6 inconvenient truths about Smart Cities

(When cities forget about people: La Defense, Paris, photographed by Phil Beard)

(I recently took the difficult decision to resign from IBM after nearly 20 years to become IT Director for Smart Data and Technology for Amey, one of the largest infrastructure and services companies in the UK, and a subsidiary of the Ferrovial Group. It’s a really exciting opportunity for me to build a team to create new Smart City services and infrastructures. If you’d like to work in the Smart Cities field, please have a look at the roles I’m hiring for. I’ll be continuing to write the Urban Technologist, and this seemed a good point to share my view of the current state of the Smart Cities movement.)

The last year has shown a huge acceleration of interest and action in the Smart Cities market – in the UK, and around the world. What has long been a topic of interest to technology companies, academics, urban designers and local authorities was covered extensively by mainstream media organisation such as the BBC, the Independent newspaper, New Statesman magazine and marketing magazine The Drum.

But what progress has been made implementing Smart Cities ideas?

In the UK, many local authorities have implemented Open Data portals, usually using Open Source platforms such as CKAN and investing a few £10,000s of resources. These are important first steps for building the ecosystems to share and build new service models using data. Some cities, notably Glasgow and Milton Keynes, have been successful deploying more sophisticated schemes supported by research and innovation grants – though as I pointed out last year, exciting as these initiatives are, research and innovation funds will not scale to support every city in the country.

Further afield, local authorities in Europe, the United States and Asia have constructed more substantial, multi-million Euro / Dollar business cases to invest their own funds in platforms that combine static open data with realtime data from sensors and infrastructure, and which use social media and smartphones to improve engagement between citizens, communities, businesses and both public- and private-sector service providers. The Center for Data Innovation recently wrote a nice summary of two reports explaining the financing vehicles that these cities are using.

This has not happened in the UK yet to the same extent. The highly centralised nature of public sector spending means that cities here have not yet been able to construct such ambitious business cases – Centre for Cities’ report “Outlook for Cities 2014” highlighted this as a general barrier to the UK’s cities carrying out initiatives to improve themselves, and reported that UK cities have autonomy over only about 17% of their funding as compared to an average of 55% across countries represented by the OECD.

As more city deals are signed and the city devolution agenda progresses, this will start to change – but I think that will still take a long time to happen.

(The London Underground is just one example of a transport operator using technology to help it operate more efficiently, safely and effectively)

Where similar technology platforms and channels of engagement are nevertheless starting to appear in the UK is through business cases based on efficiencies and increased customer satisfaction for private sector organisations that offer services such as transportation and asset management to cities, citizens and local authorities.

This approach means there’s even more of a need for collaboration between stakeholders in local ecosystems in order to establish and express common objectives – such as resilience, economic growth and social mobility – which can then guide the outcomes of those smart services through policy tools such as procurement practises and planning frameworks. Recent recommendations from the British Standards Institute on the adaptation of city planning policy to enable the Smart City agenda have highlighted the need for such collaboration.

As a consequence of this increased activity, more and more people and organisations of every type are becoming interested in Smart Cities – from oil companies to car manufacturers to politicians. This broadening of interest led to some extraordinary personal experiences for me last year, which included discussing Smart Cities with ex-US Vice President Al Gore (whose investment company Generation IM explores opportunities to invest in assets, technologies and developments that promote sustainability) and very briefly with the UK’s Princess Anne, a supporter of a leadership training scheme that will focus on Smart Cities this year.

But to be honest, I still don’t think we have really understood what a “Smart City” is; why it’s one of the most important concepts of our time; or how we can turn the concept into reality broadly and at scale.

I’ll explore six “inconvenient truths” in this article to describe why I think that’s the case; and what we can do about it:

  1. The “Smart City” isn’t a technology concept; it’s the political challenge of adapting one of the most powerful economic and social forces of our time to the needs of the places where most of us live and work.
  2. Cities won’t get smart if their leaders aren’t involved.
  3. We can’t leave Smart Cities to the market, we need the courage to shape the market.
  4. Smart cities aren’t top down or bottom up. They’re both.
  5. We need to tell honest stories.
  6. No-one will do this for us – we have to act for ourselves.

1. The “Smart City” isn’t a technology concept; it’s the political challenge of adapting one of the most powerful economic and social forces of our time to the needs of the places where most of us live and work

(Photograph of Macau in the evening by Michael Jenkin illustrating some the great complexity of cities: economic growth, social inequality and pollution)

One topic that’s endlessly revisited as more and more people encounter and consider the idea of a Smart City is just how we define that idea. The best definition I thought I had developed is this, updated slightly from the article “7 Steps to a Smarter City“:

A Smart City systematically creates and encourages innovations in city systems that are enabled by technology; that change the relationships between the creation of economic and social value and the consumption of resources; and that contribute to achieving a vision and clear objectives that are supported by a broad and active collaboration amongst city stakeholders.

But such definitions are contentious. Most obviously there’s the basic issue of whether “smart” implies a central role for digital technology – every technology company takes this approach, of course – or whether it’s simply about being more creative in the way that we manipulate the resources around us to achieve the outcomes we desire, whether that involves digital technology or not.

More broadly, a “city” is such a terrifically broad, complex and multi-disciplinary entity – and one whose behaviour is the aggregate of the millions of individual behaviours of its inhabitants, both enabled and constrained by the environment they experience – that it’s pretty much impossible to create any concise definition without missing out something important.

And of course those who live or work in towns and rural areas raise the challenge that limiting the discussion to “cities” omits important stakeholders from discussions about our future – as do those concerned with the national infrastructures that are not located wholly in cities, but without which neither cities nor any other habitations could survive as they do today.

I don’t think we’ll ever achieve a formal, functional definition of a “Smart City” that everyone will agree to. Much as the popularity of the term “Web 2.0” between (roughly) 2003 and 2010 marked the period in time when interest in the internet re-emerged following the “dot com crash“, rather than defining a specific architecture or group of technologies, I think our interest in “Smart Cities” is best understood as the consequence of a period in history in which a large number of people became aware of – and convinced by – a set of inter-related trends:

In this context, it’s less useful to attempt to precisely define the concept of a smart city, and more important to encourage and enable each of us – every community, city, government and organisation – to develop our own understanding of the changes needed to overcome the challenges and take the opportunities before us, and of the rapidly evolving role of technology in doing so.

Why is it so important that we do that?

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 the single most important influence on the success of cities was their ability to provide their citizens with the right skills and opportunities to find employment, as the skills required in the economy changed as technology evolved.

The challenges faced by cities and their residents in this century will be unlike any we have faced before; and technology is changing more quickly, and becoming more powerful, than it ever has before. Creating “Smart Cities” involves taking the right political, economic, social and engineering approaches to meeting those challenges.

Cities that do so will be successful. Cities that don’t, won’t be. That is the digital divide of the 21st Century, and for everyone’s sake, I hope we are all on the right side of it.

2. Cities won’t get smart if their leaders aren’t involved

(The Sunderland Software Centre, a multi-£million new technology startup incubation facility in Sunderland’s city centre. The Centre is supported by a unique programme of events and mentoring delivered by IBM’s Academy of Technology, and arising from Sunderland’s Smart City strategy)

Let me tell a short tale of two cities and their Smart transformations.

For a long time I’ve written occasional articles on this blog about Sunderland, a city whose leaders, people and social entrepreneurs have inspired me. Sunderland is one of the very few cities in the UK who have spent significant sums of their own money on Smart City projects and supporting technologies, justified by well-constructed business cases. They have publicised investments of well over £10 million, most recently including their visionary “City Intelligence Hub” initiative.

The seeds of the Intelligence Hub idea were apparent when I first worked with the Council, as can be seen from an article written at the time by the Council’s Chief Executive, Dave Smith, for the Guardian’s Local Government Network Blog, explaining why data and Open Data are crucial to the future of effective, transparent public services.

It is no coincidence at all that one of the cities that has been boldest in investing in technology to support its economic, social and environmental objectives has a Chief Executive who shows belief, leadership and engagement in the ideas of Smart Cities.

Milton Keynes have approached their Smart City agenda in a different way. Rather than making significant investments themselves to procure solutions, they have succeeded in attracting enormous investments from technology companies, universities and innovation bodies to develop and test new solutions in the city.

It is similarly no coincidence that – like Bristol, London and Glasgow, to name just three more – Milton Keynes Council have senior leadership figures – initially the then Chief Executive, Dave Hill, followed by Director of Strategy, Geoff Snelson – who regularly attend Smart Cities conferences and government bodies, and who actively convene Smart Cities collaborations. Their very visible presence demonstrates their belief in the importance of Smart City approaches to those organisations seeking to invest in developing them.

A strategy to transform the operations of a local authority (or any other organisation) using technology, and to re-invest the savings achieved by doing so into new services and initiatives that create economic growth, social mobility and resilience is not going to succeed without direct Executive leadership. Similarly, technology vendors, service providers and research funding bodies are most attracted to invest in developing new ideas and capabilities in cities whose most senior leaders are directly seeking them – they all need the outcomes of their investment to achieve real change, and it’s only through the leaders that such change will happen.

For the most part, where this level of leadership is not engaged I have not seen cities create business cases and issue procurements for Smart City solutions, and I have not seen them be successful winning research and innovation investments.

Finally, let’s be really clear about what most of those city leaders need to do: they need to follow Sunderland’s lead, not Milton Keynes’s.

The research and innovation funding from the EU and the UK that Milton Keynes has attracted will only fund  projects that explore for the first time the capabilities of new, technology-enabled approaches to urban challenges. Those funding sources will not support the widespread deployment of successful approaches in cities around the UK and around the world.

The vast majority of cities will only benefit from Smart Cities initiatives by financing them through robust business cases based on a combination of financial efficiency and social, environmental or economic value – as Sunderland and some cities outside the UK are already doing.

Cities won’t get smart if their leaders aren’t involved in actively driving their institutions to adopt new business cases and operating models. Those that don’t risk leaving the fate of their cities not to chance; but to “the market”.

3. We can’t leave Smart Cities to the market, we need the courage to shape the market

(Photograph by Martin Deutsche of plans to redevelop Queen Elizabeth Park, site of the 2012 London Olympics. The London Legacy Development’s intention, in support of the Smart London Plan, is “for the Park to become one of the world’s leading digital environments, providing a unique opportunity to showcase how digital technology enhances urban living. The aim is to use the Park as a testing ground for the use of new digital technology in transport systems and energy services.”)

As I wrote in my last article on this blog, 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.

If we are to achieve those objectives, then we need the right policy environment – at national and local level – to augment the business case for efficient, resilient “smart city” infrastructures to ensure that they are deployed in a way that makes them open to access and adaptation by ordinary people, businesses and communities; and so that they create 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 far too many discussions of Smart Cities I hear the argument that we can’t invest in these ideas because we lack the “normalised evidence base” that proves their benefits. I think that’s the wrong view. There are more than enough qualitative examples and stories that demonstrate that these ideas have real value and can make lives better. If we insist on moving no further until there’s a deeper, broader corpus of quantified evidence, then there’ll be no projects to deliver the evidence – a chicken and egg problem.

Writing in “The Plundered Planet”, the economist Paul Collier asserts that any proposed infrastructure of reasonable novelty and significant scale is effectively so unique – especially when considered in its geographic, political, social and economic context – that an accurate cost/benefit case simply cannot be constructed in advance based on comparable prior examples, because those examples don’t – and never will – exist.

Instead we need policy legislation to recognise the importance of digital infrastructure for cities so that it becomes a “given” in any public service or infrastructure business case, not something that has to be individually justified.

This is not a new idea. For example, the Economist magazine wrote recently about the efforts involved in distributing the benefits of the industrial revolution to society at large rather than solely to business owners and the professional classes.

More specifically to cities, in her seminal 1961 work “The Death and Life of Great American Cities“, Jane Jacobs wrote that:

“Private investment shapes cities, but social ideas (and laws) shape private investment. First comes the image of what we want, then the machinery is adapted to turn out that image. The financial machinery has been adjusted to create anti-city images because, and only because, we as a society thought this would be good for us. If and when we think that lively, diversified city, capable of continual, close- grained improvement and change, is desirable, then we will adjust the financial machinery to get that.”

The “anti-city images” Jacobs was referring to were the vast urban highways built over the last half century to enable the levels of road traffic thought to be vital to economic growth. Since Jacobs’ time, a growing chorus of urbanists from Bogota’s ex-Mayor Enrique Penalosa to town planner Jeff Speck, architect Jan Gehl and London’s current Mayor Boris Johnson has criticised those infrastructures for the great harm they cause to human life – they create noise, pollution, a physical barrier to walking through our cities, and too often they injure or kill us.

Just as Jacobs reminded us to focus on the nature of individual human life in order to understand how cities should be built, Dan Hill of the Future Cities Catapult wrote as long ago as 2008 on the need to understand similar subtleties in the application of digital technology to cities.

Fifty years after she wrote, we should follow Dan’s example and take Jane Jacobs’ advice.

4. Smart cities aren’t top down or bottom up. They’re both.

(The SMS for Life project uses the cheap and widely used SMS infrastructure – very much the product of “top-down” investment – to create a dynamic, collaborative supply chain for medicines between pharmacies in Africa – a “bottom-up” innovation. Photo by Novartis AG)

In case it wasn’t really clear last time I wrote about it (or the time before that), I am utterly fed up with the unconstructive argument about whether cities are best served by “top down” or “bottom up” thinking.

It’s perfectly obvious that we need both: the “bottom up” creativity through which everyone seeks to create a better life for themselves, their family, their business and their community from the resources available to them; and the top-down policies and planning that – when they work best – seek to distribute resources fairly so that everyone has the opportunity to innovate successfully.

It’s only by creating harmony between these two approaches that we will shape the market to create the cities we want and need.

Over the last few years I’ve been inspired by extraordinary thinkers from many disciplines who have tackled the need for this balance. Some of them are creating new ideas now; others created amazing ideas years or decades ago that are nevertheless imperative today. All of them are worth reading and learning from:

  • The economist E F Schumacher, who identified that investment in the distribution and accessibility of “appropriate technologies” was the best way to stimulate and support development in a way that gave rise to the broadest possible opportunities for people to be successful.
  • Andrew Zolli, head of the philanthropic PopTech foundation, who describes the inspiring innovators who synthesise top-down and bottom-up approaches to achieve phenomenal societal changes as “translational leaders” – people with the ability to engage with both small-scale, informal innovation in communities and large-scale, formal institutions with resources.
  • Jan Gehl who inspired the “human scale cities” movement by relating the scale of city structures –  from pavements to housing blocks to skyscrapers – to the human senses, and the nature of our lives and movement.
  • And, of course, Jane Jacobs, whose book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” was the first written in the context of modern society and cities to point out that cities, however vast their physical size and population, can only ever be understood by considering the banal minutiae of the daily lives of ordinary people like you and I – why we walk along this street or that; how well we know our neighbours; how far it is to walk to the nearest school, shop or park; and whether we and our families feel happy and safe.

5. We need to tell honest stories

(Photograph by Meshed Media of Birmingham’s Social Media Cafe, where individuals from every part of the city who have connected online meet face-to-face to discuss their shared interest in social media.)

Any “smart city” initiative that successfully uses digital technology to create a financially sustainable social, economic or environmental improvement, in a particular physical place and on behalf of a particular community, must draw together skills from a wide variety of disciplines such as architecture, economics, social science, psychology and technology. Experts from these disciplines use a vast and confusing array of language and terminology; and all of us are frequently guilty of focussing on the concerns of our discipline, rather than communicating the benefits of our work in plain language.

The leaders of city institutions and businesses, who we are asking to take the courageous and forward-looking decisions to invest in our ideas, are understandably not familiar with this torrent of technical terminology, which can easily appear to be (and too often is) jargon; and new ideas that appear to be presented in jargon are unlikely to be trusted.

Simon Giles of Accenture was quoted in an article on UBM’s Future Cities site as saying that the Smart Cities industry has not done a good enough job of selling the benefits of its ideas to a wide audience. Simon is a very smart guy, and I think that’s a challenge we need to face up to, and start to tell better stories about the differences Smart Cities will make to everyday lives.

In the Community Lover’s Guide to Birmingham, for example, Nick Booth describes the way his volunteer-led social media surgeries helped the Central Birmingham Neighbourhood Forum, Brandwood End Cemetery and Jubilee Debt Campaign to benefit from technology.

Another Birmingham initiative, the Northfield Ecocentre, crowdfunded £10,000 to support their “Urban Harvest” project. The funds helped the Ecocentre pick unwanted fruit from trees in domestic gardens in Birmingham and distribute it between volunteers, children’s centres, food bank customers and organisations promoting healthy eating; and to make some of it into jams, pickles and chutneys to raise money so that in future years the initiative can become self-sustaining.

In the village of Chale on the Isle of Wight, a community not served by the national gas power network and with significant levels of fuel poverty, my IBM colleague Andy Stanford-Clark has helped an initiative not only to deploy solar panels and smart meters to generate energy and measure its use by each household; but to co-design with residents how they will use that technology, so that the whole community feels a sense of ownership and inclusion in the initiative. The project has resulted in a significant drop in rent arrears as residents use the technology to reduce their utility bills, in some cases by up to 50 percent. Less obviously, the sense of shared purpose has extended to the creation of a communal allotment area in the village and a successful campaign to halve bus fares to nearby towns.

There are countless other examples. Play Fitnessgamify” exercise to persuade children to get fit, and work very hard to ensure that their products are accessible to children in communities of any level of wealth. Casserole Club use social media to introduce people who can’t cook for themselves to people who are prepared to volunteer to cook for others. The West Midlands Collaborative Commerce Marketplace uses analytics technology to help it’s 10,000 member businesses work together to win more than £4billion in new contracts each year. … and so on.

None of these initiatives are purely to do with technology. But they all use technologies that simply were not available and accessible as recently as a few years ago to achieve outcomes that are important to cities and communities. By understanding how the potential of technology was apparent to the stakeholders in such initiatives, why it was affordable and accessible to them, and how they acquired the skills to exploit it, we can learn how to design Smart Cities in a way that encourages widespread grass-roots, localised innovation.

It’s vital that these stories are honest and grounded in reality. London School of Economics Professor Adam Greenfield rightly criticised technology companies that have overstated (and misunderstood) the potential benefits of Smart Cities ideas by describing “autonomous, intelligently functioning IT systems that will have perfect knowledge of users’ habits”. No-one trusts such hyperbole, and it undermines our efforts to communicate sensibly the very real difference that sympathetically applied technology can make to real lives, businesses, communities and places.
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6. No-one will do this for us – we have to act for ourselves

Harborne Food School

(The Harborne Food School, started by Shaleen Meelu in 2014, as a community business initiative to promote healthy, sustainable approaches to food)

No single person or organisation can shape the Smart Cities market so that it delivers the cities that we need. Local governments have the ethics of civic duty and care but lack the expertise in financing and business model innovation to convert existing spending schemes into the outcomes they desire. Private sector corporations as institutions are literally amoral and strongly incentivised by the financial markets to maximise profits. Many social enterprises are enormously admirable attempts to fuse these two models, but often lack the resources and ability to scale.

Ultimately, though, all of these organisations are staffed and run by people like you and I; and we can choose to influence their behaviour. Hence my new employer Amey measures itself against a balanced scorecard that measures social, environmental and wellbeing performance in addition to financial profits; and my previous employer IBM has implemented a re-use and recycling system so sophisticated and effective that only 0.3% of the resources and assets that reach the end of their initial useful life are disposed of in landfill or by incineration: the vast majority are re-used, have their components re-manufactured or materials recycled.

Most of us won’t ever be in a position to determine the reporting model or approach to recycling of corporations as large as Amey or IBM. But all of us make choices every day about the products we buy, the organisations we work for, the politicians we vote for, the blog articles we read, share and write and the activities we prioritise our resources on.

Those choices have real effects, and digital technology gives us all the opportunity for our choices to have more impact than ever before. This blog, which costs me nothing to operate other than the time it takes me to write articles, now reaches thousands of readers in over 150 counties. Air BnB took 2 years to accumulate the same number of rentable rooms that it took the Hilton Hotel chain 50 years to build.

It has never been easier to express an opinion widely or create a new way of doing things. That’s exactly what Shaleen Meelu did when she started the Harborne Food School to promote healthier, more sustainable approaches to food, with the support of Birmingham’s Smart City community. It’s an opportunity all of us should seize; and it’s absolutely the best opportunity we have to create better cities and a better world for ourselves.

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The new architecture of Smart Cities

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

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

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

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

Three obvious criteria for answering that question stand out:

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

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

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

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

Designing Smart Cities

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

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

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

(Components of a Smart City architecture)

Goals, People and Ecosystem

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

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

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

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

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

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

Soft Infrastructures

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

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

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

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

City systems

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

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

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

Hard Infrastructures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A New Architecture?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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