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“).

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Do we need a Pattern Language for Smarter Cities?

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

The UK Department of Business, Innovation and Skills held a workshop recently to determine how to create guidance for cities considering their approach to Smarter Cities.

A robust part of the debate centred on the challenge of providing “delivery guidance” for cities embarking on Smarter Cities initiatives: whilst there are many visions for smart and future cities; and many examples of projects that have been carried out; there is little prescriptive guidance to assist cities in defining and delivering their own strategy (although I’ve provided my own humble contribution in “Six steps to a smarter city” on this blog; an article which organises a broad set of resources into an admittedly very high level framework).

In setting out a transformative smarter city vision and then taking the steps to achieve it, a great deal of change is involved. Large, formal organisations tend to approach change with prescriptive , process-driven techniques – for all that the objective of change might be defined disruptively by individual insight and leadership or through the application of techniques such as “design thinking“; the execution of the changes required to achieve that objective is usually driven by a controlled process with well defined roles, scope, milestones, risks and performance indicators.

My own employer, IBM, is a vast organisation with over 400,000 employees; a similar number of people to the population of a city of modest size. It was the subject of one of the most famous transformations in corporate history when Lou Gerstner saved it from near-failure in the 1990s. The transformation was achieved by brilliant personal leadership; trial and error; and a variety of techniques and ideas from different sources – there was no “off-the-shelf” process to follow at this scale of organisational change.

But transforming a city is not the same thing as changing an organisation, however big. A city is a complex system of systems, and we have comparatively little knowledge about how to drive change in such an environment. Arguably,we should not even think about “driving change” in city ecosystems, but rather consider how to influence the speed and direction of the changes that will emerge from them anyway.

Some very different approaches to process-driven change have emerged from thinking in policy, economics, planning and architecture: 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; the “Massive / Small” concept and associated “Urban Operating System” from Kelvin Campbell and Urban Initiatives; and CHORA’s Taiwan Strait Atlas, for example have all suggested an approach that involves a “toolkit” of ideas for individuals and organisations to apply in their local context.

(In this light, it’s interesting to observe that in order to steer the ongoing growth of IBM following the transformation led by Lou Gerstner, his successor as CEO, Sam Palmisano, took the organic approach of seeking to inspire a consistent evolution of business behaviour across all 400,000 individual IBMers by co-creating and adopting a common and explicit set of “values”).

(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)

In “Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back“, Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy, give a fascinating description of the incredible impact such approaches can achieve through the example of the response to the earthquake near Port-au-Prince in Haiti on January 10, 2010 that was led by Patrick Meier, the Ushahidi information crowd-sourcing platform and the Tufts Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Massachusetts. Meier catalysed an incredible multi-national response to the earthquake that included the resources of organisations such as Thomson Reuters, Digicel (the largest mobile phone company in Haiti), and MedicMobile; and just as importantly hundreds of individuals literally spread across the world, with nothing more in common than a desire to do what they could to contribute:

“I told people, ‘We’re going to let this be emergent,’” Meier explained. “There are so many things that need to happen every single hour and so many things that need to keep evolving in such a short amount of time. I have to just let it flourish and deal with what happens when it starts getting inefficient.” The open nature of the platform – both the code that powers Ushahidi and the collaborative nature of the mapping – meant that people could easily be recruited to perform discrete, useful tasks with a minimum of formal authority.”

(Patrick Meier, quoted in “Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back“, p179, by Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy)

In my own work, I’ve tried to follow a similar course, inspired first by the Knight Foundation’s report on the Information Needs of Communities. The Knight Foundation counsel a process of engagement and understanding between institutions and communities, in order to identify the specific information and resources that can be most usefully made available by city institutions to individual citizens, businesses and social organisations. As I described in “The Amazing Heart of a Smarter City: the Innovation Boundary“, the resulting portfolio provides a toolkit customised to the needs of a city, and that can be used to shape a collective case for investment in the development of that city.

The idea of a toolkit recognises both that no one approach, philosophy or framework is applicable to every city, or to every context within a single city; and that an idea that works in one place might work in many others.

For example, in the UK, the regions around the cities of Birmingham and Manchester are of similar size in terms of population and economic activity; but they are very different in the structure of their political administrations and economies. The approach that one of these cities adopts as its Smarter City strategy will not necessarily transfer to the other.

In contrast, however, specific ideas concerning economic development and the attraction of talented young people that I’ve found useful in Sunderland in the UK have been inspired by past experience in Wuxi, China and New York State; and in turn have informed initiatives in Spain, Singapore and Nairobi; in other words they have transcended contexts of vastly different size, culture and economics.

A tool that emerged from town planning in the 1970s and that was then adopted across the information technology industry in the 1980s and 1990s might just provide the approach we need to harness this information. And it’s perhaps not surprising that a tool with such provenance should become relevant at at time when the architects of information technology systems, buildings and cities are finding that they are working within a common context.

That tool is the “Design Pattern”.

A Pattern Language for Smarter Cities

(A pattern language for social software features, image by Amber Case)

The town planner Christopher Alexander invented “design patterns” in the 1970s. He addressed the challenge that many problems in planning were (and are) too large and complex for one person to consider them in their entirety at one time; and that it is hence necessary to break them down into sub-problems.

The difficulty is that it is not at all straightforward to break a problem into sub-problems that can be solved effectively in isolation from each other.

Consider city transport systems: in many cases, road management, bus operations and the rail network are the responsibility of different organisations. It “makes sense” to break up transport systems in this way because each is different; and so different organisations are better at running them effectively.

But from the perspective of the users of transport systems, it doesn’t make sense to do this. Bus and rail timetables don’t work together; cars, buses, freight vehicles, bicycles and pedestrians have conflicting requirements of road space; and the overall system does not behave as though it is designed to serve travellers consistently.

In “Notes on the Synthesis of Form” in 1969, Alexander described a mathematical technique that could be used to manage the complexity of large problems and to break them down into sub-problems in a way that accommodated interdependencies between them. As a result, those sub-problems could be solved separately from each other, then integrated to form an overall solution.

This process of decomposition, solution and integration is fundamental to process-driven approaches to the design and delivery of complex solutions. It is not possible, for example, to assign responsibilities to individuals and teams without going through it. Many projects that fail do so because the  problem that they are addressing is not decomposed effectively so that individual teams find that they have overlapping areas of responsibility and therefore experience duplication and conflict.

However, in developing his technique for decomposing problems, Alexander concluded that it was overly complex, rigid and impractical; and he recommended that it should never be used. Instead, he suggested that it was more useful to focus not on how we deal with problems; but on how we re-use successful solutions.

By identifying and characterising the components of solutions that have been proven to work, we enable them to be reused elsewhere. Christopher Alexander’s particular insight was to recognise that to do so successfully, it is vitally important to precisely describe the context in which a solution is applicable. He called the resulting description of reusable solutions a “design pattern”; and a collection of such descriptions, a “pattern language“.

Design patterns and pattern languages offer a useful combination of formal and informal approaches. They are formal in that each pattern is described in a consistent way, using a structured framework of characteristics. And they are informal in that the description isn’t constrained to that framework of characteristics; and because design patterns do not assert that they should be used: they are simply there to be used by anyone who chooses to do so.

Christopher Alexander’s patterns for town planning and architecture can be found in his books, or online at the “Pattern Language” community; in information technology, Martin Fowler’s “Enterprise Application Architecture Patterns” provide a similar example.

To my knowledge, no-one is yet curating a similar set of Smarter Cities patterns; I believe that there would be great value in doing so; and that in order to do so skills and expertise across domains such as planning, architecture, technology, social science and many others would be required.

In the final part of this article, I’d like to suggest some examples of Smarter City initiatives and ideas that I think can be usefully described as patterns; and to give one example of such a description. Please do share your views on whether this approach is useful by commenting on this blog, or through one of the Linked-In discussion groups where I’ve posted links to this article.

Design Patterns for Smarter Cities

Here are just a few of the ideas I’ve seen applied successfully in more than one place, either as part of a Smarter City strategy, or simply as valuable initiatives in their own right. It is certainly not an exhaustive list – a quick survey of Linked-In discussion Groups such as “Smart Cities and City 2.0“, “Smarter Cities” and “Smart Urbanism” will reveal many other examples that could be described in this way.

  • Information Partnerships – collaborations between city institutions, communities, service providers and research institutions to share and exploit city data in a socially and financially sustainable system. (I’ve provided a more detailed description of this example below).
  • Incubation Clouds – the use of Cloud Computing platforms and hybrid public/private commercial models to enable co-operative investment in technology capabilities that can lower the barriers to successful innovations in city services. Examples: Sunderland’s “City Cloud” and the Wuxi iPark.
  • Community Energy Initiatives – the formation of local energy companies to exploit “smart grid” technology, local energy generation (such as solar panels, wind power, wave power, geo-thermal power and bio-energy) and collaborative energy consumption to reduce carbon emissions and reliance on external energy sources. Examples: Eco-island and Birmingham Energy Savers.
  • Social Enterprises – a collective term for models of business that audit themselves against social and environmental outcomes, as well as financial sustainability and returns. Examples: co-operatives, credit unions and organisations using “triple-bottom-line” accounting.

(The components of a Smart City architecture I described in “The new architecture of Smart Cities“)

In order to describe these concepts more completely as re-usable patterns; and in a way that allows them to be compared, selected in comparison to each other, or used together; it is important that they are described consistently, and in a way that accurately identifies the context in which they are applicable.

To do so requires that we describe the same aspects of each pattern; and that we describe each aspect using a common language. For example:

  • The city systems, communities and infrastructures affected; using a framework such as the “The new architecture of Smart Cities” that I described last year, shown in the diagram above.
  • The commercial operating model that makes the pattern financially sustainable.
  • The driving forces that make the pattern applicable, such as traffic congestion; persistent localised economic inactivity; the availability of local energy sources; or the need to reduce public sector spending.
  • The benefits of using the pattern; including financial, social, environmental and long-term economic benefits.
  • The implications and risks of implementing the pattern – such as the risk that consumers will not chose to change their behaviour to adopt more sustainable modes of transport; or the increasing long-term costs of healthcare implied by initiatives that raise life-expectancy by creating a healthier environment.
  • The alternatives and variations that describe how the pattern can be adapted to particular local contexts.
  • Examples of where the pattern has been applied; what was involved in making it work; and the outcomes that were achieved as a result.
  • Sources of information that provide further explanation, examples of use and guidance for implementation.

I’ll finish this article by given an example of a Smarter City pattern described in that way – the “City Information Partnership”.

(Coders at work exploiting city information at the Birmingham “Smart Hack”, photographed by Sebastian Lenton)

An Example Pattern: City Information Partnership

(Note: the following description is not intended to be written in the fluent style that I usually hope to achieve in my blog articles; instead, it is meant to illustrate the value in bringing together a set of concisely expressed ideas in a structured format).

Summary of the pattern: a collaboration between city institutions, communities, service providers and research institutions to share and exploit city data in a socially and financially sustainable system.

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: Citizens; innovators.
  • Ecosystem: All.
  • Soft infrastructures: Innovation forums; networks and community organisations.
  • City systems: Any.
  • Hard infrastructures: Information and communications technology.

Commercial operating model:

City information partnerships are often incorporated as “Special Purpose Vehicles” (SPVs) jointly owned by city institutions such as local authorities; universities; other public sector organisations such as schools, healthcare providers and emergency services; services providers such as transportation authorities and utilities; asset owners and operators such as property developers and facility managers; local employers; and private sector providers such as technology companies.

A shared initial investment in technology infrastructure is often required; and in order to address legal issues such as intellectual property rights and liability agreements.

Long-term financial sustainability is dependent on the generation of commercial revenues by licensing the use of data by commercial operations. In cases where such initiatives have been supported only by public sector or research funding, that funding has eventually been reduced or terminated leading to the stagnation or cessation of the initiative.

Soft infrastructures, hard infrastructures and assets required:

Information partnerships only succeed where they are a component of a co-creative dialogue between individuals and organisations in city institutions such as entrepreneurs, community associations, local authorities and social enterprises.

Institutional support is required to provide the models of legal liability and intellectual property ownership that create a trusted and transparent context for collaborative innovation.

Technologies such as Cloud Computing platforms; information management; security; analytics, reporting; visualisation; and data catalogues are required to manage city information and make it available and useful to end users.

Information partnerships require the participation of organisations which between them own and are prepared to make available a sufficiently broad and rich collection of datasets.

Driving forces:

Information is transforming the world’s economy; it provides new insight to support business model creation and operation; makes new products and services possible; and creates new markets.

At the same time global and local demographic trends mean that the cost-base and resource usage of city systems must change.

Information partnerships expose city information to public, private, social and academic research and innovation to discover, create and operate new models for city services; with the potential for resale elsewhere; leading in turn to economic and social growth.

(A visualisation created by Daniel X O Neil of data from Chicago’s open data portal showing the activities of paid political lobbyists and their customers in the city)

Benefits:

Community hacktivism can usually be engaged by information partnerships to create useful community “apps” such as local transport information and accessibility advice.

The creation of new information-based businesses creates local employment opportunities, and economic export potential.

Information partnerships can provide information resources for technology education in schools, colleges and universities.

New city services developed as a result of the information partnership may provide lower-carbon alternatives to existing city systems such as transportation.

Implications and risks:

If participating organisations such as local authorities include the requirement to contribute data to the information partnership in procurement criteria, then tendering organisations will include any associated costs in their proposals.

For information partnerships to be sustainable, the operating entity needs to be able to accrue and reinvest profits from licenses to exploit data commercially.

The financial returns and economic growth created by information partnerships can take time to develop.

Genuinely constructive partnerships rely on effective engagement between city institutions, businesses and communities.

Existing contracts between local authorities and service providers are unlikely to require that data is contributed to the partnership; and the costs associated with making the data associated with those services available will need to be negotiated.

Alternatives and variations:

Some organisations have provided single-party open data platforms. These can be effective – for example, the APIs offered by e-Bay and Amazon; but individual organisations within cities will rarely have a critical mass of valuable data; or the resources required to operate effective and sustained programmes of engagement with the local community.

Many advocates of open data argue that such data should be freely available. However, the majority of platforms that have made data available freely have struggled to make data available in a form that is usable; to expand the data available; to offer data at a reliable level of service; or to sustain their operations over time. Making good quality data available reliably requires effort, and that effort needs to be paid for.

Examples:

Sources of information:

The UK Open Data Institute is championing open data in the UK – http://www.theodi.org/

O’Reilly Media have published many informative articles on their “Radar” website – http://search.oreilly.com/?q=open+data&x=0&y=0&tmpl=radar

The report “Information Marketplaces: The new economics of cities” published by Arup, The Climate Group, Accenture and Horizon, University of Nottingham – http://www.arup.com/Publications/Information_Marketplaces_the_new_economics_of_cities.aspx

Finally, I have written a series of articles on this blog that explore the benefits and challenges associated with the collaborative exploitation of city information:

What next?

It has been an interesting exercise for me to write this article. Many of the ideas and examples that I have included will not be new to regular readers of this blog. But in describing the idea of an “Information Partnership” as a formal design pattern I have brought them together in a particularly focussed and organised manner. There are many, many more ideas and examples of initiatives within the Smarter Cities domain that could be described in this way; and I personally believe that it would be valuable to do so.

But my opinion on that subject is less valuable than yours. I would really appreciate your thoughts on whether the “Smarter City Design Patterns” I’ve suggested and explored in this article would be a valuable contribution to our collective knowledge.

I look forward to hearing from you.

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).

Pens, paper and conversations. And the other technologies that will make cities Smarter.

(Akihabara Street in Tokyo, a centre of high technology, photographed by Trey Ratcliff)

(Akihabara Street in Tokyo, a centre of high technology, photographed by Trey Ratcliff)

A great many factors will determine the future of our cities – for example, human behaviour, demographics, economics, and evolving thinking in urban planning and architecture.

The specific terms “Smart Cities” and “Smarter Cities”, though, are commonly applied to the concept that cities can exploit technology to find new ways to face their challenges. Boyd Cohen of Fast Company offered a useful definition in his article “The Top 10 Smart Cities On The Planet“:

“Smart cities use information and communication technologies (ICT) to be more intelligent and efficient in the use of resources, resulting in cost and energy savings, improved service delivery and quality of life, and reduced environmental footprint–all supporting innovation and the low-carbon economy.”

Some technology developments – such as Service-Oriented Architecture and distributed computing are technically cohesive and can be defined by a particular architecture. Others, however, are more loosely defined. For instance, “Web 2.0” – a term associated with the emergence of social media, smartphones and businesses such as e-Bay, Facebook and Twitter – was coined by Tim O’Reilly in 2003 as a banner to capture the idea that internet and related technologies had once again become valuable sources of innovation following the “dot.com crash”.

So what are the technologies that will make cities Smart?

To answer that question, we need to examine the convergence of two domains of staggering complexity, and of which the outcomes are hard to predict.

The first is the domain of cities: vast, overlapping systems of systems. Their behaviour is the aggregated behaviour of their hundreds of thousands or millions of citizens. Whilst early work is starting to understand the relationship between those systems in a quantitative and deterministic way, such as the City Protocol initiative, we are just at the start of that journey.

(An early example of the emerging technologies that are blurring the boundary between the physical world and information: Professor Kevin Warwick, who in 2002 embedded a silicon chip with 100 spiked electrodes directly into his nervous system. Photo by M1K3Y)

The second domain is technology. We are experiencing phenomenal growth in the availability of information and the invention of new forms of communication. In 2007, more new information was created in one year than in the preceding 5000 years. And whilst the telephone, invented in the mid-19th Century, took around 100 years to become widespread, internet-based communication tools such as Twitter can spread to hundreds of millions of users within a few years.

If we define a “new form of communication” as a means of enabling new patterns of exchange of information between individuals, rather than as a new underlying infrastructure, then we are inventing them – such as foursquareStumbleUpon, and Pinterest – at a faster rate than at any previous time in history.

The discovery and exchange of ideas enabled by these technologies is increasing the rate of invention across many other fields of endeavour, including science and engineering. Indeed, this was deliberate: the evolution of the internet is closely entwined with the need of scientists and engineers to collaborate with each other. I recently surveyed some of the surprising new technologies, and their applications in cities, that are emerging as a result – including materials that grow themselves, 3D printing and mind-reading headsets.

So whilst common patterns are emerging from some Smarter City solutions – for example, the “Digital Cities Exchange” research programme at Imperial College, London; the “FI-WARE” project researching the core platform for the “future internet”; the “European Platform for Intelligent Cities (EPIC)“; and IBM’s own “Intelligent Operations Centre” all share a similar architecture – there is no single platform, architecture or technology that defines “Smart Cities”. Rather, the term defines a period in time in which we have collectively realized that it is critically important to explore the application of new technologies to change the way city systems work to make them more efficient, more equitable and more resilient in the face of the economic, environmental and social challenges facing us.

My own profession is information technology; and I spend much of my time focussed on the latest developments in that field. But in the context of cities, it is a relatively narrow domain. More broadly, developments in many disciplines of science, engineering and technology offer new possibilities for cities of the future.

I find the following framework useful in understanding the various engineering, information and communication technologies that can support Smart City projects. As with the other articles I post to this blog, this is not intended to be comprehensive or definitive – it’s far too early in the field for that; but I hope it is nevertheless a useful contribution.

And I will also find a place in it for one of the oldest and most important technologies that our species has invented: language; and it’s exploitation in “Smart” systems such as pens, paper and conversations.

1. Re-engineering the physical components of city systems

(Kohei Hayamizu’s first attempt to capture energy from pedestrian footfall in Shibuya, Tokyo)

The machinery that supports city systems generally converts raw materials and energy into some useful output. The efficiency of that machinery is limited by theory and engineering. The theoretical limit is created by the fact that machinery operates by transforming energy from one form – such as electricity – into another form – such as movement or heat. Physical laws, such as the Laws of Thermodynamics, limit the efficiency of those processes.

For example, the efficiency of a refrigerator is limited by the fact that it will always use some energy to create a temperature gradient in order that heat can be removed from the contents of the fridge; it then requires additional energy to actually perform that heat removal. Engineering challenges then further reduce efficiency – in the example of the fridge, because its moving components create heat and noise.

One way to improve the efficiency of city systems is to improve the efficiency of the machinery that supports them; either by adopting new approaches (for example, switching from petrol-fuelled to hydrogen-fuelled vehicles), or by increasing the engineering efficiency of existing approaches (for example, using turbo-chargers to increase the efficiency of petrol and diesel engines).

Examples of this approach include:

  • Using new forms of energy exchange, for example, capturing energy from vibrations caused by footfall;
  • Using more efficient energy generation or exchange technologies – such as re-using the heat from computers to heat offices, or using renewable bio-, wind-, or solar energy sources;
  • Using new transport technologies for people, resources or goods that changes the economics of the size and frequency of transport; or of the endpoints and routes – such as underground recycling networks;
  • Replacing transport with other technologies – such as online collaboration;
  • Reducing wastage and inefficiencies in operation,such as the creation of heat and noise – for example, by switching to lighting technologies such as LED that create less heat.

2. Using information  to optimise the operation of city systems

In principle, we can instrument and collect data from any aspect of the systems that support cities; use that data to draw insight into their performance; and use that insight to improve their performance and efficiency in realtime. The ability to do this in practical and affordable ways is relatively new; and offers us the possibility to support larger populations at a higher standard of living whilst using resources more efficiently.

There are challenges, of course. The availability of communication networks to transmit data from where it can be measured to where it can be analysed cannot be assumed. 3G and Wi-Fi coverage is much less complete at ground level, where many city infrastructure components are located, than at head height where humans use mobile phones. And these technologies require expensive, power-hungry transmitters and receivers. New initiatives and startups such as Weightless and SigFox are exploring the creation of communication technologies that promise widespread connectivity at low cost and with low power usage, but they are not yet proven or established.

Despite those challenges, a variety of successful examples exist. Shutl and Carbon Voyage, for example, both use recently emerged technologies to match capacity and demand across networks of transport suppliers; thereby increasing the overall efficiency of the transport systems in the cities where they operate. The Eco-Island Community Interest Company on the Isle of Wight are applying similar concepts to the supply and demand of renwable energy.

Some of the common technologies that enable these solutions at appropriate levels of cost and complexity, are:

3. Co-ordinating the behaviour of multiple systems to contribute to city-wide outcomes

Many city systems are “silos” that have developed around engineering infrastructures or business and operational models that have evolved since city infrastructures were first laid down. In developed markets, those infrastructures may be more than a century old – London’s underground railway was constructed in the mid 19th Century, for example.

But the “outcomes” sought by cities, neighbourhoods and communities – such as social mobility, economic growth, wellbeing and happiness, safety and sustainability – are usually a consequence of a complex mix of effects of the behaviour of many of those systems – energy, economy, transport, healthcare, retail, education, policing and so on.

As information about the operation and performance of those systems becomes increasingly available; and as our ability to make sense of and exploit that information increases; we can start to analyse, model and predict how the behaviour of city systems affects each other, and how those interactions contribute to the overall outcomes of cities, and of the people and communities in them.

IBM’s recent “Smarter Cities Challenge” in my home city of Birmingham studied detailed maps of the systems in the city and their inputs and outputs, and helped Birmingham City Council understand how to developed those maps into a tool to predict the outcomes of proposed policy changes. In the city of Portland, Oregon, a similar interactive tool has already been produced. And Amsterdam and Dublin have both formed regional partnerships to share and exploit city information and co-ordinate portfolios of projects across city systems and agencies driven by common, city-wide objectives.

(A video describing the “systems dynamics” project carried out by IBM in Portland, Oregon to model the interactions between city systems)

We are in the very early stages of developing our ability to quantitatively understand the interrelationships between city systems in this way; but it is already possible to identify some of the technologies that will assist us in that process – in addition to those I mentioned in the previous section:

  • Cloud computing platforms, which enable data from multiple city systems to be co-located on a single infrastructure; and that can provide the “capacity on demand” to apply analytics and visualisation to that data when required.
  • Information and transaction integration technologies which join up data from multiple sources at a technical level; including master data management, and Service Orientated Architecture.
  • Information models for city systems that model the quantitative and semantic relationships between those systems.
  • Service brokerage capabilities to co-ordinate the behaviour of the IT systems that monitor and control city systems; and the service and data catalogues that make those systems and their information available to those brokers.
  • Federated security and identity management to enable citizens and city workers to seamlessly interact with services and information across city systems.
  • Dashboards and other user interface technologies which can present information and services from multiple sources to humans in an understandable and meaningful way.

4. Creating new marketplaces to encourage sustainable choices, and attract investment

As I’ve argued on many occasions on this blog, it is often important or useful to conceive of Smarter City solutions as marketplaces. Such thinking encourages us to consider how the information associated with city services can be used to influence individual choices and their collective impact; and the money-flows in marketplaces can be used to create business cases to support investment in new infrastructure.

The examples in transport innovation that I mentioned earlier in this article, Shutl and Carbon Voyage, can both be thought of as business that exploit information to operate new marketplaces for transport capacity. Eco-island have applied the same concept in energy; Streetline in car-parking; and Big Barn and Sustaination in business-to-consumer and business-to-business models for food distribution.

In addition to those I’ve previously described, systems that operate as transactional marketplaces often involve the following technologies:

Conversations, paper, technology

The articles I write on this blog cover many aspects of technology, future cities, and urbanism. In several recent articles, including this one, I have focussed in particular on issues concerning the application of technology to city systems.

I believe these issues are important. It is inarguable that technology has been changing our world since human beings first used tools; and overall the rate of change has been accelerating ever since. That acceleration has been particularly rapid in the past few decades. The fact that this blog, which costs me nothing to write other than my own time, has been read by people from 117 countries this year – including you – is just one very mundane example of something that would have been completely unthinkable when I started my University education.

But I absolutely do not want to give the impression that technology is the most important element of the future of cities; or that every “Smarter City” project requires all – or even any – of the technologies that I’ve described in this article.

Cities are about people; life is about people. Nothing matters unless it matters to people. In themselves, these are obvious statements; but consequently, our future cities will be successful only if they are built by consensus to meet the needs of all of the people who inhabit them. “Smarter” solutions will only achieve their objectives if they are designed and implemented so as to seamlessly integrate into the fabric of our lives. And sometimes the simplest ideas, using the simplest technology – or no technology at all – will be the most powerful.

Smarter Cities start with conversations between people; conversations build trust and understanding, and lead to the creation of new ideas. Many of those ideas are first shaped on pen and paper – often still the least invasive technology for co-creating and recording information that we have. Some of those ideas will be realised through the application of more recent technologies – and in fact will only be possible at all because of them. That is the real value that new technology brings to the future of cities.

But it’s important to get the order right, or we will not achieve the outcomes that we need. Conversations, paper, technology – that might just be the real roadmap for Smarter Cities.

(I would like to thank Steven Boxall for his comments on a previous article on this blog, “No-one is going to pay cities to become Smarter“, in the Academy of Urbanism‘s discussion group on Linked-In. Those comments helped me to shape the balance that I hope that I have achieved in this article between the roles that technology, people and conversations will play in creating the future of our cities).

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.

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