Inspirational Simpli-City

(Recycling bins in Curitiba, Brazil photographed by Ana Elisa Ribeiro)

In the past few years, terms such as “Smart Cities” and “Future Cities” have emerged to capture the widespread sense that the current decade is one in which trends in technology, the economy, demographics and the environment are coinciding in an exciting and meaningful way.

Common patterns have emerged in the technology platforms that enable us to address these economic, social and environmental challenges. For example, the “Digital Cities Exchange” research programme at Imperial College, London; the “FI-WARE” project researching the core platform for the “future internet”; the “European Platform for Intelligent Cities (EPIC)“; and IBM’s own “Intelligent Operations Centre” all share a similar architecture.

I think of these platforms as 21st Century “civic infrastructures”. They will provide services that can be composed into new city systems and local marketplaces. Those services will include the management of personal data and identity; authentication; local currencies; micro-payments; and the ability to access data about city systems, amongst others.

But whilst some trends in technology are technically cohesive and can be defined by a particular architecture – as was the case for client/server computing, distributed computing, the initial emergence of the mobile internet, or Service-Oriented Architecture (SOA) – other trends are more nebulous.

Five years ago, my role for IBM was to develop and evangelise the opportunities that social computing  and “Web 2.0” represented for our customers. Whilst various patterns emerged to express the ways in which technology at that time could provide new value to businesses, communities and individuals, no single technology or platform accompanied the trend. Rather, “Web 2.0” was the label for a period in time in which the internet and related technologies once again became a valuable source of innovation following the “dot.com crash”. Tim O’Reilly, widely credited with coining the term “Web 2.0”, acknowledged this interpretation in his “How to succeed in 2007” interview with CNN.

Cities are such complex systems of systems, and face such a multitude of challenges in a rich variety of contexts, that no single technology solution could possibly address them all. In fact an incredibly rich variety of technologies has already been used to create “Smart” systems in cities. But whilst I’m preparing an article that I hope to publish on this blog next week that lays out a framework for considering those technologies systematically, there’s a more fundamental observation that’s worth making:

Some of the technologies at the heart of urban innovations are incredibly simple.

15 years ago, I lived through the transformation of a city neighbourhood that illustrates this point. It involved community activism and crowdsourced information, enabled by an accessible technology – analogue photography.

As a University student in Birmingham, I lived in rented accommodation in the city’s Balsall Heath area. Balsall Heath has one of Birmingham’s largest Muslim communities, in addition to its substantial student population.

And, for the best part of half a century from the 1950s to the 1990s, it was Birmingham’s “red light” district, the centre of prostitution in the city.

At the time, Balsall Heath’s prostitution trade was so open that Cheddar Road – just across the street from the house that I lived in – was the only road in the UK with houses with “red light” front rooms.

Balsall Heath was clearly a district with substantial differences in culture – which were accommodated very peacefully, I should say. But in 1994, members of the Muslim community decided to change their neighbourhood. They put out old sofas and chairs on street corners, and sat on them each night, photographing anyone walking or driving around the area seeking prostitutes. Those simple steps tapped into the social motivations of those people and had a powerfully discouraging effect on them. Over the course of a year, prostitution was driven out of Balsall Heath for the first time in 50 years. It has never returned, and the district and its communities were strengthened as a result. The UK Prime Minister David Cameron has referred to the achievements of Balsall Heath’s community as an inspiration for his “Big Society” initiative.

I have just given a very simplified description of a complex set of events and issues; and in particular, I did not include the perspective of the working women who were perhaps the most vulnerable people involved. But this example of a simple technology (analogue photography) applied by a community to improve their district, with an understanding of the personal and social motivations that affect individual behaviour and choice, is an example that I have been regularly reminded of throughout my work in social media and Smarter Cities.

(Photo from Digital Balsall Heath of residents warning kerb-crawlers on Cheddar Road in the 1990s that they would be watched and recorded)

The city systems facing economic, demographic and environmental challenges today are immensely complex. They provide life-support for city populations – feeding, transporting, and educating them; providing healthcare; and supporting individuals, communities and businesses. As we continue to optimise their operation to support larger, more dense urban populations, maintaining their resilience is a significant challenge.

At the same time, though, the simplicity of Balsall Heath’s community action in the 1990s is inspirational; and there are many other examples.

Jaime Lerner started one of the earliest and most effective city recycling programmes in the world by harnessing the enthusiasm of children to influence the behaviour of their parents. In Mexico City a new “bartering market” allows residents to exchange recyclable waste material for food. In Kenya, SMS messages are used to optimise the distribution of malaria medication between local pharmacists; and in Australia, OzHarvest redistribute excess food from restaurants and hotels to charities supporting the vulnerable.

These innovations will not always be simply transferable from one city to another; but they could form the basis of a catalogue or toolkit of re-usable ideas, as was suggested by the Collective Research Initiatives Trust (CRIT) in their research on urban innovation in Mumbai, “Being Nicely Messy“, echoing Colin Rowe and Fred Koetter’s “Collage City“.

As I wrote recently in the article “Zen and the art of messy urbanism“, many of the Smart systems of tomorrow will be surprising innovations that cut across and disrupt the industry sectors and classifications of city systems that we understand today; and in order to provide food, energy, water, transport and other services to city populations, they will need to be robustly engineered. But drawing inspiration from good, simple ideas with their roots in human behaviour rather than new technology is surely a good starting point from which to begin our journey towards discovering them.

Looking forward to December’s Birmingham Science City Digital Working Group

(Millenium Point, home of Birmingham’s Science Museum and Birmingham City University’s Technology Innovation Centre, photographed by Martin Hartland)

Back in September, we held the last meeting of the Birmingham Science City Digital Working Group – my first meeting as chair. We were joined by many enthusiastic representatives of Birmingham and the region’s digital community – entrepreneurs, small businesses, industry interest groups, universities and companies.

We had a thought provoking discussion of how the Digital Working Group can continue to be a valued forum and a catalyst for its members to share insight, create new ideas, and discover new opportunities in the digital economy; contributing to and benefitting from the Birmingham Science City objectives to create “scientific, technological and economic advantage for wealth, opportunity and worth”. In such a challenging economy, with funding for innovation and enterprise in short supply, such exchanges can stimulate new activity by increasing awareness of the resources that are nevertheless available.

The consensus we seemed to reach was that the working group could do that by:

  • Bringing together stakeholders from our digital community who are aware of problems and challenges, and those who may be aware of solutions;
  • Focussing on emerging opportunities for technology to contribute to Birmingham Science City’s economic and social objectives, but for which the business models are not yet clear;
  • Using social media between meetings to explore specific topics within those broad criteria so that each face-to-face meeting has a clear agreed agenda beforehand;
  • And continuing to use the group to provide updates between members, and in particular an update on current opportunities to access funds and resources.

As an example of the sorts of disruptive emerging technologies we might like to consider for our focuses, I found a couple of short videos interesting recently. The first, from the Financial Times, focuses on three small businesses in Shoreditch who are combining information technology, social media and advanced manufacturing in what the FT called “Industry 2.0”; a good example of the disruptive opportunities that are created when capabilities from different sectors are converged. The second is this presentation of an idea called “being nicely messy” presented by the Collaborative Research Initiatives Trust (CRIT) to the Audi Urban Future Awards 2012; the idea tries to capture the way in which innovation emerges in unexpected forms from Mumbai’s economy and physical environment as entrepreneurs search for gaps and opportunities in the market and use whatever resources are available to them to respond. The full report of the project is worth a read, and contains these excerpts:

“New patterns of work emerged as the new entrepreneurs struggled to survive and settle. they occupied varied locations and blurred the distinction between formality and informality …

… the entrepreneurs of Mumbai have innovatively occupied city spaces maximizing their efficiency …

… the blurry / messy condition further contributes to the high transactional capacity of the urban form.”

These remarks emphasise to me the need for us to be very open in considering where innovation and opportunity might emerge from; and what form it might take. The markets, business models and technologies we know today are in many cases unrecognisable from the world of only a few years ago; we should expect any and all of our assumptions to be challenged by the innovations that emerge in the very near future.

With these thoughts and provocations in mind, I’m thinking of organising the agenda of our next meeting, which will be in early December, around the following topics:

  • Introduction and review of the last meeting
  • Update on innovation investment and support
    • An update on current trends in funding – e.g. from a local venture capitalist, or an update on tax credits for Research and Development from a Digital Working Group member
    • An update on funding and projects from Birmingham Science City
  • Introduction to the theme for the meeting
  • Provocation
    • An alternative viewpoint from Birmingham Science City – i.e. from somebody outside the usual Digital Working Group Community; and perhaps in this case from the Low Carbon Working Group, as discussed at our last meeting
  • Creative discussion:
    • How can Birmingham’s digital community exploit this theme, and how can the Digital Working Group help?
  • Next steps, and discussion of the agenda for the next meeting

(Matthew Boulton, James Watt and William Murdoch, Birmingham’s three fathers of the Industrial Revolution, photographed by Neil Howard)

So what should our “theme” be?

In our last meeting we agreed that the area of Low Carbon technology was an interesting one for us to explore; and there are already interesting initiatives underway in that area in Birmingham, such as the “Birmingham Energy Savers” project, and the European Bio-Energy Research Institute, who are seeking to establish a regional supply chain of SMEs to support their work to develop small-scale, sustainable technology for recovering energy from waste food and sewage.

So my suggested theme is:

“How can the Birmingham Science City Digital Working Group create or stimulate innovation using digital technology to contribute to a low carbon economy – whether in the transport and energy sectors or elsewhere?”

If the Digital Working Group is able to do that, it could help Birmingham’s economy access the investment resources available to support low carbon innovation; potentially assisting in the creation of jobs, as well as lowering the city’s carbon footprint and improving its physical environment.

This discussion, in fact, reminds me of some important statements in Birmingham Science City’s Constitution; the constitution states that Birmingham Science City should stimulate collaborative innovation in using science and technology to create wealth, opportunity and worth by:

“Developing activities that increase public appreciation of the application of Science & Technology and the economic, employment and quality of life benefits that it can bring.”

and:

“Encouraging collective maintenance and development of resources for innovation including finance and physical infrastructure.”

I’d like this suggestion to be the start of a discussion; hence I’m making it in this public forum, and posting links to it in several discussion groups on Linked-In as well as sending it to the Digital Working Group members by e-mail.

I look forward to hearing from the Digital Working Group members – or any other interested parties – for comments and feedback to my proposal for the next meeting.

Why Open City Data is the Brownfield Regeneration Challenge of the Information Age

(Graphic of New York’s ethnic diversity from Eric Fischer)

I often use this blog to explore ways in which technology can add value to city systems. In this article, I’m going to dig more deeply into my own professional expertise: the engineering of the platforms that make technology reliably available.

Many cities are considering how they can create a city-wide information platform. The potential benefits are considerable: Dublin’s “Dublinked” platform, for example, has stimulated the creation of new high-technology businesses, and is used by scientific researchers to examine ways in which the city’s systems can operate more efficiently and sustainably. And the announcements today by San Francisco that they are legislating to promote open data and have appointed a “Chief Data Officer” for the city are sure to add to the momentum.

But if cities such as Dublin, San Francisco and Chicago have found such platforms so useful, why aren’t there more of them already?

To answer that question, I’d like to start by setting an expectation:

City information platforms are not “new” systems; they are a brownfield regeneration challenge for technology.

Just as urban regenerations need to take account of the existing physical infrastructures such as buildings, transport and utility networks; when thinking about new city technology solutions we need to consider the information infrastructure that is already in place.

A typical city authority has many hundreds of IT systems and applications that store and manage data about their city and region. Private sector organisations who operate services such as buses, trains and power, or who simply own and operate buildings, have similarly large and complex portfolios of applications and data.

So in every city there are thousands – probably tens of thousands – of applications and data sources containing relevant information. (The Dublinked platform was launched in October 2011 with over 3,000 data sets covering the environment, planning, water and transport, for example). Only a very small fraction of those systems will have been designed with the purpose of making information available to and usable by city stakeholders; and they certainly will not have been designed to do so in a joined-up, consistent way.

(A map of the IT systems of a typical organisation, and the interconnections between then)

The picture to the left is a reproduction of a map of the IT systems of a real organisation, and the connections between them. Each block in the diagram represents a major business application that manages data; each line represents a connection between two or more such systems. Some of these individual systems will have involved hundreds of person-years of development over decades of time. Engineering the connections between them will also have involved significant effort and expense.

Whilst most organisations improve the management of their systems over time and sometimes achieve significant simplifications, by and large this picture is typical of the vast majority of organisations today, including those that support the operation of cities.

In the rest of this article, I’ll explore some of the specific challenges for city data and open data that result from this complexity.

My intention is not to argue against bringing city information together and making it available to communities, businesses and researchers. As I’ve frequently argued on this blog, I believe that doing so is a fundamental enabler to transforming the way that cities work to meet the very real social, economic and environmental challenges facing us. But unless we take a realistic, informed approach and undertake the required engineering diligence, we will not be successful in that endeavour.

1. Which data is useful?

Amongst those thousands of data sets that contain information about cities, on which should we concentrate the effort required to make them widely available and usable?

That’s a very hard question to answer. We are seeking innovative change in city systems, which by definition is unpredictable.

One answer is to look at what’s worked elsewhere. For example, wherever information about transport has been made open, applications have sprung up to make that information available to travellers and other transport users in useful ways. In fact most information that describes the urban environment is likely to quickly prove useful; including maps, land use characterisation, planning applications, and the locations of shops, parks, public toilets and other facilities .

The other datasets that will prove useful are less predictable; but there’s a very simple way to discover them: ask. Ask local entrepreneurs what information they need to start new businesses. Ask existing businesses what information about the city would help them be more successful. Ask citizens and communities.

This is the approach we have followed in Sunderland, and more recently in Birmingham through the Smart City Commission and the recent “Smart Hack” weekend. The Dublinked information partnership in Dublin also engages in consultation with city communities and stakeholders to prioritise the datasets that are made available through the platform. The Knight Foundation’s “Information Needs of Communities” report is an excellent explanation of the importance of taking this approach.

2. What data is available?

How do we know what information is contained in those hundreds or thousands of data sets? Many individual organisations find it difficult to “know what they know”; across an entire city the challenge is much harder.

Arguably, that challenge is greatest for local authorities: whilst every organisation is different, as a rule of thumb private sector companies tend to need tens to low hundreds of business systems to manage their customers, suppliers, products, services and operations. Local authorities, obliged by law to deliver hundreds or even thousands of individual services, usually operate systems numbering in the high hundreds or low thousands. The process of discovering, cataloguing and characterising information systems is time-consuming and hence potentially expensive.

The key to resolving the dilemma is an open catalogue which allows this information to be crowdsourced. Anyone who knows of or discovers a data source that is available, or that could be made available, and whose existence and contents are not sensitive, can document it. Correspondingly, anyone who has a need for data that they cannot find or use can document that too. Over time, a picture of the information that describes a city, including what data is available and what is not, will build up. It will not be a complete picture – certainly not initially; but this is a practically achievable way to create useful information.

3. What is the data about?

The content of most data stores is organised by a “key” – a code that indicates the subject of each element of data. That “key” might be a person, a location or an organisation. Unfortunately, all of those things are very difficult to identify correctly and in a way that will be universally understood.

For example, do the following pieces of information refer to the same people, places and organisations?

“Mr. John Jones, Davis and Smith Delicatessen, Harbourne, Birmingham”
“J A Jones, Davies and Smythe, Harborne, B17”
“The Manager, David and Smith Caterers, Birmingham B17”
“Mr. John A and Mrs Jane Elizabeth Jones, 14 Woodhill Crescent, Northfield, Birmingham”

This information is typical of what might be stored in a set of IT systems managing such city information as business rates, citizen information, and supplier details. As human beings we can guess that a Mr. John A Jones lives in Northfield with his wife Mrs. Jane Elizabeth Jones; and that he is the manager of a delicatessen called “Davis and Smith” in Harborne which offers catering services. But to derive that information we have had to interpret several different ways of writing the names of people and businesses; tolerate mistakes in spelling; and tolerate different semantic interpretations of the same entity (is “Davis and Smith” a “Delicatessen” or a “Caterer”? The answer depends on who is asking the question).

(Two views of Exhibition Road in London, which can be freely used by pedestrians, for driving and for parking; the top photograph is by Dave Patten. How should this area be classified? As a road, a car park, a bus-stop, a pavement, a park – or something else? My colleague Gary looks confused by the question in the bottom photograph!)

All of these challenges occur throughout the information stored in IT systems. Some technologies – such as “single view” – exist that are very good at matching the different formats of names, locations and other common pieces of information. In other cases, information that is stored in “codes” – such as “LHR” for “London Heathrow” and “BHX” for “Birmingham International Airport” can be decoded using a glossary or reference data.

Translating semantic meanings is more difficult. For example, is the A45 from Birmingham to Coventry a road that is useful for travelling between the two cities? Or a barrier that makes it difficult to walk from homes on one side of the road to shops on the other? In time semantic models of cities will develop to systematically reconcile such questions, but until they do, human intelligence and interpretation will be required.

4. Sometimes you don’t want to know what the data is about

Sometimes, as soon as you know what something is about, you need to forget that you know. I led a project last year that applied analytic technology to derive new insights from healthcare data. Such data is most useful when information from a variety of sources that relate to the same patient is aggregated together; to do that, the sort of matching I’ve just described is needed. But patient data is sensitive, of course; and in such scenarios patients’ identities should not be apparent to those using the data.

Techniques such as anonymisation and aggregation can be applied to address this requirement; but they need to be applied carefully in order to retain the value of data whilst ensuring that identities and other sensitive information are not inadvertently exposed.

For example, the following information contains an anonymised name and very little address information; but should still be enough for you to determine the identity of the subject:

Subject: 00764
Name: XY67 HHJK6UB
Address: SW1A
Profession: Leader of a political party

(Please submit your answers to me at @dr_rick on Twitter!)

This is a contrived example, but the risk is very real. I live on a road with about 100 houses. I know of one profession to which only two people who live on the road belong. One is a man and one is a woman. It would be very easy for me to identify them based on data which is “anonymised” naively. These issues become very, very serious when you consider that within the datasets we are considering there will be information that can reveal the home address of people who are now living separately from previously abusive partners, for example.

5. Data can be difficult to use

(How the OECD identified the “Top 250 ICT companies” in 2006)

There are many, many reasons why data can be difficult to use. Data contained within a table within a formatted report document is not much use to a programmer. A description of the location of a disabled toilet in a shop can only be used by someone who understands the language it is written in. Even clearly presented numerical values may be associated with complex caveats and conditions or expressed in quantities specific to particular domains of expertise.

For example, the following quote from a 2006 report on the global technology industry is only partly explained by the text box shown in the image on the left:

“In 2005, the top 250 ICT firms had total revenues of USD 3 000 billion”.

(Source: “Information Technology Outlook 2006“, OECD)

Technology can address some of these issues: it can extract information from written reports; transform information between formats; create structured information from written text; and even, to a degree, perform automatic translation between languages. But doing all of that requires effort; and in some cases human expertise will always be required.

In order for city information platforms to be truly useful to city communities, then some thought also needs to be given for how those communities will be offered support to understand and use that information.

6. Can I trust the data?

Several British banks have recently been fined hundreds of millions of dollars for falsely reporting the interest rates at which they are able to borrow money. This information, the “London InterBank Offered Rate” (LIBOR) is an example of open data. The Banks who have been fined were found to have under-reported the interest rate at which they were able to borrow – this made them appear more creditworthy than they actually were.

Such deliberate manipulation is just one of the many reasons we may have to doubt information. Who creates information? How qualified are they to provide accurate information? Who assesses that qualification and tests the accuracy of the information?

For example, every sensor which measures physical information incorporates some element of uncertainty and error. Location information derived from Smartphones is usually accurate to within a few meters when derived from GPS data; but only a few hundred meters when derived by triangulation between mobile transmission masts. That level of inaccuracy is tolerable if you want to know which city you are in; but not if you need to know where the nearest cashpoint is. (Taken to its extreme, this argument has its roots in “Noise Theory“, the behaviour of stochastic processes and ultimately Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle in Quantum Mechanics. Sometimes it’s useful to be a Physicist!).

Information also goes out of date very quickly. If roadworks are started at a busy intersection, how does that affect the route-calculation services that many of us depend on to identify the quickest way to get from one place to another? When such roadworks make bus stops inaccessible so that temporary stops are erected in their place, how is that information captured? In fact, this information is often not captured; and as a result, many city transport authorities do not know where all of their bus stops are currently located.

I have barely touched in this section on an enormously rich and complex subject. Suffice to say that determining the “trustability” of information in the broadest sense is an immense challenge.

7. Data is easy to lose

(A computer information failure in Las Vegas photographed by Dave Herholz)

Whenever you find that an office, hotel room, hospital appointment or seat on a train that you’ve reserved is double-booked you’ve experienced lost data. Someone made a reservation for you in a computer system; that data was lost; and so the same reservation was made available to someone else.

Some of the world’s most sophisticated and well-managed information systems lose data on occasion. That’s why we’re all familiar with it happening to us.

If cities are to offer information platforms that local people, communities and businesses come to depend on, then we need to accept that providing reliable information comes at a cost. This is one of the many reasons that I have argued in the past that “open data” is not the same thing as “free data”. If we want to build a profitable business model that relies on the availability of data, then we should expect to pay for the reliable supply of that data.

A Brownfield Regeneration for the Information Age

So if this is all so hard, should we simply give up?

Of course not; I don’t think so, anyway. In this article, I have described some very significant challenges that affect our ability to make city information openly available to those who may be able to use it. But we do not need to overcome all of those challenges at once.

Just as the physical regeneration of a city can be carried out as an evolution in dialogue and partnership with communities, as happened in Vancouver as part of the “Carbon Talks” programme, so can “information regeneration”. Engaging in such a dialogue yields insight into the innovations that are possible now; who will create them; what information and data they need to do so; and what social, environmental and financial value will be created as a result.

That last part is crucial. The financial value that results from such “Smarter City” innovations might not be our primary objective in this context – we are more likely to be concerned with economic, social and environmental outcomes; but it is precisely what is needed to support the financial investment required to overcome the challenges I have discussed in this article.

On a final note, it is obviously the case that I am employed by a company, IBM, which provides products and services that address those challenges. I hope that you have noticed that I have not mentioned a single one of those products or services by name in this article, nor provided any links to them. And whilst IBM are involved in some of the cities that I have mentioned, we are not involved in all of them.

I have written this article as a stakeholder in our cities – I live in one – and as an engineer; not as a salesman. I am absolutely convinced that making city information more widely available and usable is crucial to addressing what Professor Geoffrey West described as “the greatest challenges that the planet has faced since humans became social“. As a professional engineer of information systems I believe that we must be fully cognisant of the work involved in doing so properly; and as a practical optimist, I believe that it is possible to do so in affordable, manageable steps that create real value and the opportunity to change our cities for the better. I hope that I have managed to persuade you to agree.

Four avatars of the metropolis: technologies that will change our cities

(Photo of Chicago by Trey Ratcliff)

Many cities I work with are encouraging clusters of innovative, high-value, technology-based businesses to grow at the heart of their economies. They are looking to their Universities and technology partners to assist those clusters in identifying the emerging sciences and technologies that will disrupt existing industries and provide opportunities to break into new markets.

In advising customers and partners on this subject, I’ve found myself drawn to four themes. Each has the potential to cause significant disruptions, and to create opportunities that innovative businesses can exploit. Each one will also cause enormouse changes in our lives, and in the cities where most of us live and work.

The intelligent web

(Diagram of internet tags associated with “Trafalgar” and their connections relevant to the perception of London by visitors to the city by unclesond)

My colleague and friend Dr Phil Tetlow characterises the world wide web as the biggest socio-technical information-computing space that has ever been created; and he is not alone (I’ve paraphrased his words slightly, but I hope he’ll agree I’ve kept the spirit of them intact).

The sheer size and interconnected complexity of the web is remarkable. At the peak of “web 2.0” in 2007 more new information was created in one year than in the preceding 5000 years. More important, though, are the number and speed of  transactions that are processed through the web as people and automated systems use it to exchange information, and to buy and sell products and services.

Larger-scale emergent phenomena are already resulting from this mass of interactions. They include universal patterns in the networks of links that form between webpages; and the fact that the informal collective activity of “tagging” links on social bookmarking sites tends to result in relatively stable vocabularies that describe the content of the pages that are linked to.

New such phenomena of increasing complexity and significance will emerge as the ability of computers to understand and process information in the forms in which it is used by humans grows; and as that ability is integrated into real-world systems. For example, the IBM “Watson” computer that competed successfully against the human champions of the television quiz show “Jeopardy” is now being used to help healthcare professionals identify candidate diagnoses based on massive volumes of research literature that they don’t have the time to read. Some investment funds now use automated engines to make investment decisions by analysing sentiments expressed on Twitter; and many people believe that self-driving cars will become the norm in the future following the award of a driving license to a Google computer by the State of Nevada.

As these astonishing advances become entwined with the growth in the volume and richness of information on the web, the effects will be profound and unpredictable. The new academic discipline of “Web Science” attempts to understand the emergent phenomena that might arise from a human-computer information processing system of such unprecedented scale. Many believe that our own intelligence emerges from complex information flows within the brain; some researchers in web science are considering the possibility that intelligence in some form might emerge from the web, or from systems like it.

That may seem a leap too far; and for now, it probably is. But as cities such as Birmingham, Sunderland and Dublin pursue the “open data” agenda and make progress towards the ideal of an “urban observatory“, the quantity, scope and richness of the data available on the web concerning city systems will increase many-fold. At the same time, the ability of intelligent agents such as Apple’s “Siri” smartphone technology, and social recommendation (or “decision support”) engines such as FourSquare will evolve too. Indeed, the domain of Smarter Cities is in large part concerned with the application of intelligent analytic software to data from city systems. Between the web of information and analytic technologies that are available now, and the possibilities for emergent artificial intelligence in the future, there lies a rich seam of opportunity for innovative individuals, businesses and communities to exploit the intelligent analysis of city data.

Things that make themselves

(Photo of a structure created by a superparamagnetic fluid containing magnetic nanoparticles in suspension, by Steve Jurvetson)

Can you imagine downloading designs for chocolate, training shoes and toys and then making them in your own home, whenever you like? What if you could do that for prosthetic limbs or even weapons?

3D printing makes all of this possible today. While 3D printers are still complex and expensive, they are rapidly becoming cheaper and easier to use. In time, more and more of us will own and use them. My one-time colleague Ian Hughes has long been an advocate; and Staffordshire University make their 3D printer available to businesses for prototyping and exploratory use.

Their spread will have profound consequences. Gun laws currently control weapons which are relatively large and need to be kept somewhere; and which leave a unique signature on each bullet they fire. But if guns can be “printed” from downloadable designs whenever they are required  – and thrown away afterwards because they are so easy to replace – then forensics will rarely in future have the opportunity to match a bullet to a gun that has been fired before. Enforcement of gun ownership will require the restriction of access to digital descriptions of gun designs. The existing widespread piracy of music and films shows how hard it will be to do that.

3D printers, combined with technologies such as social media, smart materials, nano- and bio-technology and mass customisation, will create dramatic changes in the way that physical products are designed and manufactured – or even grown. For example CocoWorks, a collaboration involving Warwick University, uses a combination of social media and 3D printing to allow groups of friends to collectively design confectionery that they can then “print out” and eat.

These changes will have significant implications for city economies. The reduction in wage differentials between developed and emerging economies already means that in some cases it is more profitable to manufacture locally in rapid response to market demand than to manufacture globally at lowest cost. In the near-future technology advances will accelerate a convergence between the advanced manufacturing, design, communication and information technology industries that means that city economic strategies cannot afford to focus on any of them separately. Instead, they should look for new value at the evolving intersections between them.

Of mice, men and cyborgs

(Professor Kevin Warwick, who in 2002 embedded a silicon chip with 100 spiked electrodes directly into his nervous system. Photo by M1K3Y)

If the previous theme represents the convergence of the information world and products and materials in the physical world; then we should also consider convergence between the information world and living beings.

The “mouse” that defined computer usage from the 1980s through to the 2000s was the first widely successful innovation in human/computer interaction for decades; more recently, the touchscreen has once again made computing devices accessible or acceptable to new communities. I have seen many people who would never choose to use a laptop become inseparable from their iPads; and two-year-old children understand them instinctively. The world will change as these people interact with information in new ways.

More exciting human-computer interfaces are already here – Apple’s intelligent agent for smartphones, “Siri”; Birmingham City University’s MotivPro motion-capture and vibration suit; the Emotiv headset that measures thoughts and can interpret them; and Google’s augmented reality glasses.

Even these innovations have been surpassed by yet more intimate connections between ourselves and the information world. Professor Kevin Warwick at Reading University has pioneered the embedding of technology into the human body (his own body, to be precise) since 2002; and in the effort to create ever-smaller pilotless drone aircraft, control technology has been implanted into insects. There are immense ethical and legal challenges associated with these developments, of course. But it is certain that boundaries will crumble between the information that is processed on a silicon substrate; information that is processed by DNA; and the actions taken by living people and animals.

Historically, growth in Internet coverage and bandwidth and the progress of digitisation technology led to the disintermediation of value chains in industries such as retail, publishing and music. As evolving human/computer interfaces make it possible to digitise new aspects of experience and expression, we will see a continuing impact on the media, communication and information industries. But we will also see unexpected impacts on industries that we have assumed so far to be relatively immune to such disruptions: surgery, construction, waste management, landscape gardening and arbitration are a few that spring to mind as possibilities. (Google futurist Thomas Frey speculated along similar lines in his excellent article “55 Jobs of the Future“).

Early examples are already here, such as Paul Jenning’s work at Warwick University on the engineering of the emotional responses of drivers to the cars they are driving. Looking ahead, there is enormous scope amidst this convergence for the academic, entrepreneurial and technology partners within city ecosystems to collaborate to create valuable new ideas and businesses.

Bartering 2.0

(Photo of the Brixton Pound by Matt Brown)

Civilisation has grown through the specialisation of trades and the diversification of economies. Urbanisation is defined in part by these concepts. They are made possible by the use of money, which provides an abstract quantification of the value of diverse goods and services.

However, we are increasingly questioning whether this quantification is complete and accurate, particularly in accounting for the impact of goods and services on the environments and societies in which they are made and delivered.

Historically, money replaced bartering,  a negotiation of the comparative value of goods and services within an immediate personal context, as the means of quantifying transactions. The abstraction inherent in money dilutes some of the values central to the bartering process. The growing availability of alternatives to traditional bartering and money is making us more conscious of those shortcomings and trade-offs.

Social media, which enables us to make new connections and perform new transactions, combined with new technology-based local currencies and trading systems, offer the opportunity to extend our personalised concepts of value in space and time when negotiating exchanges; and to encourage transactions that improve communities and their environments.

It is by no means clear what effect these grass-roots innovations will have on the vast system of global finance; nor on the social and environmental impact of our activities. But examples are appearing everywhere; from the local, “values-led” banks making an impact in America; to the widespread phenomenon of social enterprise; to the Brixton and Bristol local currencies; and to Droplet, who are aiming to make Birmingham the first city with a mobile currency.

These local currency mechanisms have the ability to support marketplaces trading goods and services such as food, energy, transport, expertise and many of the other commodities vital to the functioning of city economies; and those marketplaces can be designed to promote local social and environmental priorities. They have an ability that we are only just beginning to explore to augment and accelerate existing innovations such as the business-to-consumer and business-to-business markets in sustainable food production operated by Big Barn and Sustaination; or what are so far simply community self-help networks such as Growing Birmingham.

As Smarter City infrastructures expose increasingly powerful and important capabilities to such enterprises – including the “civic hacking” movement – there is great potential for their innovations to contribute in significant ways to the sustainable growth and evolution of cities.

Some things never change

Despite these incredible changes, some things will stay the same. We will still travel to meet in person. We like to interact face-to-face where body language is clear and naturally understood, and where it’s pleasant to share food and drink. And the world will not be wholly equal. Humans are competitive, and human ingenuity will create things that are worth competing for. We will do so, sometimes fairly, sometimes not.

It’s also the case that predictions are usually wrong and futurologists are usually mistaken; so you have good cause to disregard everything you’ve just read.

But whether or not I have the details right, these trends are real, significant, and closer to the mainstream than we might expect. Somewhere in a city near you, entrepreneurs are starting new businesses based on them. Who knows which ones will succeed, and how?

Can cities break Geoffrey West’s laws of urban scaling?

(Photo of Kowloon by Frank Müller)

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I recently read Geoffrey West’s fascinating paper on urban scaling laws, “Growth, innovation, scaling and the pace of life in cities“.

The paper applies to cities techniques that I recall from my Doctoral studies in the Physics and Engineering of Superconducting Devices for studying the emergent properties of self-organising complex systems.

Cities, being composed of 100,000s or millions of human beings with free-will who interact with each other, are clearly examples of such complex systems; and their emergent properties of interest include economic output, levels of crime, and expenditure on maintaining and expanding physical infrastructures.

It’s a less intimidating read than it might sound, and draws fascinating conclusions about the relationship between the size of city populations; their ability to create wealth through innovation; sustainability; and what many of us experience as the increasing speed of modern life.

I’m going to summarise the conclusions the paper draws about the characteristics and behaviour of cities; and then I’d like to challenge us to change them.

Professor West’s paper (which is also summarised in his excellent TED talk) uses empirical techniques to present fascinating insights into how cities have performed in our experience so far; but as I’ve argued before, such conclusions drawn from historic data do not rule out the possibility of cities achieving different levels of performance in the future by undertaking transformations.

That potential to transform city performance is vitally important in the light of West’s most fundamental finding: that the largest, densest cities currently create the most wealth most efficiently. History shows that the most successful models spread, and in this case that could lead us towards the higher end of predictions for the future growth of world population in a society dominated by larger and larger megacities supported by the systems I’ve described in the past as “extreme urbanism“.

I personally don’t find that an appealing vision for our future so I’m keen to pursue alternatives. (Note that Professor West is not advocating limitless city growth either; he’s simply analysing and reporting insights from the available data about cities, and doing it in an innovative and important way. I am absolutely not criticising his work; quite the oppostite – I’m inspired by it).

So here’s an unfairly brief summary of his findings:

  • Quantitative measures of the creative performance of cities (such as wealth creation or the number of patents and inventions generated by city populations) – grow faster and faster the more that city size increases.
  • Quantitative measures of the cost of city infrastructures grow more slowly as city size increases, because bigger cities can exploit economies of scale to grow more cheaply than smaller cities.

West found that these trends were incredibly consistent across cities of very different sizes. To explain the consistency, he drew an analogy with biology: for almost all animals, characteristics such as metabolic rate and life expectancy vary in a very predictable way according to the size of the animal.

(Photo of Geoffery West describing the scaling laws that determine animal characteristics by Steve Jurvetson). Note that whilst the chart focusses on mammals, the scaling laws are more broadly applicable.

The reason for this is that the performance of the thermodynamic, cardio-vascular and metabolic systems that support most animals in the same way are affected by size. For example, geometry determines that the surface area of small animals is larger compared to their body mass than that of large animals. So smaller animals lose heat through their skin more rapidly than larger animals. They therefore need faster metabolic systems that convert food to replacement heat more rapidly to keep them warm. This puts more pressure on their cardio-vascular systems and in particular their heart muscles, which beat more quickly and wear out sooner. So mice don’t live as long as elephants.

Further, more complex mechanisms are also involved, but they don’t contradict the idea that the emergent properties of biological systems are determined by the relationship between the scale of those systems and the performance of the processes that support them.

Professor West hypothesised that city systems such as transportation and utilities, as well as characteristics of the way that humans interact with each other, would similarly provide the underlying reasons for the urban scaling laws he observed.

Those systems are exactly what we need to affect if we are to change the relationship between city size and performance in the future. Whilst the cardio-vascular systems of animals are not something that animals can change, we absolutely can change the way that city systems behave – in the same way that as human beings we’ve extended our life expectancy through ingenuity in medicine and improvements in standards of living. This is precisely the idea behind Smarter cities.

(A graph from my own PhD thesis showing real experimental data plotted against a theoretical prediction similar to a scaling law. Notice that whilst the theoretical prediction (the smooth line) is a good guide to the experimental data, that each actual data point lies above or below the line, not on it. In most circumstances, theory is only a rough guide to reality.)

The potential to do this is already apparent in West’s paper. In the graphs it presents that plot the performance of individual cities against the predictions of urban scaling laws, the performance of every city varies slightly from the law. Some cities outperform, and some underperform. That’s exactly what we should expect when comparing real data to an analysis of this sort. Whilst the importance of these variations in the context of West’s work is hotly contested, both in biology and in cities, personally I think they are crucial.

In my view, such variations suggest that the best way to interpret the urban scaling laws that Professor West discovered is as a challenge: they set the bar that cities should try to beat.

Cities everywhere are already exploring innovative, sustainable ways to create improvements in the performance of their social, economic and environmental systems. Examples include:

(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.)

In all of those cases, cities have used technology effectively to disrupt and transform the behaviour of urban systems. They have all lifted at least some elements of performance above the bar set by urban scaling laws. There are many more examples in cities across the world. In fact, this process has been taking place continuously for as long as cities have existed – see, for example, the recent Centre for Cities report on the development and performance of cities in the UK throughout the 20th Century.

That report contains a specific challenge for Birmingham, my home city. It shows that in the first part of the 20th Century, Birmingham outperformed many UK cities and became prosperous and successful because of the diversity of its industries – famously expressed as the “city of a thousand trades”. In the latter part of the Century, however, as Birmingham became more dependent on an automotive industry that subsequently declined, the city lost a lot of ground. Birmingham is undertaking some exciting regenerative initiatives at present – such as the City Deal that increases it’s financial independence from Central Government; the launch of a Green Commission; and investments in ultra-fast broadband infrastructure. They are vitally important in order for the city to re-create a more vibrant, diverse, innovative and successful economy.

As cities everywhere emulate successful innovations, though, they will of course reset the bar of expected performance. Cities that wish to consistently outperform others will need to constantly generate new innovations.

This is where I’ll bring in another idea from physics – the concept of a phase change. A phase change occurs when a system passes a tipping point and suddenly switches from one type of behaviour to another. This is what happens when the temperature of water in a kettle rises from 98 to 99 to 100 degrees Centigrade and water – which is heavy and stays in the bottom of the kettle – changes to steam – which is light and rises out of the kettle’s spout. The “phase change” in this example is the transformation of a volume of water from a liquid to a gas through the process of boiling.

So the big question is: as we change the way that city systems behave, will we eventually encounter a phase change that breaks West’s fundamental finding that the largest cities create the most value most efficiently? For example, will we find new technologies for communication and collaboration that enable networks of people spread across thousands of miles of countryside or ocean to be as efficiently creative as the dense networks of people living in megacities?

I certainly hope so; because unless we can break the link between the size and the success of cities, I worry that the trend towards larger and larger cities and increasing global population will continue and eventually reach levels that will be difficult or impossible to maintain. West apparently agrees; in an interview with the New York Times, which provides an excellent review of his work, he stated that “The only thing that stops the superlinear equations is when we run out of something we need. And so the growth slows down. If nothing else changes, the system will eventually start to collapse.”

But I’m an optimist; so I look forward to the amazing innovations we’re all going to create that will break the laws of urban scaling and offer us a more attractive and sustainable future. It’s incredibly important that we find them.

(I’d like to think Dr. Pam Waddell, the Director of Birmingham Science City, for her helpful comments during my preparation of this post).

How cities can exploit the Information Revolution

(This post was first published as part of the “Growth Factory” report from the thinktank TLG Lab).

(Graphic of New York’s ethnic diversity from Eric Fischer)

Cities and regions in the UK face ever-increasing economic, social and environmental challenges. They compete for investment in what is now a single global economy. Demographics are changing with more than 90% of the population now living in urban areas, and where the number of people aged over 65 will double to 19 million by 2050. The resources we consume are becoming more expensive, with cities especially vulnerable to disruptions in supply.

The concept of “Smarter systems” has captured the imagination of experts as an approach to turn these challenges into opportunities for more sustainable economic and social growth; particularly in cities, where most of us live and work. Smarter systems – in cities, transportation, government and industry –can analyse the vast amounts of data being generated around us to help make more informed decisions, operate more efficiently or even predict the future.

These systems enable city planners around the world to design urban environments that promote safety, community vitality and economic growth. They can bring real-time information together from city transportation, social media, emergency services and leisure facilities to better enable cities, such as Rio de Janeiro, to manage major public events. They can enable transport systems to better manage traffic flow and reduce congestion, as in Singapore. They can stimulate economic growth by enabling small businesses to better compete for business in collaboration with regional trading partners, in systems such as that operated by the University of Warwick.

Government policies such as Open Data, personal care budgets and open public services will dramatically increase the information available to citizens to help them take well-informed decisions. This information will be rich, complex and associated with caveats and conditions. Making it usable by the broad population is an immense challenge which will not be addressed by technology alone. Data needs not only to be made available, but understandable so that it can inform better decision-making.

Where does Smarter city data come from?

Raw data for Smarter systems is derived from three sources: the city’s inhabitants, existing IT systems and readings from the physical environment.

Information from people has become more accessible with the continued spread of connected mobile devices, such as smartphones. Open Street Map, for example, provides a global mapping information service sourced from the activities of volunteers with portable satellite navigation devices. However, the quality and availability of crowd-sourced information depends on the availability and resources of volunteers, who cannot be held accountable for whether information is accurate, complete or up-to-date.

It is also important to understand data ownership and the associated privacy concerns. There is a difference between data freely and knowingly contributed by an individual for a specific purpose and information created as a side-effect of their activity – for example, the record of a person’s movements created by the GPS sensor in their smartphone.

The Open Data movement, supported by central government, will dramatically increase the availability of data from public systems. For example, efforts are underway to make NHS healthcare data available, with appropriate security measures, to Life Sciences organisations to reinforce the UK’s pre-eminent position in drug discovery research. However, the infrastructure required to make large volumes of data widely and rapidly available in a usable form will not be created for free. Until their cost is included in future government procurements – or until commercial systems of funding are created – then much data will likely only be made open on a more limited “best efforts” basis.

Furthermore, not all city data is held by public bodies. Many transportation and utility systems are owned and operated by the private sector, and it is not generally established what information they should make available, and how. Many Smarter city systems that use data from such sources are private partnerships rather than open systems.

Meanwhile, certain kinds of data are becoming far more accessible through the advancing ability of computer systems to understand human language. IBM’s Watson computer demonstrated this recently by competing and winning against world champions in the American television quiz show, Jeopardy! Wellpoint is using this kind of technology to draw insight from medical information held in similar forms. Its aim is to better tackle diseases such as cancer by empowering physicians to rapidly evaluate potential diagnoses and explore the latest supporting medical evidence. Similar technology can draw insight from case notes in social care systems, as Medway Youth Trust is doing, or from the reports of engineers maintaining roads, sewers, and other city systems.

An early “mashup” application using open data from Chicago’s police force

Information is also becoming more readily available from the physical environment. In Galway Bay, a network of underwater microphones is connected to a system that can identify and locate the sounds of dolphins and porpoises. Their location provides a dynamic indication of which parts of the Bay have the cleanest water. That information is made available to companies in the Bay to allow them to control their discharges of water; and to the fishing and leisure industries who are dependent on marine life. This Open Data approach is being used by cities across the world such as Dublin, Chicago and London as a resource for citizens and businesses.

Whilst advances in technology have lowered the cost of generating information from physical environments, challenges remain. From the perspective of a mobile telephone user, much of the UK has signal coverage. However, telephones are used one metre or more above ground level; at ground level, where many parts of our transport and utility infrastructures are located, coverage is much poorer. Additionally, mobile transmitters and receivers are relatively expensive and power-hungry. Cheaper, lower power technologies are needed to improve coverage, such as the “Weightless” standard being developed to use transmission bandwidth no-longer needed by analogue television.

Using and combining data appropriately

In order to make information from multiple sources available appropriately and usefully, several issues need to be tackled.

When computer systems are used to analyse information and take decisions, then the data formats and protocols used by those systems need to be matched. Information as simple as locations and dates may need to be converted between formats. At an engineering level, the protocols used to transmit data across cities using wired or wireless communications behave differently and require systems that integrate them.

The meaning of information from related sources also needs to be understood and adapted to context. Citizens who go shopping in wheelchairs need to know how to get between car-parks and shops with lifts, accessible public toilets and cash points. However, the computer systems of the organisations who own those facilities will encode the information separately, in ways that support their efficient management, not that support journey-planning between them.

The City of Portland in Oregon has gone further in a project to understand how information from systems across the city is related. They are now able to better predict the impact that key decisions will have on the entire city, years in advance.

Privacy and ownership of data may affect its subsequent use, often with terms and conditions in place for governing its access. Furthermore, safeguards are required to ensure that sensitive information cannot be inferred from a combination of sources. For example the location of a safe house or shelter being identified from building usage, building ownership and /or information concerning taxi journeys by the employees of particular council agencies.

The human dimension

Smarter systems will only succeed in improving cities if there is wide consumer engagement. To be of value, information will likely need to be timely and presented in a manner appropriate to consumer context. Individual behaviour will only change where personal value is derived as a result of new information being presented – a saving in time or money, or access to something of value to their family.

(Photo of traffic in Dhaka, Bangladesh, from Joisey Showa)

Many cities are experimenting with technologies that predict the future build up of traffic, by comparing real-time measurements to databases of past patterns of traffic flow. In Stockholm, this information is used by a road-use charging system that supports variable pricing. In California, commuters in a pilot project were given personalised predictions of their commuting time each day. Both systems encourage individuals to make choices based on new information.

Utility providers are exploring how information from smart meters can encourage water and energy users to change behaviour. A recent study in Dubuque, Iowa, showed that when householders were shown how their water usage compared to the average for their neighbours, they became better at conserving water – by fixing leaks, or using domestic appliances more efficiently. Skills across artistic and engineering disciplines are helping us understand how this type of information can be communicated more effectively. Many people will not want to study figures and charts on a smart meter or website; instead “ambient” information sources may be more effective – such as a glow-globe that changes colour from green to orange to red depending on household electricity use.

Systems that improve the sustainability of cities could also affect economic development. Lowering congestion through Smarter transportation schemes can improve productivity by reducing time lost by workers delayed by traffic. By making information and educational resources widely available, Smarter systems could improve access to opportunity across city communities. A city with vibrant communities of well-informed citizens may appear a more forward-looking and attractive place to live for educated professionals and, in turn, for businesses considering relocation. New York has improved its attractiveness since the 1970s by lowering the fear of crime. One of its tools is a “real-time crime centre” that brings information together from across the city in order to better react to crime and public order incidents. The system can even help to prevent crime by intelligently deploying police resources to the areas most likely to experience incidents based on past patterns of activity – on days with similar weather, transportation conditions or public events.

Success in delivering against these broader objectives is much more likely to be achieved where the cities themselves are more clearly accountable for them.

So where do we start?

Investments in Smarter systems often cut across organisations and budgets and many have objectives that are macro-economic, social and environmental, as well as financial. As such, they challenge existing accounting mechanisms. Whilst central government and the financial markets offer new investment solutions such as ethical funds, social impact bonds and city deals, so far these have not been used to fund the majority of Smarter solutions – many of which are supported by research programmes. The Technology Strategy Board’s investment in areas such as “Future Cities” and the “Connected Digital Economy” will provide a tremendous boost, but there is much to be done to assist cities in using new investment sources to fund Smarter initiatives – or to develop sustainable commercial or social-enterprise business models to deliver them.

Although progress can be driven by strong leadership, the issues of governance and fragmented budgets will need to be overcome if we are to take full advantage of the benefits technology can bring.

We live in an era of major global challenges – well described in the recent “People and the Planet” report by the Royal Society. At the same time, we have access to powerful new technologies and ideas to address them, such as those proposed by the 100 Academics who contributed essays to the book “The New Optimists”. When we focus those resources on cities, we focus on the structures in which we can have the greatest impact on the most people.

Already many forward-looking cities in the UK such as Sunderland and Birmingham are joining others around the world by investing in Smarter systems. If we can meet the technical, organisational and investment challenges, we will not only provide citizens, businesses and agencies with new choices and exciting opportunities; we’ll also position the UK economy to succeed as the Information Revolution gathers pace.

Virtualisation is bringing us back together

20120605-012840.jpg

(Image by Chris Drumm)

Back in 1953, Isaac Asimov’s “The Caves of Steel” was published, depicting a world of avatars, virtual collaboration and video-conferencing. It took the real world half a century to catch up with him. Asimov was a smart guy.

But he got one thing wrong. Asimov predicted that reliance on these forms of communication would make us terrified of meeting each other in person. Instead, research has shown that social media is often used to identify new and interesting people to meet in real life (see this article from the American Public Broadcasting Service, for example). In fact, this is exactly how I met my wife. More recently, I’ve enjoyed meeting @Sanfire_IA and @NewOptimists, amongst others, firstly on Twitter (go look them up), and then in real life. (In coffee shops, to be precise).

Tim Stonor and Dan Holowack have both written very interesting blog posts recently about the important role cities play in bringing people together, face-to-face, to create and share ideas. It’s the very lifeblood of the economy. (Edward Glaeser’s “Triumph of the City” discusses this topic in great and fascinating length).

The technologies that connect us virtually have a very important role to play in that aspects of our cities. I’ve met recently with people in cities including Birmingham, London and Sunderland who are involved in stimulating innovation and entrepreneurial activity in city economies. They are all passionate about the value that is created when creative people with disparate skills are brought together.

But they were also unanimous in voicing a concern that it’s tremendously difficult to persuade such people to take time away from the businesses they’re spending 60, 80 or 100 hours a week starting and running to meet people they don’t know; on the off-chance that a valuable new business idea will somehow spring into existence.

All of us face that challenge to some degree today. With the explosive growth in the flow of information we’ve experienced over the last 20 years or so, competition for our time and attention is intense. Social media is a significant part of that explosion of course; but it’s also a significant part of the answer.

Within a few minutes, on Freecycle I can find people near me who need what I no longer want; on LandShare I can find people whose untended land can be used to grow food, and on StumbleUpon I can find moments of genius in every domain from places I’d never in a million years have thought to look, but which StumbleUpon’s fuzzy search engine has ensured are nevertheless relevant to me. And then I can get in touch, arrange to meet, and find out more.

(I have deliberately chosen some of these examples, by the way, for their relevance to the efficiency with which natural resources are used to support economic activity. The recent “People and the Planet” report written by an incredible array of international experts on behalf of the Royal Society should leave us in no doubt at all of the importance of that topic).

This morning, I’ll be attending Birmingham’s Social Media cafe following a discussion about innovation in Birmingham in a Linked-In group, to discuss ideas for social business with people who I haven’t met before, but who I will probably soon be following on Twitter. That’s a great example of the interplay between virtual and physical interactions that’s speeding up the process of collaborative innovation and value-creation in cities today.

But it doesn’t stop there. Digitisation and mass customisation are long-standing trends in manufacturing, but technologies such as 3D printing are going to transform custom-manufacturing in the same way that global-sourcing and production line automation relatively recently transformed commodity manufacturing. And as this brilliant article in The Economist argues, the result will probably be to bring manufacturing activity back to be more local to the consumers of the goods being manufactured.

I turned 40 recently; traditionally a landmark that brings a certain degree of questioning of one’s direction in life. I have no such questions. The family that I now have after meeting my wife through social media is the most important part of that; and the privilege of living through these incredibly exciting and transformational times is the icing on the cake. I can’t wait to see where we’ll go next.

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