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

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(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.

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(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).

No-one is going to pay cities to become Smarter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Encourage Venture Capital Investment

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

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

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

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

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

2. Build Markets, not Infrastructure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Procure Infrastructure Smartly

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

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

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

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

4. Work With Ethical Investors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Open urbanism: why the information economy will lead to sustainable cities

(Delegates browsing the exhibition space in Fira Barcelona at the World Bank’s Urban Research and Knowledge Symposium “Rethinking Cities”)

On Monday this week I attended the World Bank’s “Rethinking Cities” Symposium in Barcelona.  I was asked to give presentations to the Symposium on the contributions technology could make to two challenges: improving social and physical mobility in cities; and the encouragement of change to more sustainable behaviours by including “externalities” (such as social and environmental costs) in the prices of goods and services.

(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 these externalities are not currently included in prices).

These two topics are clearly linked. The lack of access that some city communities have to economic and personal opportunity is in part a social consequence of the way that systems such as education, transport and  planning operate.

As human beings, however altruistic we are capable of being, each day we take tens or hundreds of decisions which, in the moment, are consciously or subconsciously based on selfish motivations. We drive cars to work because it’s quicker and more pleasant than using public transport; or because it’s quicker, easier and safer than cycling, for example. The accumulation of all of these decisions by all of us defines the behaviour of the cities we inhabit.

In principle we might all be better off – proximity allowing – if we cycled or walked to our places of work, or to school with our children. It would be safer because there would be less traffic; both the exercise and the reduction in pollution would improve our health; and we would probably talk to our neighbours more in the process. One of the reasons we don’t currently choose cycling or walking for these journeys is that we are too busy working to afford the time involved in doing so. Crudely speaking, we are in competition with each other to earn enough money to survive comfortably and to afford the lifestyles we aspire to.

(The Copenhagen Wheel bike photographed by Sujil Shah. The wheel stores energy under braking and uses it to power an electric motor when required and shares information with a smartphone app.)

Game Theory” – the mathematical analysis of human decision-making in groups – has something interesting to say on this subject. To oversimplify a complex and subtle field, Game Theory predicts that if we suspect each other of behaving selfishly, then we will behave selfishly too; but that when we observe others behaving in the common interest, then we are likely to behave in the same way.

So if we all knew that all of us were going to spend a little less time at work in order to walk with our children to school and then cycle to work, then we could do so, safe in the knowledge that individually we wouldn’t lose out, couldn’t we?

Obviously, that’s a ridiculous suggestion.

Except … in his plenary talk at the World Bank Symposium, Harvard Professor of Economics Edward Glaeser – author of “Triumph of the City” – at one point commented that part of the shift towards a more sustainable global economy might be for those of us who live in developed economies to forgo some monetary wealth in favour of living in more attractive cities.

So just maybe the suggestion wasn’t completely crazy, after all.

In Monday’s discussions at the Symposium we explored how sustainable choices could be made available in a way that appeals to the motivations of individuals and communities. We examined several ways to create positive and negative incentives through pricing; but also examples of simply “removing the barriers” to making such choices.

For example, if information was made available on demand to make it easier to plan a complete door-to-door journey using sustainable forms of transport such as cycling, buses, trains and shared car journeys, would people make less individual journeys in private cars?

Services are already emerging to provide this information, such as Moovel (a commercial offering) and Open Trip Planner (a free service using crowdsourced data). They are just two examples of the ways in which the availability of information is making our cities more open and transparent. At the moment, both services are too new for us to make an assessment of their impact; but it will be fascinating to observe their progress.

(The Portland, Oregon implementation of Open Trip Planner)

The lesson of Game Theory is that this transparency – which I think of as “Open Urbanism” in this context – is what is required to enable and encourage all of us to make the sustainable choices that in their collective impact could make a real difference to the way that cities work.

I’d like to explore four aspects of Open Urbanism a little further to support that idea: Open Thinking; Open Data; Open Systems and Open Markets.

Open Thinking

The simplest expression of Open Urbanism is through engagement and education. In the afternoon plenary debate at the Rethinking Cities symposium, the inspirational Jaime Lerner spoke of a city recycling programme that has been operating successfully for many years; and that involves citizens taking the time to separate recyclable waste in return for no direct individual benefit whatsoever. So how were they persuaded to spend their time in this way?

It simply began by teaching children why sorting and recycling waste was important, and how to do it. Those children taught and persuaded their parents to adopt the behaviour; and in time they taught their own children. In this way, recycling became a cultural habit. Jaime later referred to the general concept of “urban acupuncture” – finding a handful of people who have the ability to change, and understanding what it takes to encourage them to change – a bit like planting a tiny needle in exactly the right place in the city.

Open Data

The information available about cities, businesses, current events and every other aspect of life is increasing dramatically; through the Open Data movement; through crowdsourced information; through the spread of news and opinion via social media; and through the myriad new communication forms that are appearing and spreading every day. The availability of this information, and the awareness that it creates amongst us all of how our cities and our world behave, creates a powerful force for change.

For example, a UK schoolgirl recently provoked a national debate concerning the standard of school meals simply by blogging about the meals that were offered to her each day at school, and in particular commenting on their health implications.  And my colleagues in IBM along with our partners Royal Haskoning and Green Ventures have helped the city of Peterborough to understand, combine, visualise and draw insight from information concerning the environment, the economy, transport and social challenges in order to better inform planning and decision making.

Open Systems

The next stage is to develop models from this data that can simulate and predict how the many systems within cities interact; and the outcomes that result from those interactions. 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 – as shown in the video below – a similar interactive tool has already been produced.

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

As data is made available from city systems in realtime, these models can be used not just to explore potential changes in policy; but to predict the dynamic behaviour of cities and create intelligent, pro-active – and even pre-emptive – responses. We can collect and access data now from an astonishing variety of sources: there are 30 billion RFID tags embedded into our world, across entire ecosystems of activity; we have 1 billion mobile phones with cameras able to capture and share images and events; and everything from  domestic appliances to vehicles to buildings is increasingly able to monitor its location, condition and performance and communicate that information to the outside world.

These sources can tell us which parking spaces are occupied, and which are free, for example. Streetline are using this information in San Francisco to create a market for parking spaces that reduces traffic congestion in the city. In South Bend, Indiana, an analytic system helps to predict and prevent wastewater overflows by more intelligently managing the city’s water infrastructure based on realtime information from sensors monitoring it. The city estimates that they have avoided the need to invest in hundreds of millions of dollars of upgrades to the physical capacity of the infrastructure as a result.

If such information is made openly available to innovators in city economies and communites, surprising new systems can be created. At a recent “hackathon” in Birmingham, an “app” was created that connects catering services with excess food to food distribution charities who can use it.

(The QR code that enabled Will Grant of Droplet to buy me a coffee at Birmingham Science Park Aston using Droplet’s local smartphone payment solution; and the receipt that documents the transaction)

That same information can create an appeal to our sense of community and place. The city of Dubuque in Iowa provides citizens and businesses with smart meters that measure and analyse their water use. They can detect when domestic appliances are used on inefficient settings, or when there is a leak in the water supply.

pilot project in Dubuque found that people were twice as likely to act on this information when they were not only provided with insight into their own water usage; but also provided with a  score that ranked their water conversation performance compared to that of their neighbours.

Open Markets

To return to the initial subject of this article, interesting new technology-enabled systems such as local currencies are emerging that could embed information from open city systems into the pricing systems of new markets within cities – and thereby quantify the cost of “externalities” in those markets. For instance, the Brixton and Bristol Pounds are local currencies intended to reinforce local economic synergies; and in Birmingham Droplet are now making their first payments through their local SmartPhone Payment system which similarly operates between local merchants.

We are on the cusp of incredibly exciting possibilities. Local currencies and trading systems could enable marketplaces in locally-generated power; or in localised manufacturing using technologies such as 3D printing. They could exploit distribution systems such as the one that Amazon make available to their marketplace traders; and underground waste and recycling systems that take waste and recyclables direct from the home to the appropriate recycling and disposal centres.

I can only image the city systems that might result if these capabilities and sources of information were made openly available to innovators within city communities. They could create solutions that are Smarter than we can imagine. Personally I’m convinced that this “Open Urbanism” is an essential part of the journey towards the sustainable city of the future.

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

(Photo of Chicago by Trey Ratcliff)

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

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

The intelligent web

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Things that make themselves

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of mice, men and cyborgs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bartering 2.0

(Photo of the Brixton Pound by Matt Brown)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some things never change

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

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

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

Could the future of money be city currencies?

(Photo of a halfpenny minted by Matthew Boulton in Birmingham; from Smabs Sputzer)

It’s just possible that this week marks a tipping point in the events that have engulfed the UK banking industry since the economic crisis that began in 2008.

Around that time, I questioned whether there was a need to think differently about how we measure the exchange of value, and cited a special edition of the New Scientist magazine as supporting evidence. My last couple of blog posts have raised similar questions supported first by a publication from the UK Royal Society, then by a speech by Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund.

This week the sources calling for change became much harder to ignore, because – in the context of UK banking – they came much closer to home.

An editorial of the London Financial Times stated that the evidence of a culture of corruption in banking was now so clear that there was no alternative but to properly separate investment banks who take speculative risks to generate profit from retail banks who look after our personal financial livelihoods and nurture the growth of small businesses (read the article here, it requires free registration).

Simon Walker, the Head of the UK’s Institute of Directors, made a blunt call for a clear-out of senior figures in the industry, as reported by the Guardian newspaper; and Mervyn King, Governor of the Bank of England, was similarly uncompromising, eventually leading to the resignation of Barclays’ CEO, Bob Diamond.

These people and organisations are at the heart of the UK’s business and financial community; Barclay’s CEO could not ignore them. Their combined weight might just mark an overall tipping point and lead to serious reform of the industry.

But why should I be concerned with this in a blog that focuses on the exploitation of emerging technology in city ecosystems?

To answer that, I need to look back to the 1780’s and the birth of the Industrial Revolution. At the time, the UK’s Royal Mint was using hand-powered presses to make coins; and they were struggling badly to keep pace with the demand for coinage caused by a growing economy. The country was experiencing a “coin famine”.

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

Enter Matthew Boulton and James Watt. James Watt invented the world’s most efficient steam engine; and Boulton commercialised it to power the Industrial Revolution. In particular, Boulton realised that by combining steam power with intricate machinery, it was possible to mass-manufacture sophisticated, designed objects such as enamelled badges, engraved brooches and complex metal fastenings. This innovation marked the fist appearance of mid-market “designed goods” in the space between functional commodities and one-off pieces of art. Some of the original machines that produced these goods can still be seen in Birmingham’s Science Museum and they make Heath Robinson’s imaginary contraptions look like penny toys.

Boulton realised that using such machines, he could literally print money, and produce coins faster and at much lower cost than the Royal Mint. He never formally won the right to do that from the national Government, but he did print coinage and “trade tokens” for employers in cities all over the country who quite simply needed something to pay their workers with. In many of those cities, Boulton’s coins replaced the national currency for a considerable time until the Royal Mint transformed its operations and provided sufficient national coinage again. Some of this history can be found on wikipedia, but for the full story Jenny Uglow’s wonderful book “The Lunar Men” can’t be beaten.

If the steam engine was the disruptive technology of the Industrial Revolution, I’m increasingly convinced that the digital marketplace platform is the equivalent for city systems today.

(Photo of the Brixton Pound by Matt Brown)

Marketplaces need currencies, of course; and sure enough, new currencies are starting to emerge. The Brixton Pound was set up by a social enterprise in 2009; and the scheme was adopted in Bristol this year. Startups such as Workstars are developing innovative new models for hyperlocal reward schemes involving employers and retailers that are an uncanny modern echo of Boulton’s 18th century trade tokens. And entrepreneurs in Birmingham have launched the local smartphone payment app “Droplet”.

The interesting thing about these schemes is that they have a more localised sense of value than the global monetary system; and they can reinforce the local economic synergies that are the key to sustainable growth in cities and regions.

In this context, it’s interesting to note the remarks of Romeo Pascual, Los Angeles Deputy Mayor of the Environment, at the Base Cities London conference recently. Deputy Mayor Pascual had just returned from the Rio+C40 Cities meeting. In contrast to what many believe to be the relatively weak agreement signed by national leaders at the Rio+20 meeting, he said that he and his colleagues had been united in their resolve to take strong action to lead cities towards sustainable growth.

Technology can now offer cities very interesting possibilities for creating local systems of exchange, whether we call them local currencies, reward schemes or virtual money. There’s no reason why they should behave in the same way as the currencies we know well today; and every reason to be optimistic that new types of organisation such as social enterprises will find ways to use them to create social and environmental, as well as financial, value.

Of course these innovations are on a relatively small scale for now. But they are emerging at the same time that city leaders are determined to make changes; and at a time that – in the UK at least – traditional systems of banking are under serious scrutiny. The future of money could hold some very interesting – and important – surprises for us.

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