Climate Bonds, for example.

Using such vehicles to support the most interesting Smart City ideas can be challenging, however, due to the level of uncertainty in the outcomes that will be achieved. Many Smart City ideas provide people with information or services that allow them to make choices about the energy they use; how and when they travel; and the products and services they buy. The theory is that when given the option to improve their social, economic and environmental impact, people will chose to do so. But that’s only the theory; the extent to which people actually change their behaviour is notoriously unpredictable. That makes it very difficult to create an investment vehicle with a predictable level of return.

So the first key question that should be answered by any solution to the current crisis is:

  • QUESTION 1: How can we manage the risk of investing in technology to achieve uncertain social, economic or environmental aims such as improving educational attainment or social mobility in our most deprived areas?

The international Smart City community (of which I am a part) has so far utterly failed to answer that question. In the 20 years that the idea has been around, it simply hasn’t made a noticeable difference to economic opportunity, social mobility or resilience – if it had, I wouldn’t be writing this article about a crisis. Earlier this year, I described the examples of Smart City initiatives around the world that are finally starting to make an impact, and below I’ll describe some actions we can take to replicate them and drive them forward at scale.

The second question is inspired by the work of the architect and town planner Kelvin Campbell, whose “Smart Urbanism” is challenging the decades of orthodox thinking that has failed to improve those most deprived areas of our cities:

The solution lies in mobilising peoples’ latent creativity by harnessing the collective power of many small ideas and actions. This happens whenever people take control over the places they live in, adapting them to their needs and creating environments that are capable of adapting to future change. When many people do this, it adds up to a fundamental shift. This is what we call making Massive Small change.”

from “The Radical Incrementalist” by Kelvin Campbell, summarised here.

Kelvin’s concept of “Massive Small change” forms the second key question that defines the solution to our crisis:

  • QUESTION 2: What are the characteristics of urban environments and policy that give rise to massive amounts of small-scale innovation?

That’s one of the most thought-provoking and insightful questions I can think of. “Small-scale” innovation is what everybody does, every day, as we try to get by in life: fixing a leaky tap, helping our daughter with her maths homework, closing that next deal at work, losing another kilogram towards our weight target, becoming a trustee of a local charity … and so on.

For some people, what begin as small-scale innovations eventually amount to tremendously successful lives and careers. Mark Zuckerberg learned how to code, developed an online platform for friends to stay in touch with each other, and became the 6th richest man on the planet, worth approximately $40 billion. On the other hand, 15 million people around the world, including a vast number of children, show their resourcefulness by searching refuse dumps for re-usable objects.

Recent research on the platform economy by the not-for-profit PEW Research Centre confirms these vast gaps in opportunity; and most concerningly identifies clear biases based on race, class, wealth and gender.

The problem with small-scale innovation doesn’t lie in making it happen – it happens all the time. The problem lies in enabling it to have a bigger impact for those in the most challenging circumstances. Kelvin’s work has found ways to do that in the built environment; how do we translate those ideas into the digital economy?

The final question is more subtle:

  • QUESTION 3: How do we ensure that massive amounts of small-scale innovation create collective societal benefits, rather than lots of individual successes?

One way to explain what I mean by the difference between widespread individual success and societal success is in terms of resilience. Over the next 35 years, about 2 billion more people worldwide will acquire the level of wealth associated with the middle classes of developed economies. As a consequence, they are likely to dramatically increase their consumption of resources – eating more meat and less vegetables; buying cars; using more energy. Given that we are already consuming our planet’s resources at an unsustainable rate, such an increase in consumption could great an enormous global problem. So our concept of “success” should be collective as well as individual – it should result in us moderating our personal consumption in favour of a sustainable society.

One of the central tenets of economics for nearly 200 years, the “Tragedy of the Commons“, asserts that individual motives will always overwhelm societal motives and lead to the exhaustion of shared resources, unless those resoures are controlled by a system of private ownership or by government regulation – unless some people or organisations are able to own and control the use of resources by others. We’ll return to this subject shortly, and to its study in the field of Evolutionary Social Biology.

Calling out the failure of the free market: a Three Step Manifesto for Smart Community Economies

If we could answer those three questions, we’d have defined a digital economy in which individual citizens, businesses and communities everywhere would have the skills, opportunities and resources to create their own success on terms that matter to them; and in a way that was beneficial to us all.

That’s the only answer to our current crisis that makes sense to me. It’s not an answer that either Brexit or Donald Trump will help us to find.

So how do we find it?

(The White Horse Tavern in Greenwich Village, New York, one of the city’s oldest taverns. The rich urban life of the Village was described by one of the Taverns’ many famous patrons, the urbanist Jane Jacobs. Photo by Steve Minor).

I think the answers are at our fingertips. In one sense, they’re no more than “nudges” that influence what’s happening already; and they’re supported by robust research in technology, economics, social science, biology and urban design. They lay out a three step manifesto for successful community economies, enabled by technology and rooted in place.

But in another sense, this is a call for fundamental change. These “nudges” will only work if they are enacted as policies, regulations and laws by national and local governments. “Regulation” is a dirty word to the proponents of free markets; but free markets are failing us, and it’s time we admitted that, and shaped them to our needs.

A global-local economy

Globalisation is inevitable – and in many ways beneficial; but ironically the same technologies that enable it can also enable localism, and the two trends do not need to be mutually exclusive.

Many urban designers and environmental experts believe that the best path to a healthy, successful, sustainable and equitable future economy and society lies in a combination of medium density cities with a significant proportion of economic activity (from food to manufacturing to energy to re-use and recycling) based on local transactions supported by walking and cycling.

The same “platform” business models employed by Über, Airbnb and so on could in theory provide the new transaction infrastructure to stimulate and enable such economies. In fact, I believe that they are unique in their ability to do so. Examples already exist – “Borroclub“, for instance, whose platform business connects people who need tools to do jobs with near neighbours who own tools but aren’t using them at the time. A community that adopts Borroclub spends less money on tools; exchanges the money it does spend locally rather than paying it to importers; accomplishes more work using fewer resources; and undertakes fewer car journeys to out-of-town DIY stores.

This can only be accomplished using social digital technology that allows us to easily and cheaply share information with hundreds or thousands of neighbours about what we have and what we need. It could never have happened using telephones or the postal system – the communication technologies of the pre-internet age.

This could be a tremendously powerful way to address the crisis we are facing. Businesses using this model could create jobs, reinforce local social value, reduce the transport and environmental impact of economic transactions and promote the sustainable use of resources; all whilst tapping into the private sector investment that supports growing businesses.

But private sector businesses will only drive social outcomes at scale if we shape the markets they operate in to make that the most profitable business agenda to pursue. The fact that we haven’t shaped the market yet is why platform businesses are currently driving inequality.

There are three measures we could take to shape the market; and the best news is that the first one is already being taken.

1. Legislate to encourage and support social innovation with Open Data and Open Technology

The Director of one of the UK’s first incubators for technology start-up businesses recently told me that “20 years ago, the only way we could help someone to start a business was to help them write a better business plan in order to have a better chance of getting a bank loan. Today there are any number of ways to start a business, and lots of them don’t need you to have much money.”

Technologies such as smartphones, social media, cloud computing and open source software have made it possible to launch global businesses and initiatives almost for free, in return for little more than an investment of time and a willingness to learn new skills. Small-scale innovation has never before had access to such free and powerful tools.

(The inspirational Kilimo Salama scheme that uses

(The inspirational Kilimo Salama scheme that uses “appropriate technology” to make crop insurance affordable to subsistence farmers. Photo by Burness Communications)

These are all examples of what was originally described as “Intermediate Technology” by the economist Ernst Friedrich “Fritz” Schumacher in his influential work, “Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered“, and is now known as Appropriate Technology.

Schumacher’s views on technology were informed by his belief that our approach to economics should be transformed “as if people mattered”. He asked:

“What happens if we create economics not on the basis of maximising the production of goods and the ability to acquire and consume them – which ends up valuing automation and profit – but on the Buddhist definition of the purpose of work: “to give a man a chance to utilise and develop his faculties; to enable him to overcome his ego-centredness by joining with other people in a common task; and to bring forth the goods and services needed for a becoming existence.”

Schumacher pointed out that the most advanced technologies, to which we often look to create value and growth, are in fact only effective in the hands of those with the resources and skills required to use them – i.e. those who are already wealthy. Further, by emphasising efficiency, output and profit those technologies tend to further concentrate economic value in the hands of the wealthy – often specifically by reducing the employment of people with less advanced skills and roles.

His writing seems prescient now.

A perfect current example is the UK Government’s strategy to drive economic growth by making the UK an international leader in autonomous vehicles, to counter the negative economic impacts of leaving the European Union. That strategy is based on further increasing the number of highly skilled technology and engineering jobs at companies and research insitutions already involved in the sector; and on the UK’s relative lack of regulations preventing the adoption of such technology on the country’s roads.

The strategy will benefit those people with the technological and engineering skills needed to create improvements in autonomous vehicle technology. But what will happen to the far greater number of people who earn their living simply by driving vehicles? They will first see their income fall, and second see their jobs disappear, as technology firstly replaces their permanent jobs with casual labour through platforms such as Über, and secondly completely removes their jobs from the economy by replacing them with self-driving technology. The UK economy might grow in the process; but vast numbers of ordinary people will see their jobs and incomes disappear or decline.

From the broad perspective of the UK workforce, that strategy would be great if we were making a massive investment in education to enable more people to earn a living as highly paid engineers rather than an average or low-paid living as drivers. But of course we’re not doing that at all; at best our educational spend per student is stagnant, and at worst it’s declining as class-sizes grow and we reduce the number of teaching assistants we employ.

In contrast, Schumacher felt that the most genuine “development ” of our society would occur when the most possible people were employed in a way that gave them the practical ability to earn a living; and that also offered a level of human reward – much as Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” first identifies our most basic requirements for food, water, shelter and security; but next relates the importance of family, friends and “self-actualisation” (which can crudely be described as the process of achieving things that we care about).

This led him to ask:

“What is that we really require from the scientists and technologists? I should answer:

We need methods and equipment which are:

    • Cheap enough so that they are accessible to virtually everyone;
    • Suitable for small-scale application; and
    • Compatible with man’s need for creativity”

These are precisely the characteristics of the Cloud Computing, social media, Open Source and smartphone technologies that are now so widely available, and so astonishingly powerful. What we need to do next is to provide more support to help people everywhere put them to use for their own purposes.

Firstly, Open data, open algorithms and open APIs should be mandatory for any publicly funded service or infrastructure. They should be included in the procurement criteria for services and goods procured on behalf of the public sector. Our public infrastructure should be digitally open, accessible and accountable.

Secondly, some of the proceeds from corporate taxation – whether at national level or from local business rates – should be used to provide regional investment funds to support local businesses and social enterprises that contribute to local social, economic and environmental objectives; and to support the regional social innovation communities such as the network of Impact Hubs that help such initiatives start, succeed and grow.

But perhaps most importantly, those proceeds should also be used to fund improvements to state education everywhere. People can only use tools if they are given the opportunity to acquire skills; and as tools and technologies change, we need the opportunity to learn new skills. If our jobs – or more broadly our roles in society – are not ultimately to be replaced by machines, we need to develop the creativity to use those tools to create the human value that technology will never understand.

It is surely insane that we are pouring billions of pounds and dollars into the development of technologies that mean we need to develop new skills in order to remain employable, and that those investments are making our economy richer and richer; but that at the same time we are making a smaller and smaller proportion of that wealth available to educate our children.

Just as some of the profits of the Industrial Revolution were spent on infrastructure with a social purpose, so should some of the profits of the Information Revolution be.

2. Legislate to encourage and support business models with a positive social outcome

(Hancock Bank’s vault, damaged by Hurricane Katrina. Photo by Social Stratification)

The social quality of the behaviour of private sector businesses varies enormously.

The story of Hancock Bank’s actions to assist the citizens of New Orleans to recover from hurricane Katrina in 2005 – by lending cash to anyone who needed it and was prepared to sign an IoU – is told in this video, and is an extraordinary example of responsible business behaviour. In an unprecedented situation, the Bank’s leaders based their decisions on the company’s purpose, expressed in its charter, to support the communities of the city. This is in contrast to the behaviour of Bob Diamond, who resigned as CEO of Barclays Bank following the LIBOR rate-manipulation scandal, and who under questioning by parliamentary committee could not remember what the Bank’s founding principles, written by community-minded Quakers, stated.

Barclays’ employees’ behaviour under Bob Diamond was driven purely by the motivation to earn bigger bonuses by achieving the Bank’s primary objective, to increase shareholder value.

But the overriding focus on shareholders as the primary stakeholder in private sector business is relatively new. Historically, customers and employees have been treated as equally important. Some leading economists now believe we should return to such balanced models.

There are already models of business – such as “social enterprise” – which promote more balanced corporate governance, and that even offer accreditation schemes. We could incentivise such models to be more successful in our economy by creating a preferential market for them – lower rates of taxation; preferential scoring in public sector procurements; and so on.

An alternative is to use technology to enable entirely new, entirely open systems. “Blockchains” are the technology that enable the digital currency “Bitcoin“. The Bitcoin Blockchain is a single, distributed ledger that records every Bitcoin transaction so that anyone in the world can see it. So unlike the traditional system of money in which we depend on physical tokens, banks and payment services to define the ownership of money and to govern transactions, Bitcoin transactions work because everybody can see who owns which Bitcoins and when they’re being exchanged.

This principle of a “distributed, open ledger” – implemented by a blockchain – is thought by many technology industry observers to be the most important, powerfully disruptive invention since the internet. The Ethereum “smart contracts” platfom adds behaviour to the blockchain – open algorithms that cannot be tampered with and that dictate how transactions take place and what happens as a consequence of them. It is leading to some strikingly different new business models, including the “Distributed Autonomous Organisation” (or “DAO” for short), a multi-$million investment fund that is entirely, democratically run by smart contracts on behalf of its investors.

By promoting distributed, non-repudiatable transparency in this way, blockchain technologies offer unprecedented opportunities to ensure that all of the participants in an economic system have the opportunity to influence the distribution of the benefits of the system in a fair way. This idea is already at the heart of an array of initiatives to ensure that some of the least wealthy people in the world benefit more fairly from the information economy.

Finally, research in economics and in evolutionary social biology is yielding prescriptive insights into how we can design business models that are as wildly successful as those of Über and Airbnb, but with models of corporate governance that ensure that the wealth they create is more broadly and fairly distributed.

In conversation with a researcher at Imperial College London a few years ago, I said that I thought we needed to find criteria to distinguish “platform” businesses like Casserole Club that create social value from those like Über that concentrate the vast majority of the wealth they create in the hands of the platform owners. (Casserole Club uses social media to match people who are unable to provide meals for themselves with neighbours who are happy to cook and share an extra portion of their meal).

The researcher told me I should consult Elinor Ostrom’s work in Economics. Ostrom, who won the Nobel prize in 2009, spent her life working with communities around the world who successfully manage shared resources (land, forests, fresh water, fisheries etc.) sustainably, and writing down the common features of their organisational models. Her Nobel prize was awarded for using this evidence to disprove the “tragedy of the commons” doctrine which economists previously believed proved that sustainable commons management was impossible.

(Elinor Ostrom working with irrigation management in Nepal)

(Elinor Ostrom working with irrigation management in Nepal)

Most of Ostrom’s principles for organisational design and behaviour are strikingly similar to the models used by platform businesses such as Über and Airbnb. But the principles she discovered that are the most interesting are the ones that Über and Airbnb don’t follow – the price of exchange being agreed by all of the participants in a transaction, for example, rather than it being set by the platform owner. Ostrom’s work has been continued by David Sloan Wilson who has demonstrated that the principles she discovered follow from evolutionary social biology – the science that studies the evolution of human social behaviour.

Elinor Ostrom’s design principles for commons organisations offer us not only a toolkit for the design of successful, socially responsible platform businesses; they offer us a toolkit for their regulation, too, by specifying the characteristics of businesses that we should preferentially reward through market regulation and tax policy.

3. Legislate for individual ownership of personal data, and a right to share in the profits it creates. 

Platform business models may depend less and less on our labour – or at least, may have found ways to pay less for it as a proportion of their profits; but they depend absolutely on our data.

Of course, we – usually – get some value in return for our data – useful search results, guidance to the quickest route to our journey, recommendations of new songs, films or books we might like.

But is massive inequality really a price worth paying for convenience?

The ownership of private property and intellectual property underpin the capitalist economy, which until recently was primarily based on the value of physical assets and closed knowledge, made difficult to replicate through being stored primarily in physical, analogue media (including our brains).

Our economy is now being utterly transformed by easy to replicate, easy to transfer digital data – from news to music to video entertainment to financial services, business models that had operated for decades have been swept away and replaced by models that are constantly adapting, driven by advances in technology.

But data legislation has not kept pace. Despite several revisions of data protection and privacy legislation, the ownership of digital data is far from clearly defined in law, and in general its exchange is subject to individual agreements between parties.

It is time to legislate more strongly that the value of the data we create by our actions, our movement and our communication belongs to us as individuals, and that in turn we receive a greater share of the profits that are made from its use.

That is the more likely mechanism to result in the fair distribution of value in the economy as the value of labour falls than a Universal Basic Income that rewards nothing.

One last plea to our political leaders to admit that we face a crisis

Whilst the UK and the USA argue – and even riot – about the outcomes of the European Union referendum and the US Presidential election, the issues of inequality, loss of jobs and disenfranchisement from the political system are finally coming to light in the media.

But it’s a disgrace that they barely featured at all in either of those campaigns.

Emotionally right now I want to castigate our politicians for getting us into this mess through all sorts of venality, complacency, hubris and untruthfulness. But two things I know they are not – including Donald Trump – are stupid or ignorant. They surely must be aware of these issues – why will they not recognise and address them?

Robert Wright’s mathematical analysis of the evolution of human society, NonZero, describes the emergence of our current model of nation states through the European Middle Ages as a tension between the ruling and working classes. The working classes pay a tax to the ruling classes, who they accept will live a wealthier life, in return for a safe and peaceful environment in which to live. Whenever the price paid for safety and peace grew unreasonably high, the working classes revolted and overthrew the ruling classes, resulting eventually in a new, better-balanced model.

Is it scaremongering to suggest we are close to a similar era of instability?

(Anti-Donald Trump protesters in San Jose, California in June. Trump supporters leaving a nearby campaign rally were attacked)

(Anti-Donald Trump protesters in San Jose, California in June. Trump supporters leaving a nearby campaign rally were attacked)

I don’t think so. At the same time that the Industrial Revolution created widespread economic growth and improvements in prosperity, it similarly exacerbated inequality between the general population and the property- and business-owning elite. Just as I have argued in this article, that inequality was corrected not by “big government” and grand top-down redistributive schemes, but by measures that shaped markets and investments in education and enablement for the wider population.

We have not yet taken those corrective actions for the Information Revolution – nor even realised and acknowledged that we need to take them. Inequality is rising as a consequence, and it is widely appreciated that inequality creates social unrest.

Brexit and the election of Donald Trump following a campaign of such obvious lies, misogyny and – at best – narrow-minded nationalism are unprecedented in modern times. They have already resulted in social unrest in the form of riots and increased incidents of racism – as has the rise in the price of staple food caused by severe climate events as a vast number of people around the world struggle to feed themselves when hurricanes and droughts affect the production of basic crops. It’s no surprise that the World Economic Forum’s 2016 Global Risks Report identifies “unemployment and underemployment” and “profound social instability” as amongst the top 10 most likely and impactful global risks facing the world.

Brexit and Donald Trump are not crises in themselves; but they are symptoms of a real crisis that we face now; and until we – and our political leaders – face up to that and start dealing with it properly, we are putting ourselves, our future and our childrens’ future at unimaginable risk.

Thankyou to the following, whose opinions and expertise, expressed in articles and conversations, helped me to write this post:

What’s the risk of investing in a Smarter City?

(The two towers of the Bosco Verticale in Milan will be home to more than 10,000 plants that create shade and improve air quality. But to what degree do such characteristics make buildings more attractive to potential tenants than traditional structures, creating the potential to create financial returns to reward more widespread investment in this approach? Photo by Marco Trovo)

(Or “how to buy a Smarter City that won’t go bump in the night”)

There are good reasons why the current condition and future outlook of the world’s cities have been the subject of great debate in recent years. Their population will double from 3 billion to 6 billion by 2050; and while those in the developing world are growing at such a rate that they are challenging our ability to construct resilient, efficient infrastructure, those in developed countries often have significant levels of inequality and areas of persistent poverty and social immobility.

Many people involved in the debate are convinced that new approaches are needed to transport, food supply, economic development, water and energy management, social and healthcare, public safety and all of the other services and infrastructures that support cities.

As a consequence, analysts such as Frost & Sullivan have estimated that the market for “Smart City” solutions that exploit technology to address these issues will be $1.5trillion by 2020.

But anyone who has tried to secure investment in an initiative to apply “smart” technology in a city knows that it is not always easy to turn that theoretical market value into actual investment in projects, technology, infrastructure and expertise.

It’s not difficult to see why this is the case. Most investments are made in order to generate a financial return, but profit is not the objective of “Smart Cities” initiatives: they are intended to create economic, environmental or social outcomes. So some mechanism – an investment vehicle, a government regulation or a business model – is needed to create an incentive to invest in achieving those outcomes.

Institutions, Business, Infrastructure and Investment

Citizens expect national and local governments to use their tax revenues to deliver these objectives, of course. But they are also very concerned that the taxes they pay are spent wisely on programmes with transparent, predictable, deliverable outcomes, as the current controversy over the UK’s proposed “HS2” high speed train network and previous controversies over the effectiveness of public sector IT programmes show.

Nevertheless, the past year has seen a growing trend for cities in Europe and North America to invest in Smart Cities technologies from their own operational budgets, on the basis of their ability to deliver cost savings or improvements in outcomes.

For example, some cities are replacing traditional parking management and enforcement services with “smart parking” schemes that are reducing congestion and pollution whilst paying for themselves through increased enforcement revenues. Others are investing their allocation of central government infrastructure funds in Smart solutions – such as Cambridge, Ontario’s use of the Canadian government’s Gas Tax Fund to invest in a sensor network and analytics infrastructure to manage the city’s physical assets intelligently.

The providers of Smart Cities solutions are investing too, by implementing their services on Cloud computing platforms so that cities can pay incrementally for their use of them, rather than investing up-front in their deployment. Minneapolis, Minnesota and Montpelier, France, recently announced that they are using IBM’s Cloud-based solutions for smarter water, transport and emergency management in this way. And entrepreneurial businesses, backed by Venture Capital investment, are also investing in the development of new solutions.

However, we have not yet tapped the largest potential investment streams: property and large-scale infrastructure. The British Property Federation, for example, estimates that £14 billion is invested in the development of new property in the UK each year. For the main part, these investment streams are not currently investing  in “Smart City” solutions.

To understand why that is the case – and how we might change it – we need to understand the difference in three types of risk involved in investing in smart infrastructures compared with traditional infrastructures: construction risk; the impact of operational failures; and confidence in outcomes.

(A cyclist’s protest in 2012 about the disruption caused in Edinburgh by the overrunning construction of the city’s new tram system. Photo by Andy A)

Construction Risk

At a discussion in March of the financing of future city initiatives held within the Lord Mayor of the City of London’s “Tommorrow’s Cities” programme, Daniel Wong, Head of Infrastructure and Real Estate for Macquarie Capital Europe, said that only a “tiny fraction” – a few percent – of the investable resources of the pension and sovereign wealth funds often referred to as the “wall of money” seeking profitable long-term investment opportunities in infrastructure were available to invest in infrastructure projects that carry “construction risk” – the risk of financial loss or cost overruns during construction.

For conventional infrastructure, construction risk is relatively well understood. At the Tomorrow’s Cities event, Jason Robinson, Bechtel’s General Manager for Urban Development, said that the construction sector was well able to manage that risk on behalf of investors. There are exceptions – such as the delays, cost increases and reduction in scale of Edinburgh’s new tram system – but they are rare.

So are we similarly well placed to manage the additional “construction risk” created when we add new technology to infrastructure projects?

Unfortunately, research carried out in 2013 by the Standish Group on behalf of Computerworld suggests not. Standish Group used data describing 3,555 IT projects between 2003 and 2012 that had labour costs of at least $10 million, and found that only 6.4% were wholly successful. 52% were delivered, but cost more than expected, took longer than expected, or failed to deliver everything that was expected of them. The rest – 41.4% – either failed completely or had to be stopped and re-started from scratch. Anecdotally, we are familiar with the press coverage of high profile examples of IT projects that do not succeed.

We should not be surprised that it is so challenging to deliver IT projects. They are almost always driven by requirements that represent an aspiration to change the way that an organisation or system works: such requirements are inevitably uncertain and often change as projects proceed. In today’s interconnected world, many IT projects involve the integration of several existing IT systems operated by different organisations: most of those systems will not have been designed to support integration. And because technology changes so quickly, many projects use technologies that are new to the teams delivering them. All of these things will usually be true for the technology solutions required for Smart City projects.

By analogy, then, an IT project often feels like an exercise in building an ambitiously new style of building, using new materials whose weight, strength and stiffness isn’t wholly certain, and standing on a mixture of sand, gravel and wetland. It is not surprising that only 6.4% deliver everything they intend to, on time and on budget – though it is also disappointing that as many as 41.4% fail so completely.

However, the real insight is that the characteristics of uncertainty, risk, timescales and governance for IT projects are very different from construction and infrastructure projects. All of these issues can be managed; but they are managed in very different ways. Consequently, it will take time and experience for the cultures of IT and construction to reconcile their approaches to risk and project management, and consequently to present a confident joint approach to investors.

The implementation of Smart Cities IT solutions on Cloud Computing platforms  by their providers mitigates this risk to an extent by “pre-fabricating” these components of smart infrastructure. But there is still risk associated with the integration of these solutions with physical infrastructure and engineering systems. As we gain further experience of carrying out that integration, IT vendors, investors, construction companies and their customers will collectively increase their confidence in managing this risk, unlocking investment at greater scale.

(The unfortunate consequence of a driver who put more trust in their satellite navigation and GPS technology than its designers expected. Photo by Salmon Assessors)

Operational Risk

We are all familiar with IT systems failing.

Our laptops, notebooks and tablets crash, and we lose work as a consequence. Our television set-top boxes reboot themselves midway through recording programmes. Websites become unresponsive or lose data from our shopping carts.

But when failures occur in IT systems that monitor and control physical systems such as cars, trains and traffic lights, the consequences could be severe: damage to property, injury; and death. Organisations that invest in and operate infrastructure are conscious of these risks, and balance them against the potential benefits of new technologies when deciding whether to use them.

The real-world risks of technology failure are already becoming more severe as all of us adopt consumer technologies such as smartphones and social media into every aspect of our lives (as the driver who followed his satellite navigation system off the roads of Paris onto the pavement, and then all the way down the steps into the Paris Metro, discovered).

The noted urbanist Jane Jacobs defined cities by their ability to provide privacy and safety amongst citizens who are usually strangers to each other; and her thinking is still regarded today by many urbanists as the basis of our understanding of cities. As digital technology becomes more pervasive in city systems, it is vital that we evolve the policies that govern digital privacy to ensure that those systems continue to support our lives, communities and businesses successfully.

Google’s careful exploration of self-driving cars in partnership with driver licensing organisations is an example of that process working well; the discovery of a suspected 3D-printing gun factory in Manchester last year is an example of it working poorly.

These issues are already affecting the technologies involved in Smart Cities solutions. An Argentinian researcher recently demonstrated that traffic sensors used around the world could be hacked into and caused to create misleading information. At the time of installation it was assumed that there would never be a motivation to hack into them and so they were configured with insufficient security. We will have to ensure that future deployments are much more secure.

Conversely, we routinely trust automated technology in many aspects of our lives – the automatic pilots that land the planes we fly in, and the anit-lock braking systems that slow and stop our cars far more effectively than we are able to ourselves.

If we are to build the same level of trust and confidence in Smart City solutions, we need to be open and honest about their risks as well as their benefits; and clear how we are addressing them.

(Cars from the car club “car2go” ready to hire in Vancouver. Despite succeeding in many cities around the world, the business recently withdrew from the UK after failing to attract sufficient customers to two pilot deployments in London and Birmingham. The UK’s cultural attraction of private car ownership has proved too strong at present for a shared ownership business model to succeed. Photo by Stephen Rees).

Outcomes Risk

Smart infrastructures such as Stockholm’s road-use charging scheme and London’s congestion charge were constructed in the knowledge that they would be financially sustainable, and with the belief that they would create economic and environmental benefits. Subsequent studies have shown that they did achieve those benefits, but data to predict them confidently in advance did not exist because they were amongst the first of their kind in the world.

The benefits of “Smart” schemes such as road-use charging and smart metering cannot be calculated deterministically in advance because they depend on citizens changing their behaviour – deciding to ride a bus rather than to drive a car; or deciding to use dishwashers and washing machines overnight rather than during the day.

There are many examples of Smart Cities projects that have successfully used technology to encourage behaviour change. In a smart water meter project in Dubuque, for example, households were given information that told them whether their domestic appliances were being used efficiently, and alerted to any leaks in their supply of water. To a certain extent, households acted on this information to improve the efficiency of their water usage. But a control group who were also given a “green points” score telling them how their water conservation compared to that of their near neighbours were found to be twice as likely to take action to improve their efficiency.

However, these techniques are notoriously difficult to apply successfully. A recycling scheme that adopted a similar approach found instead that it lowered recycling rates across the community: households who learned that they were putting more effort into recycling than their neighbours asked themselves “if my neighbours aren’t contributing to this initiative, then why should I?”

The financial vehicles that enable investment in infrastructure and property are either government-backed instruments that reward economic and social outcomes such as reductions in carbon footprint or the creation of jobs ; or market-based instruments  based on the creation of direct financial returns.

So are we able to predict those outcomes confidently enough to enable investment in Smart Cities solutions?

I put that question to the debating panel at the Tomorrow’s Cities meeting. In particular, I asked whether investors would be willing to purchase bonds in smart metering infrastructures with a rate of return dependent on the success of those infrastructures in encouraging consumers to  reduce their use of water and energy.

The response was a clear “no”. The application of those technologies and their effectiveness in reducing the use of water and electricity by families and businesses is too uncertain for such investment vehicles to be used.

Smart Cities solutions are not straightforward engineering solutions such as electric vehicles whose cost, efficiency and environmental impacts can be calculated in a deterministic way. They are complex socio-technical systems whose outcomes are emergent and uncertain.

Our ability to predict their performance and impact will certainly improve as more are deployed and analysed, and as University researchers, politicians, journalists and the public assess them. As that happens, investors will be more willing to fund them; or, with government support, to create new financial vehicles that reward investment in initiatives that use smart technology to create social, environmental and economic improvements – just as the World Bank’s Green Bonds, launched in 2008, support environmental schemes today.

(Recycling bins in Curitiba, Brazil. As Mayor of Curitaba Jaime Lerner started one of the world’s earliest and most effective city recycling programmes by harnessing the enthusiasm of children to influence the behaviour of their parents. Lerner’s many initiatives to transform Curitaba have the characteristic of entrepreneurial leadership. Photo by Ana Elisa Ribeiro)

Evidence and Leadership

The evidence base need to support new investment vehicles is already being created. In Canada, for example, a collaboration between Canadian insurers and cities has developed a set of tools to create a common understanding of the financial risk created by the effects of climate change on the resilience of city infrastructures.

More internationally, the “Little Rock Accord” between the Madrid Club of former national Presidents and Prime Ministers and the P80 group of pension funds agreed to create a task force to increase the degree to which pension and sovereign wealth funds invest in the deployment of technology to address climate change issues, shortages in resources such as energy, water and food, and sustainable, resilient growth. My colleague the economist Mary Keeling has been working for IBM’s Institute for Business Value to more clearly analyse and express the benefits of Smart approaches – in water management and transportation, for example. And Peter Head’s Ecological Sequestration Trust and Robert Bishop’s International Centre for Earth Simulation are both pooling international data and expertise to create models that explore how more sustainable cities and societies might work.

But the Smart City programmes which courageously drive the field forward will not always be those that demand a complete and detailed cost/benefit analysis in advance. Writing in “The Plundered Planet”, the economist Paul Collier asserts that any proposed infrastructure of reasonable novelty and significant scale is effectively so unique – especially when considered in its geographic, political, social and economic context – that an accurate cost/benefit case simply cannot be constructed.

Instead, initiatives such as London’s congestion charge and bicycle hire scheme, Sunderland’s City Cloud and Bogota’s bikeways and parks were created by courageous leaders with a passionate belief that they could make their cities better. As more of those leaders come to trust technology and the people who deliver it, their passion will be another force behind the adoption of technology in city systems and infrastructure.

What’s the risk of not investing in a Smarter City?

For at least the last 50 years, we have been observing that life is speeding up and becoming more complicated. In his 1964 work “Notes on the Synthesis of Form“, the town planner Christopher Alexander wrote:

“At the same time that the problems increase in quantity, complexity and difficulty, they also change faster than ever before. New materials are developed all the time, social patterns alter quickly, the culture itself is changing faster than it has ever changed before … To match the growing complexity of problems, there is a growing body of information and specialist experience … [but] not only is the quantity of information itself beyond the reach of single designers, but the various specialists who retail it are narrow and unfamiliar with the form-makers’ peculiar problems.”

(Alexander’s 1977 work “A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction” is one of the most widely read books on urban design; it was also an enormous influence on the development of the computer software industry).

The physicist Geoffrey West has shown that this process is alive and well in cities today. As the world’s cities grow, life in them speeds up, and they create ideas and wealth more rapidly, leading to further growth. West has observed that, in a world with constrained resources, this process will lead to a catastrophic failure when demand for fresh water, food and energy outstrips supply – unless we change that process, and change the way that we consume resources in order to create rewarding lives for ourselves.

There are two sides to that challenge: changing what we value; and changing how we create what we value from the resources around us.

(...)

(“Makers” at the Old Print Works in Balsall Heath, Birmingham, sharing the tools, skills, contacts and ideas that create successful small businesses in local communities)

The Transition movement, started by Rob Hopkins in Totnes in 2006, is tackling both parts of that challenge. “Transition Towns” are communities who have decided to act collectively to transition to a way of life which is less resource-intensive, and to value the characteristics of such lifestyles in their own right – where possible trading regionally, recycling and re-using materials and producing and consuming food locally.

The movement does not advocate isolation from the global industrial economy, but it does advocate that local, alternative products and services in some cases can be more sustainable than mass-produced commodities; that the process of producing them can be its own reward; and that acting at community level is for many people the most effective way to contribute to sustainability. From local currencies, to food-trading networks to community energy schemes, many “Smart” initiatives have emerged from the transition movement.

We will need the ideas and philosophy of Transition to create sustainable cities and communities – and without them we will fail. But those ideas alone will not create a sustainable world. With current technologies, for example, one hectare of highly fertile, intensively farmed land can feed 10 people. Birmingham, my home city, has an area of 60,000 hectares of relatively infertile land, most of which is not available for farming at all; and a population of around 1 million. Those numbers don’t add up to food self-sufficiency. And Birmingham is a very low-density city – between one-half and one-tenth as dense as the growing megacities of Asia and South America.

Cities depend on vast infrastructures and supply-chains, and they create complex networks of transactions supported by transportation and communications. Community initiatives will adapt these infrastructures to create local value in more sustainable, resilient ways, and by doing so will reduce demand. But they will not affect the underlying efficiency of the systems themselves. And I do not personally believe that in a world of 7 billion people in which resources and opportunity are distributed extremely unevenly that community initiatives alone will reduce demand significantly enough to achieve sustainability.

We cannot simply scale these systems up as the world’s population grows to 9 billion by 2050, we need to change the way they work. That means changing the technology they use, or changing the way they use technology. We need to make them smarter.

Information and choice: nine reasons our future is in the balance

(The Bandra pedestrian skywalk in Mumbai, photo taken from the Collaborative Research Initiative Trust‘s study of Mumbai, “Being Nicely Messy“, produced for the 2012 Audi Urban Futures awards)

The 19th and 20th centuries saw the flowering and maturation of the Industrial Revolution and the creation of the modern world. Standards of living worldwide increased dramatically as a consequence – though so did inequality.

The 21st century is already proving to be different. We are reaching the limits of supply of the natural resources and cheap energy that supported the last two centuries of development; and are starting to widely exploit the most powerful man-made resource in history: digital information.

Our current situation isn’t simply an evolution of the trends of the previous two centuries; nine “tipping points” in economics, society, technology and the environment indicate that our future will be fundamentally different to the past, not just different by degree.

Three of those tipping points represent changes that are happening as the ultimate consequences of the Industrial Revolution and the economic globalisation and population growth it created; three of them are the reasons I think it’s accurate to characterise the changes we see today as an Information Revolution; and the remaining three represent challenges for us to face in the future.

The difficulty faced in addressing those challenges internationally through global governance institutions is illustrated by the current status of world trade deal and climate change negotiations; but our ability to respond to them is not limited to national and international governments. It is in the hands of businesses, communities and each of us as individuals as new business models emerge.

The structure of the economy is changing

In 2012, the Collaborative Research Initiatives Trust were commissioned by the Audi Urban Futures Awards to develop a vision for the future of work and life in Mumbai. In the introduction to their report, “Being Nicely Messy“, they cite a set of statistics describing Mumbai’s development that nicely illustrate the changing nature of the city:

“While the population in Mumbai grew by 25% between 1991 and 2010, the number of people travelling by trains during the same years increased by 66% and the number of vehicles grew by 181%. At the same time, the number of enterprises in the city increased by 56%.

All of this indicates a restructuring of the economy, where the nature of work and movement has changed.”

(From “Being Nicely Messy“, 2011, Collaborative Research Initiatives Trust)

Following CRIT’s inspiration, over the last year I’ve been struck by several similar but more widely applicable sets of data that, taken together, indicate that a similar restructuring is taking place across the world.

ScreenHunter_223 Nov. 28 00.06

(Professor Robert Gordon’s analysis of historic growth in productivity, as discussed by the famous investor Jeremy Grantham, showing that the unusual growth experienced through the Industrial Revolution may have come to an end. Source: Gordon, Robert J., “Is U.S. Economic Growth Over? Faltering Innovation Confronts the Six Headwinds,” NBER Working Paper 18315, August 2012)

The twilight of the Industrial Revolution

Tipping point 1: the slowing of economic growth

According to the respected investor Jeremy Grantham, Economic growth has slowed systemically and permanently. He states that: “Resource costs have been rising, conservatively, at 7% a year since 2000 … in a world growing at under 4% and [in the] developed world at under 1.5%”

Grantham’s analysis is that the rapid economic growth of the last century was a historical anomaly driven by the productivity improvements made possible through the Industrial Revolution; and before that revolution reached such a scale as to create global competition for resources and energy. Property and technology bubbles extended that growth into the early 21st Century, but it has now reduced to much more modest levels where Grantham expects it to remain. The economist Tyler Cowan came to similar conclusions in his 2011 book, “The Great Stagnation“.

This analysis was supported by the property developers I met at a recent conference in Birmingham. They told me that indicators in their market today are the most positive they have been since the start of the 1980s property boom; but none of them expect that boom to be repeated. The market is far more cautious concerning medium and long-term prospects for growth.

We have passed permanently into an era of more modest economic growth than we have become accustomed to; or at very least into an era whereby we need to restructure the relationship between economic growth and the consumption of resources and energy in ways that we have not yet determined before higher growth does return. We have passed a tipping point; the world has changed.

(Growth in the world's urban population as reported by World Urbanization Prospects”, 2007 Revision, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, United Nations)

(Growth in the world’s urban population as reported by “World Urbanization Prospects”, 2007 Revision, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, United Nations)

Tipping point 2: urbanisation and the industrialisation of food supply 

As has been widely quoted in recent years, more than half the world’s population has lived in cities since 2010 according to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. That percentage is expected to increase to 70% by 2050.

The implications of those facts concern not just where we live, but the nature of the economy. Cities became possible when we industrialised the production and distribution of food, rather than providing it for ourselves on a subsistence basis; or producing it in collaboration with our neighbours. For this reason, many developing nations still undergoing urbanisation and industrialisation – such as Tanzania, Turkmenistan and Tajikstan – still formally define cities by criteria including “the pre-dominance of non-agricultural workers and their families” (as referenced in the United Nations’ “World Urbanization Prospects” 2007 Revision).

So for the first time more than half the world’s population now lives in cities; and is provided with food by industrial supply chains rather than by families or neighbours. We have passed a tipping point; the world has changed.

(Estimated damage in $US billion caused by natural disasters between 1900 and 2012 as reported by EM-DAT)

(Estimated damage in $US billion caused by natural disasters between 1900 and 2012 as reported by EM-DAT)

Tipping point 3: the frequency and impact of extreme weather conditions

As our climate changes, we are experiencing more unusual and extreme weather. In addition to the devastating impact recently of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines,  cities everywhere are regularly experiencing the effects to a more modest degree.

One city in the UK told me recently that inside the last 12 months they have dealt with such an increase in incidents of flooding severe enough to require coordinated cross-city action that it has become an urgent priority for local Councillors. We are working with other cities in Europe to understand the effect of rising average levels of flooding – historic building construction codes mean that a rise in average levels of a meter or more could put significant numbers of buildings at risk of falling down. The current prediction from the United Nations International Panel on Climate Change is that levels will rise somewhere between 26cm and 82cm by the end of this century – close enough for concern.

The EM-DAT International Disasters Database has calculated the financial impact of natural disasters over the past century. They have shown that in recent years the increased occurrence of unusual and extreme weather combined with the increasing concentration of populations and economic activity in cities has caused this impact to rise at previously unprecedented rates.

The investment markets have identified and responded to this trend. In their recent report “Global Investor Survey on Climate Change”, the Global Investor Coalition on Climate Change reported this year that 53% of fund managers collectively responsible for $14 trillion of assets indicated that they had divested stocks, or chosen not to invest in stocks, due to concerns over the impact of climate change on the businesses concerned. We have passed a tipping point; the world has changed.

(The prediction of exponential growth in digital information from EMC's Digital Universe report)

(The prediction of exponential growth in digital information from EMC’s Digital Universe report)

The dawn of the Information Revolution

Tipping point 4: exponential growth in the world’s most powerful man-made resource, digital information

Information has always been crucial to our world. Our use of language to share it is arguably a defining characteristic of what it means to be human; it is the basis of monetary systems for mediating the exchange of goods and services; and it is a core component of quantum mechanics, one of the most fundamental physical theories that describes how our universe behaves.

But the emergence of broadband and mobile connectivity over the last decade have utterly transformed the quantity of recorded information in the world and our ability to exploit it.

EMC’s Digital Universe report shows that in between 2010 and 2012 more information was recorded than in all of previous human history. They predict that the quantity of information recorded will double every 2 years, meaning that at any point in the next two decades it will be true to make the same assertion that “more information was recorded in the last two years than in all of previous history”. In 2011 McKinsey described the “information economy” that has emerged to exploit this information as a fundamental shift in the basis of the economy as a whole.

Not only that, but information has literally been turned into money. The virtual currency Bitcoin is based not on the value of a raw material such as gold whose availability is physically limited; but on the outcomes of extremely complex cryptographic calculations whose performance is limited by the speed at which computers can process information. The value of Bitcoins is currently rising incredibly quickly – from $20 to $1000 since January; although it is also subject to significant fluctuations. 

Ultimately, Bitcoin itself may succeed or fail – and it is certainly used in some unethical and dangerous transactions as well as by ordinary people and businesses. But its model has demonstrated in principle that a decentralised, non-national, information-based currency can operate successfully, as my colleague Richard Brown recently explained.

Digital information is the most valuable man-made resource ever invented; it began a period of exponential growth just three years ago and has literally been turned into money. We have passed a tipping point; the world has changed.

Tipping point 5: the disappearing boundary between humans, information and the physical world

In the 1990s the internet began to change the world despite the fact that it could only be accessed by using an expensive, heavy personal computer; a slow and inconvenient telephone modem; and the QWERTY keyboard that was designed in the 19th Century to prevent typists from typing faster than the levers in mechanical typewriters could move.

Three years ago, my then 2-year-old son taught himself how to use a touchscreen tablet to watch cartoons from around the world before he could read or write. Two years ago, Scientists at the University of California at Berkeley used a Magnetic Resonance Imaging facility to capture images from the thoughts of a person watching a film. A less sensitive mind-reading technology is already available as a headset from Emotiv, which my colleagues in IBM’s Emerging Technologies team have used to help a paralysed person communicate by thinking directional instructions to a computer.

Earlier this year, a paralysed woman controlled a robotic arm by thought; and prosthetic limbs, a working gun and living biological structures such as muscle fibre and skin are just some of the things that can be 3D printed on demand from raw materials and digital designs.

Our thoughts can control information in computer systems; and information in those systems can quite literally shape the world around us. The boundaries between our minds, information and the physical world are disappearing. We have passed a tipping point; the world has changed.

(A personalised prosthetic limb constructed using 3D printing technology. Photo by kerolic)

Tipping point 6: the miniaturisation of industry

The emergence of the internet as a platform for enabling sales, marketing and logistics over the last decade has enabled small and micro-businesses to reach markets across the world that were previously accessible only to much larger organisations with international sales and distribution networks.

More recently, the emergence and maturation of technologies such as 3D printingopen-source manufacturing and small-scale energy generation are enabling small businesses and community initiatives to succeed in new sectors by reducing the scale at which it is economically viable to carry out what were previously industrial activities – a trend recently labelled by the Economist magazine as the “Third Industrial Revolution“. The continuing development of social media and pervasive technology enable them to rapidly form and adapt supply and exchange networks with other small-scale producers and consumers.

Estimates of the size of the resulting “sharing economy“, defined by Wikipedia as “economic and social systems that enable shared access to goods, services, data and talent“, vary widely, but are certainly significant. The UK Economist magazine reports one estimate that it is a $26 billion economy already, whilst 2 Degrees Network report that just one aspect of it – small-scale energy generation – could save UK businesses £33 billion annually by 2030Air B’n’B – a peer-to-peer accommodation service – reported recently that they had contributed $632 million in value to New York’s economy in 2012 by enabling nearly 5,000 residents to earn an average of $7,500 by renting their spare rooms to travellers; and as a consequence of those travellers additionally spending an average of $880 in the city during their stay. Overall, there has been a significant rise in self-employment and “micro-entrepreneurial” enterprises over the last few years, which now account for 14% of the US economy.

Organisations participating in the sharing economy exhibit a range of motivations and ethics – some are aggressively commercial, whilst others are “social enterprises” with a commitment to reinvest profits in social growth. The social enterprise sector, comprised of mutuals, co-operatives, employee-owned businesses and enterprises who submit to “triple bottom line” accounting of financial, social and environmental capital, is about 15% of the value of most economies, and has been growing and creating jobs faster than traditional business since the 2008 crash.

In the first decade of the 21st Century, mobile and internet technologies caused a convergence between the technology, communications and media sectors of the economy. In this decade, we will see far more widespread disruptions and convergences in the technology, manufacturing, creative arts, healthcare and utilities industries; and enormous growth in the number of small and social enterprises creating innovative business models that cut across them. We have passed a tipping point; the world has changed.

Rebalancing the world

Tipping point 7: how we respond to climate change and resource constraints

There is now agreement amongst scientists, expressed most conclusively by the United Nations International Panel on Climate Change this year, that the world is undergoing a period of overall warming resulting from the impact of human activity. But there is not yet a consensus on how we should respond.

Views vary from taking immediate, sweeping measures to drastically cut carbon and greenhouse gas emissions,  to the belief that we should accept climate change as inevitable and focus investment instead on adapting to it, as suggested by the “Skeptical Environmentalist” Bjørn Lomborg and the conservative think-tank the American Enterprise Institute. As a result of this divergence of opinion, and of the challenge of negotiating between the interests of countries, communities and businesses across the world, the agreement reached by last year’s climate change negotiations in Doha was generally regarded as relatively weak.

Professor Chris Rogers of the University of Birmingham and his colleagues in the Urban Futures initiative have assessed over 450 proposed future scenarios and identified four archetypes (described in his presentation to Base Cities Birmingham) against which they assess the cost and effectiveness of environmental and climate interventions. The “Fortress World” scenario is divided between an authoritarian elite who control the world’s resources from their protected enclaves and a wider population living in poverty. In “Market Forces”, free markets encourage materialist consumerism to wholly override social and environmental values; whilst in “Policy Reform” a combination of legislation and citizen behaviour change achieve a balanced outcome. And in the “New Sustainability Paradigm” the pursuit of wealth gives way to a widespread aspiration to achieve social equality and environmental sustainability. (Chris is optimistic enough that his team dismissed another scenario, “Breakdown”, as unrealistic).

Decisions that are taken today affect the degree to which our world will evolve to resemble those scenarios. As the impact of weather and competition for resources affect the stability of supply of energy and foodmany cities are responding to the relative lack of national and international action by taking steps themselves. Some businesses are also building strategies for long-term success and profit growth  around sustainability; in part because investing in a resilient world is a good basis for a resilient business, and in part because they believe that a genuine commitment to sustainability will appeal to consumers. Unilever demonstrated that they are following this strategy recently by committing to buy all of their palm oil – of which they consume one third of the world’s supply – from traceable sources by the end of 2014.

At some point, we will all – individuals, businesses, communities, governments – be forced to change our behaviour to account for climate change and the limits of resource availability: as the prices of raw materials, food and energy rise; and as we are more and more directly affected by the consequences of a changing environment.

The questions are: to what extent have these challenges become urgent to us already; and how and when will we respond?

(“Makers” at the Old Print Works in Balsall Heath, Birmingham, sharing the tools, skills and ideas that create successful small businesses)

Tipping point 8: the end of the average career

In “The End of Average“, the economist Tyler Cowen observed that about 60% of the jobs lost during the 2008 recession were in mid-wage occupations; and the UK Economist magazine reported that many jobs lost from professional industries had been replaced in artisan trades and small-scale industry such as food, furniture and design.

Echoing Jeremy Grantham, Cowen further observes that these changes take place within a much longer term 28% decline in middle-income wages in the US between 1969 and 2009 which has no identifiable single cause. Cowen worries that this is a sign that the economy is beginning to diverge into the authoritarian elite and the impoverished masses of Chris Rogers’ “Fortress World” scenario.

Other evidence points to a more complex picture. Jake Dunagan, Research Director of the Institute for the Future, believes that the widespread availability of digital technology and information is extending democracy and empowerment – just as the printing press and education did in the last millennium as they dramatically increased the extent to which people were informed and able to make themselves heard. Dunagan notes that through our reliance on technology and social media to find and share information, our thoughts and beliefs are already formed by, and having an effect on, society in a way that is fundamentally new.

The miniaturisation of industry (tipping point 6 above) and the disappearance of the boundary between our minds and bodies, information and the physical world (tipping point 5 above) are changing the ways in which resources and value are exchanged and processed out of all recognition. Just imagine how different the world would be if a 3D-printing service such as Shapeways transformed the manufacturing industry as dramatically as iTunes transformed the music industry 10 years ago. Google’s futurologist Thomas Frey recently described 55 “jobs of the future” that he thought might appear as a result.

(Activities comprising the “Informal Economy” and their linkages to the mainstream economy, by Claro Partners)

In both developed and emerging countries, informal, social and micro-businesses are significant elements of the economy, and are growing more quickly than traditional sectorsClaro partners estimate that the informal economy (in which they include alternative currencies, peer-to-peer businesses, temporary exchange networks and micro-businesses – see diagram, right) is worth $10 trillion worldwide, and that it employs up to 80% of the workforce in emerging markets. 

In developed countries, the Industrial Revolution drove a transformation of such activity into a more formal economy – a transformation which may now be in part reversing. In developing nations today, digital technology may make part of that transformation unnecessary. 

To be successful in this changing economy, we will need to change the way we learn, and the way we teach our children. Cowen wrote that “We will move from a society based on the pretense that everyone is given an okay standard of living to a society in which people are expected to fend for themselves much more than they do now”; and expressed a hope that online education offers the potential for cheaper and more widespread access to new skills to enable people to do so. This thinking echoes a finding of the Centre for Cities report “Cities Outlook 1901” that the major factor driving the relative success or failure of UK cities throughout the 20th Century was their ability to provide their populations with the right skills at the right time as technology and industry developed.

The marketeer and former Yahoo Executive Seth Godin’s polemic “Stop Stealing Dreams” attacked the education system for continuing to prepare learners for stable, traditional careers rather than the collaborative entrepreneurialism that he and other futurists expect to be required. Many educators would assert that their industry is already adapting and will continue to do so – great change is certainly expected as the ability to share information online disrupts an industry that developed historically to share it in classrooms and through books.

Many of the businesses, jobs and careers of 2020, 2050 and 2100 will be unrecognisable or even unimaginable to us today; as are the skills that will be needed to be successful in them. Conversely, many post-industrial cities today are still grappling with challenges created by the loss of jobs in manufacturing, coalmining and shipbuilding industries in the last century.

The question for our future is: will we adapt more comfortably to the sweeping changes that will surely come to the industries that employ us today?

("Lives on the Line" by James Cheshire at UCL's Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis, showing the variation in life expectancy and correlation to child poverty in London. From Cheshire, J. 2012. Lives on the Line: Mapping Life Expectancy Along the London Tube Network. Environment and Planning A. 44 (7). Doi: 10.1068/a45341)

(“Lives on the Line” by James Cheshire at UCL’s Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis, showing the variation in life expectancy and correlation to child poverty in London. From Cheshire, J. 2012. Lives on the Line: Mapping Life Expectancy Along the London Tube Network. Environment and Planning A. 44 (7). Doi: 10.1068/a45341)

Tipping point 9: inequality

The benefits of living in cities are distributed extremely unevenly.

The difference in life expectancy of children born into the poorest and wealthiest areas of UK cities today is often as much as 20 years – for boys in Glasgow the difference is 28 years. That’s a deep inequality in the opportunity to live.

There are many causes of that inequality, of course: health, diet, wealth, environmental quality, peace and public safety, for example. All of them are complex, and the issues that arise from them to create inequality – social deprivation and immobility, economic disengagement, social isolation, crime and lawlessness – are notoriously difficult to address.

But a fundamental element of addressing them is choosing to try to do so. That’s a trite observation, but it is nonetheless the case that in many of our activities we do not make that choice – or, more accurately, as individuals, communities and businesses we take choices primarily in our own interests rather than based on their wider impact.

Writing about cities in the 1960s, the urbanist Jane Jacobs observed that:

“Private investment shapes cities, but social ideas (and laws) shape private investment. First comes the image of what we want, then the machinery is adapted to turn out that image. The financial machinery has been adjusted to create anti-city images because, and only because, we as a society thought this would be good for us. If and when we think that lively, diversified city, capable of continual, close- grained improvement and change, is desirable, then we will adjust the financial machinery to get that.”

In many respects, we have not shaped the financial machinery of the world to achieve equality. Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz wrote recently that in fact the financial machinery of the United States and the UK in particular create considerable inequality in those countries; and the Economist magazine reminds us of the enormous investments made into public institutions in the past in order to distribute the benefits of the Industrial Revolution to society at large rather than concentrate them on behalf of business owners and the professional classes – with only partial success.

New legislation in banking has been widely debated and enacted since the 2008 financial crisis – enforcing the separation of commercial and investment banking, for example. But addressing inequality is a much broader challenge than the regulation of banking, and will not only be addressed by legislation. Business models such as social enterprise, cross-city collaborations and the sharing economy are emerging to develop sustainable businesses in industries such as food, energy, transportation and finance, in addition to the contribution made by traditional businesses building sustainability into their strategies.

Whenever we vote, buy something or make a choice in business, we contribute to our overall choice to develop a fairer, more sustainable world in which everyone has a chance to participate. The question is not just whether we will take those choices; but the degree to which their impact on the wider world will be apparent to us so that we can do so in an informed way.

That is a challenge that technology can help with.

(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. The predictions gave commuters the opportunity to take a better-informed choice about their travel to work.)

Data and Choice

Like the printing press, the vote and education, access to data allows us to make more of a difference than we were able to without it.

Niall Firth’s November editorial for the New Scientist magazine describes how citizens of developing nations are using open data to hold their governments to account, from basic information about election candidates to the monitoring of government spending. In the UK, a crowd-sourced analysis of politicians’ expenses claims that had been leaked to the press resulted in resignations, the repayment of improperly claimed expenses, and in the most severe cases, imprisonment.

Unilever are committing to making their supply chain for palm oil traceable precisely because that data is what will enable them to next improve its sustainability; and in Almere, city data and analytics are being used to plan future development of the city in a way that doesn’t cause harmful impacts to existing citizens and residents. Neither initiative would have been possible or affordable without recent improvements in technology.

Data and technology, appropriately applied, give us an unprecedented ability to achieve our long-term objectives by taking better-informed, more forward-looking decisions every day, in the course of our normal work and lives. They tell us more than we could ever previously have known about the impact of those decisions.

That’s why the tipping points I’ve described in this article matter to me. They translate my general awareness that I should “do the right thing” into a specific knowledge that at this point in time, my choices in many aspects of daily work and life contribute to powerful forces that will shape the next century that we share on this planet; and that they could help to tip the balance in all of our favour.

Gain and responsibility: five business models for sustainable cities

(Photo by Mark Vauxhall of public Peugeot Ions on Rue des Ponchettes, Nice, France)

It’s strange how you can find inspiration in the most surprising places; and the first time I came across the philosophy of sustainability at the heart of big business was certainly unexpected.

Five years ago I was creating a business model in a UK city for a car-sharing scheme using social media (which at the time was a new technology); the scheme was being put together by a collaboration of technology entrepreneurs, University researchers and local employers who wanted to offer the scheme to their employees as a benefit in kind. What we lacked was a business partner with expertise in offering transport services to consumers.

A colleague suggested we speak to an international car rental company for whom they’d recently run an innovation workshop. Initially, we were sceptical: why would a car rental company encourage people to share cars – in other words, to need to hire less of them?

Nevertheless, we called the global Vice President of Sales of the company concerned. This person was responsible for the sales performance of a company in an extremely competitive, commoditised market, so we were expecting the social and environmental philosophy behind our proposal to be given little consideration compared to its revenue-earning potential.

Instead, I remember feeling as if I was being blown away down the telephone line by  his enthusiasm for sustainable business. The reason he had spent his career making a car rental company as successful as possible was his belief that it was the most viable business model for sustainable transport of its time: hire cars are much more effective than public transport for some journeys; and because they are heavily used throughout their lives, the environmental cost of manufacturing and decommissioning them is much less per mile travelled than for privately owned vehicles.

The proposition that technology offers to the sustainability debate – whether in Smarter Cities, intelligent transport or supply-chain optimisation – is to enable business models that create better social and environmental outcomes. In some cases, those outcomes are the objectives of a business; but more often they are the side effects of business operations whose objectives are to create financial returns. So in order to justify investments in technologies or practises that promote sustainability, we need to do just what the car rental company’s Vice President had done early in his career: think creatively about how to balance social and environmental outcomes with the financial imperatives of our existing economic systems.

We’ll need to find that balance in order to develop realistic business models for Smarter Cities. It will not always be an easy balance to find; and finding it will sometimes be a controversial process. But five approaches can already be seen that show how it can be achieved in different ways.

1. Cross-city Collaborations

Many initiatives that contribute to city-wide outcomes require either co-ordinated action across city systems; or an investment in one system to achieve an outcome that is not a simple financial return within that system. For example, the ultimate objective of many changes to transportation systems is to improve economic growth and productivity, or to reduce environmental impact.

Such initiatives are often shaped and carried out by a group of collaborating stakeholders in a city – perhaps including the City Council, nearby Universities, local businesses and community groups, and private sector partners.

To attract the various forms of investment that are required to support a programme of “Smart” initiatives, these partnerships need to be decision-making entities, not discussion groups. Investors will look for a history of collective action to achieve clear, shared objectives; and for a mature approach to the mutual management of risk in delivering projects.

Such partnerships take time to form, and it is notable that in last year’s Technology Strategy Board Future Cities Demonstrator competition, most of the shortlisted entries had been prepared by collaborations in cities such as Glasgow and Peterborough that had existed for some time before the competition began. Other examples include the Dublinked information-sharing partnership in Dublin, Ireland, and the Sustainable Dubuque partnership in Dubuque, Iowa. I wrote about these examples and discussed how they form and operate successfully, in “Smart ideas for everyday cities” last December.

2. Scaling-up Social Enterprise

Social enterprise is a broad category of private businesses which in some way commit themselves to social and/or environmental objectives against which they audit themselves alongside their financial performance – a practise known as triple bottom-line accounting.

Given the similarities between triple-bottom-line accounting and the objectives of “Smarter” initiatives, it’s not surprising that social enterprises are carrying out a great deal of “Smart City” activity. They often use innovative, technology-enabled business models that combine elements of sectors such as food, energy and transport. A good example is “Casserole Club“, which uses social media as the basis of a peer-to-peer model which connects people who are unable to cook for themselves with people who are willing to cook for, and visit, others.

(Photo by Mermaid of the People’s Supermarket in Lamb’s Conduit Street, London, a social enterprise that aims to promote social cohesion by supporting local, independent food producers)

Social enterprises have a powerful potential to contribute to Smarter City objectives. They tend to create employment opportunities where they are most needed, for example – 39% of all social enterprises are working in the most deprived communities in the UK, in comparison to 13% of SMEs. And they are a significant contribution to the overall economy – in the UK,  a recent government report found that the sector employs more than 2 million people, is estimated to have total annual incomes of £163 billion and to contribute £55 billion Gross Value Added – about 14% of the national total. Social enterprise is 13% of Sweden’s GDP and 21% of Finland’s GDP; and 4 in 10 residents of the USA– the world’s flagship private enterprise economy – are members of a co-operative of some sort. Worldwide, social enterprises employ over 100 million people with a turnover of £1.1 trillion. That’s big business.

Many social enterprises are entirely independent ventures. There is great potential for cities to recognise the alignment between their philosophy and Smarter City objectives; and to support their role in achieving them. When the resources and assets of large, formal organisations are made available to local, social innovation, the results can be tremendously powerful.

In Resilience, Andrew Zolli gives the example of the Kilimo Salama scheme in Kenya which provides affordable insurance for subsistence farmers by using remote weather monitoring to trigger payouts via mobile phones, rather than undertaking expensive site visits to assess claims. This is a good example of large-scale infrastructures operated by formal institutions – mobile payments systems and remote weather monitoring technology – that have been adapated to the needs of a community which previously didn’t benefit from them – the farmers – by a creative, socially-minded organisation.

Awareness is growing of the importance of this sector; the alignment of its values with the objectives of Smarter Cities (as described by Knight Foundation Vice President Carol Coletta recently); and of the great potential of information economy technologies, especially social media, to empower it (see this article by ex-IBM Vice President Irving Wladawsky-Berger). It will be a major part of the economy and society of the sustainable cities of the future.

3. Creativity in finance

We don’t consider banks, insurers and other financial institutions enough in the world of Smarter Cities. Public sector and research grants will not finance the wholescale transformation of our cities; we will have to look to the broader financial markets for that support.

New forms of financial service are emerging from the online, collaborative economy such as crowdfunding and peer-to-peer lending. In the UK, the Trillion Fund, for example, offer a range of investment schemes in renewable energy to the retail investment market; and a variety of local and electronic currencies are emerging.

(Photo of a smart parking meter in San Francisco by Jun Seita)

More traditional financial institutions are also exploring the new products that they can create to support this market; and we are sure to need the depth of resources they can make available. Smarter city services create assets and offer services which people and businesses pay to use. With the appropriate banking, insurance and investment skills, those assets and services and the incomes they generate can be packaged as investable financial products. Citibank, IBM and Streetline partnered last year to offer a financing scheme for “Smart Parking” solutions, for example.

Citigroup were also amongst those who supported the recent “Innovation and the City” report by the Centre for an Urban Future and the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service which recommended 15 policies for consideration by the next Mayor of New York, many of which are financial innovations intended to support Smarter City outcomes.

In recent years, the banking industry has not always been associated with social outcomes. But some financial institutions are very clearly social organisations – such as the credit unions to which 87 million US citizens belong; and many banks have social elements in their original charters – as Hancock Bank demonstrated when responding to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. They have the means, method and opportunity to contribute enormously to the development of Smarter, sustainable cities and we should encourage them to do so.

4. Making traditional business sustainable

A very many of our lives depend for our basic needs – not to mention our entertainment and leisure – on global supply chains operated on astounding scales by private sector businesses. Staples such as food, cosmetics and cleaning products consume a vast proportion of the world’s fresh water and agricultural capacity; and a surprisingly small number of organisations are responsible for a surprisingly large proportion of that consumption as they produce the products and services that many of us use.

The social and environmental impact of those supply chains is immense, and, of course, highly controversial. A notable recent development, though, is the number of statements made by the leaders of companies involved in them asserting the importance of evolving their businesses to adopt more sustainable practises. The CEOs of  Unilever and Tesco have made statements of intent along these lines recently, and IBM and Hilton Hotels have described the progress they have already made.

Any analysis of the motivations for such statements and the outlook for their impact also enters areas of great controversy, of course. But need there be any fundamental contradiction between profitable enterprise and sustainability?

Richard Powers’ 1998 novel “Gain” tells the story of “incorporation”, the creation of companies as entities with a legal and financial existence separate from that of the people who start, manage and work for them. It contrasts the story of three Irish brothers arriving in 19th Century New York who make a living manufacturing soap, and the subsequent growth of their business into a vast 20th Century multinational corporation; with that of a woman dying from a cancer likely to have been caused by exposure to the waste products of the industrial operations of that corporation. Its complex, nuanced story explores both the facility of private enterprise to create wealth for anybody; and its potential for ambivalence towards the fair distribution of that wealth, and towards its impact.

(An example from Indonesia of the deforestation that can be the result of palm oil production. Photo by the Rainforest Action Network)

Gain’s narrative makes clear that the model of private enterprise does not lead inevitably to any specific outcome. The success, sustainability and equitability of any enterprise, social or private, are ultimately the result of the actions and decisions of those involved in it – whether they run it; work for it; supply it or buy from it.

All of us can assert influence on the sustainability of business, through our buying decisions as consumers and by campaigning. Jared Diamond explored in depth how we can do so effectively in his book “Collapse“. But the role of the investment markets is also crucial.

In one sense, the markets are already playing a role: in a recent report, 53% of fund managers collectively responsible for $14 trillion of assets indicated that they had divested stocks, or chosen not to invest in stocks, due to concerns over the impact of climate change on the businesses concerned.

However, that is a negative, not a positive action. It is driven by the impact of climate change on business, not by the impact of business on climate change. To grossly generalise, whilst the CEOs of Tesco and Unilever, for example, are following Jared Diamond’s argument that sustainability is simply good, long-term business sense; by and large investors are largely ambivalent to this argument. They choose which companies to invest in based first and foremost on the prospect of their short-term financial returns.

So whatever motivations influence the CEOs of companies that manage the vast supply chains that play such a major role on our planet to adopt sustainability as a business objective, it is not to win short-term investment. It may be to appeal to consumer opinion; or it may be to attract investors who take a longer-view.

One thing is certain, though. Our world as a whole, and the cities in which life is concentrated, will not become socially and environmentally equitable and sustainable unless private businesses adopt sustainable strategies. So it is in all of our interests to encourage them to do so, whilst putting in place the governance to ensure that those strategies are carried out effectively.

5. Encouraging entrepreneurs everywhere

Smarter city services are innovations that change the relationships between the creation of social and financial value and the consumption of resources: they involve new ways of doing things; and they often depend on consumers choosing to buy different products or use different services than those that they are accustomed to.

Investing in a new product or service on the basis that consumers will change their behaviour in order to buy or use it is a risky business. Too risky, in many cases, for traditional institutions.

In the developed world, public sector finances are under extreme pressure. Economic growth is slow, so tax returns are stagnant. Populations are, on the whole, growing older, and requiring increased levels of healthcare. So public sector has little ability to make risky investments.

But the private sector is also under pressure. The same slow economic growth, coupled with competition from rapidly growing countries in emerging markets, means that money is short and the future is uncertain. Risky investments are unlikely here, too.

(The QR code that enabled Will Grant of Droplet to buy me a coffee at Innovation Birmingham using Droplet’s local smartphone payment solution, an example of a Smarter City service created by an entrepreneurial company.)

But some investors are seeking new investment opportunities, even risky ones – especially as the rate of return offered by many traditional forms of investment is so poor. One consequence is that many Smarter Cities services are delivered by entrepreneurial companies backed by venture capital. Examples include “Droplet“, a smartphone payment system operating in Birmingham and London; and Shutl, who provide a marketplace for home delivery services through a community of independent couriers in London.

However, many cities face a challenge in exploiting the ability of entrepreneurial businesses to deliver Smarter services.

Such businesses may be inherently risky; but those that succeed still do so by minimising risk wherever possible. One way to minimise the risk involved in any new business is to operate that business as closely as possible to its largest possible market. So entrepreneurial businesses that offer services to city ecosystems (as opposed to national or international customers) tend to start in and provide services to capital cities.

If cities that are not capitals wish to encourage this sort of entrepreneurial business, they will need to make themselves attractive in some other way: by offering tailored programmes of support (as IBM and Sunderland Software City are doing); by making available unique assets created by geography, culture or existing business clusters (such as the cluster of wireless technology companies in Cambridge); or by exploiting the strength of local teaching and research (as Birmingham are doing through institutions such as Birmingham Ormiston Academy and the Aston Engineering Academy; or as “Science Vale” has long done in Oxfordshire).

Entrepreneurial businesses can and will make a huge contribution to Smarter Cities; and those that succeed will eventually scale their businesses to cities across the world. But in order to benefit from their creativity early, cities that are not capitals will need to take action to attract and support them.

Evolution and revolution

As I remarked in my last article on this blog, “business as usual” will not deliver Smarter, sustainable cities. We would not be so collectively concerned with this subject otherwise. But while we will need new approaches, sometimes revolutionary ones; we are not entering wholly uncharted territory.

We will need new cross-city collaborations; but the idea of such collaborations is not new. The collaboration that submitted Peterborough’s short-listed proposal for the Technology Strategy Board’s Future Cities Demonstrator has its origins in the Greater Peterborough Partnership which was formed in 1994, for example.

Social enterprises and sustainable business models are hardly new, either – co-operative businesses have existing for centuries, and IBM, Sony and Cadbury are just three examples of private businesses started 50 to 100 years ago by Quakers with a strong sense of civic and community duty.

So whilst change is required, we are not entering the unknown. Our challenge is rather to realise that there is no single approach that can be adopted in all circumstances. All of the approaches I’ve described in this article – and doubtless others too – will be needed. But not all of them will be popular all of the time.

No-one is going to pay cities to become Smarter

(The Bristol Pound, a local currency intended to encourage and reinforce local trading synergies.)

It’s been a busy week for cities in the UK; and we should draw important insights from its events.

On Monday, the Technology Strategy Board (TSB); Department of Business, Innovation and Skills; and the British Standards Institution were the sponsors of a meeting in London to establish a UK “Future Cities Network”. One of their objectives was to build a consensus from the UK to contribute to the City Protocol initiative launched at the Smart City Expo in Barcelona this month.

Wednesday and Thursday saw the society of IT managers in local government (SOCITM) hold its annual conference in Birmingham. This community includes the technology leaders of the UK’s city authorities; many of them are driving the transformation to shared public services in their regions; and exploring the opportunities this transformation provides to improve service quality and outcomes, as well as reducing costs.

Finally, it’s been a week of mixed news for Future Cities: the Technology Strategy Board shortlisted 4 UK cities as the finalists in their competition to host a £25 million “Future Cities Demonstrator” project.

This is clearly fantastic news for the cities concerned – London, Glasgow, Peterborough and Bristol – and they should be congratulated for their achievement. But it also means that 22 other cities who submitted proposals to the TSB have learned over the past two days that they will not benefit from this investment.

Whilst the TSB’s competition – and their progress in setting up the related “Future Cities Catapult Centre” – have been great catalysts to encourage cities in the UK to shape their thinking about the future, the decisions this week throw the real challenge they face into sharp focus:

No-one is going to pay cities to become Smarter.

The TSB investment of £25 million is astonishingly generous; but it will nevertheless be only a small contribution to the city that receives it; and the role of innovation stimulus organisations such as the TSB and the European Union’s FP7 programme is only to fund the first, exploratory initiatives; not to support their widespread adoption by cities everywhere.

The UK government’s “City Deals” are a great innovation that will give cities more autonomy over taxation and spending. But in reality they will not provide significant sums of new money; especially when compared to the scale of the financial challenge city authorities face. As the Local Government Association commented in their report “Funding outlook for councils from 2010/11 to 2019/20“:

“… councils will not be able to deliver the existing service offer by the end of this decade. Fundamental change is needed to one or both of … the way local services are funded and organised [or the] statutory and citizen expectations of what councils will provide.”

(A station on London’s Underground railway under construction in 1861, from the Science and Society Picture Library)

Some of these changes will be achieved through public sector transformation. The London Borough of Newham, for example, were recognised at the SOCITM Awards Dinner this week for their achievements in reducing costs and improving service quality through implementation of a successful transformation to online channels for many services.

This is a remarkable achievement for an authority serving one of London’s least affluent boroughs, demanding careful and innovative thinking about the provision of digital services to communities and citizens who may not have access to broadband connectivity or traditional computers. Newham have concentrated on the delivery of services through mobile telephones – which are much more widely owned than PCs and laptops – and  in contexts where a friend or family member assists the ultimate service user.

But local authority transformations of this sort won’t create intelligent transport solutions; or trigger a transformation to renewable energy sources; or improve the resilience of food supply to city populations.

In the UK, many of those services are supported by physical infrastructures that were first constructed in the Victorian era, more than a century ago. Through pride and vision – and the determination to out-do each other – the industrialists, engineers and philanthropists who created those infrastructures dramatically over-engineered them. We are now using them to support many times the population that existed when they were designed and built.

As competition for resources such as food, energy and water intensifies, driven by both a growing global population and by rapid improvements in living standards in emerging economies, these infrastructures will increasingly struggle to support us at the cost, and with the level of resilience, that we have become accustomed to. And whilst they are now often owned and operated by private sector organisations, or by public-private partnerships, the private sector is in no better position to address the challenges faced by cities than the public sector.

In the recent recession and the current slow recovery from it, many companies have failed, lost business, and reduced their workforce. And as the Guardian reported this week, whilst many business leaders take sustainability seriously and attempt to build it into their business models, the financial markets do not recognise those objectives in share prices; and do not offer investment vehicles that support them.

So if government and the financial markets can’t or won’t pay cities to become smarter, how are we going to re-engineer city infrastructures to be more intelligent and sustainable?

In my view, the key is to look at four ways in which money is already spent; and to harness that spending power to achieve the outcomes that cities need.

1. Encourage Venture Capital Investment

(Photo of the “Container City” incubation hub for social enterprises operated by Sustainable Enterprise Strategies in Sunderland)

The current economic climate has not stopped investors and venture capitalists from investing in exciting new businesses. Some of the businesses they are investing in are using technology to offer innovative services in cities. For example, Shutl and Carbon Voyage both use recently emerged technologies to match capacity and demand across networks of transport suppliers.

The systems that these businesses operate have the potential to catalyse local economic trading opportunities – and in so doing, safeguard or create jobs; to lower the carbon footprint of travel and distribution within cities; and to offer new and valuable services to city residents, workers and visitors.

Several cities, including Dublin and Sunderland, are engaged in an ongoing conversation with their local community of technology, business and social entrepreneurs to encourage and support them in developing new, sustainable business models of this sort that promote the social, environmental and economic objectives of the city.

These investments are not on the scale of the tens or hundreds of millions of pounds that would be required to completely overhaul city infrastructures; but they are complemented by the revenues the businesses earn. In this way, consumer, retail and business spending can be harnessed to contribute to the evolution of Smarter Cities.

2. Build Markets, not Infrastructure

Transport is an example of a city system that is not usually considered a marketplace; that’s one of the reasons why the entrepreneurial businesses that I mentioned in the previous section, which effectively create new markets for transport capacity, are so innovative.

But some city systems  already operate as marketplaces; such as energy in the UK, where consumers are free to switch between providers relatively easily. The fact that city infrastructures are already market-like to a degree is combining with trends in engineering to create exciting new developments.

As both international and national policies to encourage sustainable energy generation and use take effect; and as some fossil fuels become scarcer or more expensive, new power generation capacity is increasingly based on renewable energy sources such as wind, hydro-electric, tidal, geo-thermal and biological sources.

A challenge associated with some of those energy sources is that their generating capacity is small compared to their cost and physical impact. Wind farms, for example, take up vastly more space than gas- and coal-powered energy generation facilities, and produce only a fraction of their output.

(Photo by Greg Marshall of the rocks known as “The Needles” just off the coast of the Isle of Wight; illustrating the potential for the island to exploit wave and tidal energy sources)

However, for other power sources, a reduction in scale could be an advantage. The European Bioenergy Research Institute (EBRI) at Aston University in Birmingham, for example, exploit technologies that can recover energy from sewage and food waste. Those technologies can already be implemented on a small-enough scale that the city of Birmingham is setting up a local power distribution company to exploit a bio-energy power generation plant that EBRI will operate at Aston University. And the New Optimists, a community of scientists and industry leaders in Birmingham are considering on Birmingham’s behalf the possibility that such generation technology could eventually operate in city neighbourhoods and communities, or even within individual residences.

For all of these reasons, there is considerable interest at present in the formation of new, localised marketplaces in power generation and consumption. Ecoisland, a community initiative on the Isle of Wight, is perhaps at the forefront of this movement. Their objective is to make the Isle of Wight self-sufficient in energy; because their approach to meeting that objective is to form a new market, they are winning considerable investment from the financial markets due to the profit-making potential of that market.

3. Procure Infrastructure Smartly

City Authorities and property developers spend substantial sums of money on city infrastructures and related services. But the requirements and scoring systems of those procurements are often very traditional, and create no incentive for the providers of infrastructure services to offer innovative solutions.

Some flagship projects – such as Stockholm’s congestion-charging scheme and the smart metering programme in Dubuque, for example – have shown the tremendous potential of “Smarter” solutions. But their effectiveness is to some degree specific to their local context; relatively high levels of taxation are acceptable in Scandinavian society, for example, in return for high quality public service outcomes. Such levels of taxation are not so acceptable elsewhere.

There is tremendous scope for more creative and innovative approaches to procurement of city services to encourage service providers to offer “Smarter” solutions; Birmingham Science City’s Jackie Homan describred some of those possibilities very eloquently recently. The more urgently city authorities adopt those approaches, the sooner they are likely to benefit from the innovation that their infrastructure partners have the potential to provide.

(The Olympic flame at Vancouver’s Winter Olympics photographed by Evan Leeson)

4. Work With Ethical Investors

Finally, notwithstanding the challenges described in the Guardian article that I linked to above, some financial institutions do offer support for “Smart” and sustainable initiatives.

Vancouver’s “Change Everything” online community, for example, was an early pioneer in exploiting the power of social media to support social and environmental initiatives; it was created by Vancouver’s Credit Union, Vancity, a financial institution with social objectives.

Similarly, Sustainable Enterprise Strategies, who provide crucial support and incubation services to businesses and social enterprises in the most challenged communities in Sunderland, are supported by the UK’s Co-Operative Bank; and IBM and Citi-Group have collaborated to create a financing solution for city’s to invest in Streetline’s “Smart Parking” solution, which has reduced both traffic congestion and environmental pollution in cities such as San Francisco.

These are just some of the ways in which financial institutions have already been engaged to support Smarter Cities initiatives. They can surely be persuaded to do so more extensively by proposals that may have social or environmental objectives, but that are also well-formed from a financial perspective.

“The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed”

All of the initiatives that I’ve described in this article are are already under way. As the science fiction author William Gibson memorably said – in what is now the last century – “the future is already here; it’s just not evenly distributed”.

We should not wait for new, large-scale sources of Smarter City funding to appear before we start to transform our cities – we cannot afford to; and it’s simply not going to happen. What we must do is look at the progress that is already being made by cities, entrepreneurs and communities across the world, and follow their example.

Ten ways to pay for a Smarter City (part two)

(Photo of the Brixton Pound by Charlie Waterhouse)

As I wrote recently, cities across the world are pursuing Smarter City strategies for common reasons including demographics, economics and the environment; but they start in very different social, financial and organisational positions. So there is a need to consider a variety of mechanisms when looking for the financial means to support those strategies.

Last week I discussed five ways in which cities can finance Smarter initiatives; they included tried-and-tested sources such as research grants, and more exploratory ideas such as sponsorship. In this post I’ll consider five more.

6. Approach ethical investment funds, values-led banks and national lotteries

Whilst the current state of the global economy has focused attention on the monetary aspects of our financial systems, in the context of Smarter Cities it is important to note that amongst the great variety of investment instruments are some which have social and environmental objectives.

I was honoured last week to attend the official opening of Sunderland’s new business support facility for social enterprises, Container City, operated by Sustainable Enterprise Strategies (SES). The centre, fabricated from 37 re-conditioned and adapted shipping containers, provides a new basis from which SES can support the hundreds of social enterprises and traditional businesses that they help to start and operate each year; and who provide services and employment in some of the city’s most disadvantaged areas.

Several of these organisations use emerging technologies in innovative ways to promote social outcomes in the city – such as Play Fitness whose “Race Fitness” product uses gamification to encourage children from deprived communities to engage in fitness and wellbeing; or See Detail who provide employment opportunities in software testing for people on the Autistic spectrum. I’ve argued before that this sort of innovation in communities can be a powerful force for making cities Smarter.

SES are supported by a variety of means, including financial institutions with mutual status, and funding programmes aimed specifically at encouraging social enterprise. The UK’s National Lottery provides one such programme, the “Big Lottery Fund“, which aims to support community groups and projects that improve health, education and the environment.

These sort of schemes operate in many countries, in addition to the ethical investment funds available in international markets. Community Interest Companies are another example of the new forms of organisation that are emerging to take advantage of them. Credit Unions and other forms of mutually owned or locally focussed financial institutions exist across the world; and the Global Alliance for Banking on Values recently issued a report stating that what it calls “sustainable banks” are outperforming their mainstream counterparts.

Such organisations will often demand a financial return in addition to social and environmental outcomes; but well-formed investment proposals for Smarter initiatives should be capable of meeting those objectives.

7. Make procurement Smarter

(Photo of a smart parking meter in San Francisco by Jun Seita)

Cities already spend hundreds of millions to billions of Pounds, Euros and Dollars each year operating city systems; and buying products, materials and services to support them. The scoring criteria in those procurements can be a powerful tool to create smarter cities.

Systems such as utilities, transport and maintenance of the environment are often contracted out to the private sector. If procurement criteria for those contracts are specified using traditional measures for the provision and cost of capability, then suppliers will likely offer traditional solutions and services. However, if procurements specify requirements for outcomes and innovation in line with a Smarter City strategy, then suppliers may offer more creative approaches.

Cities could specifically procure Smarter systems such as smart meters for water and power; or they could specify outcome-based procurement criteria such as lowering congestion or carbon impact in traffic systems; or they could formulate more open criteria to incent innovation and creativity. Jackie Homan of Birmingham Science City recently wrote a great article describing how some of those ideas are being explored in Birmingham and Europe.

8. Use legitimate state aid

A significant component of many Smarter City strategies is to stimulate economic and social growth in the less economically active areas of cities. Such initiatives often run into a “chicken-and-egg” or “bootstrapping” problem: new businesses need infrastructures such as broadband connectivity to start and succeed; but until an area has significant business demand, network providers won’t invest in deploying them.

Birmingham and Sunderland have both addressed this problem recently, winning exemptions from or avoiding conflict with European Union “State Aid” legislation to secure city-wide broadband deployments.

It’s important to make sure that such infrastructures are accessible. In the same way that a new city highway can divide the communities it passes through rather than linking them, it is important that new technology infrastructures are designed in consultation with local businesses and communities in order to provide capabilities they really need, through commercial models that they can afford to use.

Tax increment financing, which allows government bodies to use projected future increases in tax and business rates returns to justify investment in redevelopment, infrastructure, and other community-improvement projects, is another mechanism that can be used in this way. In the UK, the national government is undertaking an important extension of this thinking by agreeing a set of individual “City Deals” with cities such as Leeds and Birmingham, giving them new autonomous powers over local taxation and investment.

(Developers at City Camp Brighton explore ways in which collaboration and web technologies can contribute to the city’s future. Photo by Richard Stubbs)

9. Encourage Open Data and Hacktivism

Communities can bring great passion and resources to bear in finding new ways for their cities to work. In the domain of technology, this is exemplified in the phenomenon of “Hacktivism” in which volunteers lend their time and expertise to create new urban applications.

As I’ve discussed before, when this willingness to contribute is combined with the movement to Open Data and the transformation underway to regional shared services in public sector, powerful forces can be unleashed.

Code for America have championed this agenda in the United States, and this year Code4Europe was launched to promote a similar level of engagement in Europe.

There are limits to what can be achieved for free. But in my view great potential exists, particularly if City authorities can work in partnership with these movements to provide secure, scalable, open technology infrastructures that they can exploit.

However unfamiliar the produce, markets still need physical, infromation and governance infrastructure

10. Create new markets

For a long time I’ve considered that we should conceive of the platforms that support Smarter Cities not just as technology infrastructures, but as marketplaces – i.e. systems of transactions that take place on those new infrastructures. Marketplaces create money-flows; and marketplace operators can extract revenues from those flows which in return create the case for investing in the marketplace infrastructure in the first place. Further; by opening up the marketplace infrastructure to innovative local service providers, unforeseen new Smarter systems can be created.

There are many examples of new markets that use technologies such as social media and analytics to identify parties between which new transactions can be performed; and that then provide the infrastructure and governance to carry out those transactions. Craig’s List and E-Bay are well-known general marketplaces; whilst Freecycle specialises in the free distribution of unwanted items for re-use in communities. Zopa and Prosper apply these ideas to peer-to-peer lending and investment.

Similar markets with specific relevance to city systems are emerging. Streetline offer a Smarter Parking solution which could be viewed as a marketplace in parking spaces; and Carbon Voyage‘s system for sharing taxis can be seen as a marketplace for journeys. I’ve explored other examples of local, marketplace-based business models in food and energy in previous articles on this blog; and discussed some of the local currency and trading systems emerging to support them.

What these examples have in common is that they are independent businesses or social enterprises who are winning backing from investors because they have the potential to generate revenue. As I argued in the case of Open Data and Hacktivism above, if cities can find ways to support such innovative businesses, they’ll find another community that is able to help them achieve a Smarter City transformation.

The buck doesn’t stop here

The ideas for funding Smarter Cities that I’ve discussed over the last two weeks are certainly not exhaustive; and as a technologist rather than an economist or financier I certainly don’t consider them definitive.

But hopefully I’ve provided enough examples in support of them to demonstrate that they are realistic approaches with the potential to be re-used. I certainly expect to see them all play a role in financing the transition to the cities of the future.

Ten ways to pay for a Smarter City (part one)

Birmingham’s striking new Library, which will open in 2013, is one example of the regeneration projects currently underway in cities despite the challenging economic climate.

I’ve been meeting frequently of late with academic, public sector and private sector partners in city systems to explore the ways in which Smarter City initiatives are funded. Whilst many such programmes are underway, it is still the case that individual cities starting on this path find that it can take considerable time to identify and secure funds.

The ultimate stakeholder in Smarter City initiatives is often a local authority – they alone have the responsibility to ensure the functioning and success of a city as a whole. But whilst some reports show that private sector sentiment is finally improving following the 2008 crash, public sector – and in particular, local government – is still in the grasp of an unprecedented squeeze in funding. So where can city authorities look for the – sometimes substantial – funds needed to support Smarter City initiatives?

Up to now, a great many Smarter City initiatives have been funded at least in part by research grants. By their nature, these will only fund the first projects to explore Smarter City concepts – they will not scale to support the mass adoption of proven ideas. So we need to consider how they are used alongside other sources of funding.

In this post I’ll describe the first five of ten ways that Smarter City initiatives can be funded, including but not limited to research grants. None of them are silver bullets; but they all represent realistic ways to start paying for cities to become Smarter. I’ll describe another five in a follow-up post next week.

The UK Technology Strategy Board’s “Creative Industries Knowledge Transfer Network” (who took this photo) brings innovators in cities together to create new ideas.

1. Apply for research grants to support new Smarter City ideas

Whilst research funding will not pay for widespread adoption of proven Smarter City ideas, it will still support the search for new ideas. And we have certainly not exhausted the supply of ideas – far from it. In the UK, the Technology Strategy Board’s award of thirty £50,000 grants to perform “Future City” feasibility studies has kick-started a frenzy of activity. Just one of the thirty cities awarded these grants will be chosen to receive £24 million to support a demonstrator project; but many of the others will use the results of their feasibility studies to seek independent funds to move ahead.

The European Union recently launched an Innovation Partnership for Smart Cities and Communities that is expected to provide €365 million to support projects demonstrating innovative urban technology systems; and many funding programmes that are not labelled “Smart” or “City” are nevertheless relevant to Smarter Cities – such as the Technology Strategy Board’s “Innovating in the Cloud” funding competition or the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council’s “Research in the Wild” programme.

From social science to sustainability to healthcare to transport and buildings, many research agendas are relevant to creating the cities of the future; and new, well-formed ideas can always seek support from the relevant funding organisations. In this context, it’s not surprising that we’re seeing ever-closer links being forged between cities and the Universities that are located in them.

2. Exploit the information-sharing potential of shared service platforms

City and regional authority finances are under unprecedented pressure from the acute financial situation and expected demographic changes. In the developed world, we are getting older, and more people who have retired from work need the support of less people who are still working and paying taxes; and in emerging economies, urban populations are growing at a staggering rate.

In order to save money whilst maintaining vital services, local governments are increasingly sharing the delivery of support services such as finance, HR and IT; saving money – and reducing staff – in those functions in order to preserve the delivery of frontline services such as education and social care. It is difficult to overstate the significance of these changes; in the UK, for example, it is expected that nearly 900,000 public sector workers – 3% of the entire national workforce – will lose their jobs over the next five years as a result. Whilst specific characteristics vary from place to place, similar trends are visible across the world.

One outcome of these changes is that shared IT platforms are increasingly in place in cities and regions to support shared services. Those platforms now host co-located, multi-agency data. Cities such as Plymouth, Dublin and Sunderland are starting to explore the benefits that might be realised from that data. In Sunderland, the CEO and CIO have both spoken extensively about the opportunities they see to transform the city and services within it using their City Cloud platform. The East Riding of Yorkshire has been sharing services between agencies for some time, and has reported their achievements in addressing Child Poverty through improving cross-agency information sharing as a result.

These examples all show that whilst the current acceleration of shared services in cities and regions has its origins in adversity, it nevertheless offers the potential to support some positive outcomes too.

3. Find and support hidden local innovations

(Photograph by Meshed Media of Birmingham’s Social Media Cafe, where individuals from every part of the city who have connected online meet face-to-face to discuss their shared interest in social media.)

City populations are not passive observers to the Smarter City phenomenon. They may be crowd-sourcing mapping information for OpenStreetMap; running or participating in hacking events such as the forthcoming Government Open Hackday in Birmingham; or they may be creating new social enterprises or regional technology startups, such as the many city currencies and trading schemes that are appearing. Simply running social media surgeries as Podnosh do in Birmingham, can have a powerful effect on local communities by helping them exploit social technology to uncover hidden synergies and connections.

Individual officers in many councils work very positively with these community innovators. But substantial formal relationships can be impeded by the complexity of public sector procurement regimes which are simply too expensive and time-consuming for very small organizations to engage with. By simplifying procurement practices – or even by being transparent about the level of purchase below which competitive procurement does not apply – the level of engagement between city authorities and these communities could be increased. Bridging organisations can also play a positive role here, such as Sustainable Enterprise Strategies (SES) in Sunderland. SES provide support to the local social enterprise community and act as a link between that community and the City Council.

Local entrepreneurs and innovators often have limited resources. On their own, they are unlikely to implement such Smarter City infrastructures as energy grids or real-time transport information systems, for example. But collectively, their ideas could contribute significantly to the business case for a local authority to invest in such infrastructures. By engaging with this community extensively, a portfolio of potential innovations and outcomes can be created to demonstrate the value of such investments. By drawing on the collective creative energies of the city in this way, that portfolio is likely to contain many more ideas than could be obtained from central agencies alone.

4. Explore the cost-saving potential of Smarter technologies

At the heart of Smarter Cities is the idea that information integration and analytic technologies allow better, more forward looking decisions to be taken within cities; with the potential both to improve outcomes and to reduce costs. Whereas the desired outcomes may be citywide and social or environmental in nature rather than directly financial, many case studies show that short-term cost reductions can also be achieved within a single investing organisation. These cost reductions, of course, can then be the basis of an investment case – as they were for Sunderland’s City Cloud.

The London Borough of Brent in the UK, for example, realised significant cost savings by reducing error and fraud using such technologies, as did Alameda County in the US, who also identified new revenue opportunities (see this case study and this video).

As I dicussed in an earlier blog post exploring this topic, if these technologies are deployed on the shared IT platforms described above, then once in place they can be re-used for other purposes. This might lower the cost of deploying subsequent solutions elsewhere in city systems, such as traffic prediction for commuters in order to reduce the congestion that lowers economic productivity and job creation in cities; or predictive analytics to enable preventative approaches to social care, as demonstrated by Medway Youth Trust.

5. Could Smarter Cities be sponsored?

The Miami Dolphin’s Sun Life Stadium photographed by Bob Brown

In recent times we have become used to the idea that sports stadiums take their names from sponsors who fund the teams that own them, such as Arsenal Football Club’s Emirates Stadium. Such facilities are cities in microcosm in many respects, operating their own power, transport, safety and other systems analogous to those found in cities. Some, such as the Miami Dolphin’s Sun Life Stadium are already transforming those systems to become Smarter Stadiums.

Other facilities such as ports, airports, industrial plants, shopping malls and University campuses can be considered “micro-cities” in a similar way; and as I have commented before some of these are large enough that transforming their systems can make a significant contribution to transforming the cities in which they are based.

Could the concept of sponsorship be extended beyond sports stadiums? It has certainly been applied to entertainment facilities such as the O² Arena; and many airports have changed their names for marketing and branding purposes. 

I don’t expect we’ll see a city renamed by a corporate sponsor anytime soon, and novels such as Max Barry’s “Jennifer Government” and Rupert Thomson’s “Soft” have cautioned against such ideas. As past controversies around privatisation and commercialisation in areas of education and the justice system suggest, there are certainly city systems for which this idea could be challenging or simply inappropriate. But with cities increasingly conscious of the value of their brands in attracting investment and business, and with local employers conscious of the need for cities to seem attractive to the skilled people they need to employ, the possibilities for sponsorship to support some form of investment in appropriate Smarter City systems or facilities – especially those that are already private sector components of the city ecosystem – could be worth considering.

Funding the Smarter City roadmap

It’s very unlikely that any of the ideas I’ve discussed here will fund an entire Smarter City transformation, of course. But they are all realistic possibilities to fund elements of such a transformation. The challenge for cities is for their stakeholders to come together and agree how they will collectively exploit all of these ideas – and more – in funding the elements of a programme that they agree to undertake together.

Next week I’ll continue this discussion by exploring five more ways for cities to fund and support Smarter initiatives.

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