Death, life and place in great digital cities

("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)

At the recent Base Birmingham Conference, Scott Cain of the UK Technology Strategy Board (TSB) explained some of the reasons why Glasgow was awarded the TSB’s £24m Future Cities Demonstrator project this year.

Among them all, including the arrival of the Commonwealth Games in 2014 and the strength of the proposed delivery partnership, one stood out for me: the challenge of addressing the difference in life expectancy of 28 years between the wealthiest and poorest areas of the city.

That’s a deeply serious problem, and it’s inarguably worth supporting the city’s attempts to tackle it. Glasgow’s demonstrator project includes a variety of proposals to tackle life expectancy and other issues correlated with it – such as fuel poverty, public safety and health – using technology- and information-enabled approaches.

But whilst Glasgow has the widest variation in life expectancy in the UK, it is far from alone in having a significant one. The variation in life expectancy in London is about 20 years, and has been mapped against its tube network. Life expectancy in Birmingham ranges from 75 to 84 and has similarly been mapped against the local rail network; and in Plymouth it varies by 12.6 years across the city. Life expectancy in many cities varies by as much as 10 years, and is widely viewed as an unacceptable inequality between the opportunities for life offered to children born in different places.

Glasgow, Plymouth, London and Birmingham are just a few examples of cities with active strategies to address this inequality; but all of them are crafting and executing those strategies in an incredibly tough environment.

Many nations in the developed world are facing times of budget cuts and austerity as they tackle high levels of public, commercial and domestic debt built up in the decades leading to the 2008 financial crisis. At the same time, growth in the population, economies and middle classes of the emerging world are creating new wealth, and new demand for resources, across the world. So the cities of the developed world are seeking to rebalance inequalities in their own communities at a time when the resources available to them to do so are shrinking as a consequence of a rebalancing of inequalities that is, to an extent, taking place on a global scale (and quite rightly).

(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 physicist Geoffrey West has analysed in detail the performance of city systems, and one interpretation of his work is that it demonstrates that this challenge is inevitable. He showed that larger cities create more wealth, more efficiently, than smaller cities. In doing so, they attract residents, grow bigger still, and accelerate wealth creation further. This self-reinforcing process results in an ever-increasing demand for resources. It powered the growth of cities in the developed world through the Industrial Revolution; and it is powering the growth of cities in emerging markets today.

In an interview with the New York Times, West described two possible ends to this process: a catastrophe caused by a failure in the supply of resources; or an intervention to alter the relationship between value creation and resource consumption.

Many would argue that we are already experiencing failures in supply – for example, the frightening effects of recent grain shortages caused by droughts that are probably attributable to climate change; or predictions that the UK will face regular blackouts by about 2015 due to a shortfall in power generation.

At the heart of the Smarter Cities movement is the belief that the use of engineering and IT technologies, including social media and information marketplaces, can create more efficient and resilient city systems. Might that idea offer a way to address the challenges of supporting wealth creation in cities at a sustainable rate of resource usage; and of providing city services to enable wellbeing, social mobility and economic growth at a reduced level of cost?

Many examples demonstrate that – in principle – Smarter Cities concepts can do that. Analytics technologies have been used to speed up convergence and innovation across sectors in city economies; individuals, communities and utility providers have engaged in the collective, sustainable use of energy and water resources, as has happened in Dubuque; local trading and currency systems are being used to encourage the growth of economic activity with local social and environmental benefits; information technology enables more efficient transportation systems such as California’s Smarter Traveller scheme or the local transport marketplaces created by Shutl and Carbon Voyage; and business-to-business and business-to-consumer marketplaces such as Big Barn and Sustaination are supporting local food initiatives.

But there are two problems with broadly applying these approaches to improve cities everywhere.

(The Dubuque water and energy portal, showing an individual household insight into it's conservation performance; but also a ranking comparing their performance to their near neighbours)

(The Dubuque water and energy portal, showing an individual household insight into it’s conservation performance; but also a ranking comparing their performance to their near neighbours)

Firstly, they do not always translate in a straightforward way from one place and system to another. For example, a neighbourhood in Dubuque achieved an overall reduction in water and energy usage when each household was given information comparing their own resource consumption to an anonymised average for those around them. Households with higher-than-average resource use were motivated to become better neighbours.

But a recycling scheme in London 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?”

These are good examples of “Smarter City” initiatives that are enabled by technology; but that are more importantly dependent on changes in the behaviour of individuals and communities. The reasons that those changes take place cannot always be copied from one context to another. They are a crucial part of a design process that should be carried out within individual communities in order to co-create useful solutions for them.

Secondly, there is a truth about social media, information marketplaces and related “Smarter City” technologies that is far too rarely explored, but that has serious implications. It is that:

Rather than removing the need to travel and transport things, these technologies can dramatically increase our requirements to do so.

For example, since I began writing this blog about 18 months ago, I have added several hundred connections to my social media network. That’s hundreds of new people who I now know it’s worth my while to travel to meet in person. And sure enough, as my network has grown in social media, so have the demands of my traveling schedule.

Similarly, e-Bay CEO John Donahoe recently described the environmental benefits created by the online second-hand marketplace extending the life of over $100 billion of goods since it began, representing a significant reduction in the impact of manufacturing and disposing of goods. But such benefits of online marketplaces are offset by the carbon impact of the need to transport goods between the buyers and sellers who use them; and by the social and economic impact in cities that are too often dominated by road traffic rather than human life.

Increasing the demand for transport in cities could be very damaging. Some urbanists such as the architect and town planner Tim Stonor and Enrique Peñalosa, former mayor of Bogotá, assert that the single biggest cause of poorly functioning city environments today is the technology around which most of them have been built for the last century: the automobile. And whilst recent trends have started to address those challenges – “human scale” approaches to town planning and architecture; the cycling and walkability movements; and, in some cases, improvements in public transport – most cities still have congested transport systems that make cities more dangerous and unpleasant than we would like.

(Photo of pedestrian barriers in Hackney, London by mpromber, showing how they impede the movement of people engaging in local transactions at the expense of road traffic passing through the area)

We are opening Pandora’s box. These tremendously powerful technologies could indeed create more efficient, resilient city systems. But unless they are applied with real care, they could exacerbate our challenges. If they act simply to speed up transactions and the consumption of resources in city systems, then they will add to the damage that has already been done to urban environments, and that is one of the causes of the social inequality and differences in life expectancy that cities are seeking to address.

And as serious as these issues are today, they will be even more important in the future:

At this week’s Academy of Urbanism Congress in Bradford, economist Michael Ward, Chair of the Centre for Local Economic Strategies, expressed most succinctly a point that many speakers touched on:

“The key task facing civic leaders in the 21st Century is this: how, in a period of profound and continuing economic changes, will our citizens earn a living and prosper?”

For cities to provide jobs, they need successful businesses; and technology will have a dramatic effect on what it means to be a successful business in the 21st Century.

Over the last two decades, the internet, mobile phone and social media have redefined the boundaries of the communications, technology, media, publishing and technology industries. The companies that thrived through those changes were those who best understood how to use technology to merge capabilities from across those industries into new business models. In the coming decade as digitisation extends to industries such as manufacturing through technologies such as 3D printing and smart materials, more and more industry sectors will be redefined by similar levels of disruption and convergence.

So how are the economies of our cities placed to be successful in that world of change?

My home city Birmingham has many of the economic capabilities required to exploit those imminent changes successfully. It has a manufacturing base that includes advanced digital capability; it has a growing technology industry and a strong creative sector. Professional services companies offer financial and legal support, and local Universities have world-class research capability in disciplines such as healthcare and medical technology.

But as in many cities, those capabilities are concentrated in separate areas of the city. The collage of photographs below depicts some of Birmingham’s value-creating districts, placed in relation to some of the spatial characteristics of the city that divide them.

(A collage of photographs of some of Birmingham's value-creating districts, placed in relation to some of the spatial characteristics of the city that divide them).

(A collage of photographs of some of Birmingham’s value-creating districts, placed in relation to some of the spatial characteristics of the city that divide them. See the end of this article for attributions).

In the top left of the collage, the Jewellery Quarter, a centre of advanced manufacturing to the North of the City Centre, is separated from the digital technology incubation capability of Innovation Birmingham on the Aston University Campus, and from financial and legal expertise in the Colmore Row business district, by the four-lane Great Charles Street Queensway, part of the city-centre ringroad.

The Aston Campus is separated from the Eastside learning quarter, home to Millennium Point and Birmingham City University, by the Jennens Road dual carriageway. Eastside itself is separated from the creative media cluster around the Custard Factory and Fazeley Studios in Digbeth in the South East by the East Coast mainline from Birmingham to London; and by the semi-dereliction of some parts of the Digbeth manufacturing district.

To the South West, the enormous medical research capability around the University Hospital of Birmingham and University of Birmingham and it’s Research Park are three miles from the City Centre. And whilst the retail core of the city was dramatically transformed by the Bullring redevelopment over a decade ago, it lacks the independent shops, cafe and culture that might naturally attract those who work in the surrounding creative districts to congregate together.

The city’s Big City Plan and independent initiatives such as Coffee Birmingham are doing much to address these issues – and in particular, the city centre now boasts a number of fine cafes and delicatessens such as the Urban Coffee Company and York’s Bakery Cafe. But nevertheless these examples illustrate challenges many cities face in adapting their spatial structure to the needs of the new economy to bring their collective capabilities together to create new ideas and innovations.

(Visitors to Birmingham's new Eastside city park which connects the city centre and train stations to the Eastside learning district)

(Visitors to Birmingham’s new Eastside city park which connects the city centre and train stations to the Eastside learning district)

I took my family to Birmingham’s new Eastside City Park recently; the park is intended to address some of the challenges I have just described by better connecting the learning quarter to the city centre and train stations by providing a walking and cycling route between them, as well as an open space with value in its own right.

By coincidence, I had just read the chapter in Jane Jacobs’ seminal “Death and Life of Great American Cities” which addresses the factors which determine whether city parks and spaces work or fail; and describes how difficult it can be to make them successful. I was therefore delighted to see the Eastside park full of people – families with children playing; couples relaxing in the sun; students and workers stopping for food and coffee. This vibrancy, created by the proximity of mixed business, learning and leisure facilities, did not happen by accident. It is a product both of the careful design of the park; and of the context of the park’s creation within a multi-decade strategy for regenerating the surrounding district, which incorporates the expansion and re-location of two colleges and two universities in the area.

Birmingham’s Eastside park – like Bradford’s new City Park, winner of the Academy of Urbanism’s “Great Place 2013″ award – is a great example of reclaiming for people an important area that had previously been shaped by the requirements of cars, trucks and lorries.

But as a new generation of technology, digital technology, starts to shape our cities, how can we direct the deployment of that technology to be sympathetic to the needs of people and communities, rather than hostile to them, as too much of our urban transport infrastructure has been?

This is an urgent and vital issue. For example, privacy and security are perhaps the greatest current challenges of the digital age – as epitomised by the challenge issued to Google this week by United States politicians concerning the privacy implications of their latest innovation, “Google Glass”. But these concerns are not limited to the online world. Jane Jacobs based her understanding of city systems on privacy and safety. Google Glass epitomises the way that innovations in consumer technology are changing the relationship between physical and digital environments; with the consequence that a failure in privacy or security digital systems could affect community vitality or public safety in cities.

A particularly stark example is the 3D-printed gun, which I first mentioned last August. A reliable process for producing these is now being disseminated by the pro-firearms movement in the United States. As half a century of widespread sharing of music demonstrates, we cannot rely on Digital Rights Management technology for gun control. Other developments that I think need a similar level of consideration are the ability to create artificial meat in laboratories, which has been suggested as one way to feed a growing world population; and the increasing ability of information systems to interact directly with our own minds and bodies. To my mind these technologies challenge our fundamental assumptions about what it means to be human, and our relationship with nature.

(Google’s wearable computer, Google Glass. Photograph by Apostolos)

So how are we to resolve the dilemma that emerging technologies offer both the best chance to address our challenges and great potential to exacerbate them?

The first step is for us to collectively recognise what is at stake: the safety and resilience of our communities; and the nature of our relationship with the environment. Digital technology is not just supporting our world, it is beginning to transform it.

The second step is for the designers of cities and city services – architects, town planners, transport officers, community groups and social innovators –  to take control of the technology agenda in their cities and communities, rather than allow technologists to define it by default.

My role as a technologist is to create visions for what is possible; and to communicate those visions clearly to stakeholders in cities. In doing so it is important to communicate the whole story – the risks and uncertainties inherent in it, not just the great gadgets that make it possible. If I do that, I’m enabling the potential consumers of technology to make informed choices – for example, choosing whether or not to use certain online services or digital devices based on an understanding of their approaches to the use of personal information.

The truth, though, is that we are in the very earliest stages of considering these technologies in that way in the overall design, planning and governance of cities. A huge number of the initiatives that are currently exploring their use are individual projects focussed on their own goals; they are not city-wide strategic initiatives. And whilst some are led by city authorities, many more are community initiatives, such as the Social Media Surgeries which began in Birmingham but which now run internationally; or are led by business – technology corporations like IBM and Google, the developers of buildings such as the Greenhouse in Leeds, or small start-ups like Shutl.

In contrast, it is the role of policy-makers, town planners, and architects to understand how technology can help cities achieve their overall objectives such as economic growth, improvements in social mobility and reductions in the disparity in life expectancy. It is also their role to put in place any necessary constraints and governance to manage the impact of those technologies – for example, policies that oblige the developers of new buildings to make data from those buildings openly available as part of an overall “open data” strategy for a city.

As well as technologists, three crucial groups of advisers to that process are social scientists, design thinkers and placemakers. They have the creativity and insight to understand how digital technologies can meet the needs of people and communities in a way that contributes to the creation of great places, and great cities – places like the Eastside city park that are full of life.

Tina Saaby, Copenhagen’s City Architect, expressed a beautiful principle of placemaking in her address to the Academy of Urbanism Congress:

“Consider urban life before urban space; consider urban space before buildings”

In my view, we should apply a similar principle to technology:

 “Consider urban life before urban place; consider urban place before technology

(Tina Saaby, Copenhagen's City Architect, addressing the Academy of Urbanism Congress in Bradford)

(Tina Saaby, Copenhagen’s City Architect, addressing the Academy of Urbanism Congress in Bradford)

Without this perspective, I don’t personally believe that we’ll create the great digital places that we need.

That’s why I spent last week exploring this topic with placemakers, town planners and policy-makers in a “digital urbanism” workshop at the Academy of Urbanism Congress; and it’s why I’ll be exploring it in June with social scientists and researchers of city systems at the University of Durham. I’ll be writing again soon on this blog about what I’m learning from those meetings.

Not everything promised by technology will transpire or succeed, and it is often right to be sceptical of individual ideas until they’re proven. But there should be no question of the magnitude and impact of the changes that technology will create in the near future. And it’s down to us to take charge of those changes for our benefit as individuals and communities.

(The photographic collage of Birmingham involves some of my own photographs, but also the following images:

A design pattern for a Smarter City: City-Centre Enterprise Incubation

(The Custard Factory in Birmingham, at the heart of the city’s creative media sector in the central district of Digbeth)

(In “Do we need a Pattern Language for Smarter Cities” I suggested that “design patterns“, a tool for capturing re-usable experience invented by the town-planner Christopher Alexander, might offer a useful way to organise our knowledge of successful approaches to “Smarter Cities”. I’m now writing a set of design patterns to describe ideas that I’ve seen work more than once. The collection is described and indexed in “Design Patterns for Smarter Cities” which can be found from the link in the navigation bar of this blog).  

Design Pattern: City-Centre Enterprise Incubation

Summary of the pattern:

This pattern describes the provision of mixed facilities to incubate technology, creative and social enterprises in an urban environment.

The intention is to foster growth across the high-value sectors of a city economy in a way that maximises the potential for cross-sectoral interaction and innovation. Locating incubation facilities in a city centre rather than on an out-of-town campus encourages such cross-fertilisation between existing and new businesses. The city environment – its transport systems, retailers, businesses, residents and visitors – can also serve as a “living lab” in which to test new products and services.

Such incubation facilities are often operated through hybrid public/private models so that they are financially sustainable, but act so as to promote the success of enterprises which contribute to the host city’s strategic objectives – for example, promoting growth in key sectors of the economy or creating jobs or skills in specific areas or communities.

City systems, communities and infrastructures affected:

(This description is based on the elements of Smarter City ecosystems presented in ”The new Architecture of Smart Cities“).

  • Goals: Any.
  • People: Primarily innovators. Citizens, employees and visitors play a secondary role as the potential consumers of new services created through innovation.
  • Ecosystem: All.
  • Soft infrastructures: Innovation forums; networks and community organisations.
  • City systems: Any.
  • Hard infrastructures: Information and communications technology, spaces and buildings.

Commercial operating model:

City-centre incubation facilities are often operated by “Special Purpose Vehicles” (SPVs) jointly owned by city institutions such as local authorities; universities; and organisations providing incubation services to businesses and social enterprises. Alternatively, some are established through collaborative business models such as Co-Operatives, Social Enterprises or Community Interest Companies. This enables them to offer the revenue-generating services that enable financial self-sufficiency; but also to focus on incubating those enterprises that contribute most significantly to the city’s overall strategic objectives, rather than simply generated the highest revenue income.

Some investment is often made in shared technology or services for use by tenant enterprises: for example, access to Cloud computing resources; collaboration tools; video conferencing services; 3D-printing or 3D-cutting facilities. Such services may be procured through the creation of partnerships with technology vendors or service providers who are seeking to build their own ecosystem of entrepreneurial business partners.

Long-term financial sustainability is dependent on the generation of commercial revenues from services offered to successfully operating businesses and social enterprises.

Soft infrastructures, hard infrastructures and assets required:

(The collaborative working space of Hub Westminster which is constantly refactored to support new uses, exploiting furniture and spatial technology laser-cut from digital designs)

(The collaborative working space of Hub Westminster which is constantly refactored to support new uses, exploiting furniture and spatial technology laser-cut from digital designs)

An active incubation programme depends on a complex ecosystem of relationships and capabilities, including: the generation of new entrepreneurial talent through the education system; the attraction of external entrepreneurs and businesses to re-locate; access to market insight and development capability, mentoring and finance; the provision of business support and growth services such as office space, computing capability, legal and financial advice; and access to business partners and market opportunities.

Unless they are of significant size and diversity, cities and regions will be most successful if they focus their business development capacity on the stimulation of growth in specific sectors that maximise the value of their existing regional economic, social, geographic and infrastructural capability.

Such focus may lead to some supporting capabilities, including technology, being common to many businesses in a locality. For example, 3D printing is an increasingly useful tool for prototyping manufactured objects; but the cost of highly capable 3D printers may be beyond the capability of individual small businesses to afford. Similarly a Cloud Computing platform dedicated to supporting small, entrepreneurial businesses may enable the cost of some technology capabilities to be shared by a regional cluster.

Driving forces:

An economy of sustainable, profitable businesses is at the heart of the long term vitality of cities and the regions surrounding them. As economic growth in emerging markets combines with increasingly rapid advances in science and technology, maintaining such an economy requires constant innovation by businesses; and it is in the interests of cities to stimulate and support such innovation.

Michael Porter’s analysis of economic clusters shows that this innovation is created when businesses adopt new technology; or when they adopt existing technologies from outside their current market sector. Whereas many science parks have been based on or near to University campuses to enable access to new technology, an increasing number of more broadly focussed incubation facilities are based in city centres in order to facilitate cross-sectorial interaction and innovation. Some of these can additionally exploit their proximity to city-centre Universities.

City centre locations also provide the opportunity to create businesses with unique capabilities or value. New technologies that emerge from University-based science are often the result of a global research agenda; but innovations that are created through cross-sectorial interaction in a city economy are shaped by the specific characteristics of that economy, and of the city’s geography and demographics. They may thereby create unique products and services that it is harder to replicate elsewhere, providing a competitive advantage in the global economy.

Benefits:

  • Enable local organic economic growth and job creation through small and entrepreneurial businesses.
  • Enable local businesses to exchange ideas across sectors to maintain the value of existing products and services; and to create new ones.
  • Provide access to leading edge technology and market insight to local economic clusters through the attraction of technology and service providers seeking partnerships with clusters of entrepreneurial businesses.
  • Coordinate regional investment and incubation capacity in support of business growth in areas of strategic local importance.
  • Create an offer that is attractive to talented people and businesses to locate in a place.

(Technology entrepreneurs in Birmingham Science Park Aston exploring how their skills can contribute to innovative services in the city, photographed by Sebastian Lenton)

Implications and risks:

  • There are very many factors that affect the success of initiatives intended to provide business incubation and stimulate economic growth, including the availability of affordable housing, the attractiveness of the urban environment and the availability of skills. Some of those factors are difficult to influence, and some take considerable time and investment to affect.
  • It is difficult to “pre-let” incubation capacity, so initial investments are usually speculative.
  • Rental revenues for incubation space provide relatively short term financial returns, but job creation, economic growth and other intended outcomes are long-term.
  • Genuinely constructive partnerships rely on effective engagement between city institutions, businesses and communities that can take time to achieve.

Alternatives and variations:

Collaborative working spaces exist in many cities to offer small businesses, entrepreneurs and mobile workers convenient, attractive, flexible and vibrant places to work. Whilst they are not always explicitly intended to incubate new businesses, or businesses in specific sectors, they clearly represent an incubation capacity; and most also invest in shared resources such as office space and digital connectivity.

Cutting edge examples also use technologies such as 3D-cutting to constantly re-fashion furniture and interior structures to adapt the shared space to changing requirements to support presentations, workshops, prototyping, conferences and events. Many collaborative working spaces attractive creative and media rather than technology businesses; but these sectors now overlap to such a significant extent that the distinction between them is increasingly slight.

Examples and stories:

Examples of collaborative working spaces include:

Sources of information:

Some of the articles on this blog refer to this topic and provide further links to information sources:

Refactoring, nucleation and incubation: three tools for digital urban adaptability

(This year's Ecobuild conference, which showcases technologies for sustainable cities)

(This year’s Ecobuild conference in London, which showcases technologies for sustainable cities)

When I am at my most productive as a computer programmer, I don’t write code; I sculpt virtual objects from it.

Any computer system exists to fulfill a purpose in the real world. To do so it recreates in code those aspects of the world that are relevant to its purpose. What transformed the creation of that model from the laborious, procedural task of writing instructions into the seamless creative flow that I liken to sculpting was Martin Fowler‘s conception of “refactoring”.

In Martin’s words:

“Refactoring is a disciplined technique for restructuring an existing body of code, altering its internal structure without changing its external behavior. Its heart is a series of small behavior preserving transformations. Each transformation (called a ‘refactoring’) does little, but a sequence of transformations can produce a significant restructuring. Since each refactoring is small, it’s less likely to go wrong. The system is also kept fully working after each small refactoring, reducing the chances that a system can get seriously broken during the restructuring.”

(quoted from the Refactoring homepage).

Refactoring is at the heart of what we now know as the “Agile Development” of software. Agile approaches embrace the fact that when we start to create a new system, we don’t know exactly what the final result should be. Traditional approaches to software development attempted to address that challenge through the lengthy analysis of stakeholder requirements. In contrast, agile approaches address it by quickly presenting a first working solution to stakeholders for feedback, and asking them what should be changed. The final solution is co-created by developers and stakeholders through many iterations of that process.

Refactoring codified the tools and techniques for performing the adaptations to computer systems required by that evolutionary process whilst preserving their operability. With practise, a good programmer internalises those tools so that they are used almost unconsciously – just as any good artisan or artist creates their work through the expert application of technique.

We need similar tools and techniques to support the evolution of our cities in the 21st Century.

Those cities will exist in a world that is ever more changeable, and ever less certain. Geoffrey West’s analysis of city systems, for example, showed that as the cities of the world grow, the rate of social, technological and economic change within them will increase. At the same time, climate change is causing not just an increase in temperature, but an increase in the variability of temperature, and of other environmental conditions. That variability reduces the stability of supply of grain and other natural resources that underpin the systems that support life. In order to provide social stability in this context, cities need to be adaptable and resilient in the face of change and uncertainty.

But it is already the case that the urban, economic and social systems of cities can’t keep up with the rate of change we are experiencing today.

(Image by TurkleTom)

Take the ability of education to support the economy. Google’s Chairman Eric Schmidt criticised the British Education system recently for producing insufficient computer programming skills to meet the needs of businesses.

But our current need for those skills is based on the computing technologies that are broadly adopted by business today. By and large those technologies are at least five years behind the leading edge; consider that whilst the first generation Apple iPad was launched in 2010, most businesses do not yet routinely provide their employees with a touchscreen tablet for use as a business tool.

As the rate of change in science and technology increases, the skills required by business will also change more rapidly. Consequently, it will become even more challenging to design and operate an education system that prepares children for productive careers in an economy that evolves for at least a decade after their education begins.

We won’t design those education systems successfully by considering our current requirements for skills; or by attempting to predict the skills that will be required ten years from now. If we make such predictions, they will be wrong. Instead we need to equip the education system with refactoring tools that allow it to continually adapt to the changing needs of the present.

The same challenges apply to the strategic planning of physical infrastructure in cities. As cities pursue “Smarter City” strategies, and as their economies evolve to exploit new technologies, what are the impacts on power requirements? On the need to provide connectivity to residential, retail and business space? On the physical space required by retail and business as online commerce and mobile working continue to grow? And on the movement of people and goods as information marketplaces change the physical supply chains of industries?

The only thing we can be sure of is the need for flexibility: the city of the future will need to be more responsive and adaptable to change than the cities that we know today.

(The collaborative working space of Hub Westminster which is constantly refactored to support new uses, exploiting furniture and spatial technology laser-cut from digital designs)

(The collaborative working space of Hub Westminster which is constantly refactored to support new uses, exploiting furniture and spatial technology laser-cut from digital designs)

Techniques to provide flexibility in the physical environment are already emerging. Kelvin Campbell’s theory of Smart Urbanism encourages the use of a spatial grid, party walls and building shells as a substrate upon which the fine detail of a city can grow.

A high quality, detailed physical environment can first be constructed on such a substrate according to customisable “design patterns” such as town houses and mews studios; and then refactored through interventions such as the reconfiguration of internal walls; the conversion of lofts to living or working space; or straightforward extensions to the physical size of buildings. Recently developed technologies such as 3D printing and 3D cutting provide additional opportunities for the physical refactoring of buildings and cities that would have been unimaginable relatively recently.

In materials science, sophisticated materials such as semi-conductors and super-conductors grow when large numbers of individual atomic particles are attracted to appropriately designed substrates; and when those particles form clusters together which eventually grow and combine into continuous materials. The process by which those initial clusters form is nucleation.

By analogy, if we can design urban substrates which encourage the nucleation of small-scale, productive, sustainable social and economic activity; and the subsequent agglomeration of that activity into larger-scale systems; then we will have created an environment in which smarter 21st century cities can grow.

We need to evolve similar concepts to support the development of information infrastructures for smarter cities. Broadband, wi-fi and mobile communications provide the equivalent substrate to the grid-based spatial framework of a city; but what are the equivalents of the party wall, building shell, design pattern and nucleation?

Open data“, for example, is clearly an important component of a Smarter City information infrastructure; but we do not yet fully understand how to exploit it sustainably. Doing so will likely involve structures such as city information partnerships; sustainable commercial models; standards for the interchange of datamodels of the meaning of data; and planning and procurement policies that embed the openness and interoperability of data into the development process.

Finally, the same challenges appear in economic development.

Michael Porter’s theory of economic clusters states that in order to protect profit margins from commoditisation over time, businesses need to constantly adopt new capabilities into their products and services. As science and technology develop more rapidly, cities and regions will need to drive that process of innovation more intensively in order to remain competitive in the global economy.

(The Old Street roundabout, around which London's "Tech City" cluster of technology companies has evolved)

(The Old Street roundabout, around which London’s “Tech City” cluster of technology companies has evolved)

This thinking is behind the technology innovation and business incubation partnership programme I’m putting together for IBM with Sunderland Software City, following our recent agreement to provide support for their new urban technology incubation campus at Tavistock Place.

Sunderland Software City- like Bristols’ Watershed media incubation centre and Birmingham’s Science Park Aston and Custard Factory – are exploring a form of urban technology incubation that is very different from that enabled by the more common out-of-town, campus-based science parks. They are not only concerned with supporting  new businesses that exploit the latest developments in science and technology; but with doing so in a way that creates synergies between local businesses, and that contributes to the  economic and industrial strategy of the cities where they are located.

Refactoring, nucleation and incubation are concepts drawn independently from domains as diverse as software engineering, the physical sciences and economics. There is no guarantee that they are mutually compatible; or even relevant to urban systems in any more direct way than by loose analogy.

But they share important characteristics that are also observed in successful urbanism and the research of resilient systems. For example: a preference for emergent growth rather than planned development;  and the need to enable widespread changes that are adaptable to highly specific local contexts.

So whilst I can’t be sure that these concepts are universally applicable, I am convinced that their potential value is so great that we are compelled to explore them.

The need for sympathetic digital urbanism

(Photo of me wearing the Emotiv headset, which measures the magnetic waves created by brain activity.)

(Photo of me wearing the Emotiv headset, which measures the magnetic waves caused by brain activity.)

(I’m a guest blogger on UBM’s Future Cities community; this article was published there last week. It builds on themes I first explored here in the article “Little/big; producer/consumer; and the story of the Smarter City“)..

Technology is changing how we understand cities, and how we will understand ourselves in the context of urban environments. We’re only at the beginning of this complex revolution.

Consider that scientists from Berkeley have used a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scanner to reconstruct images perceived by a test subject’s brain activity while the subject watched a video. A less sensitive mind-reading technology is already available as a headset from Emotiv. (My colleagues have used Emotiv to help a paralysed person communicate by sending directional instructions from his thoughts to a computer.)

Developments in biotechnology, nanotechnology, and advanced manufacturing show similarly remarkable interactions between information systems and the physical and biological world: solar panels that can mend themselves; living biological tissues that can be printed.

These technologies, combined with our ability to process and draw insight from digital information, could offer real possibilities to engineer more efficient and sustainable city systems, such as transportation, energy, water, and food. But using them to address the demographic, financial, and environmental challenges of cities will raise questions about our relationship with the natural world, what it means to live in an ethical society, and what defines us as human.

(The remainder of this article, which explores ways in which we might answer those questions, can be found on UBM’s Future Cities site, as “Make Way for Sensitive Cities“).

Little/big; producer/consumer; and the story of the Smarter City

(Photo of me wearing the Emotiv headset)

(Photo of me wearing the Emotiv headset)

I have a four year old son. By the time I die he’ll be about my age if I’m lucky.

If I could see him now as he will be then; I would struggle to recognise his interactions with the world as human behaviour in the terms I am used to understanding it.

When he was two years old, I showed him a cartoon on the touchscreen tablet I’d just bought. When it finished, he pressed the thumbnail of the cartoon he wanted to watch next.

The implications of that instinctive and correct action are profound, and mark the start of the disappearance of the boundary between information and the physical world.

Just as the way that we communicate with each other has changed increasingly rapidly from the telephone to e-mail to social media; so the way that we interact with information systems will transform out of all recognition as technology evolves beyond the keyboard, mouse and touchscreen.

The Emotiv headset I’m wearing in the photo above can interpret patterns in the magnetic waves created by my thoughts as simple commands that can be understood by computers. My thoughts can influence the world of information; and they can even be captured as images, as shown in this recent work using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI).

And information can influence the physical world. From control technology implanted in the muscles of insects; to prosthetic limbs and living tissues that are created from digital designs by general-purpose 3D printers. As the way we interact with information systems and use them to affect the world around us becomes so natural that we’re barely conscious of it, the Information Revolution will change our world in ways that we are only beginning to imagine.

These technologies offer striking possibilities; and we face striking challenges. The two will come together where the activity of the world is most concentrated: in cities.

In the last revolution, the Industrial Revolution, we built the centres of cities upwards around lifts powered by the steam engine invented by James Watt and commercialised by Matthew Boulton in Birmingham. In the last century we expanded them outwards around the car as we became used to driving to work, shops, parks and schools.

(Photo of 3D printer by Media Lab Prado)

We believe we can afford a lifestyle based on driving cars because its long-term social and environmental costs are not included in its financial price. But as the world’s population grows towards 9 billion by 2050, mostly in cities that are becoming more affluent in what it’s increasingly inaccurate to call “emerging economies”; that illusion will be shattered.

We’re already paying more for our food and energy as a proportion of income. That’s not because we’re experiencing a “double-dip recession”; it’s because the structure of the economy is changing. There is more competition for grain to feed the world’s fuel and food needs; and droughts caused by climate change are increasing uncertainty in it’s supply.

We have choices to make. Do we consume less? Can we use technology to address the inefficiencies of supply chains which waste almost half the food they produce whilst transporting it thousands of miles around the world, without disrupting them and endangering the billions of lives they support? Or do we disintermediate the natural stages of food supply by growing artificial meat in laboratories?

These choices go to the heart of our relationship with the natural world; what it means to be human; and to live in an ethical society. I think of a Smarter City as one which is taking those choices successfully; and using technology to address its challenges in a way that is both sustainable, and sympathetic to us as human beings and as communities.

Three trends are appearing across technology, urbanism, and the research of resilient systems to show us how to do that. The first is for little things and big things to work constructively together.

The attraction of opposites part 1: little and big

(Photo of Masshouse Circus, Birmingham, before its redevelopment, by Birmingham City Council)

(Photo of Masshouse Circus, Birmingham, before its redevelopment, by Birmingham City Council)

Some physical interventions in cities have been “blunt”. Birmingham’s post-war economy needed traffic to be able to circulate around the city centre; but the resulting ringroad strangled it, until it was knocked down a decade ago. It didn’t meet the needs of individuals and communities within the city to live and interact.

By contrast, Exhibition road in London – a free-for-all where anyone can walk, drive, sit, park or catch a bus, anywhere they like – knits the city together. Elevated pedestrian roundabouts and city parks similarly provide infrastructures that support fluid movement by people cycling and walking; modes of transport in which it is easy to stop and interact with the city.

These big infrastructures are compatible with the life of the little people who inhabit the city around them; and who are the reason for its existence.

The same concepts apply to technology infrastructures.

Technology offers great promise in cities. We can collect data from people and infrastructures – the movement of cars, or the concentration of carbon dioxide. We can aggregate that data to provide information about city systems – how fast traffic is moving, or the level of carbon emissions of buildings. And we can draw insight from that information into the performance of cities – the impacts of congestion on GDP, and of environmental quality on life expectancy.

Cities are deploying mobile and broadband infrastructures to enable the flow of this data; and “open data” platforms to make it available to developers and entrepreneurs for them to explore new business opportunities and develop novel urban services.

But how does deploying broadband infrastructure in a poor neighbourhood create growth if the people who live there can’t afford subscriptions to it? Or if businesses there don’t have access to computer programming skills?

Connectivity and open data are the “big infrastructures” of the information age; how do we ensure that they are properly adapted to the “little” needs of individual citizens, businesses and communities?

We will do that by concerning ourselves with people and places, rather than information and infrastructures.

(Delay times at traffic junctions visualised by the Dublinked city information partnership.)

(Delay times at traffic junctions visualised by the Dublinked city information partnership)

Where civic information infrastructures are successful in creating economic and social growth, they are not deployed; they are co-created in a process of listening and learning between city institutions; businesses; communities; and individuals.

This process requires us to visit new places, such as the “Container City” incubation facility for social enterprise in Sunderland; to learn new languages; and understand different systems of value, such as the “triple bottom line” of social, environmental and financial capital.

If we design infrastructures by listening to and then enabling ideas, then we put the resources of big institutions and companies into the hands of people and businesses in a way that makes it less difficult to create many, more effective “little” innovations in hyper-local contexts – the “Massive Small” change first described by Kelvin Campbell.

By following this process, Dublin’s “Dublinked” partnership between the City and surrounding County Councils; the National University of Ireland, businesses and entrepreneurs is now sharing 3,000 city datasets; using increasingly sophisticated tools to draw value from them; identifying new ways for the city’s transport, energy and water systems to work; and starting new, viable, information-based businesses.

As a sustained process, these conversations and the trust they create form a “soft infrastructure” for a city, connecting it’s little and big inhabitants.

This soft infrastructure is what turns civic information into services that can become part of the fabric of life of cities and communities; and that can enable sustainable growth by weaving information into that fabric that describes the impact of choices that are about to be made.

(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 – and suggestions for alternative routes.)

For example, a project in San Francisco used algorithms that are capable of predicting traffic speeds and volume in the city one hour into the future with 85% accuracy. These algorithms were developed in a project in Singapore, where the resulting predictions were made available to traffic managers, so that they could set lane priorities and traffic light sequences to attempt to prevent any predicted congestion.

But in California, the predictions were made available instead to individual commuters who where told in advance the likely duration of their journey each day, including the impact of any congestion that would develop whilst the journey was underway. This gave them a new opportunity to take an informed choice: to travel at a different time; by a different route or mode; or not to travel at all.

The California project shows that it’s far more powerful to use the information resulting from city data and predictive algorithms not to influence a handful of traffic managers who respond to congestion; but to influence the hundreds or thousands of individual travellers who create it; and who have the power to choose not to create it.

And in designing information systems such as this, we can appeal not just to selfish interests, but to our sense of community and place.

A project in Dubuque, Iowa uses Smart water meters to tell householders whether they are using domestic appliances efficiently; and can detect weak underlying signals that indicate leaks. People who are given this information can choose to act on it; and to a certain extent, they do.

But something remarkable happened in a control group who were also given a “green points” score comparing their water efficiency to that of their neighbours. They were literally twice as likely to improve their water efficiency as people who were only told about their own water use.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs tells us that once the immediate physical needs of our families are secured, our motivations are next driven by our relationships with the people around us. Technology gives us the ability to design new information-based services that appeal directly to those values, rather than to more distant general environmental concerns.

The attraction of opposites part 2: producer and consumer

(Photo of 3D-printed objects by Shapeways)

This information is at our fingertips; we are its producers and consumers. For the last decade, we have used and created it when we share photos in social media or buy and sell in online marketplaces.

But the disappearance of the boundaries between information systems, the physical world and our own biology means that it is not just information that we will be producing and consuming in the next decade, but physical goods and services too.

As a result, new peer-to-peer markets can already be seen in food production; parking spaces; car journeys; the manufacture of custom objects; and the production of energy from sources such as bio-matter and domestic solar panels.

Of course, we have all been producers and consumers since humans first began to farm and create societies with diversified economies. What’s new is the ability of technology to dramatically improve the flexibility, timeliness and efficiency of interactions between producers and consumers; creating interactions that are more sustainable than those enabled by conventional supply chains.

Even more tantalising is the possibility of using new rates of exchange in those transactions.

In Switzerland, a complementary currency, the Wir, has contributed to economic stability over the last century by allowing some debt repayments to be bartered locally when they cannot be repaid in universal currency. And last year, Bristol became the 5th UK town or city to operate its own currency.

These currencies are increasingly using advanced technologies, such as the “Droplet” smartphone payment scheme now operating in Birmingham and London. This combination of information technology and local currencies could be used to calculate rates of exchange that compare the complete social, environmental and economic cost of goods and services to their immediate, contextual value to the participants in the transaction.

That really could create a market infrastructure to support Smarter, sustainable, and more equitable city systems; and it sounds like a great idea to me.

But if it’s such a good idea, why aren’t markets based on it ubiquitous already?

Collaborative governance; and better stories for Smarter Cities

(Stories of Mumbai: an exploration of Mumbai’s history of urban development, and its prospects for the future, using storytelling and puppetshows, by the BMW Guggenheim Lab)

If we are going to use the technologies and ideas I’ve described to transform cities, then technologists like me need to learn from the best of urbanism.

Jan Gehl taught us to design liveable cities not by considering the buildings in them; but how people use the spaces between buildings.

In Smarter Cities our analogous challenge is to concentrate not only on information infrastructures and the financial efficiencies that they provide; not least because “Smart” ideas cut across city systems, and so gains in efficiency don’t always reward those who invest in infrastructure.

Our objective instead is to create the harder to quantify personal, social and environmental value that results when those infrastructures enable people to afford to eat better food or to heat their homes properly in winter; to access affordable transport to places of employment; and to live longer, independent lives as productive contributors to their communities.

These are the stories we need to tell about Smarter Cities.

These stories are of vital importance because the third trend we observe is that cities only really get smarter when their leaders and communities coordinate the use of public and private assets to achieve a collective vision of the future, and to secure external investment in it.

Doing so needs the commitment not just of the owners and managers of those assets, but of the shareholders, voters, employees and other stakeholders that they are accountable to.

To win the commitment of such a broad array of people we need to appeal to common instincts: our understanding of narrative, and our ability to empathise. Ultimately we will need the formal languages of finance and technology, but they are not where we should start.

DDespommier

(Dickson Despommier, inventor of the vertical farm, speaking at TEDxWarwick 2013)

It’s imperative that we tell these stories to inspire the evolution of our cities. The changes in coming decades will be so fast and so profound that cities that do not embrace them successfully will suffer severe decline.

Luckily, our ability to respond successfully to those changes depends on a technology that is freely available: language, used face to face in conversations. I can’t think of a more essential challenge than to use it to tell stories about how our world can be come smarter, fairer, and more sustainable.

And there’s no limit to what any one of us can achieve by doing this. Because it is collaborative governance rather than institutional authority that enables Smarter Cities, then there are no rules defining where the leadership to establish that governance will come from.

Whether you are a politician, academic, technologist, business person, community activist or simply a passionate individual; and whether your aim is to create a new partnership across a city, or simply to start an independent social enterprise within it; that leadership could come from you.

(This article is based on the script I wrote in preparation for my TEDxWarwick presentation on 13th March 2013).

Better stories for Smarter Cities: three trends in urbanism that will reshape our world

(Stories of Mumbai: an exploration of Mumbai’s history of urban development, and its prospects for the future, using storytelling and puppetshows, by the BMW Guggenheim Lab)

Towards the end of last year, it became clearer how cities could take practical steps to position themselves to transform to meet the increasing economic, environmental and social challenges facing them; and to seek investment to support those transformations, as I described in “Smart Ideas for Everyday Cities“.

Equally important as those practical approaches to organisation, though, are the conceptual tools that will shape those transformations. Across fields as diverse as psychology, town planning, mathematics, construction, service-design and technology, some striking common themes have emerged that are shaping those tools.

Those themes imply that we will need to take radically different approaches to city systems driven by the astonishing, exciting and sometimes disturbing changes that we’re likely to see taking place increasingly rapidly in our world over the next decade.

To adopt the terminology of Irene Ng, a Researcher in new economic models and service science at the University of Warwick, these changes will create both “needs-led” and “capability-led” drivers to do things differently.

“Needs-led” changes will be driven by the massive growth taking place in the global middle class as economies across the world modernise. The impacts will be varied and widespread, including increasing business competition in a single, integrated economy; increasing competition for resources such as food, water and energy; and increasing fragility in the systems that supply those resources to a population that is ever more concentrated in cities. We are already seeing these effects in our everyday lives: many of us are paying more for our food as a proportion of our income than a few years ago.

At a recent lecture on behalf of the International Federation for Housing and Planning and the Association of European Schools of Planning, Sir Peter Hall, Professor of Planning and Regeneration at the Bartlett School of Planning, spoke of the importance of making the growth of cities sustainable through the careful design of the transport systems that support them. In the industrial revolution, as Edward Glaeser described in Triumph of the City, cities grew up around lifts powered by steam engines; Sir Peter described how more recently they have grown outwards into suburbs populated with middle-class car-owners who habitually drive to work, schools, shops, gyms and parks.

This lifestyle simply cannot be sustained – in the developed world or in emerging economies – across such an explosively growing number of people who have the immediate wealth to afford it, but who are not paying the full price of the resources it consumes. According to the exhibition in Siemens’ “Crystal” building, where Sir Peter’s lecture was held, today’s middle class is consuming resources at one-and-a-half times the rate the world creates them; unless something changes, the rate of growth of that lifestyle will hurl us towards a global catastrophe.

So, as the Collective Research Initiatives Trust (CRIT) observed in their study of the ongoing evolution of Mumbai, “Being Nicely Messy“, the structure of movement and the economy will have to change.

(Siemens’ Crystal building in London, a show case for sustainable technology in cities, photographed by Martin Deutsch)

Meanwhile, the evolution of technology is creating incredible new opportunities for “capability-led” change.

In the last two decades, we have seen the world revolutionised by information and communication technologies such as the internet and SmartPhones; but this is only the very start of a transformation that is still gathering pace. Whilst so far these technologies have created an explosion in the availability of information, recent advances in touch-screen technology and speech recognition are just starting to demonstrate that the boundary between the information world and physical, biological and neural systems is starting to disappear.

For example, a paralysed woman recently 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.

What changes to our urban systems will these developments – and the ones that follow them – lead to?

Following the decline of industries such as manufacturing, resource-mining and ship-building,  many post-industrial cities in the developed world are rebuilding their economies around sectors with growth potential, such as environmental technology and creative media. They are also working with the education system to provide their citizens with access to the skills those sectors require.

Supplying the skills that today’s economy needs can be a challenge. Google’s Chairman Eric Schmidt lambasted the British Education system last year for producing insufficient computer programming skills; and a cross-industry report, “Engineering the Future“, laid out the need for increased focus on environmental, manufacturing, technology and engineering skills to support future economic growth in the UK. As the rate of change in science and technology increases, the skills required in a consequently changing economy will also change more rapidly; providing those skills will be an even bigger challenge.

Or will it? How much of a leap forward is required from the technologies I’ve just described, to imagining that by 2030, people will respond to the need for changing skills in the market by downloading expertise Matrix-style to exploit new employment opportunities?

Most predictions of the future turn out to be wrong, and I’m sure that this one will be, in part or in whole. But as an indication of the magnitude of changes we can expect across technology, business, society and our own physical and mental behaviour I expect it will be representative.

Our challenge is to understand how these needs-led and capability-led transformations can collectively create a world that is sustainable; and that is sympathetic to us as human beings and communities. That challenge will be most acute where both needs and capabilities are most concentrated – in cities. And across economics, architecture, technology and human behaviour, three trends in urban thinking have emerged – or, at least, become more prominent – in recent years that provide guiding principles for how we might meet that challenge.

The attraction of opposites, part 1: producer and consumer

20120605-005134.jpg

(Photograph of 3D printers by Rob Boudon)

In the Web 2.0 era (roughly 2003-2009), the middle classes of the developed world became connected by “always-on” broadband connections, turning these hundreds of millions of information-consumers into information-producers. That is why in 2007 (and every year since) more new information was created than in all of the previous 5 millenia. Industries such as publishing, music and telecommunications have been utterly transformed as a result.

The disappearance of the boundary between  information, physical and biological systems, and the explosive growth in the population with access to the technologies responsible for that disappearance, will transform every economic and social structure we can imagine through the same producer / consumer revolution.

We can already produce as well as consume transport resources by participating in car-sharing schemes; and energy by exploiting domestic solar power and bio-energy. The falling cost and increasing sophistication of 3D printers are just starting to make it feasible to manufacture some products in the home, particularly in specialist areas such as railway modelling; and platforms such as the Amazon Turk and Slivers of Time can quickly connect producers and consumers in the service industries.

Business-to-business and business-to-consumer marketplaces such as Big Barn and Sustaination provide the same service in local food systems. And the transport industry is evolving to serve these new markets: for instance, Shutl provide a marketplace for home delivery services through a community of independent couriers; and a handful of cities are deploying or planning recycling systems in which individual items of waste are distributed to processing centres through pneumatically powered underground transport networks.

Of course, from the earliest development of farming in human culture, we have all been both producers and consumers in a diversified economy. What’s new is the opportunity for technology to dramatically improve the flexibility, timeliness and efficiency of the value-chains that connect those two roles. Car-sharing not only reduces the amount of fuel used by our journeys; it could reduce the resources consumed by manufacturing vehicles that spend the majority of their lives stationary on drives or in car parks. Markets that more efficiently connect food production, processing and consumption could reduce the thousands of miles that food currently travels between farm and fork, often crossing its own path several times; they could create employment opportunities in small-scale food processing; not to mention reducing the vast quantity of food that is produced but not eaten, and goes to waste.

Irene Ng explores these themes wonderfully in her new book, “Value and Worth: Creating New Markets in the Digital Economy“; they offer us exciting opportunities for economic and social growth, and an evolution towards a more sustainable urban future – if we can harness them in that way.

The attraction of opposites, part 2: little and big

Some infrastructures can be “blunt” instruments: from roads and railway lines which connect their destinations but which cut apart the communities they pass through; to open data platforms which provide vast quantities of data “as-is” but little in the way of information and services customised to the needs of local individuals and communities.

Architects such as Jan Gehl have argued that the design process for cities should concentrate on the life between buildings, rather than on the structure of buildings; and that cities should be constructed at a “human-scale” – medium-sized buildings, not tower-blocks and sky-scrapers; and streets that are walkable and cycle-able, not dominated by cars. In transport, elevated cycleways and pedestrian roundabouts have appeared in Europe and Asia. These structures prevent road traffic infrastructures form impeding the fluid movement of cycling and walking – transport modes which allow people to stop and interact in a city more easily and often than driving.

At a meeting held in London last year to establish the UK’s chapter to the City Protocol Society, Keith Coleman of Capgemini offered a different view by comparing the growth in size of cities to the structure of the world’s largest biological organisms. In particular, Keith contrasted the need to provide infrastructure – such as the Pando forest in Utah, a single, long-lived and vastly extensive root system supporting millions of individual trees that live, grow and die independently – with the need to provide capabilities – such as those encoded in the genes of the Neptune sea grass, which is not a single organism, but rather a genetically identical colony which collectively covers 5% of the Mediterranean sea floor.

The Collective Research Initiatives Trust‘s study of Mumbai, “Being Nicely Messy“, Colin Rowe and Fred Koetter’s “Collage City“, Manu Fernandez’s “Human Scale Cities” project and CHORA’s Taiwan Strait Atlas project have all suggested an approach to urban systems that is more like the Neptune sea grass than the Pando forest: the provision of a “toolkit” for individuals and organisations to apply in their local context

My own work, initially in Sunderland, was similarly informed by the Knight Foundation’s report on the Information Needs of Communities, to which I was introduced by Conn Crawford of Sunderland City Council. It counsels for a process of engagement and understanding between city institutions and communities, in order that the resources of large organisations can be focused on providing the information and services that can be most effectively used by individual citizens, businesses and social organisations.

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

Kelvin Campbell of Urban Initiatives has perhaps taken this thinking furthest in the urban context in his concept of “Massive Small” and the “urban operating system”. Similar thinking appears throughout research on resilience in systems such as cities, coral reefs, terrorist networks and financial systems, as described by Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy in “Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back“. And it is reflected in the work that many researchers and professionals across fields as diverse as city planning, economics and technology are doing to understand how institutional city systems can engage effectively with “informal” activity in the economy.

In IBM we have adapted our approach too. To take one example, a few years ago we launched our “Global Entrepreneur” programme, through which we engage directly with small, startup businesses using technology to develop what we call “Smarter Planet” and “Smarter Cities” solutions. These businesses are innovating in specific markets that they understand much better than we do; using operating models that IBM does not have. In turn, IBM’s resources can help them build more resilient solutions more quickly and cost-effectively, and reach a wider set of potential customers across the world.

A civic infrastructure that combines economics and technology and that, whilst it has a long history,  is starting to evolve rapidly, is the local currency. Last year Bristol became the fifth place in the UK to launch its own currency; whilst in Switzerland an alternative currency, the Wir, is thought to have contributed to the stability of the Swiss economy for the last century by providing an alternative, more flexible basis for debt, by allowing repayments to made in kind through bartering, as well as in currency.

Such systems can promote local economic synergy, and enable the benefits of capital fluidity to be adapted to the needs of local contexts. And from innovations in mobile banking in Africa to Birmingham’s DropletPay SmartPhone payment system, they are rapidly exploiting new technologies. They are a clear example of a service that city and economic institutions can support; and that can be harnessed and used by individuals and organisations anywhere in a city ecosystem for the purposes that are most important and valuable to them.

IMG-20121104-00606

(The Co-operative Society building at Avoncroft Museum of Historic Buildings)

Co-operative Governance

It’s increasingly obvious that on their own, traditional businesses and public and civic institutions won’t deliver the transformations that our cities, and our planet, need. The restructuring of our economy, cities and society to address the environmental and demographic challenges we face requires that social, environmental and long term economic goals drive our decisions, rather than short term financial returns alone.

Alternatives have been called for and proposed. In her speech ahead of the Rio +20 Summit, Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, said that one of the challenges for achieving a sustainable, equitably distributed return to growth following the recent economic challenges was that “externalities” such as social and environmental impacts are not currently included in the prices of goods and services.

I participated last year in a panel discussion at the World Bank’s “Rethinking Cities” conference which asked whether including those costs would incent consumers to chose to purchase sustainably provided goods and services. We examined several ways to create positive and negative incentives through pricing; but also examples of simply “removing the barriers” to making such choices. Our conclusion was that a combination of approaches was needed, including new ideas from game theory and technology, such as “open data”; and that evidence exists from a variety of examples to prove that consumer behaviour can and does adapt in response to well designed systems.

In “Co-op Capitalism“, Noreena Hertz proposed an alternative approach to enterprise based on social principles, where the objectives of collective endeavours are to return broad value to all of their stakeholders rather than to pay dividends to financial investors. This approach has a vital role in enabling communities across the entirety of city ecosystems to harness and benefit from technology in a sustainable way, and is exemplified by innovations such as MyDex in personal information management, Carbon Voyage in transport, and Eco-Island in energy.

New forms of cooperation have also emerged from resilience research, such as “constellations” and “articulations”. All of these approaches have important roles to play in specific city systems, community initiatives and new businesses, where they successfully create synergies between the financial, social and economic capabilities and needs of the participants involved.

But none of them directly address the need for cities to create a sustainable, cohesive drive towards a sustainable, equitable, successful future.

(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 through the Eco-Island initiative)

In “Smart Ideas for Everyday Cities“, I described an approach that seems to be emerging from the cities that have made the most progress so far. It involves bringing together stakeholders across city systems – representatives of communities; city institutions; owners and operators of city systems and assets such as buildings, transportation and utilities; Universities and schools; and so on – into a group that can not only agree a vision and priorities for the city’s future; but that is empowered to take collective decisions accordingly.

The initiatives agreed by such a group will require individual “special purpose vehicles” (SPVs) to be created according to the specific set of stakeholder interests involved in each case – such as public/private partnerships to build infrastructure or Community Interest Companies and Energy Service Companies to operate local energy schemes. (There are some negative connotations associated with SPVs, which have been used in some cases by private organisations seeking to hide their debt or ownership; but in the Smarter Cities context they are frequently associated with more positive purposes).

Most importantly, though: where a series of such schemes and commercial ventures are initiated by a stable collaboration within a city, investors will see a reliable decision-making process and a mature understanding of shared risk and its management; making each individual initiative more likely to attract investment.

In his analysis of societal responses to critical environmental threats, Jared Diamond noted in his 2005 book “Collapse” that successful responses often emerge when choices are taken by leaders with long-term vested interests, working closely with their communities. In a modern economy, the interests of stakeholders are driven by many timescales – electoral cycles, business cycles, the presence of commuters, travellers and the transient and long-term residents of the city, for example. Bringing those stakeholders together can create a forum that transcends individual timescales, creating stability and the opportunity for a long-term outlook.

A challenge for 2013: better stories for Smarter Cities

Some cities are seizing the agenda for change that I have described in this article; and the very many of us across countries, professions and disciplines who are exploring that agenda are passionate about helping them to do so successfully.

In their report “Cities Outlook 1901“, Centre for Cities explored the previous century of urban development in the UK, examining why at various times some cities thrived and some did not. They concluded that actions taken by cities in areas such as planning, policy, skills development and economic strategy could have significant effects on their economic and social prosperity relative to others.

The need for cities to respond to the challenges and opportunities of the future using the old, new and evolving tools at their disposal is urgent. In the 20th Century, some cities suffered a gradual decline as they failed to respond successfully to the changes of their age. In the 21st Century those changes will be so striking, and take place so quickly, that failing to meet them could result in a decline that is catastrophic.

But there is a real impediment to our ability to apply these ideas in cities today: a lack of common understanding.

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

As the industrial and information revolutions have led our world to develop at a faster and faster pace, human knowledge has not just grown dramatically; it has fragmented to an extraordinary extent.

Consequently, across disciplines such as architecture, economics, social science, psychology, technology and all the many other fields important to the behaviour of cities, a vast and confusing array of language and terminology is used – a Tower of Babel, no less. The leaders of many city institutions and businesses are understandably not familiar with what they can easily perceive as jargon; and new ideas that appear to be presented in jargon are unlikely to be trusted.

To address the challenge, those of us who believe in these new approaches to city systems need to tell better stories about them; stories about individuals and their lives in the places where they live and work; how they will be more healthy, better equiped to support themselves, and able to move around freely in a pleasant urban environment.

Professor Miles Tight at the University of Birmingham and his colleagues in the “Visions 2030” project have applied this idea to the description of future scenarios for transportation in cities. They have created a series of visually appealing animated depictions of everyday scenes in city streets and places that could be the result of the various forces affecting the development of transport over the next 20 years. Malcolm Allan, a colleague in the Academy of Urbanism, helps cities to tell “stories about place” as a tool for envisaging their future development in a way that people can understand and identify with. And my colleagues in IBM Research have been exploring more generally how storytelling can enable the exchange of knowledge in situations where collaborative creativity is required across multiple domains of specialisation.

If we can bring our knowledge of emerging technologies and new approaches to urbanism into conversations about specific places in the form of stories, we will build trust and understanding in those places, as well as envisioning their possible futures. And that will give us a real chance of achieving the visions we create. This is what I’ll be concentrating on doing in 2013; and it looks like being an exciting year.

(It’s been much longer than usual since I last wrote an article for this blog; following an extended break over Christmas and the New Year, I’ve had a very busy start to 2013. I hope to resume my usual frequency of writing for the rest of the year.

And finally, an apology: in my remarks on the panel discussion following Sir Peter Hall’s lecture at the Crystal, I gave a very brief summary of some of the ideas described in this article. In particular, I used the term “Massive / Small” without attributing it to Kelvin Campbell and Urban Initiatives. My apologies to Kelvin, whose work and influence on my thinking I hope I have now acknowledged properly).

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?

From Christmas lights to bio-energy: how technology will change our sense of place

(Photo of Vancouver from the waterfront in Kitsilano by James Wheeler)

Why do we care about cities?

Why are private sector companies, public sector authorities and organisations such as the European Union making such enormous investments in “Smarter Cities“, “Sustainable Cities” and “Future Cities”?

Usually we would say it’s because of a combination of social, environmental and economic challenges facing us all. But there’s a powerful personal force at work too: where we live matters to us.

The choices that the 7 billion of us who share the planet make that are affected by our relationship with the places where we live have an incredible impact, especially when they are concentrated in cities. For example, the combined carbon impact of those who commute into cities to work each day because they choose to live in the less densely populated areas outside them is immense.

If we’re going to succeed in facing the significant challenges facing us, we need to exploit the powerful connections between people and places to motivate us to choose and behave differently.

The super-rich own houses around the world and have the means to travel between them as they choose or as their business demands it; and some professionals or tradespeople choose or accept a life that involves constant travel in the interests of work and employment. But on the whole, these are the exceptions.

Humans are physical not virtual. Whilst we move or travel from time to time out of choice or necessity, most people work and live day-by-day within a place. Some people and communities face challenges of social and transport mobility, and simply have no choice about where they live. Others may have some choice of location, but are limited by means to investing in living in one place. To a greater or lesser degree we all want to make the most of that investment, and don’t want to relocate too often or travel too far or frequently away from home in order to work.

The value we perceive in our connections to places is determined by their physicality, economics and communities. Many cities and regions exploit this by publicising the attractive qualities of the environment that they can offer – to individuals looking for homes, or to businesses looking for locations to operate from. Whilst the qualities of natural geography are certainly an important contributor to the quality of those environments, many of the other factors are to do with the people within them.

The choices and actions of people can have unusual effects on their environment; for example, the residents of Broadwater Road in Southampton choose collectively to mount striking lighting displays on their houses every Christmas. Or local regulations can constrain the choices of residents to achieve sometimes impressive results, such as in the beautiful urban village of Bourneville in Birmingham.

(Photo of the beautifully maintained frontage of houses in Bournville, Birmingham, by C. Wess Daniels)

Place and economy have many and complex influences on each other. The “Silicon Roundabout” cluster of entrepreneurial technology businesses in London exists where it does because of a combination of proximity to London’s financial services sector – and its venture capitalisists – and the availability of cheap flats, pubs and food outlets. These latter make it an affordable, attractive place to live for the young people with technology skills that start-up companies need to hire.

In other cases, the influences are less constructive. London’s economy has succeeded through businesses that rely on higly educated, skilled people; who in turn are recompensed with some of the highest wages in the country. Accordingly, house prices are extremely high. This it turn makes it difficult or impossible for many people in careers with more modest salaries to afford housing – for example, teachers. If there’s one thing that educated, successful people can be pretty much guaranteed to care about, it’s providing a high quality education for their children. But their success and affluence makes it hard for teachers to live nearby and provide it.

Modern communication technologies provide new opportunities for communities to form and interact in ways that give them more insight into and control over the impact of their interactions. Somewhere between the inventions of the telegraph and virtual worlds, we passed a tipping point: the earliest technologies were simply means to pass messages between people who already knew each other; the ones we have now – especially social media – enable people to identify, contact and transact with complete strangers based on some common interest.

Some simple examples of these technologies allowing communities to behave in more sustainable ways are the recycling network Freecyle, the LandShare initiative that provides access to untended land to people who want to grow food but don’t have gardens, and Carbon Voyage, one of many platforms that promote the sharing of cars, taxis and other forms of transport.

These technologies gives us the opportunity to build new marketplaces and currencies which can be used to encourage transactions that create social, environmental and economic value for communities. For example, organisations such as Big Barn and Sustaination are building new business-to-consumer and business-to-business marketplaces to encourage more sustainable food production and consumption.

(Photo of a 3D printer at work by Media Lab Prado)

What’s even more interesting is to look ahead to emerging technologies that could make it possible for such community markets to create some very surprising disruptions in the way city systems and some industries work. Smart materials and 3D printers, combined with the reduction in cost differentials between emerging and mature markets, are bringing some striking changes to manufacturing; meaning that in some cases it is more important to be able to manufacture customised items locally in immediate response to individual demand than it is to globally source the lowest cost manufacturer of commodity items.

New innovations in user interfaces are also making it easier to connect people to digital information and services. Whilst significant challenges remain in making such services truly accessible to all, it’s already striking to see tablet computers and e-readers being widely used by people who would never choose to buy or use a laptop. And once you’ve seen how naturally very young toddlers interact with tablet computers in particular, you realise how significantly the world will change in future years.

(Photo of me wearing the Emotiv headset)

Technology has already advanced even further; Emotiv‘s headset, which measures brain activity, has already been used by my colleagues to drive a London Taxi around an airfield by using the headset to monitor their thoughts; and Professor Kevin Warwick of Reading University has pioneered the use of computing technology embedded in our bodies as a means of interacting with information systems in our environment. As such technologies mature and spread they’ll have impacts that are impossible to predict.

The New Optimists, a community of scientists and industry experts came together in Birmingham recently to explore the opportunities that new technologies offer for highly distributed energy production systems in communities. Domestic solar panels are an obvious means to do this; but geo-thermal energy, wind and tidal energy are other candidates. Southampton is already producing its own geo-thermal energy, for example, and Eco-Island are attempting to harness several such approaches to make the Isle of Wight not just self-sufficient in terms of energy, but a net exporter. The European Bio-Energy Research Institution (EBRI) at Aston University in Birmingham is developing new, more efficient means of producing energy from biological waste material such as discarded food. A prototype power-plant is already providing energy to 800 households in Shropshire. The New Optimists discussion looked ahead to the possibility that such technologies could be scaled-down even further for use in individual homes.

The systems exploiting these technologies in communities are winning investment because they are market-based: they create money-flows and revenue streams against which investments can be justified. Whilst their focus is local, it is not isolated: complete self-sufficiency will probably never be achieved, and is usually not the goal. Rather, it’s to maximise the benefits of local trading whilst making the impact of import and export more transparent so that more informed choices can be made.

Such place-based trading networks could connect the choices we make every day more directly with their impact on the places in which we live and work; exploiting our consciousness of the investments we’ve made in those places to persuade us to choose differently to protect and improve them. And if they’re linked sufficiently to the industrial national and international supply chains that provide what can’t be sourced locally, they could take into account the wider social and environmental impact of imported goods and services too. Of course, that will only be achieved if those systems are made more transparent, but the pressure to do that already exists. And the more we have the means to exploit transparency, the more effective that pressure will be.

We want to make our cities and lives more sustainable because we’re conscious of the environmental, social and economic challenges facing our planet; we’re most likely to do so through choices that have positive impacts we can see on the places where we live. Technology will continue to provide new mechanisms that can make such choices available to us; but its down to us as individuals and communities to harness and use them.

Will the city of the future be a hyperlocal manufacturing cluster?

20120605-005134.jpg

(Image by Rob Boudon)

I’ve become really excited recently about the ability of three trends to transform city economies: improving bandwidth and connectivity; the increasingly intimate way that information technology can be connected to the physical environment; and the relationship between industry convergence, localism and the creation of economic value.

Together, they lead me to the question in the title of this post: will the city of the future be a hyperlocal manufacturing cluster?

(They also lead me to a serious challenge. But I’ll return to that at the end).

Let’s take each theme in turn:

How increasing bandwidth improves the quality of user experience to the point of industry disruption

As the bandwith available for communications has increased over time, the quality of user experience we are able to provide online in advertising, shopping, music, telephony and video has in turn lead to disruptions that disintermediate traditional industry structures – epitomised by Craig’s List, Amazon, iTunes, Skype and YouTube. Business and technology innnovators are constantly looking for new opportunities to cause disruptions and take controlling stakes in the new markets they create.

How the digitisation of materials and physical processes will transform manufacturing

Digitisation and mass customisation are now sweeping through manufacturing. Intelligent materials and components capable of storing information will communicate instructions to the production machines processing them to indicate what product they should be fashioned into. New “apps” will be downloaded to those machines to change their function. Small versions of such “Smart machines” – the evolution of today’s 3D printers – will be distributed throughout cities, and even in our homes, along with a stock of raw smart materials. This wave of change is already known as “Industry 4.0” and is emerging as a strong theme of Germany’s economic strategy, as described by Professor Wolfgang Wahlster of the German Research Centre for Artificial Intelligence.

As these incredible advances in the ability of information technology to control physical materials take place, for some products it is becoming more important to be able to manufacture customised items locally in immediate response to individual demand – i.e. to perform in-market innovation – than it is to globally source the lowest cost manufacturer for large numbers of identical items.

How convergence between industries creates economic value

All of the examples above represent convergence between related industries such as technology, communications, publishing and consumer electronics. The theory of economic clusters states that such convergence is necessary to maintain profit margins, because over time those margins otherwise diminish through competition and innovation in supply. To maintain profit margins, products and services need to be adapted by adding additional features, often produced by capabilities associated with related industry sectors.

Convergence is usually caused by the exploitation of newly availabe – or newly cost-effective – technology in response to, or in order to create, market demand. Amazon’s appropriation of consumer device technology in the form of the Kindle is an example. This convergence at the level of individual capabilities takes place constantly, in addition to the industry disruptions in my original examples. From time to time, a combination of the two effects creates entirely new markets such as search, which was captured very effectively by Google following the initial successes of AltaVista and Yahoo.

Why the Smarter City of the future will be a low carbon hyperlocal manufacturing cluster

The near-future ideas of Industry 4.0 represent a convergence between the technology, communications and manufacturing industries. To an extent they’ve been here for some time in the form of highly configurable car factories such as the Nissan plant in Sunderland, where up to 6 models have been produced from just two production lines over the past 2 years. It is the most productive car plant in Europe.

The spread of Industry 4.0 to localised application in city environments and even homes will be transformative. The carbon footprint created by transportation in the supply chain will be reduced; and new careers (such as some of those suggested by Google’s Futurist Thomas Frey) will be created to exploit the capabilities of these new manufacturing platforms.

The use of social media to turn product design into a collaborative process (as Zuda did for Comics and Threadless did for T-shirts) could be applied in the home to more physically complicated goods such as confectionary (for example using 3D printers for chocolate).

I was lucky enough this week to speak at the 3rd European Summit on the Future Internet at the University of Aalto in Espoo, Finland. Speakers such as Wolfgang Wahlster, Jean-Luc Beylat (President of Alcatel-Lucent Bell Labs in France), and Ilkka Lakaniemi (Director of Business Environment Strategy for Nokia) all spoke on themes related to the ideas in this post.

The challenge for society in the Industry 4.0 era

To temper the excitement associated with these profound changes, considerable concern was also expressed at the summit for the effects on mass employment. Whilst the “re-shoring” of manufacturing is already bringing some manufacturing employment back to developed economies as global wage differentials reduce, there’s no doubt that less people, and with considerably different skills, will be employed in the process of making things as Industry 4.0 gathers pace.

Our challenge as a society and individuals is to continue to create new exchanges of value between each other, in new forms. My observation in the UK is that hand-made products and locally sourced food are in increasing demand, for instance. And there’s no doubt that the quality of our lives would in many cases be improved if more effort were expended maintaining and improving the physical environment around us.

Indeed, there’s some evidence to suggest that growth in the so-called “DIY economy” of freelance employment across trade and professions is accelerating following the recession, supported in some cases by technology platforms for “micro-entrepreneurialism” (such as Etsy‘s online market for handmade goods). These can also be seen as examples of convergence and disintermediation.

I hope we turn out to be as innovative and determined in addressing this social challenge as we are in exploiting the advances of technology for economic reasons.

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