Should technology improve cities, or should cities improve technology?

(Photo of the Queens Arms in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter by Ian Edwards)

I was honoured this week to be invited to join the Academy of Urbanism, a society of professionals, academics and policy makers from a variety of backgrounds whose work is concerned in some way with cities. As a technology professional who has increasingly worked in an urban context over the past few years, I try to be as conscious of what I don’t know about cities as what I do; and I’m hoping that the Academy will offer me the opportunity to learn from its many expert members.

In fact, in a discussion today with an expert from the property development sector, I found myself reversing my usual direction of thinking concerning the relationship between technology and cities: when asked “how can technology contribute to improving property development” I replied that I was more interested in the question “how can property development improve technology?”.

I spend a lot of my time working both with City Councils and with the ecosystems of entrepreneurs and small businesses in cities; especially those businesses that create or use technology. Such businesses are – rightly, in my view – seen as the heart of a sustainable economy by many cities. They create innovate products and services in high value markets; they often operate in local networks of supply and demand that create self-reinforcing growth in the city economy; and they export products and services nationally and internationally.

Almost by definition these businesses create value in a way that is agile and closely linked to local market and cultural context; they are the antithesis of the sort of large-scale, process-driven, technology work that it is easy and cost-effective to describe in writing in order that its delivery can be commissioned from the lowest cost supplier internationally. These are amongst the reasons that the excellent Microsoft-sponsored “Developing the Future” report in 2007 cited this sector as key to growth in the UK economy.

It’s obvious that making office space and technology infrastructure such as broadband connectivity available to businesses of this sort is important; what’s less obvious is what else is required in order to create a successful, sustainable, growing cluster of such businesses with the capability to have a significant overall impact on a city economy.

Two aspects of that challenge that have been interesting me recently are: how do cities attract the young, skilled people who might start or work for such businesses? And: how can cities make themselves attractive places for those people to grow older, mature their business and professional skills, and start families?

Whilst I often write on this blog about my own work in the UK, I spoke at length with a colleague this week who is helping a fast-growing African city to contemplate these precise issues. In a single, global economy, they matter to cities everywhere.

By coincidence, the Urban Repairs Club visited the Jewellery Quarter in my home city of Birmingham this week. Their report of what they found is insightful and very relevant to this subject. I moved to Birmingham in 1990, just in time to annoy shoppers in the city’s old Bullring shopping centre by busking as a university student, before it was replaced by the new Bullring which revitalised the city’s retail centre. The Urban Repairs Club article well reflects both the changes for the better since that period; and the challenges that remain.

(Photo of machines from the industrial revolution in Birmingham’s Science Museum by Chris Moore)

Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter was at the heart of the Industrial Revolution; it is where the powered mass-manufacture of designed items (such as badges, coins, and belt buckles) was first invented, in between the creation of one-off objects of art and the mass production of undecorated functional items.

It retains that industrial heritage today in a way that is entirely uncontrived and that has not been “restored” or recreated as a homage to history. It contains green spaces; some of Birmingham’s most interesting restaurants and evening venues; and affordable housing. In many ways it reminds me of the comments made by London-based technology entrepreneurs in the recent Demos “Tale of Tech City” report describing what attracts them to Shoreditch – and what will not necessarily attract them to use the facilities of the Olympic legacy sites.

At the risk of entering into a controversial debate in my home city, one of its challenges is that the attractions of the Jewellery Quarter are less than ideally connected to some key economic areas in Birmingham, such as the technology incubation campus at Birmingham Science Park Aston; or the hearts of the digital media and creative sectors around Fazeley Studios and the Custard Factory. The Urban Repairs Club report discusses some of the features of Birmingham’s urban landscape that cause this separation: it is possible to walk between all of these areas, for example; but it is not pleasant to do so, and it is not a walk I would undertake on a dark autumn or winter evening with my family. That reluctance might arise more from my perception of the area’s character than its reality; but it’s on the basis of perception that such decisions are taken.

A colleague in Birmingham commented that the deficiencies of urban environments such as those highlighted by the Urban Repairs Club are often impacts of decisions in property development and transport that are driven by financial and economic outcomes and that don’t adequately recognise the importance of social mobility, social cohesion and sustainability.

Those comments reminded me of a passage in Jared Diamond’s 2005 book, “Collapse“. In it, Diamond is concerned with the ways in which societies respond to environmental challenges that threaten their survival. As historic examples, he studies Easter Island and Norse Greenland, and in the present day he discusses the situations of Australia and the US State of Montana.

(Photo by Stefan of Himeji, Japan, showing the forest that covers much of Japan’s landmass enclosing – and enclosed by – the city)

In particular, his comments on Japan’s successful slowing of population growth and reversal of deforestation between the 17th and 19th Centuries struck me:

“… a suite of factors … caused both the elite and the masses in Japan to recognise their long-term stake in preserving their own forests, to a degree greater than for most other people.”

He goes on to say that those factors included the fact that the ruling Tokugawa shoguns:

“… having imposed peace and eliminated rival armies at home, correctly anticipated that they were at little risk of a revolt at home or an invasion from overseas. They expected their own Tokugawa family to remain in control of Japan, which in fact it did for 250 years.”

Unless I’m misreading the current political situation, 250 years of hereditary governance is not something that’s likely to happen in the UK; but there’s a hint of the modern-day expression of that stability of vested interest in the Urban Repair Club’s report. In it, they highlight that the property section of Birmingham’s newspaper, the Birmingham Post has the subtitle: “EdgbastonHarborneHerefordshireStaffordshireSolihullWarwickshireShropshireStourbridgeWorcestershire”; and that if these are the areas that Birmingham’s citizens are thought to aspire to live in, then it’s notable that only two of them (Edgbaston and Harborne) are in Birmingham; the others are mostly nearby market towns and the counties that surround them.

This is a typical consequence of the trend in the UK for those who are approaching middle-age, and becoming more experienced businesspeople and professionals, to leave cities as they also become parents; in the search for more space, better schools and a more peaceful lifestyle. Edward Glaesar referred to the same drive in “The Triumph of the City” and reflected that he himself had moved from a city centre to a suburb for precisely these reasons.

If we could counter that trend, we might help cities to address two challenges: the loss from the city-centre economy of some of their most important business talent (as highlighted in the Centre for Cities reports “Outlook for Cities 2012” and “Hidden potential: Supporting growth in Sunderland & other mid-sized cities“); and the development of longer-term relationships between people and place; particularly those people whose careers advance to the point that they are in the position to take the investment and property development decisions that shape our cities.

(Photo byC. Wess Daniels of Bournville, the urban village created by the long-standing relationship between the Cadbury family and the area of Birmingham in which their chocolate factory is located)

The Urban Repairs Club article suggests that some of the Corporations responsible for modern developments in Birmingham act in their own short-term financial interest, and not in the city’s interest. In contrast to this are the attitudes expressed recently by Sir Roger Carr, president of the Confederation of British Industry and chair of Centrica, the UK’s largest energy company; and Gianpiero Petriglieri, Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD. Recognising the reality that we live in a globalised world with a single capitalist economy, both Sir Roger and Professor Petriglieri are meditating on the opportunity for business to be a force for good; and on the importance of globally mobile leaders retaining a prolonged, local sense of place. I suspect that the truth is complex and consists of elements of all of these perspectives.

To return to Jared Diamond, in an analysis of the factors common to successful responses to environmental challenges, he comments:

“Leaders who don’t just react passively, who have the courage to anticipate crises or to act early, and who make strong insightful decisions of top-down management really can make a huge difference to their societies. So can similarly courageous, active citizens practicing bottom-up management.”

Achieving that balance will help cities such as Birmingham, and others across the world, to be successful in achieving many of their goals, including the creation of high-value, sustainable local economies – whether in the technology sector or elsewhere.

The relationships between sustainability and economy are many-faceted. Diamond comments that his analysis included examples in which:

“one society succeeded while one or more societies practising different economies in the same environment failed”

And that therefore:

“not only the environment, but also the proper choice of an economy to fit the environment, is important.”

Correspondingly, the right urban environment is needed to support the economy. Not just one in which the technology and transport infrastructure is available to support distribution, services and operations; but one that attracts people to live and work; and that provides both physical and social mobility for everyone. Those are challenges that in some ways technology can assist – through the provision of more complete, holistic information, for example – but they will not be solved by technology. They’ll be solved – I hope – by the combination of talent and disciplines represented in organisations such as the Academy of Urbanism; or that in some cases come together naturally in city communities to create enlightened “bottom-up” activism.

I’m hoping to learn much more about all of these possibilities as I get to know my fellow Academicians.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Which data is useful?

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

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

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

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

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

2. What data is available?

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

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

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

3. What is the data about?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. Data can be difficult to use

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. Can I trust the data?

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

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

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

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

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

7. Data is easy to lose

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

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

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

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

A Brownfield Regeneration for the Information Age

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

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

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

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

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

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

The new architecture of Smart Cities

(Photo of the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing by Trey Ratcliff)

I’ve been preparing this week for the next stage of work on Birmingham’s Smart City Commission; our task on the Commission is to develop a strategic vision for Birmingham as a Smart City and a roadmap for achieving it.

In doing so I’ve been considering an interesting and important question:

What makes a city a “Smart City” as opposed to a city where some “smart things” happen?

Three obvious criteria for answering that question stand out:

1. Smart Cities are led from the top – they have a strong and visionary leader championing the Smart agenda across the city. The Mayors of Rio and Barcelona are famously showing such leadership; and in the UK, so too are, amongst others, Dave Smith, CEO of Sunderland City Council, and Sir Albert Bore, Birmingham’s elected Council Leader, and a founder of the Eurocities movement.

2. Smart Cities have a stakeholder forum – they have drawn together a community of city stakeholders across the city. Those stakeholders have not only created a compelling vision for a Smart City; they have committed to taking an ongoing role coordinating a programme to deliver it. This is the challenge we have been given in Birmingham’s Smart City Commission; and I’ve previously written about how such a responsibility could be carried out.

3. Smart Cities invest in technology infrastructure – they are deploying the required information and communication technology (ICT) platforms across the city; and doing so in such a way as to support the integration of information and activity across city systems. (There are, of course, many other infrastructures that are important to the future of cities; but in “Smart Cities” we are particularly concerned with the role of technology, as I argued in a recent article on this blog).

It’s also important, though, to consider what is different about the structure and organisation of city systems in a Smart City. How does a city such as Birmingham decide which technology infrastructures are required? Which organisations will make use of them, and how? How can they be designed and delivered so that they effectively serve individuals, communities and businesses in the city? What other structures and processes are required to achieve this progress in a Smart City?

Designing Smart Cities

In order to design the infrastructures and systems of Smart Cities well, we need to design them in context – that is, with an understanding of the environment in which they will exist, and the other elements of that environment with which they will interact.

The figure below – “Components of a Smart City Architecture” – is one way of describing the context for Smart City systems and infrastructures. It contains six layers which I’ll discuss further below: “Goals”; “People”; “Ecosystem”; “Soft Infrastructures”; “City Systems” and “Hard Infrastructures”.

(I’m very aware that this diagram is not a particularly good visual representation of a Smart City, by the way. It doesn’t emphasise the centricity of people, for example, and it is not aesthetically pleasing. I’m simply using it as a conceptual map at this stage. I welcome any suggestions for re-casting and improving it!)

(Components of a Smart City architecture)

Goals, People and Ecosystem

Every Smart City initiative is based on a set of goals; often they focus on sustainability, inclusivity and the creation of social and economic growth. Boyd Cohen, who writes frequently on the subject of Smart Cities for Fast Company, published an excellent article surveying and analysing the goals that cities have expressed in their Smart initiatives and providing a model for considering them.

Ultimately, such goals will only be achieved through a Smart City strategy if that strategy results in changes to city systems and infrastructures that make a difference to individuals within the city – whether they are residents, workers or visitors. The art of user-centric, or citizen-centric, service design is a rich subject in its own right, and I don’t intend to address it directly here. However, I am very much concerned with the wider context within which that design takes place, and in particular the role that communities play.

I do not believe that a Smart City strategy that concerns itself only with citizens, city systems and hard infrastructures will result in citizen-centric design; it is only be co-creating soft infrastructures with city communities that such an approach can be systematically encouraged across a city.

In “How Smarter Cities Get Started” I wrote some time ago about the importance of engaging city communities in identifying the goals of Smart City initiatives and setting out the strategy to achieve them. I’ve also written previously about the importance of designing Smart City infrastructures so that they enable innovation within city communities.

Communities are living, breathing manifestations of city life, of course, not structures to be engineered. They are vital elements of the city’s ecosystem: they provide support; they are expressions of social life; they represent shared interests and capabilities; and they can play a role communicating between city institutions and individual citizens. They include families and social networks; neighbourhood, cultural and faith groups; charities and the voluntary sector; public sector organisations such as Schools and Universities, in addition to local government; and private sector organisations such as service providers, retailers and employers.

The challenge for the architects and designers of Smart Cities is to create infrastructures and services that can become part of the fabric and life of this ecosystem of communities and people. To do so effectively is to engage in a process of co-creative dialogue with them.

Soft Infrastructures

In the process of understanding how communities and individuals might interact with and experience a Smart City, elements of “soft infrastructure” are created – in the first place, conversations and trust. If the process of conversations is continued and takes place broadly, then that process and the city’s communities can become part of a Smart City’s soft infrastructure.

A variety of soft infrastructures play a vital role in the Smart City agenda, from the stakeholder forum that creates and carries out a Smart City strategy; to the “hackdays” and competitions that make Open Data initiatives successful; to neighbourhood planning dialogues such as that conducted in Vancouver as part of the “Carbon Talks” programme. They also include the organisations and interest groups who support city communities – such as Sustainable Enterprise Strategies in Sunderland who provide support to small businesses and social enterprises in the city’s most deprived communities or the Social Media Cafe in Birmingham which brings together citizens from all walks of life who are interested in creating community value online.

Some soft infrastructural elements are more formal. For example, governance processes for measuring both overall progress and the performance of individual city systems against Smart City objectives; frameworks for procurement criteria that encourage and enable individual buying decisions across the city to contribute towards Smart City goals; and standards and principles for integration and interoperability across city systems. All of these are elements of a Smart City architecture that any Smart City strategy should seek to put in place.

(Photo of the Athens Olympic Sports Complex from Space by the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center)

City systems

Whilst individual city systems are not my focus in this article, they are clearly significant elements of the Smart City context. In a previous article I discussed how the optimisation of such systems as energy, water and transportation can contribute significantly to Smarter City objectives.

More importantly, these systems literally provide life support for cities – they feed, transport, educate and provide healthcare for citizens as well as supporting communities and businesses. So we must treat them with real respect.

A key element of any design process is taking into account those factors that act as constraints on the designer. Existing city systems are a rich source of constraints for Smart City design: their physical infrastructures may be decades old and expensive or impossible to extend; and their operation is often contracted to service providers and subject to strict performance criteria. These constraints – unless they can be changed – play a major role in shaping a Smart City strategy.

Hard Infrastructures

The field of Smart Cities originated in the possibilities that new technology platforms offer to transform city systems. Those platforms include networks such as 4G and broadband; communication tools such as telephony, social media and video conferencing; computational resources such as Cloud Computing; information repositories to support Open Data or Urban Observatories; and analytic and modelling tools that can provide deep insight into the behaviour of city systems.

These technology platforms are not exempt from the principles I’ve described in this article: to be effective, they need to be designed in context. By engaging with city ecosystems and the organizations, communities and individuals in them to properly understand their needs, challenges and opportunities, technology platforms can be designed to support them.

I’ve made an analogy before between technology platforms and urban highways. It’s much harder to design an urban highway in a way that supports and enables the communities it passes through, than it is to simply design one that allows traffic to get from one place to another – and that in overlooking those communities, runs the risk of physically cutting them apart.

Technology platforms rarely have such directly adverse effects – though when badly mis-applied, they can do. However, it is certainly possible to design them poorly, so that they do not deliver value, or are simply left unused. These outcomes are most likely when the design process is insular; by contrast, the process of co-creating the design of a Smart City technology infrastructure with the communities of a city can even result in the creation of a portfolio of technology-enabled city services with the potential to generate revenue. Those future revenues in return support the case for making an investment in the platform in the first place.

And some common patterns are emerging in the technology capabilities that can provide value in city communities. I’ve referred to these before as the “innovation boundary” of a city. They include the basic connectivity that provides access to information systems; digital marketplace platforms that can support new business models; and local currencies that reinforce regional economic synergies.

These technology capabilities operate within the physical context of a city: its buildings, spaces, and the networks that support transport and utilities. The Demos report on the “Tech City” cluster of technology start-up businesses in London offers an interesting commentary on the needs of a community of entrepreneurs – needs that span those domains. They include: access to technology, the ability to attract venture capital investment, office space from which to run their businesses; and proximity to the food, retail, accommodation and entertainment facilities that make the area attractive to the talented professionals they need to hire.

In a recent conversation, Tim Stonor, Managing Director of Space Syntax, offered this commentary on a presentation given by UN Habitat Director General Joan Clos at the “Urban Planning for City Leaders” conference last week:

“The place to start is with the street network. Without this you can’t lay pipes, or run trams. It’s the foundations of urbanism and, without foundations, you’re building on sand. Yes, we can have subways that cut across/beneath the street network, and data packets that travel through the airwaves over the tops of buildings, but if these aren’t serving human interactions in effectively laid out street networks, then they are to little avail.”

Tim’s point on human interactions, I think, brings us nicely back full circle to thinking again about people and the relationships between them. Tim’s further comments on the presentation can be found on Storify.

A New Architecture?

At some point in the process of writing this article, I realised I had strayed onto provocative ground – this, perhaps, is why it’s taken me longer than usual to write.

As you can see, my job title contains the word “architect”. Strictly, I’m an Information Technology Architect, or “IT Architect” – I’ve spent my career “architecting” IT solutions such as e-commerce sites, mobile web apps, analytics systems and so on. Most recently I’ve been working in that capacity with Sunderland on their City Cloud.

I’m very aware that a strong view exists amongst Architects who create buildings and plan cities that IT professionals shouldn’t be describing ourselves in this way. Indeed, some (although I’d say a minority) of my colleagues agree, and call themselves designers or engineers instead.

Personally, I feel comfortable referring to my work as “architecture”. Many “IT solutions” – or more broadly, “IT-enabled business solutions” – are complex socio-technical systems. They are complex in an engineering sense, often extremely so; but they incorporate financial, social, operational, psychological and artistic components too; and they are designed in the context of the human, social, business, political and physical environments in which they will be used.

(Entrance to the Apple Store on Fifth Avenue, New York, photographed by Lambert Wolterbeek Muller)

So when we are designing a technology solution in a Smart City context – or indeed in any physical context – we are concerned with physical space; with transport networks; with city systems; and with human interactions. All of these are related to the more obvious concerns of information technology such as user interfaces, software applications, data stores, network infrastructure, data centres, laptops and workstations, wi-fi routers and mobile connectivity.

It seems to me that whilst the responsibilities and skills of “IT Architects” and Architects are not the same, they are applied within the same context, and cannot be separated from each other in that context. So in Smart Cities we should not treat “architecture” and “IT architecture” as separable activities.

In “Notes on the Synthesis of Form”, a work which laid the groundwork for his invention of the “design patterns” now widely adopted by IT professionals, the town planner Christopher Alexander remarked of architecture:

At the same time that problems increase in quantity, complexity and difficulty, they also change faster than before. New materials are developed all the time, social patterns alter quickly, the culture itself is changing faster than it has ever changed before.”

– Christopher Alexander, Notes on the Synthesis of Form, Harvard University Press, 1964

What else are the technologies incorporated in Smart City solutions but these “new materials” from which Architects can construct cities and buildings?

At the very least, it is inarguably the case that technologies such as the internet, social media and smartphones are intimately related to the significant changes taking place today in our culture and social patterns.

I’ve blogged many times about the emerging technologies that are making ever more sophisticated and intimate connections between the IT world and the physical world – in particular, in the article “Four avatars of the metropolis: technologies that will change our cities“. The new proximity of those two worlds is what has led to the “Smart Cities” movement; in a way it’s simply another example of the disruptions of industries such as publishing and music that we’ve seen caused by the internet. And if these two worlds are merging, then perhaps our professions need at least to work more closely together.

Already we’re seeing evidence of the need to do so: many city leaders and urbanists I’ve spoken to have described the problems caused by the separation of economic and spatial strategies in cities; or of the need for a better evidence-base for planning and decision making – such as the one that IBM’s Smarter Cities Challenge team in Birmingham are helping the City Council to create. In response, we are starting to see technology experts taking part in some city and regional master-planning exercises.

Over the last few years this convergence of technology concerns with the many disciplines within urbanism has given me the opportunity to work with individuals from professions I would never previously have interacted with. It has been an honour and a pleasure to do so.

In a similar vein, I have quite deliberately posted links to this article in communities with wide and varied membership, and that I hope will include people who will disagree with me – perhaps strongly – and be kind enough to share their thoughts.

I’d like to thank the following people for their contributions in various discussions that have shaped this article:

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