Gain and responsibility: five business models for sustainable cities

(Photo by Mark Vauxhall of public Peugeot Ions on Rue des Ponchettes, Nice, France)

It’s strange how you can find inspiration in the most surprising places; and the first time I came across the philosophy of sustainability at the heart of big business was certainly unexpected.

Five years ago I was creating a business model in a UK city for a car-sharing scheme using social media (which at the time was a new technology); the scheme was being put together by a collaboration of technology entrepreneurs, University researchers and local employers who wanted to offer the scheme to their employees as a benefit in kind. What we lacked was a business partner with expertise in offering transport services to consumers.

A colleague suggested we speak to an international car rental company for whom they’d recently run an innovation workshop. Initially, we were sceptical: why would a car rental company encourage people to share cars – in other words, to need to hire less of them?

Nevertheless, we called the global Vice President of Sales of the company concerned. This person was responsible for the sales performance of a company in an extremely competitive, commoditised market, so we were expecting the social and environmental philosophy behind our proposal to be given little consideration compared to its revenue-earning potential.

Instead, I remember feeling as if I was being blown away down the telephone line by  his enthusiasm for sustainable business. The reason he had spent his career making a car rental company as successful as possible was his belief that it was the most viable business model for sustainable transport of its time: hire cars are much more effective than public transport for some journeys; and because they are heavily used throughout their lives, the environmental cost of manufacturing and decommissioning them is much less per mile travelled than for privately owned vehicles.

The proposition that technology offers to the sustainability debate – whether in Smarter Cities, intelligent transport or supply-chain optimisation – is to enable business models that create better social and environmental outcomes. In some cases, those outcomes are the objectives of a business; but more often they are the side effects of business operations whose objectives are to create financial returns. So in order to justify investments in technologies or practises that promote sustainability, we need to do just what the car rental company’s Vice President had done early in his career: think creatively about how to balance social and environmental outcomes with the financial imperatives of our existing economic systems.

We’ll need to find that balance in order to develop realistic business models for Smarter Cities. It will not always be an easy balance to find; and finding it will sometimes be a controversial process. But five approaches can already be seen that show how it can be achieved in different ways.

1. Cross-city Collaborations

Many initiatives that contribute to city-wide outcomes require either co-ordinated action across city systems; or an investment in one system to achieve an outcome that is not a simple financial return within that system. For example, the ultimate objective of many changes to transportation systems is to improve economic growth and productivity, or to reduce environmental impact.

Such initiatives are often shaped and carried out by a group of collaborating stakeholders in a city – perhaps including the City Council, nearby Universities, local businesses and community groups, and private sector partners.

To attract the various forms of investment that are required to support a programme of “Smart” initiatives, these partnerships need to be decision-making entities, not discussion groups. Investors will look for a history of collective action to achieve clear, shared objectives; and for a mature approach to the mutual management of risk in delivering projects.

Such partnerships take time to form, and it is notable that in last year’s Technology Strategy Board Future Cities Demonstrator competition, most of the shortlisted entries had been prepared by collaborations in cities such as Glasgow and Peterborough that had existed for some time before the competition began. Other examples include the Dublinked information-sharing partnership in Dublin, Ireland, and the Sustainable Dubuque partnership in Dubuque, Iowa. I wrote about these examples and discussed how they form and operate successfully, in “Smart ideas for everyday cities” last December.

2. Scaling-up Social Enterprise

Social enterprise is a broad category of private businesses which in some way commit themselves to social and/or environmental objectives against which they audit themselves alongside their financial performance – a practise known as triple bottom-line accounting.

Given the similarities between triple-bottom-line accounting and the objectives of “Smarter” initiatives, it’s not surprising that social enterprises are carrying out a great deal of “Smart City” activity. They often use innovative, technology-enabled business models that combine elements of sectors such as food, energy and transport. A good example is “Casserole Club“, which uses social media as the basis of a peer-to-peer model which connects people who are unable to cook for themselves with people who are willing to cook for, and visit, others.

(Photo by Mermaid of the People’s Supermarket in Lamb’s Conduit Street, London, a social enterprise that aims to promote social cohesion by supporting local, independent food producers)

Social enterprises have a powerful potential to contribute to Smarter City objectives. They tend to create employment opportunities where they are most needed, for example – 39% of all social enterprises are working in the most deprived communities in the UK, in comparison to 13% of SMEs. And they are a significant contribution to the overall economy – in the UK,  a recent government report found that the sector employs more than 2 million people, is estimated to have total annual incomes of £163 billion and to contribute £55 billion Gross Value Added – about 14% of the national total. Social enterprise is 13% of Sweden’s GDP and 21% of Finland’s GDP; and 4 in 10 residents of the USA– the world’s flagship private enterprise economy – are members of a co-operative of some sort. Worldwide, social enterprises employ over 100 million people with a turnover of £1.1 trillion. That’s big business.

Many social enterprises are entirely independent ventures. There is great potential for cities to recognise the alignment between their philosophy and Smarter City objectives; and to support their role in achieving them. When the resources and assets of large, formal organisations are made available to local, social innovation, the results can be tremendously powerful.

In Resilience, Andrew Zolli gives the example of the Kilimo Salama scheme in Kenya which provides affordable insurance for subsistence farmers by using remote weather monitoring to trigger payouts via mobile phones, rather than undertaking expensive site visits to assess claims. This is a good example of large-scale infrastructures operated by formal institutions – mobile payments systems and remote weather monitoring technology – that have been adapated to the needs of a community which previously didn’t benefit from them – the farmers – by a creative, socially-minded organisation.

Awareness is growing of the importance of this sector; the alignment of its values with the objectives of Smarter Cities (as described by Knight Foundation Vice President Carol Coletta recently); and of the great potential of information economy technologies, especially social media, to empower it (see this article by ex-IBM Vice President Irving Wladawsky-Berger). It will be a major part of the economy and society of the sustainable cities of the future.

3. Creativity in finance

We don’t consider banks, insurers and other financial institutions enough in the world of Smarter Cities. Public sector and research grants will not finance the wholescale transformation of our cities; we will have to look to the broader financial markets for that support.

New forms of financial service are emerging from the online, collaborative economy such as crowdfunding and peer-to-peer lending. In the UK, the Trillion Fund, for example, offer a range of investment schemes in renewable energy to the retail investment market; and a variety of local and electronic currencies are emerging.

(Photo of a smart parking meter in San Francisco by Jun Seita)

More traditional financial institutions are also exploring the new products that they can create to support this market; and we are sure to need the depth of resources they can make available. Smarter city services create assets and offer services which people and businesses pay to use. With the appropriate banking, insurance and investment skills, those assets and services and the incomes they generate can be packaged as investable financial products. Citibank, IBM and Streetline partnered last year to offer a financing scheme for “Smart Parking” solutions, for example.

Citigroup were also amongst those who supported the recent “Innovation and the City” report by the Centre for an Urban Future and the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service which recommended 15 policies for consideration by the next Mayor of New York, many of which are financial innovations intended to support Smarter City outcomes.

In recent years, the banking industry has not always been associated with social outcomes. But some financial institutions are very clearly social organisations – such as the credit unions to which 87 million US citizens belong; and many banks have social elements in their original charters – as Hancock Bank demonstrated when responding to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. They have the means, method and opportunity to contribute enormously to the development of Smarter, sustainable cities and we should encourage them to do so.

4. Making traditional business sustainable

A very many of our lives depend for our basic needs – not to mention our entertainment and leisure – on global supply chains operated on astounding scales by private sector businesses. Staples such as food, cosmetics and cleaning products consume a vast proportion of the world’s fresh water and agricultural capacity; and a surprisingly small number of organisations are responsible for a surprisingly large proportion of that consumption as they produce the products and services that many of us use.

The social and environmental impact of those supply chains is immense, and, of course, highly controversial. A notable recent development, though, is the number of statements made by the leaders of companies involved in them asserting the importance of evolving their businesses to adopt more sustainable practises. The CEOs of  Unilever and Tesco have made statements of intent along these lines recently, and IBM and Hilton Hotels have described the progress they have already made.

Any analysis of the motivations for such statements and the outlook for their impact also enters areas of great controversy, of course. But need there be any fundamental contradiction between profitable enterprise and sustainability?

Richard Powers’ 1998 novel “Gain” tells the story of “incorporation”, the creation of companies as entities with a legal and financial existence separate from that of the people who start, manage and work for them. It contrasts the story of three Irish brothers arriving in 19th Century New York who make a living manufacturing soap, and the subsequent growth of their business into a vast 20th Century multinational corporation; with that of a woman dying from a cancer likely to have been caused by exposure to the waste products of the industrial operations of that corporation. Its complex, nuanced story explores both the facility of private enterprise to create wealth for anybody; and its potential for ambivalence towards the fair distribution of that wealth, and towards its impact.

(An example from Indonesia of the deforestation that can be the result of palm oil production. Photo by the Rainforest Action Network)

Gain’s narrative makes clear that the model of private enterprise does not lead inevitably to any specific outcome. The success, sustainability and equitability of any enterprise, social or private, are ultimately the result of the actions and decisions of those involved in it – whether they run it; work for it; supply it or buy from it.

All of us can assert influence on the sustainability of business, through our buying decisions as consumers and by campaigning. Jared Diamond explored in depth how we can do so effectively in his book “Collapse“. But the role of the investment markets is also crucial.

In one sense, the markets are already playing a role: in a recent report, 53% of fund managers collectively responsible for $14 trillion of assets indicated that they had divested stocks, or chosen not to invest in stocks, due to concerns over the impact of climate change on the businesses concerned.

However, that is a negative, not a positive action. It is driven by the impact of climate change on business, not by the impact of business on climate change. To grossly generalise, whilst the CEOs of Tesco and Unilever, for example, are following Jared Diamond’s argument that sustainability is simply good, long-term business sense; by and large investors are largely ambivalent to this argument. They choose which companies to invest in based first and foremost on the prospect of their short-term financial returns.

So whatever motivations influence the CEOs of companies that manage the vast supply chains that play such a major role on our planet to adopt sustainability as a business objective, it is not to win short-term investment. It may be to appeal to consumer opinion; or it may be to attract investors who take a longer-view.

One thing is certain, though. Our world as a whole, and the cities in which life is concentrated, will not become socially and environmentally equitable and sustainable unless private businesses adopt sustainable strategies. So it is in all of our interests to encourage them to do so, whilst putting in place the governance to ensure that those strategies are carried out effectively.

5. Encouraging entrepreneurs everywhere

Smarter city services are innovations that change the relationships between the creation of social and financial value and the consumption of resources: they involve new ways of doing things; and they often depend on consumers choosing to buy different products or use different services than those that they are accustomed to.

Investing in a new product or service on the basis that consumers will change their behaviour in order to buy or use it is a risky business. Too risky, in many cases, for traditional institutions.

In the developed world, public sector finances are under extreme pressure. Economic growth is slow, so tax returns are stagnant. Populations are, on the whole, growing older, and requiring increased levels of healthcare. So public sector has little ability to make risky investments.

But the private sector is also under pressure. The same slow economic growth, coupled with competition from rapidly growing countries in emerging markets, means that money is short and the future is uncertain. Risky investments are unlikely here, too.

(The QR code that enabled Will Grant of Droplet to buy me a coffee at Innovation Birmingham using Droplet’s local smartphone payment solution, an example of a Smarter City service created by an entrepreneurial company.)

But some investors are seeking new investment opportunities, even risky ones – especially as the rate of return offered by many traditional forms of investment is so poor. One consequence is that many Smarter Cities services are delivered by entrepreneurial companies backed by venture capital. Examples include “Droplet“, a smartphone payment system operating in Birmingham and London; and Shutl, who provide a marketplace for home delivery services through a community of independent couriers in London.

However, many cities face a challenge in exploiting the ability of entrepreneurial businesses to deliver Smarter services.

Such businesses may be inherently risky; but those that succeed still do so by minimising risk wherever possible. One way to minimise the risk involved in any new business is to operate that business as closely as possible to its largest possible market. So entrepreneurial businesses that offer services to city ecosystems (as opposed to national or international customers) tend to start in and provide services to capital cities.

If cities that are not capitals wish to encourage this sort of entrepreneurial business, they will need to make themselves attractive in some other way: by offering tailored programmes of support (as IBM and Sunderland Software City are doing); by making available unique assets created by geography, culture or existing business clusters (such as the cluster of wireless technology companies in Cambridge); or by exploiting the strength of local teaching and research (as Birmingham are doing through institutions such as Birmingham Ormiston Academy and the Aston Engineering Academy; or as “Science Vale” has long done in Oxfordshire).

Entrepreneurial businesses can and will make a huge contribution to Smarter Cities; and those that succeed will eventually scale their businesses to cities across the world. But in order to benefit from their creativity early, cities that are not capitals will need to take action to attract and support them.

Evolution and revolution

As I remarked in my last article on this blog, “business as usual” will not deliver Smarter, sustainable cities. We would not be so collectively concerned with this subject otherwise. But while we will need new approaches, sometimes revolutionary ones; we are not entering wholly uncharted territory.

We will need new cross-city collaborations; but the idea of such collaborations is not new. The collaboration that submitted Peterborough’s short-listed proposal for the Technology Strategy Board’s Future Cities Demonstrator has its origins in the Greater Peterborough Partnership which was formed in 1994, for example.

Social enterprises and sustainable business models are hardly new, either – co-operative businesses have existing for centuries, and IBM, Sony and Cadbury are just three examples of private businesses started 50 to 100 years ago by Quakers with a strong sense of civic and community duty.

So whilst change is required, we are not entering the unknown. Our challenge is rather to realise that there is no single approach that can be adopted in all circumstances. All of the approaches I’ve described in this article – and doubtless others too – will be needed. But not all of them will be popular all of the time.

An address to the United Nations: science, technology and innovation for sustainable cities and peri-urban communities

I was honoured this week to be asked to address the 16th session of the United Nations’ Commission on Science and Technology for Development in Geneva on the topic of Smarter Cities. I was invited to speak following the Commission’s interest in my article “Open urbanism: why the information economy will lead to sustainable cities“, which was referenced in their report “Science, technology and innovation for sustainable cities and peri-urban communities“. I’ll write an article soon to describe what I learned from the other speakers and discussions at the Commission; but in the meantime, this is a reasonable representation of my spoken remarks.

(Photo of a street market in Dhaka, Bangladesh by Joisey Showa)

In the Industrial Revolution European cities were built upwards around lifts powered by the steam engine invented by James Watt and commercialised by Matthew Boulton in Birmingham. Over the last century we have expanded them outwards around private automobiles and roads.

We believed we could afford to base our cities and their economies on that model because its social and environmental costs were not included in its price. As our cities have become polluted and congested; as the world’s urban population grows dramatically; and as energy costs rise; that illusion is failing.

Professors Geoffrey West and Louis Bettencourt of Los Alamos Laboratory and the Sante Fe Institute said in their 2010 paper in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Nature that “At the start of the twenty-first century, cities emerged as the source of the greatest challenges that the planet has faced since humans became social.”

Technology offers powerful opportunities to address those challenges, and to support the lives of populations inside and around cities in new and more efficient ways, in both developed and developing markets. But technology will only deliver those benefits if we adapt governance and financial models to achieve broader social, economic and environmental outcomes; and if we use technology in a way that serves the genuine needs of local people, communities and businesses. A city that succeeds in transforming itself in this way is one that we call a Smarter City.

Those technologies are developing at an incredible rate. Two years ago, IBM’s “Watson”computer competed successfully against human beings in the television quiz show “Jeopardy”. Scientists at the University of California at Berkley have used a Magnetic Resonance Imaging facility to capture images from the thoughts of a person watching a film. And anything from prosthetic limbs to artificial food can be “printed” from digital designs.

The boundary between information systems, the physical world, and human minds, bodies and understanding is disappearing, and the world will be utterly transformed as a result.

But for who?

As digital and related technologies develop ever more rapidly, they will continue to change the way that value is created in local and global economies. Existing challenges in the acquisition of skills, digital exclusion and social mobility mean that life expectancy varies by 20 years or more even between areas within single cities in developed economies, let alone between the developed and developing world.

The challenge of digital exclusion is well known, of course; but the rapidity of these developments and the profound nature of their potential impact on city systems and economies imply a new sense of urgency in addressing it.

When my son was two years old I showed him a cartoon on an internet video site using the touchscreen tablet I’d just bought. When it finished, he instinctively reached out to touch the thumbnail image of the cartoon he wanted to watch next. The children of my son’s generation who grow up with that innate expectation that information across the world is literally at their fingertips will have an enormous advantage.

One of the things that we are exploring through Smarter City initiatives is how to make some of the power of these technologies more widely available to cities and communities.

(The multi-agency control centre in Rio de Janeiro built by Mayor Eduardo Paes to enable the city's agencies to manage the city effectively during the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games)

(The multi-agency control centre in Rio de Janeiro built by Mayor Eduardo Paes to enable the city’s agencies to manage the city effectively during the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games)

The city of Rio de Janeiro offers one example of what is possible when we successfully apply technology in cities. Under the leadership of Mayor Eduardo Paes a single operations centre for the city now coordinates the actions of 30 City services to manage the city safely and efficiently. Information feeds from the city’s road systems, CCTV cameras, public safety services and from an advanced weather forecasting solution that can predict the likelihood of life-threatening landslides are delivered to the centre in realtime, and used to trigger multi-agency responses, as well as alerts to the civilian population through channels such as social media .

But Rio is a large city in a rapidly growing Country; and it is preparing for a Football World Cup and Olympic Games within 2 years of each other. How can cities who are not in this position emulate Rio’s approach? And how can the power of this technology be made more broadly available to city communities as well as the agencies and institutions that serve them?

In Dublin, Ireland, the “Dublinked” information sharing partnership between the City and surrounding County Councils, the National University of Ireland, businesses and entrepreneurs is now sharing three thousand city datasets; using increasingly sophisticated, realtime tools to draw value from them; identifying new ways for the city’s transport, energy and water systems to work; and enabling the formation of new,  information-based businesses. It is putting the power of technology and of city information not only at the disposal of the city authority and its agencies, but also into the hands of communities and innovators.

But Dublin is the capital city of a developed country, with an internationally-recognised university, and which hosts large development and research facilities for multi-national technology companies such as IBM. How can cities without those advantages emulate Dublin’s successes?

One way is to re-use the results of research and “first-of-a-kind” projects whose cost has been borne in the developed world or in rapidly growing economies to pilot solutions in the developing world.

For example, my colleagues recently used knowledge gained through research in Dublin to suggest improvements to public transport in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire.

The project analysed anonymised movement data from the GPS sensors in the mobile telephones of bus passengers in order to identify clusters of start, end and intermediate points in their end-to-end journeys. By comparing existing bus routes to those points, the project identified four new bus routes and led to changes in many others.

As a result, 22 routes now show increased ridership. And by providing bus routes that better match the journeys that people really want to undertake, the need for them to travel to and from bus stops – often using unregulated and relatively unsafe “informal” travel services – is reduced to the extent that citywide travel time has decreased by 10%.

But we are not just seeking to replicate what works in a handful of high-profile cities as if the same solutions apply everywhere. It’s not always the case that they do, especially without local adaptation. And it’s vital to also enable new initiatives that arise from specific local contexts in cities everywhere, whatever their resources.

Consequently, in Sunderland, we were asked by the City Council: how do you make Hendon Smarter?

Sunderland is typical of the many post-industrial cities in Europe that are rebuilding economies following the decline of industries such as coalmining, bulk manufacturing and shipbuilding in the late 20th Century. Hendon in Sunderland’s East End is one of the areas that suffered most from that decline, and it still has low levels of employment, skills and social mobility.

What we have learned in Sunderland and elsewhere is that it is often private sector entrepreneurs and community innovators who have the widest set of ideas about how technology can be used cleverly to achieve the outcomes that are important to their cities, particularly in an environment with limited access to finance, skills and technology resources.

The large institutions of a city can assist those innovators by acting as an aggregator for their common needs for such resources, making them easier to acquire and use. They can also introduce external partners with research and development capability to those aggregate needs, which for them can represent a new market opportunity worthy of investment.

It’s rare that these connections work directly: government bodies and their large-scale suppliers have very different business models and cultures to small-scale innovators; and often there is little history of interaction, cooperation and trust. The role of “bridging organisations” and networks between individuals is extremely important.

(The SES "Container City" incubation facility for social enterprise in Sunderland)

(The “Container City” incubation facility for social enterprises operated by Sustainable Enterprise Strategies in Sunderland)

In Sunderland, Sustainable Enterprise Strategies, who provide business support to small businesses and social enterprises in Hendon, provided the bridge between the City Council and IBM; and community innovators, such as Lydia’s House who train vulnerable adults in skills such as furniture-making, and Play Fitness, who engage children from deprived backgrounds in physical exercise and education by using digital technology to connect exercise equipment to computer games. Sunderland Software City, the city’s technology business incubator, plays a similar role within the local community of entrepreneurial technology businesses.

This approach is not specific to Sunderland, the UK or the developed world. Our work in Sunderland was inspired by a previous project in Wuxi, China; and in turn it has informed our approaches in cities as far afield as the United States, the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

In many countries in many geographies, new organisational models are emerging from these co-operative ecosystems. For example:

  • Community Interest Companies for managing shared assets such as land, natural resources, or locally-produced food or energy, such as the Eco-Island initiative on the Isle of Wight; or similar models internationally such as Waste Concern in Bangladesh.
  • Social Enterprises such as Lydia’s House and Play Fitness, which develop financially sustainable business models, but which are optimised to deliver social, environmental or long-term economic benefits, rather than the maximum short-term financial return.
  • New partnerships between public sector agencies; educational institutions; service and technology providers; communities; and individuals – such as the Dubuque 2.0 sustainability partnership in where the city authority, residents and utility providers have agreed to share in the cost of fixing leaks in water supply identified by smart meters.

Often such organisations create innovative business models in the form of marketplaces in industries in which money-flows already exist. The changes to those money-flows created by smarter systems form the basis of the potential for returns upon which a business case for investment can be made.

(The SMS for Life project uses the cheap and widely used SMS infrastructure to create a dynamic, collaborative supply chain for medicines between pharmacies in Africa. Photo by Novartis AG)

Arguably, the widespread use of mobile phone technology in the developing world, and in particular the ubiquity of mobile payments systems in Africa, is more advanced in its ability to create such marketplaces using very low cost infrastructure than in communities in the developed world . Both financial services institutions and technology entrepreneurs in the West are watching these innovations closely and learning from them.

Examples include SMS for Life, which uses a text messaging system to implement a dynamic, distributed supply chain for medicines between collaborating pharmacies in several African countries. And Kilimo Salama provides affordable insurance for small-scale farmers by using remote weather monitoring to trigger payouts via mobile phones, rather than undertaking expensive site visits to assess claims. This is a good example of a private-sector aggregator – in this case an insurer – investing in a technology – remote weather monitoring – to serve a large number of end-users – the farmers – who can’t afford it directly.

In cities, we are starting to see these ideas applied to the creation of food distribution schemes; sustainable transport systems that share the use of resources such as cars and vans and perform dynamic matching between networks of independent consumers and providers of transport services; and many other systems that reinforce local trading opportunities and create social and economic growth.

(A smartphone alert sent to a commuter in a San Francisco pilot project by IBM Research and Caltrans that provides personalised daily predictions of commuting journey times – and suggestions for alternative routes.)

But the role of technology in these markets is not just to introduce consumers and providers of services to each other; but to do so in a way that informs consumers about the impact of the choices they are about to make.

In Singapore, algorithms are used by the city’s traffic managers to predict traffic flow and congestion in the city up to one hour ahead with 85% accuracy. This allows them to take measures to prevent the predicted congestion occurring.

In a later project in California, those predictions made by those algorithms were provided to individual commuters in San Francisco’s Bay Area. Each commuter was told, in advance, the likely duration of their journey to the city each day, including the impact of any congestion that would develop whilst their journey was underway. This allowed them to make new choices: to travel at a different time; by a different route or mode of transport; or not to travel at all.

And we can appeal not only to individual motivations, but to our sense of community and place. In a smart water meter project in Dubuque, households were given information that told them whether their domestic appliances were being used efficiently, and alerted to any leaks in their supply of water. To a certain extent, households acted on this information to improve the efficiency of their water usage.

However a control group were also given a “green points” score telling them how their water conservation compared to that of their near neighbours. The households given that information were twice as likely to take action to improve their efficiency.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs tells us that once the immediate physical needs and safety of ourselves and our family are secured, that our motivations are next dictated by our relationships with the people around us – our families, communities and peers. Our ability to relate information to community contexts allows information-based services to appeal to those values.

(The Dubuque water and energy portal, showing an individual household insight into it's conservation performance; but also a ranking comparing their performance to their near neighbours)

(The Dubuque water and energy portal, showing an individual household insight into it’s conservation performance; but also a ranking comparing their performance to their near neighbours)

A new style of personal leadership can be found in many of the situations in which these ideas are successfully applied: people from a variety of backgrounds who have the ability to build new bridges; to bring together the resources of local communities and national and international institutions; to harness technology at appropriate cost for collective benefit; to step in and out of institutional and community behaviour and adapt to different cultures, conversations and approaches to business; and to create business models that balance financial health and sustainability with social and environmental outcomes.

The more that national and local governments can collaborate with the private sector, bridging organisations and communities to encourage this style of leadership and support and reward these new models of business, the more successfully we’ll put the power of technology into the hands of the people, businesses and communities most able to design, use and operate the new services that will make their cities better.

Large organisations have resources; small organisations have the ability to create valuable innovations in true sympathy with the detail of their local context. Private sector has the expertise to invest in assets that create future value; public sector has the responsibility to govern for the good of all. It is only by working together across all of these boundaries at once that we will really succeed in making cities Smarter in a way that is sustainable and equitably distributed. And that must be the only definition of “Smarter” that makes sense.

Refactoring, nucleation and incubation: three tools for digital urban adaptability

(This year's Ecobuild conference, which showcases technologies for sustainable cities)

(This year’s Ecobuild conference in London, which showcases technologies for sustainable cities)

When I am at my most productive as a computer programmer, I don’t write code; I sculpt virtual objects from it.

Any computer system exists to fulfill a purpose in the real world. To do so it recreates in code those aspects of the world that are relevant to its purpose. What transformed the creation of that model from the laborious, procedural task of writing instructions into the seamless creative flow that I liken to sculpting was Martin Fowler‘s conception of “refactoring”.

In Martin’s words:

“Refactoring is a disciplined technique for restructuring an existing body of code, altering its internal structure without changing its external behavior. Its heart is a series of small behavior preserving transformations. Each transformation (called a ‘refactoring’) does little, but a sequence of transformations can produce a significant restructuring. Since each refactoring is small, it’s less likely to go wrong. The system is also kept fully working after each small refactoring, reducing the chances that a system can get seriously broken during the restructuring.”

(quoted from the Refactoring homepage).

Refactoring is at the heart of what we now know as the “Agile Development” of software. Agile approaches embrace the fact that when we start to create a new system, we don’t know exactly what the final result should be. Traditional approaches to software development attempted to address that challenge through the lengthy analysis of stakeholder requirements. In contrast, agile approaches address it by quickly presenting a first working solution to stakeholders for feedback, and asking them what should be changed. The final solution is co-created by developers and stakeholders through many iterations of that process.

Refactoring codified the tools and techniques for performing the adaptations to computer systems required by that evolutionary process whilst preserving their operability. With practise, a good programmer internalises those tools so that they are used almost unconsciously – just as any good artisan or artist creates their work through the expert application of technique.

We need similar tools and techniques to support the evolution of our cities in the 21st Century.

Those cities will exist in a world that is ever more changeable, and ever less certain. Geoffrey West’s analysis of city systems, for example, showed that as the cities of the world grow, the rate of social, technological and economic change within them will increase. At the same time, climate change is causing not just an increase in temperature, but an increase in the variability of temperature, and of other environmental conditions. That variability reduces the stability of supply of grain and other natural resources that underpin the systems that support life. In order to provide social stability in this context, cities need to be adaptable and resilient in the face of change and uncertainty.

But it is already the case that the urban, economic and social systems of cities can’t keep up with the rate of change we are experiencing today.

(Image by TurkleTom)

Take the ability of education to support the economy. Google’s Chairman Eric Schmidt criticised the British Education system recently for producing insufficient computer programming skills to meet the needs of businesses.

But our current need for those skills is based on the computing technologies that are broadly adopted by business today. By and large those technologies are at least five years behind the leading edge; consider that whilst the first generation Apple iPad was launched in 2010, most businesses do not yet routinely provide their employees with a touchscreen tablet for use as a business tool.

As the rate of change in science and technology increases, the skills required by business will also change more rapidly. Consequently, it will become even more challenging to design and operate an education system that prepares children for productive careers in an economy that evolves for at least a decade after their education begins.

We won’t design those education systems successfully by considering our current requirements for skills; or by attempting to predict the skills that will be required ten years from now. If we make such predictions, they will be wrong. Instead we need to equip the education system with refactoring tools that allow it to continually adapt to the changing needs of the present.

The same challenges apply to the strategic planning of physical infrastructure in cities. As cities pursue “Smarter City” strategies, and as their economies evolve to exploit new technologies, what are the impacts on power requirements? On the need to provide connectivity to residential, retail and business space? On the physical space required by retail and business as online commerce and mobile working continue to grow? And on the movement of people and goods as information marketplaces change the physical supply chains of industries?

The only thing we can be sure of is the need for flexibility: the city of the future will need to be more responsive and adaptable to change than the cities that we know today.

(The collaborative working space of Hub Westminster which is constantly refactored to support new uses, exploiting furniture and spatial technology laser-cut from digital designs)

(The collaborative working space of Hub Westminster which is constantly refactored to support new uses, exploiting furniture and spatial technology laser-cut from digital designs)

Techniques to provide flexibility in the physical environment are already emerging. Kelvin Campbell’s theory of Smart Urbanism encourages the use of a spatial grid, party walls and building shells as a substrate upon which the fine detail of a city can grow.

A high quality, detailed physical environment can first be constructed on such a substrate according to customisable “design patterns” such as town houses and mews studios; and then refactored through interventions such as the reconfiguration of internal walls; the conversion of lofts to living or working space; or straightforward extensions to the physical size of buildings. Recently developed technologies such as 3D printing and 3D cutting provide additional opportunities for the physical refactoring of buildings and cities that would have been unimaginable relatively recently.

In materials science, sophisticated materials such as semi-conductors and super-conductors grow when large numbers of individual atomic particles are attracted to appropriately designed substrates; and when those particles form clusters together which eventually grow and combine into continuous materials. The process by which those initial clusters form is nucleation.

By analogy, if we can design urban substrates which encourage the nucleation of small-scale, productive, sustainable social and economic activity; and the subsequent agglomeration of that activity into larger-scale systems; then we will have created an environment in which smarter 21st century cities can grow.

We need to evolve similar concepts to support the development of information infrastructures for smarter cities. Broadband, wi-fi and mobile communications provide the equivalent substrate to the grid-based spatial framework of a city; but what are the equivalents of the party wall, building shell, design pattern and nucleation?

Open data“, for example, is clearly an important component of a Smarter City information infrastructure; but we do not yet fully understand how to exploit it sustainably. Doing so will likely involve structures such as city information partnerships; sustainable commercial models; standards for the interchange of datamodels of the meaning of data; and planning and procurement policies that embed the openness and interoperability of data into the development process.

Finally, the same challenges appear in economic development.

Michael Porter’s theory of economic clusters states that in order to protect profit margins from commoditisation over time, businesses need to constantly adopt new capabilities into their products and services. As science and technology develop more rapidly, cities and regions will need to drive that process of innovation more intensively in order to remain competitive in the global economy.

(The Old Street roundabout, around which London's "Tech City" cluster of technology companies has evolved)

(The Old Street roundabout, around which London’s “Tech City” cluster of technology companies has evolved)

This thinking is behind the technology innovation and business incubation partnership programme I’m putting together for IBM with Sunderland Software City, following our recent agreement to provide support for their new urban technology incubation campus at Tavistock Place.

Sunderland Software City- like Bristols’ Watershed media incubation centre and Birmingham’s Science Park Aston and Custard Factory – are exploring a form of urban technology incubation that is very different from that enabled by the more common out-of-town, campus-based science parks. They are not only concerned with supporting  new businesses that exploit the latest developments in science and technology; but with doing so in a way that creates synergies between local businesses, and that contributes to the  economic and industrial strategy of the cities where they are located.

Refactoring, nucleation and incubation are concepts drawn independently from domains as diverse as software engineering, the physical sciences and economics. There is no guarantee that they are mutually compatible; or even relevant to urban systems in any more direct way than by loose analogy.

But they share important characteristics that are also observed in successful urbanism and the research of resilient systems. For example: a preference for emergent growth rather than planned development;  and the need to enable widespread changes that are adaptable to highly specific local contexts.

So whilst I can’t be sure that these concepts are universally applicable, I am convinced that their potential value is so great that we are compelled to explore them.

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.

IMG-20121104-00606

(The Co-operative Society building at Avoncroft Museum of Historic Buildings)

Co-operative Governance

It’s increasingly obvious that on their own, traditional businesses and public and civic institutions won’t deliver the transformations that our cities, and our planet, need. The restructuring of our economy, cities and society to address the environmental and demographic challenges we face requires that social, environmental and long term economic goals drive our decisions, rather than short term financial returns alone.

Alternatives have been called for and proposed. In her speech ahead of the Rio +20 Summit, Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, said that one of the challenges for achieving a sustainable, equitably distributed return to growth following the recent economic challenges was that “externalities” such as social and environmental impacts are not currently included in the prices of goods and services.

I participated last year in a panel discussion at the World Bank’s “Rethinking Cities” conference which asked whether including those costs would incent consumers to chose to purchase sustainably provided goods and services. We examined several ways to create positive and negative incentives through pricing; but also examples of simply “removing the barriers” to making such choices. Our conclusion was that a combination of approaches was needed, including new ideas from game theory and technology, such as “open data”; and that evidence exists from a variety of examples to prove that consumer behaviour can and does adapt in response to well designed systems.

In “Co-op Capitalism“, Noreena Hertz proposed an alternative approach to enterprise based on social principles, where the objectives of collective endeavours are to return broad value to all of their stakeholders rather than to pay dividends to financial investors. This approach has a vital role in enabling communities across the entirety of city ecosystems to harness and benefit from technology in a sustainable way, and is exemplified by innovations such as MyDex in personal information management, Carbon Voyage in transport, and Eco-Island in energy.

New forms of cooperation have also emerged from resilience research, such as “constellations” and “articulations”. All of these approaches have important roles to play in specific city systems, community initiatives and new businesses, where they successfully create synergies between the financial, social and economic capabilities and needs of the participants involved.

But none of them directly address the need for cities to create a sustainable, cohesive drive towards a sustainable, equitable, successful future.

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

In “Smart Ideas for Everyday Cities“, I described an approach that seems to be emerging from the cities that have made the most progress so far. It involves bringing together stakeholders across city systems – representatives of communities; city institutions; owners and operators of city systems and assets such as buildings, transportation and utilities; Universities and schools; and so on – into a group that can not only agree a vision and priorities for the city’s future; but that is empowered to take collective decisions accordingly.

The initiatives agreed by such a group will require individual “special purpose vehicles” (SPVs) to be created according to the specific set of stakeholder interests involved in each case – such as public/private partnerships to build infrastructure or Community Interest Companies and Energy Service Companies to operate local energy schemes. (There are some negative connotations associated with SPVs, which have been used in some cases by private organisations seeking to hide their debt or ownership; but in the Smarter Cities context they are frequently associated with more positive purposes).

Most importantly, though: where a series of such schemes and commercial ventures are initiated by a stable collaboration within a city, investors will see a reliable decision-making process and a mature understanding of shared risk and its management; making each individual initiative more likely to attract investment.

In his analysis of societal responses to critical environmental threats, Jared Diamond noted in his 2005 book “Collapse” that successful responses often emerge when choices are taken by leaders with long-term vested interests, working closely with their communities. In a modern economy, the interests of stakeholders are driven by many timescales – electoral cycles, business cycles, the presence of commuters, travellers and the transient and long-term residents of the city, for example. Bringing those stakeholders together can create a forum that transcends individual timescales, creating stability and the opportunity for a long-term outlook.

A challenge for 2013: better stories for Smarter Cities

Some cities are seizing the agenda for change that I have described in this article; and the very many of us across countries, professions and disciplines who are exploring that agenda are passionate about helping them to do so successfully.

In their report “Cities Outlook 1901“, Centre for Cities explored the previous century of urban development in the UK, examining why at various times some cities thrived and some did not. They concluded that actions taken by cities in areas such as planning, policy, skills development and economic strategy could have significant effects on their economic and social prosperity relative to others.

The need for cities to respond to the challenges and opportunities of the future using the old, new and evolving tools at their disposal is urgent. In the 20th Century, some cities suffered a gradual decline as they failed to respond successfully to the changes of their age. In the 21st Century those changes will be so striking, and take place so quickly, that failing to meet them could result in a decline that is catastrophic.

But there is a real impediment to our ability to apply these ideas in cities today: a lack of common understanding.

(Matthew Boulton, James Watt and William Murdoch, Birmingham’s three fathers of the Industrial Revolution, photographed by Neil Howard)

As the industrial and information revolutions have led our world to develop at a faster and faster pace, human knowledge has not just grown dramatically; it has fragmented to an extraordinary extent.

Consequently, across disciplines such as architecture, economics, social science, psychology, technology and all the many other fields important to the behaviour of cities, a vast and confusing array of language and terminology is used – a Tower of Babel, no less. The leaders of many city institutions and businesses are understandably not familiar with what they can easily perceive as jargon; and new ideas that appear to be presented in jargon are unlikely to be trusted.

To address the challenge, those of us who believe in these new approaches to city systems need to tell better stories about them; stories about individuals and their lives in the places where they live and work; how they will be more healthy, better equiped to support themselves, and able to move around freely in a pleasant urban environment.

Professor Miles Tight at the University of Birmingham and his colleagues in the “Visions 2030” project have applied this idea to the description of future scenarios for transportation in cities. They have created a series of visually appealing animated depictions of everyday scenes in city streets and places that could be the result of the various forces affecting the development of transport over the next 20 years. Malcolm Allan, a colleague in the Academy of Urbanism, helps cities to tell “stories about place” as a tool for envisaging their future development in a way that people can understand and identify with. And my colleagues in IBM Research have been exploring more generally how storytelling can enable the exchange of knowledge in situations where collaborative creativity is required across multiple domains of specialisation.

If we can bring our knowledge of emerging technologies and new approaches to urbanism into conversations about specific places in the form of stories, we will build trust and understanding in those places, as well as envisioning their possible futures. And that will give us a real chance of achieving the visions we create. This is what I’ll be concentrating on doing in 2013; and it looks like being an exciting year.

(It’s been much longer than usual since I last wrote an article for this blog; following an extended break over Christmas and the New Year, I’ve had a very busy start to 2013. I hope to resume my usual frequency of writing for the rest of the year.

And finally, an apology: in my remarks on the panel discussion following Sir Peter Hall’s lecture at the Crystal, I gave a very brief summary of some of the ideas described in this article. In particular, I used the term “Massive / Small” without attributing it to Kelvin Campbell and Urban Initiatives. My apologies to Kelvin, whose work and influence on my thinking I hope I have now acknowledged properly).

The world is at our childrens’ fingertips; and they will change it

(Image by TurkleTom)

Several of my recent posts to this blog have been concerned with two sides of the same coin: the importance of science and technology skills to our societies and economies; and the importance of making technology and information consumable and accessible.

But this is the first time I’m putting those concerns to the test in the very act of writing my blog – which I’m doing using the iPad that arrived 3 days ago.

My last purchase from Apple – a company whose controlling approach to technology and media ecosystems I don’t admire – was a 3rd generation iPod; it’s now so unusually old that I’m often asked if it’s some strange *new* gadget. I was very unimpressed by the speed with which that iPod’s battery deteriorated, and by the impossibility of replacing it. So I needed some considerable persuasion to shell out several hundred pounds on an iPad.

That persuasion came from my 3 year old son. On the (very rare, if you’re my boss reading this) occasions that I work from home, I sometimes share my laptop screen with him. My side has my e-mail on it; his side has Thomas the Tank Engine on YouTube (he gets the better deal). Often when I launch a new window, it pops up on his side of the screen, obscuring whatever’s going on on Sodor. His immediate and instinctive reaction is to touch the screen and try to drag the obstruction out of the way.

(I heard an amazing corollary to this from a contact at Birmingham City Council yesterday – she’s seen her toddler drag her fingers apart on the surface of a paper magazine in an attempt to “zoom” the pictures in it!)

I’ve just written an article that repeats an often quoted though hard to source statistic that 90% of the information that exists in the world today was created (or more accurately recorded) in the last 5 years.

That made me think that: every fact in the world is literally at the fingertips of our children.

You can argue whether that’s literally true; and whether it’s equally true for all the children in the world (it’s clearly not); but there’s a deep and fundamental truth to the insight that suggests: however much we think the technologies we use today have already changed the world, it’s absolutely nothing compared to the utter transformation that will be created by the real “information natives” that our very young children will become.

That’s why I shelled out for an iPad this week. Love Apple or loathe them, they are creating technologies that offer us – if we explore and engage with them – a window into an important part of the future. And if we want to help our children, our schools, our businesses and our cities prepare for that future, then we had better do our best to get to grips with them ourselves.

How will the UK create the skills that the economy of 2020 will need?

(Photo by Orange Tuesday)

I’ve been reading Edward Glaeser’s book “The Triumph of the City” recently. One of his arguments is that the basis of sustainable city economies is the presence of clusters of small, entrepreneurial businesses that constantly co-create new commercial value from technological innovations.

Alan Penn, the Dean of the Bartlett Institute for the Built Environment, made similar comments to me recently. Interestingly, both Alan and Edward Glaesar identified Birmingham, my hometown, as an example of a city with such an innovative, marketplace economy, along with London. They also both identified Manchester as a counter-example of a city overly dependent on commoditised industries and external investment.

Cities are fundamentally important to the UK economy; more than 90% of the UK population lives in urban areas. But many – or perhaps most – UK cities are not well placed to support innovative, marketplace-based, high-technology economies (see my recent post on this topic). For example, e-Skills UK report that less than 20% of people hired into information technology positions in the UK acquired their skills in the education system; and I agree strongly with Seth Godin’s views as expressed by the “Stop Stealing Dreams” manifesto that we need to question and change the fundamental objectives around which our education system is designed.

To create and / or sustain economies capable of organic innovation and growth, cities need a particular mixture of skills: entrepreneurial skills; commercial skills; operational skills; technology skills; and creative skills. The blunt truth is that our education system isn’t structured to deliver those skills to city economies with this objective.

Whilst the opinions I’ve expressed here are personal, I’ll shortly be launching a project at work for my employer IBM to look at the challenges in this space. IBM’s business interest is our need to continue hiring smart, skilled people in the UK; the interest of IBM’s technical community as individuals to commit their time to the project additionally involves personal passion for technology and education.

I’m enormously aware that I’m not the first person to whom these thoughts have occurred; and I know that I and my colleagues in IBM don’t have all the answers.

So if this topic interests you and you’d like to share your insight with the project I’m going to run this year, please let me know. I’d very much appreciate hearing from you.

Accessibility or Bust

(Photo: “Cable Confusion” by e-magic)

It’s been obvious since the 1990s that the communication and collaboration technologies that have evolved from the internet and mobile telephony are changing our planet – its culture, its environment and its economy. What’s differentiated those who’ve succeeded in applying those technologies from those who’ve failed is their ability to integrate them with society.

By society I mean people and the economy. People in the sense of the consumability and accessibility of technology; and the economy in the sense of adding value to the interactions between people. If technology isn’t consumable and accessible by people, and if it doesn’t add value to their interactions, it won’t be used.

James Watt and Matthew Boulton got this absolutely right in their industrial and commercial exploitation of the steam engine, which Jenny Uglow argued in her brilliant book “The Lunar Men” was the catalyst for the Industrial Revolution. Reuters got it right when they started a business using one of the original low-latency messaging technologies to distribute news around the world faster than anyone else – carrier pigeons.

We’re living through an era of acute financial, demographic and environmental pressures that we expect technology to rescue us from. The Internet of Things and Open Data will make information available to anyone, anytime to take better decisions, and use resources more efficiently. Internet entrepreneurs will continue to create innovative new business models. Cities everywhere will build digital industries to drive economic growth. The cost of transactions in public service and commerce will fall as delivery becomes “digital by default”.

Or will they?

People can only use information to take better decisions if they understand that information.

Take the transformation to open, digital, public services and personal budgets, for example, in UK public services. If individuals are to choose effectively which care services to purchase with their care budgets, then they need to be presented with comprehensible information that describes the range of services available to them. They need information describing what the services do; the quality of service outcomes and delivery; and who the provider of the service is. They need information describing who measures service quality, and how. They need information that describes whether they are eligible for the service, how much it costs, how to access it, and how to complain if something goes wrong. And that’s just for starters.

This is starting to sound like an awful lot of complicated information. Because we’re talking about social care, it needs to be presented to vulnerable people, who may have difficulty understanding it, and may not be able or willing to use digital technology.

Solving our problems using technology is not about Open Data, Open Source, or Agile Development or supporting the nation’s technology SMEs. All of those things are important, but they’re not enough. We need an acceleration of the rollout of broadband connectivity; we need to look at whether channels such as digital television and mobile can be used effectively; we need a really effective network of “living labs” to explore how people can interact effectively with these technologies; and we need to examine indirect user interactions with digital services, where a carer, a friend or a family member uses technology on behalf of someone else.

I’m exploring some of these issues in Sunderland, where the city has invested in broadband connectivity, Cloud computing, and a network of 39 “e-Village Halls” (see short articles on the Council’s website here  and here) which provide access to online information and transactions from community and neighbourhood centres in a trusted environment where help and advice are available. A few years ago, the Council ran a scheme called the “Let’s Go” Card where more than 2500 disadvantaged young people were given a smartcard with £33 a month to spend on leisure and educational activities that could be booked through an online portal. Many of the people in the scheme didn’t have direct access to the internet themselves; but they could get it through friends. The scheme was a huge success, with 94% of the eligible young people taking part.

The TSB’s Creative Industries KTN has looked recently at applying their expertise to the consumability of information provided by Smart Meters and other “Internet of Things” technologies; and I know of some other high-profile organisations who are developing similar plans. They’re starting to draw many private sector companies and Universities into their activities, and I think the results will be fascinating.

IBM’s own Andy Stanford-Clark has been interested in this subject for a while, and has explored the concept of ambient information interfaces which communicate information about domestic energy use in a non-technical way. And the NHS in the West Midlands is exploring effective ways to communicate healthcare information within a community of patients and employees through the NHS Local site. They have engaged a television production company, Maverick Television, to design the site using their expertise in communicating through technology. I hope that all of these initiatives will contribute to our ability to design smarter, digital city systems that we can all engage effectively in.

For me, this is the real shape of things to come. There’s been a lot of focus recently on improving the teaching of technology skills in the UK economy. But as I commented recently on this blog, to develop technology with real societal impact, we need to focus on a broader combination of technology, information, scientific, creative and entrepreneurial skills.

To put my money where my mouth is, I’m hoping to start a study project soon to explore that idea in more detail and create some recommendations for doing things differently. I’d be delighted to hear from anyone who’s interested in taking part.

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