Smart Digital Urbanism: creating the conditions for equitably distributed opportunity in the digital age
February 1, 2015 4 Comments
Over the past 5 years, enormous interest has developed in the potential for digital technologies to contribute to the construction and development of cities, and to the operation of the services and infrastructures that support them. These ideas are often referred to as “Smart Cities” or “Future Cities”.
Indeed, as the price of digital technologies such as smartphones, sensors, analytics, open source software and cloud platforms reduces rapidly, market dynamics will drive their aggressive adoption to make construction, infrastructure and city services more efficient, and hence make their providers more competitive.
But those market dynamics do not guarantee that we will get everything we want for the future of our cities: efficiency and resilience are not the same as health, happiness and opportunity for every citizen.
Is it realistic to ask ourselves whether we can achieve those objectives? Yes, it has to be.
Many of us believe in that possibility, and spend a lot of our efforts finding ways to achieve it. And over the same timeframe that interest in “smart” and “future” cities has emerged, a belief has developed around the world that the governance institutions of cities – local authorities and elected mayors, rather than the governments of nations – are the most likely political entities to implement the policies that lead to a sustainable, resilient future with more equitably distributed economic growth.
Consequently many Mayors and City Councils are considering or implementing legislation and policy frameworks that change the economic and financial context in which construction, infrastructure and city services are deployed and operated. The British Standards Institute recently published guidance on this topic as part of its overall Smart Cities Standards programme.
But whilst in principle these trends and ideas are incredibly exciting in their potential to create better cities, communities, places and lives in the future, in practise many debates about applying them falter on a destructive and misleading argument between “top-down” and “bottom-up” approaches – the same chasm that Smart Urbanism seeks to bridge in the physical world.
Policies and programmes driven by central government organisations or implemented by technology and infrastructure corporations that drive digital technology into large-scale infrastructures and public services are often criticised as crude, “top-down” initiatives that prioritise resilience and efficiency at the expense of the concerns and values of ordinary people, businesses and communities. However, the organic, “bottom-up” innovation that critics of these initatives champion as the better, alternative approach is ineffective at creating equality.
“Bottom-up innovation” is what every person, community and business does every day: using our innate creativity to find ways to use the resources and opportunities available to us to make a better life.
But the degree to which we fail to distribute those resources and opportunities equally is illustrated by the stark variation in life expectancy between the richest and poorest areas of cities in the UK: often this variation is as much as 20 years within a single city.
Just as the “design pattern”, a tool invented by a town planner in the 1970s, Christopher Alexander, is probably the single most influential concept that drove the development of the digital technology we all use today, two recent movements in town planning and urban design – “human scale cities” and “smart urbanism” – offer the analogies that can connect “top-down” technology policies and infrastructure with the factors that affect the success of “bottom-up” creativity to create “massive / small” success: future, digital cities that create “massive amounts of small-scale innovation“.
The tools to achieve this are relatively cheap, and the right policy environment could make it fairly straightforward to augment the business case for efficient, resilient “smart city” infrastructures to ensure that they are deployed. They are the digital equivalents of the physical concepts of Smart Urbanism – the use of open grid structures for spatial layouts, and the provision of basic infrastructure components such as street layouts and party walls in areas expected to attract high growth in informal housing. Some will be delivered as a natural consequence of market forces driving technology adoption; but others will only become economically viable when local or national government policies shape the market by requiring them:
- Broadband, wi-if and 3G / 4G connectivity should be broadly available so that everyone can participate in the digital economy.
- The data from city services should be made available as Open Data and published through “Application Programming Interfaces” (APIs) so that everybody knows how they work; and can adapt them to their own individual needs.
- The data and APIs should be made available in the form of Open Standards so that everybody can understand them; and so that the systems that we rely on can work together.
- The data and APIs should be available to developers working on Cloud Computing platforms with Open Source software so that anyone with a great idea for a new service to offer to people or businesses can get started for free.
- The technology systems that support the services and infrastructures we rely on should be based on Open Architectures, so that we have freedom to chose which technologies we use, and to change our minds.
- Governments, institutions, businesses and communities should participate in an open dialogue about the places we live and work in, informed by open data, enabled by social media and smartphones, and enlightened by empathy.
- Local regulatory regimes should encourage the development of “sharing-economy” online business models that use local community networks and bartering mechanisms to prefer local transactions – retaining value in the local economy, and increasing the percentage of transactions that take place through walking and cycling rather than requiring motorised transport.
These principles would encourage good “digital placemaking“: they would help to align the investments that will be made in improving cities using technology with the needs and motivations of the public sector, the private sector, communities and businesses. They would create “Smart Digital Urbanism”: the conditions and environment in which vibrant, fair digital cities grow from the successful innovations of their citizens, communities and businesses in the information economy.
In my new role at Amey, a vast organisation in the UK that delivers public services and operates and supports public infrastructure, I’m leading a set of innovative projects with our customers and technology partners to explore these ideas and to understand how we can collaboratively create economic, social and environmental value for ourselves; for our customers; and for the people, communities and businesses who live in the areas our services support.
It’s a terrifically exciting role; and I’ll soon be hiring a small team of passionate, creative people to help me identify, shape and deliver those projects. I’ll post an update here with details of the skills, experience and characteristics I’m looking for. I hope some of you will find them attractive and get in touch.