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.

From concrete to telepathy: how to build future cities as if people mattered

(An infographic depicting realtime data describing Dublin - the waiting time at road junctions; the location of buses; the number of free parking spaces and bicycles available to hire; and sentiments expressed about the city through social meida)

(An infographic depicting realtime data describing Dublin – the waiting time at road junctions; the location of buses; the number of free parking spaces and bicycles available to hire; and sentiments expressed about the city through social media)

(I was honoured to be asked to speak at TEDxBrum in my home city of Birmingham this weekend. The theme of the event was “DIY” – “the method of building, modifying or repairing something without the aid of experts or professionals”. In other words, how Birmingham’s people, communities and businesses can make their home a better place. This is a rough transcript of my talk).

What might I, a middle-aged, white man paid by a multi-national corporation to be an expert in cities and technology, have to say to Europe’s youngest city, and one of its most ethnically and nationally diverse, about how it should re-create itself “without the aid of experts or professionals”?

Perhaps I could try to claim that I can offer the perspective of one of the world’s earliest “digital natives”. In 1980, at the age of ten, my father bought me one of the world’s first personal computers, a Tandy TRS 80, and taught me how to programme it using “machine code“.

But about two years ago, whilst walking through London to give a talk at a networking event, I was reminded of just how much the world has changed since my childhood.

I found myself walking along Wardour St. in Soho, just off Oxford St., and past a small alley called St. Anne’s Court which brought back tremendous memories for me. In the 1980s I spent all of the money I earned washing pots in a local restaurant in Winchester to travel by train to London every weekend and visit a small shop in a basement in St. Anne’s Court.

I’ve told this story in conference speeches a few times now, perhaps to a total audience of a couple of thousand people. Only once has someone been able to answer the question:

“What was the significance of St. Anne’s Court to the music scene in the UK in the 1980s?”

Here’s the answer:

Shades Records, the shop in the basement, was the only place in the UK that sold the most extreme (and inventive) forms of “thrash metal” and “death metal“, which at the time were emerging from the ashes of punk and the “New Wave of British Heavy Metal” in the late 1970s.

G157 Richard with his Tandy

(Programming my Tandy TRS 80 in Z80 machine code nearly 35 years ago)

The process by which bands like VOIVOD, Coroner and Celtic Frost – who at the time were three 17-year-olds who practised in an old military bunker outside Zurich – managed to connect – without the internet – to the very few people around the world like me who were willing to pay money for their music feels like ancient history now. It was a world of hand-printed “fanzines”, and demo tapes painstakingly copied one at a time, ordered by mail from classified adverts in magazines like Kerrang!

Our world has been utterly transformed in the relatively short time between then and now by the phenomenal ease with which we can exchange information through the internet and social media.

The real digital natives, though, are not even those people who grew up with the internet and social media as part of their everyday world (though those people are surely about to change the world as they enter employment).

They are the very young children like my 6-year-old son, who taught himself at the age of two to use an iPad to access the information that interested him (admittedly, in the form of Thomas the Tank Engine stories on YouTube) before anyone else taught him to read or write, and who can now use programming tools like MIT’s Scratch to control computers vastly more powerful than the one I used as a child.

Their expectations of the world, and of cities like Birmingham, will be like no-one who has ever lived before.

And their ability to use technology will be matched by the phenomenal variety of data available to them to manipulate. As everything from our cars to our boilers to our fridges to our clothing is integrated with connected, digital technology, the “Internet of Things“, in which everything is connected to the internet, is emerging. As a consequence our world, and our cities, are full of data.

(The programme I helped my 6-year old son write using MIT's "Scratch" language to draw a picture of a house)

(The programme I helped my 6-year old son write using MIT’s “Scratch” language to cause a cartoon cat to draw a picture of a house)

My friend the architect Tim Stonor calls the images that we are now able to create, such as the one at the start of this article, “data porn”. The image shows data about Dublin from the Dublinked information sharing partnership: the waiting time at road junctions; the location of buses; the number of free parking spaces and bicycles available to hire; and sentiments expressed about the city through social media.

Tim’s point is that we should concentrate not on creating pretty visualisations; but on the difference we can make to cities by using this data. Through Open Data portals, social media applications, and in many other ways, it unlocks secrets about cities and communities:

  • Who are the 17 year-olds creating today’s most weird and experimental music? (Probably by collaborating digitally from three different bedroom studios on three different continents)
  • Where is the healthiest walking route to school?
  • Is there a local company nearby selling wonderful, oven-ready curries made from local recipes and fresh ingredients?
  • If I set off for work now, will a traffic jam develop to block my way before I get there?

From Dublin to Montpellier to Madrid and around the world my colleagues are helping cities to build 21st-Century infrastructures that harness this data. As technology advances, every road, electricity substation, University building, and supermarket supply chain will exploit it. The business case is easy: we can use data to find ways to operate city services, supply chains and infrastructure more efficiently, and in a way that’s less wasteful of resources and more resilient in the face of a changing climate.

Top-down thinking is not enough

But to what extent will this enormous investment in technology help the people who live and work in cities, and those who visit them, to benefit from the Information Economy that digital technology  and data is creating?

This is a vital question. The ability of digital technology to optimise and automate tasks that were once carried out by people is removing jobs that we have relied on for decades. In order for our society to be based upon a fair and productive economy, we all need to be able to benefit from the new opportunities to work and be successful that are being created by digital technology.

(Photo of Masshouse Circus, Birmingham, a concrete urban expressway that strangled the citycentre before its redevelopment in 2003, by Birmingham City Council)

(Photo of Masshouse Circus, Birmingham, a concrete urban expressway that strangled the city centre before its redevelopment in 2003, by Birmingham City Council)

Too often in the last century, we got this wrong. We used the technologies of the age – concrete, lifts, industrial machinery and cars – to build infrastructures and industries that supported our mass needs for housing, transport, employment and goods; but that literally cut through and isolated the communities that create urban life.

If we make the same mistake by thinking only about digital technology in terms of its ability to create efficiencies, then as citizens, as communities, as small businesses we won’t fully benefit from it.

In contrast, one of the authors of Birmingham’s Big City Plan, the architect Kelvin Campbell, created the concept of “massive / small“. He asked: what are the characteristics of public policy and city infrastructure that create open, adaptable cities for everyone and that thereby give rise to “massive” amounts of “small-scale” innovation?

In order to build 21st Century cities that provide the benefits of digital technology to everyone we need to find the design principles that enable the same “massive / small” innovation to emerge in the Information Economy, in order that we can all use the simple, often free, tools available to us to create our own opportunities.

There are examples we can learn from. Almere in Holland use analytics technology to plan and predict the future development of the city; but they also engage in dialogue with their citizens about the future the city wants. Montpellier in France use digital data to measure the performance of public services; but they also engage online with their citizens in a dialogue about those services and the outcomes they are trying to achieve. The Dutch Water Authority are implementing technology to monitor, automate and optimise an infrastructure on which many cities depend; but making much of the data openly available to communities, businesses, researchers and innovators to explore.

There are many issues of policy, culture, design and technology that we need to get right for this to happen, but the main objectives are clear:

  • The data from city services should be made available as Open Data and through published “Application Programming Interfaces” (APIs) so that everybody knows how they work; and can adapt them to their own individual needs.
  • The data and APIs should be made available in the form of Open Standards so that everybody can understand it; and so that the systems that we rely on can work together.
  • The data and APIs should be available to developers working on Cloud Computing platforms with Open Source software so that anyone with a great idea for a new service to offer to people or businesses can get started for free.
  • The technology systems that support the services and infrastructures we rely on should be based on Open Architectures, so that we have freedom to chose which technologies we use, and to change our minds.
  • Governments, institutions, businesses and communities should participate in an open dialogue, informed by data and enlightened by empathy, about the places we live and work in.

If local authorities and national government create planning policies, procurement practises and legislation that require that public infrastructure, property development and city services provide this openness and accessibility, then the money spent on city infrastructure and services will create cities that are open and adaptable to everyone in a digital age.

Bottom-up innovation is not enough, either

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

Not everyone has access to the technology and skills to use this data, of course. But some of the people who do will create the services that others need.

I took part in my first “hackathon” in Birmingham two years ago. A group of people spent a weekend together in 2012 asking themselves: in what way should Birmingham be better? And what can we do about it? Over two days, they wrote an app, “Second Helping”, that connected information about leftover food in the professional kitchens of restaurants and catering services, to soup kitchens that give food to people who don’t have enough.

Second Helping was a great idea; but how do you turn a great idea and an app into a change in the way that food is used in a city?

Hackathons and “civic apps” are great examples of the “bottom-up” creativity that all of us use to create value – innovating with the resources around us to make a better life, run a better business, or live in a stronger community. But “bottom-up” on it’s own isn’t enough.

The result of “bottom-up” innovation at the moment is that life expectancy in the poorest parts of Birmingham is more than 10 years shorter than it is in the richest parts. In London and Glasgow, it’s more than 20 years shorter.

If you’re born in the wrong place, you’re likely to die 10 years younger than someone else born in a different part of the same city. This shocking situation arises from many, complex issues; but one conclusion that it is easy to draw is that the opportunity to innovate successfully is not the same for everyone.

So how do we increase everybody’s chances of success? We need to create the policies, institutions, culture and behaviours that join up the top-down thinking that tends to control the allocation of resources and investment, especially for infrastructure, with the needs of bottom-up innovators everywhere.

Translational co-operation

Harborne Food School

(The Harborne Food School, which will open in the New Year to offer training and events in local and sustainable food)

The Economist magazine reminded us of the importance of those questions in a recent article describing the enormous investments made in public institutions such as schools, libraries and infrastructure in the past in order to distribute the benefits of the Industrial Revolution to society at large rather than concentrate them on behalf of business owners and the professional classes.

But the institutions of the past, such as the schools which to a large degree educated the population for repetitive careers in labour-intensive factories, won’t work for us today. Our world is more complicated and requires a greater degree of localised creativity to be successful. We need institutions that are able to engage with and understand individuals; and that make their resources openly available so that each of us can use them in the way that makes most sense to us. Some public services are starting to respond to this challenge, through the “Open Public Services” agenda; and the provision of Open Data and APIs by public services and infrastructure are part of the response too.

But as Andrew Zolli describes in “Resilience: why things bounce back“, there are both institutional and cultural barriers to engagement and collaboration between city institutions and localised innovation. Zolli describes the change-makers who overcome those barriers as “translational leaders” – people with the ability to engage with both small-scale, informal innovation in communities and large-scale, formal institutions with resources.

We’re trying to apply that “translational” thinking in Birmingham through the Smart City Alliance, a collaboration between 20 city institutions, businesses and innovators. The idea is to enable conversations about challenges and opportunities in the city, between people, communities, innovators and  the organisations who have resources, from the City Council and public institutions to businesses, entrepreneurs and social enterprises. We try to put people and organisations with challenges or good ideas in touch with other people or organisations with the ability to help them.

This is how we join the “top-down” resources, policies and programmes of city institutions and big companies with the “bottom-up” innovation that creates value in local situations. A lot of the time it’s about listening to people we wouldn’t normally meet.

Partly as a consequence, we’ve continued to explore the ideas about local food that were first raised at the hackathon. Two years later, the Harborne Food School is close to opening as a social enterprise in a redeveloped building on Harborne High Street that had fallen out of use.

The school will be teaching courses that help caterers provide food from sustainable sources, that teach people how to set up and run food businesses, and that help people to adopt diets that prevent or help to manage conditions such as diabetes. The idea has changed since the “Second Helping” app was written, of course; but the spirit of innovation and local value is the same.

Cities that work like magic

So what does all this have to do with telepathy?

The innovations and changes caused by the internet over the last two decades have accelerated as it has made information easier and easier to access and exchange through the advent of technologies such as broadband, mobile devices and social media. But the usefulness of all of those technologies is limited by the tools required to control them – keyboards, mice and touchscreens.

Before long, we won’t need those tools at all.

Three years ago, scientists at the University of Berkely used computers attached to an MRI scanner to recreate moving images from the magnetic field created by the brain of a person inside the scanner watching a film on a pair of goggles. And last year, scientists at the University of Washington used similar technology to allow one of them to move the other’s arm simply by thinking about it. A less sensitive mind-reading technology is already available as a headset from Emotiv, which my colleagues in IBM’s Emerging Technologies team have used to help a paralysed person communicate by thinking directional instructions to a computer.

Telepathy is now technology, and this is just one example of the way that the boundary between our minds, bodies and digital information will disappear over the next decade. As a consequence, our cities and lives will change in ways we’ve never imagined, and some of those changes will happen surprisingly quickly.

I can’t predict what Birmingham will or should be like in the future. As a citizen, I’ll be one of the million or so people who decide that future through our choices and actions. But I can say that the technologies available to us today are the most incredible DIY tools for creating that future that we’ve ever had access to. And relatively quickly technologies like bio-technology, 3D printing and brain/computer interfaces will put even more power in our hands.

As a parent, I get engaged in my son’s exploration of these technologies and help him be digitally aware, creative and responsible. Whenever I can, I help schools, Universities, small businesses or community initiatives to use them, because I might be helping one of IBM’s best future employees or business partners; or just because they’re exciting and worth helping. And as an employee, I try to help my company take decisions that are good for our long term business because they are good for the society that the business operates in.

We can take for granted that all of us, whatever we do, will encounter more and more incredible technologies as time passes. By remembering these very simple things, and remembering them in the hundreds of choices I make every day, I hope that I’ll be using them to play my part in building a better Birmingham, and better cities and communities everywhere.

(Shades Records in St. Anne's Court in the 1980s)

(Shades Records in St. Anne’s Court in the 1980s. You can read about the role it played in the development of the UK’s music culture – and in the lives of its customers – in this article from Thrash Hits;  or this one from Every Record Tells a Story. And if you really want to find out what it was all about, try watching Celtic Frost or VOIVOD in the 1980s!)

Information and choice: nine reasons our future is in the balance

(The Bandra pedestrian skywalk in Mumbai, photo taken from the Collaborative Research Initiative Trust‘s study of Mumbai, “Being Nicely Messy“, produced for the 2012 Audi Urban Futures awards)

The 19th and 20th centuries saw the flowering and maturation of the Industrial Revolution and the creation of the modern world. Standards of living worldwide increased dramatically as a consequence – though so did inequality.

The 21st century is already proving to be different. We are reaching the limits of supply of the natural resources and cheap energy that supported the last two centuries of development; and are starting to widely exploit the most powerful man-made resource in history: digital information.

Our current situation isn’t simply an evolution of the trends of the previous two centuries; nine “tipping points” in economics, society, technology and the environment indicate that our future will be fundamentally different to the past, not just different by degree.

Three of those tipping points represent changes that are happening as the ultimate consequences of the Industrial Revolution and the economic globalisation and population growth it created; three of them are the reasons I think it’s accurate to characterise the changes we see today as an Information Revolution; and the remaining three represent challenges for us to face in the future.

The difficulty faced in addressing those challenges internationally through global governance institutions is illustrated by the current status of world trade deal and climate change negotiations; but our ability to respond to them is not limited to national and international governments. It is in the hands of businesses, communities and each of us as individuals as new business models emerge.

The structure of the economy is changing

In 2012, the Collaborative Research Initiatives Trust were commissioned by the Audi Urban Futures Awards to develop a vision for the future of work and life in Mumbai. In the introduction to their report, “Being Nicely Messy“, they cite a set of statistics describing Mumbai’s development that nicely illustrate the changing nature of the city:

“While the population in Mumbai grew by 25% between 1991 and 2010, the number of people travelling by trains during the same years increased by 66% and the number of vehicles grew by 181%. At the same time, the number of enterprises in the city increased by 56%.

All of this indicates a restructuring of the economy, where the nature of work and movement has changed.”

(From “Being Nicely Messy“, 2011, Collaborative Research Initiatives Trust)

Following CRIT’s inspiration, over the last year I’ve been struck by several similar but more widely applicable sets of data that, taken together, indicate that a similar restructuring is taking place across the world.

ScreenHunter_223 Nov. 28 00.06

(Professor Robert Gordon’s analysis of historic growth in productivity, as discussed by the famous investor Jeremy Grantham, showing that the unusual growth experienced through the Industrial Revolution may have come to an end. Source: Gordon, Robert J., “Is U.S. Economic Growth Over? Faltering Innovation Confronts the Six Headwinds,” NBER Working Paper 18315, August 2012)

The twilight of the Industrial Revolution

Tipping point 1: the slowing of economic growth

According to the respected investor Jeremy Grantham, Economic growth has slowed systemically and permanently. He states that: “Resource costs have been rising, conservatively, at 7% a year since 2000 … in a world growing at under 4% and [in the] developed world at under 1.5%”

Grantham’s analysis is that the rapid economic growth of the last century was a historical anomaly driven by the productivity improvements made possible through the Industrial Revolution; and before that revolution reached such a scale as to create global competition for resources and energy. Property and technology bubbles extended that growth into the early 21st Century, but it has now reduced to much more modest levels where Grantham expects it to remain. The economist Tyler Cowan came to similar conclusions in his 2011 book, “The Great Stagnation“.

This analysis was supported by the property developers I met at a recent conference in Birmingham. They told me that indicators in their market today are the most positive they have been since the start of the 1980s property boom; but none of them expect that boom to be repeated. The market is far more cautious concerning medium and long-term prospects for growth.

We have passed permanently into an era of more modest economic growth than we have become accustomed to; or at very least into an era whereby we need to restructure the relationship between economic growth and the consumption of resources and energy in ways that we have not yet determined before higher growth does return. We have passed a tipping point; the world has changed.

(Growth in the world's urban population as reported by World Urbanization Prospects”, 2007 Revision, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, United Nations)

(Growth in the world’s urban population as reported by “World Urbanization Prospects”, 2007 Revision, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, United Nations)

Tipping point 2: urbanisation and the industrialisation of food supply 

As has been widely quoted in recent years, more than half the world’s population has lived in cities since 2010 according to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. That percentage is expected to increase to 70% by 2050.

The implications of those facts concern not just where we live, but the nature of the economy. Cities became possible when we industrialised the production and distribution of food, rather than providing it for ourselves on a subsistence basis; or producing it in collaboration with our neighbours. For this reason, many developing nations still undergoing urbanisation and industrialisation – such as Tanzania, Turkmenistan and Tajikstan – still formally define cities by criteria including “the pre-dominance of non-agricultural workers and their families” (as referenced in the United Nations’ “World Urbanization Prospects” 2007 Revision).

So for the first time more than half the world’s population now lives in cities; and is provided with food by industrial supply chains rather than by families or neighbours. We have passed a tipping point; the world has changed.

(Estimated damage in $US billion caused by natural disasters between 1900 and 2012 as reported by EM-DAT)

(Estimated damage in $US billion caused by natural disasters between 1900 and 2012 as reported by EM-DAT)

Tipping point 3: the frequency and impact of extreme weather conditions

As our climate changes, we are experiencing more unusual and extreme weather. In addition to the devastating impact recently of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines,  cities everywhere are regularly experiencing the effects to a more modest degree.

One city in the UK told me recently that inside the last 12 months they have dealt with such an increase in incidents of flooding severe enough to require coordinated cross-city action that it has become an urgent priority for local Councillors. We are working with other cities in Europe to understand the effect of rising average levels of flooding – historic building construction codes mean that a rise in average levels of a meter or more could put significant numbers of buildings at risk of falling down. The current prediction from the United Nations International Panel on Climate Change is that levels will rise somewhere between 26cm and 82cm by the end of this century – close enough for concern.

The EM-DAT International Disasters Database has calculated the financial impact of natural disasters over the past century. They have shown that in recent years the increased occurrence of unusual and extreme weather combined with the increasing concentration of populations and economic activity in cities has caused this impact to rise at previously unprecedented rates.

The investment markets have identified and responded to this trend. In their recent report “Global Investor Survey on Climate Change”, the Global Investor Coalition on Climate Change reported this year that 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. We have passed a tipping point; the world has changed.

(The prediction of exponential growth in digital information from EMC's Digital Universe report)

(The prediction of exponential growth in digital information from EMC’s Digital Universe report)

The dawn of the Information Revolution

Tipping point 4: exponential growth in the world’s most powerful man-made resource, digital information

Information has always been crucial to our world. Our use of language to share it is arguably a defining characteristic of what it means to be human; it is the basis of monetary systems for mediating the exchange of goods and services; and it is a core component of quantum mechanics, one of the most fundamental physical theories that describes how our universe behaves.

But the emergence of broadband and mobile connectivity over the last decade have utterly transformed the quantity of recorded information in the world and our ability to exploit it.

EMC’s Digital Universe report shows that in between 2010 and 2012 more information was recorded than in all of previous human history. They predict that the quantity of information recorded will double every 2 years, meaning that at any point in the next two decades it will be true to make the same assertion that “more information was recorded in the last two years than in all of previous history”. In 2011 McKinsey described the “information economy” that has emerged to exploit this information as a fundamental shift in the basis of the economy as a whole.

Not only that, but information has literally been turned into money. The virtual currency Bitcoin is based not on the value of a raw material such as gold whose availability is physically limited; but on the outcomes of extremely complex cryptographic calculations whose performance is limited by the speed at which computers can process information. The value of Bitcoins is currently rising incredibly quickly – from $20 to $1000 since January; although it is also subject to significant fluctuations. 

Ultimately, Bitcoin itself may succeed or fail – and it is certainly used in some unethical and dangerous transactions as well as by ordinary people and businesses. But its model has demonstrated in principle that a decentralised, non-national, information-based currency can operate successfully, as my colleague Richard Brown recently explained.

Digital information is the most valuable man-made resource ever invented; it began a period of exponential growth just three years ago and has literally been turned into money. We have passed a tipping point; the world has changed.

Tipping point 5: the disappearing boundary between humans, information and the physical world

In the 1990s the internet began to change the world despite the fact that it could only be accessed by using an expensive, heavy personal computer; a slow and inconvenient telephone modem; and the QWERTY keyboard that was designed in the 19th Century to prevent typists from typing faster than the levers in mechanical typewriters could move.

Three years ago, my then 2-year-old son taught himself how to use a touchscreen tablet to watch cartoons from around the world before he could read or write. Two years ago, Scientists at the University of California at Berkeley used a Magnetic Resonance Imaging facility to capture images from the thoughts of a person watching a film. A less sensitive mind-reading technology is already available as a headset from Emotiv, which my colleagues in IBM’s Emerging Technologies team have used to help a paralysed person communicate by thinking directional instructions to a computer.

Earlier this year, a paralysed woman 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.

Our thoughts can control information in computer systems; and information in those systems can quite literally shape the world around us. The boundaries between our minds, information and the physical world are disappearing. We have passed a tipping point; the world has changed.

(A personalised prosthetic limb constructed using 3D printing technology. Photo by kerolic)

Tipping point 6: the miniaturisation of industry

The emergence of the internet as a platform for enabling sales, marketing and logistics over the last decade has enabled small and micro-businesses to reach markets across the world that were previously accessible only to much larger organisations with international sales and distribution networks.

More recently, the emergence and maturation of technologies such as 3D printingopen-source manufacturing and small-scale energy generation are enabling small businesses and community initiatives to succeed in new sectors by reducing the scale at which it is economically viable to carry out what were previously industrial activities – a trend recently labelled by the Economist magazine as the “Third Industrial Revolution“. The continuing development of social media and pervasive technology enable them to rapidly form and adapt supply and exchange networks with other small-scale producers and consumers.

Estimates of the size of the resulting “sharing economy“, defined by Wikipedia as “economic and social systems that enable shared access to goods, services, data and talent“, vary widely, but are certainly significant. The UK Economist magazine reports one estimate that it is a $26 billion economy already, whilst 2 Degrees Network report that just one aspect of it – small-scale energy generation – could save UK businesses £33 billion annually by 2030Air B’n’B – a peer-to-peer accommodation service – reported recently that they had contributed $632 million in value to New York’s economy in 2012 by enabling nearly 5,000 residents to earn an average of $7,500 by renting their spare rooms to travellers; and as a consequence of those travellers additionally spending an average of $880 in the city during their stay. Overall, there has been a significant rise in self-employment and “micro-entrepreneurial” enterprises over the last few years, which now account for 14% of the US economy.

Organisations participating in the sharing economy exhibit a range of motivations and ethics – some are aggressively commercial, whilst others are “social enterprises” with a commitment to reinvest profits in social growth. The social enterprise sector, comprised of mutuals, co-operatives, employee-owned businesses and enterprises who submit to “triple bottom line” accounting of financial, social and environmental capital, is about 15% of the value of most economies, and has been growing and creating jobs faster than traditional business since the 2008 crash.

In the first decade of the 21st Century, mobile and internet technologies caused a convergence between the technology, communications and media sectors of the economy. In this decade, we will see far more widespread disruptions and convergences in the technology, manufacturing, creative arts, healthcare and utilities industries; and enormous growth in the number of small and social enterprises creating innovative business models that cut across them. We have passed a tipping point; the world has changed.

Rebalancing the world

Tipping point 7: how we respond to climate change and resource constraints

There is now agreement amongst scientists, expressed most conclusively by the United Nations International Panel on Climate Change this year, that the world is undergoing a period of overall warming resulting from the impact of human activity. But there is not yet a consensus on how we should respond.

Views vary from taking immediate, sweeping measures to drastically cut carbon and greenhouse gas emissions,  to the belief that we should accept climate change as inevitable and focus investment instead on adapting to it, as suggested by the “Skeptical Environmentalist” Bjørn Lomborg and the conservative think-tank the American Enterprise Institute. As a result of this divergence of opinion, and of the challenge of negotiating between the interests of countries, communities and businesses across the world, the agreement reached by last year’s climate change negotiations in Doha was generally regarded as relatively weak.

Professor Chris Rogers of the University of Birmingham and his colleagues in the Urban Futures initiative have assessed over 450 proposed future scenarios and identified four archetypes (described in his presentation to Base Cities Birmingham) against which they assess the cost and effectiveness of environmental and climate interventions. The “Fortress World” scenario is divided between an authoritarian elite who control the world’s resources from their protected enclaves and a wider population living in poverty. In “Market Forces”, free markets encourage materialist consumerism to wholly override social and environmental values; whilst in “Policy Reform” a combination of legislation and citizen behaviour change achieve a balanced outcome. And in the “New Sustainability Paradigm” the pursuit of wealth gives way to a widespread aspiration to achieve social equality and environmental sustainability. (Chris is optimistic enough that his team dismissed another scenario, “Breakdown”, as unrealistic).

Decisions that are taken today affect the degree to which our world will evolve to resemble those scenarios. As the impact of weather and competition for resources affect the stability of supply of energy and foodmany cities are responding to the relative lack of national and international action by taking steps themselves. Some businesses are also building strategies for long-term success and profit growth  around sustainability; in part because investing in a resilient world is a good basis for a resilient business, and in part because they believe that a genuine commitment to sustainability will appeal to consumers. Unilever demonstrated that they are following this strategy recently by committing to buy all of their palm oil – of which they consume one third of the world’s supply – from traceable sources by the end of 2014.

At some point, we will all – individuals, businesses, communities, governments – be forced to change our behaviour to account for climate change and the limits of resource availability: as the prices of raw materials, food and energy rise; and as we are more and more directly affected by the consequences of a changing environment.

The questions are: to what extent have these challenges become urgent to us already; and how and when will we respond?

(“Makers” at the Old Print Works in Balsall Heath, Birmingham, sharing the tools, skills and ideas that create successful small businesses)

Tipping point 8: the end of the average career

In “The End of Average“, the economist Tyler Cowen observed that about 60% of the jobs lost during the 2008 recession were in mid-wage occupations; and the UK Economist magazine reported that many jobs lost from professional industries had been replaced in artisan trades and small-scale industry such as food, furniture and design.

Echoing Jeremy Grantham, Cowen further observes that these changes take place within a much longer term 28% decline in middle-income wages in the US between 1969 and 2009 which has no identifiable single cause. Cowen worries that this is a sign that the economy is beginning to diverge into the authoritarian elite and the impoverished masses of Chris Rogers’ “Fortress World” scenario.

Other evidence points to a more complex picture. Jake Dunagan, Research Director of the Institute for the Future, believes that the widespread availability of digital technology and information is extending democracy and empowerment – just as the printing press and education did in the last millennium as they dramatically increased the extent to which people were informed and able to make themselves heard. Dunagan notes that through our reliance on technology and social media to find and share information, our thoughts and beliefs are already formed by, and having an effect on, society in a way that is fundamentally new.

The miniaturisation of industry (tipping point 6 above) and the disappearance of the boundary between our minds and bodies, information and the physical world (tipping point 5 above) are changing the ways in which resources and value are exchanged and processed out of all recognition. Just imagine how different the world would be if a 3D-printing service such as Shapeways transformed the manufacturing industry as dramatically as iTunes transformed the music industry 10 years ago. Google’s futurologist Thomas Frey recently described 55 “jobs of the future” that he thought might appear as a result.

(Activities comprising the “Informal Economy” and their linkages to the mainstream economy, by Claro Partners)

In both developed and emerging countries, informal, social and micro-businesses are significant elements of the economy, and are growing more quickly than traditional sectorsClaro partners estimate that the informal economy (in which they include alternative currencies, peer-to-peer businesses, temporary exchange networks and micro-businesses – see diagram, right) is worth $10 trillion worldwide, and that it employs up to 80% of the workforce in emerging markets. 

In developed countries, the Industrial Revolution drove a transformation of such activity into a more formal economy – a transformation which may now be in part reversing. In developing nations today, digital technology may make part of that transformation unnecessary. 

To be successful in this changing economy, we will need to change the way we learn, and the way we teach our children. Cowen wrote that “We will move from a society based on the pretense that everyone is given an okay standard of living to a society in which people are expected to fend for themselves much more than they do now”; and expressed a hope that online education offers the potential for cheaper and more widespread access to new skills to enable people to do so. This thinking echoes a finding of the Centre for Cities report “Cities Outlook 1901” that the major factor driving the relative success or failure of UK cities throughout the 20th Century was their ability to provide their populations with the right skills at the right time as technology and industry developed.

The marketeer and former Yahoo Executive Seth Godin’s polemic “Stop Stealing Dreams” attacked the education system for continuing to prepare learners for stable, traditional careers rather than the collaborative entrepreneurialism that he and other futurists expect to be required. Many educators would assert that their industry is already adapting and will continue to do so – great change is certainly expected as the ability to share information online disrupts an industry that developed historically to share it in classrooms and through books.

Many of the businesses, jobs and careers of 2020, 2050 and 2100 will be unrecognisable or even unimaginable to us today; as are the skills that will be needed to be successful in them. Conversely, many post-industrial cities today are still grappling with challenges created by the loss of jobs in manufacturing, coalmining and shipbuilding industries in the last century.

The question for our future is: will we adapt more comfortably to the sweeping changes that will surely come to the industries that employ us today?

("Lives on the Line" by James Cheshire at UCL's Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis, showing the variation in life expectancy and correlation to child poverty in London. From Cheshire, J. 2012. Lives on the Line: Mapping Life Expectancy Along the London Tube Network. Environment and Planning A. 44 (7). Doi: 10.1068/a45341)

(“Lives on the Line” by James Cheshire at UCL’s Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis, showing the variation in life expectancy and correlation to child poverty in London. From Cheshire, J. 2012. Lives on the Line: Mapping Life Expectancy Along the London Tube Network. Environment and Planning A. 44 (7). Doi: 10.1068/a45341)

Tipping point 9: inequality

The benefits of living in cities are distributed extremely unevenly.

The difference in life expectancy of children born into the poorest and wealthiest areas of UK cities today is often as much as 20 years – for boys in Glasgow the difference is 28 years. That’s a deep inequality in the opportunity to live.

There are many causes of that inequality, of course: health, diet, wealth, environmental quality, peace and public safety, for example. All of them are complex, and the issues that arise from them to create inequality – social deprivation and immobility, economic disengagement, social isolation, crime and lawlessness – are notoriously difficult to address.

But a fundamental element of addressing them is choosing to try to do so. That’s a trite observation, but it is nonetheless the case that in many of our activities we do not make that choice – or, more accurately, as individuals, communities and businesses we take choices primarily in our own interests rather than based on their wider impact.

Writing about cities in the 1960s, the urbanist Jane Jacobs observed 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.”

In many respects, we have not shaped the financial machinery of the world to achieve equality. Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz wrote recently that in fact the financial machinery of the United States and the UK in particular create considerable inequality in those countries; and the Economist magazine reminds us of the enormous investments made into public institutions in the past in order to distribute the benefits of the Industrial Revolution to society at large rather than concentrate them on behalf of business owners and the professional classes – with only partial success.

New legislation in banking has been widely debated and enacted since the 2008 financial crisis – enforcing the separation of commercial and investment banking, for example. But addressing inequality is a much broader challenge than the regulation of banking, and will not only be addressed by legislation. Business models such as social enterprise, cross-city collaborations and the sharing economy are emerging to develop sustainable businesses in industries such as food, energy, transportation and finance, in addition to the contribution made by traditional businesses building sustainability into their strategies.

Whenever we vote, buy something or make a choice in business, we contribute to our overall choice to develop a fairer, more sustainable world in which everyone has a chance to participate. The question is not just whether we will take those choices; but the degree to which their impact on the wider world will be apparent to us so that we can do so in an informed way.

That is a challenge that technology can help with.

(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. The predictions gave commuters the opportunity to take a better-informed choice about their travel to work.)

Data and Choice

Like the printing press, the vote and education, access to data allows us to make more of a difference than we were able to without it.

Niall Firth’s November editorial for the New Scientist magazine describes how citizens of developing nations are using open data to hold their governments to account, from basic information about election candidates to the monitoring of government spending. In the UK, a crowd-sourced analysis of politicians’ expenses claims that had been leaked to the press resulted in resignations, the repayment of improperly claimed expenses, and in the most severe cases, imprisonment.

Unilever are committing to making their supply chain for palm oil traceable precisely because that data is what will enable them to next improve its sustainability; and in Almere, city data and analytics are being used to plan future development of the city in a way that doesn’t cause harmful impacts to existing citizens and residents. Neither initiative would have been possible or affordable without recent improvements in technology.

Data and technology, appropriately applied, give us an unprecedented ability to achieve our long-term objectives by taking better-informed, more forward-looking decisions every day, in the course of our normal work and lives. They tell us more than we could ever previously have known about the impact of those decisions.

That’s why the tipping points I’ve described in this article matter to me. They translate my general awareness that I should “do the right thing” into a specific knowledge that at this point in time, my choices in many aspects of daily work and life contribute to powerful forces that will shape the next century that we share on this planet; and that they could help to tip the balance in all of our favour.

Can Smarter City technology measure and improve our quality of life?

(Photo of Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, at night by David Yu)

Can information and technology measure and improve the quality of life in cities?

That seems a pretty fundamental question for the Smarter Cities movement to address. There is little point in us expending time and money on the application of technology to city systems unless we can answer it positively. It’s a question that I had the opportunity to explore with technologists and urbanists from around the world last week at the Urban Systems Collaborative meeting in London, on whose blog this article will also appear.

Before thinking about how we might approach such a challenging and complex issue, I’d like to use two examples to support my belief that we will eventually conclude that “yes, information and technology can improve the quality of life in cities.”

The first example, which came to my attention through Colin Harrison, who heads up the Urban Systems Collaborative, concerns public defibrillator devices – equipment that can be used to give an electric shock to the victim of a heart attack to restart their heart. Defibrillators are positioned in many public buildings and spaces. But who knows where they are and how to use them in the event that someone nearby suffers a heart attack?

To answer those questions, many cities now publish open data lists of the locations of publically-accessible Defibrillators. Consequently, SmartPhone apps now exist that can tell you where the nearest one to you is located. As cities begin to integrate these technologies with databases of qualified first-aiders and formal emergency response systems, it becomes more feasible that when someone suffers a heart attack in a public place, a nearby first-aider might be notified of the incidence and of the location of a nearby defibrillator, and be able to respond valuable minutes before the arrival of emergency services. So in this case, information and technology can increase the chancees of heart attack victims recovering.

(Why Smarter Cities matter: "Lives on the Line" by James Cheshire at UCL's Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis, showing the variation in life expectancy and correlation to child poverty in London. From Cheshire, J. 2012. Lives on the Line: Mapping Life Expectancy Along the London Tube Network. Environment and Planning A. 44 (7). Doi: 10.1068/a45341)

(Why Smarter Cities matter: “Lives on the Line” by James Cheshire at UCL’s Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis, showing the variation in life expectancy across London. From Cheshire, J. 2012. Lives on the Line: Mapping Life Expectancy Along the London Tube Network. Environment and Planning A. 44 (7). Doi: 10.1068/a45341)

In a more strategic scenario, the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis (CASA) at University College London have mapped life expectancy at birth across London. Life expectancy across the city varies from 75 to 96 years, and CASA’s researchers were able to correlate it with a variety of other issues such as child poverty.

Life expectancy varies by 10 or 20 years in many cities in the developed world; analysing its relationship to other economic, demographic, social and spatial information can provide insight into where money should be spent on providing services that address the issues leading to it, and that determine quality of life. The UK Technology Strategy Board cited Glasgow’s focus on this challenge as one of their reasons for investing £24 million in Glasgow’s Future Cities Demonstrator project – life expectancy at birth for male babies in Glasgow varies by 26 years between the poorest and wealthiest areas of the city.

These examples clearly show that in principle urban data and technology can contribute to improving quality of life in cities; but they don’t explain how to do so systematically across the very many aspects of quality of life and city systems, and between the great variety of urban environments and cultures throughout the world. How could we begin to do that?

Deconstructing “quality of life”

We must first think more clearly about what we mean by “quality of life”. There are many needs, values and outcomes that contribute to quality of life and its perception. Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” is a well-researched framework for considering them. We can use this as a tool for considering whether urban data can inform us about, and help us to change, the ability of a city to create quality of life for its inhabitants.

(Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, image by Factoryjoe via Wikimedia Commons)

But whilst Maslow’s hierarchy tells us about the various aspects that comprise the overall quality of life, it only tells us about our relationship with them in a very general sense. Our perception of quality of life, and what creates it for us, is highly variable and depends on (at least) some of the following factors:

  • Individual lifestyle preferences
  • Age
  • Culture and ethnicity
  • Social standing
  • Family status
  • Sexuality
  • Gender
  • … and so on.

Any analysis of the relationship between quality of life, urban data and technology must take this variability into account; either by allowing for it in the analytic approach; or by enabling individuals and communities to customise the use of data to their specific needs and context.

Stress and Adaptability

Two qualities of urban systems and life within them that can help us to understand how urban data of different forms might relate to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and individual perspectives on it are stress and adaptability.

Jurij Paraszczak, IBM’s Director of Research for Smarter Cities, suggested that one way to improve quality of life is to reduce stress. A city with efficient, well integrated services – such as transport; availability of business permits etc. – will likely cause less stress, and offer a higher quality of life, than a city whose services are disjointed and inefficient.

One cause of stress is the need to change. The Physicist Geoffrey West is one of many scientists who has explored the roles of technology and population growth in speeding up city systems; as our world changes more and more quickly, our cities will need to become more agile and adaptable – technologists, town planners and economists all seem to agree on this point.

The architect Kelvin Campbell has explored how urban environments can support adaptability by enabling actors within them to innovate with the resources available to them (streets, buildings, spaces, technology) in response to changes in local and global context – changes in the economy of cultural trends, for example.

Service scientists” analyse the adaptability of systems (such as cities) by considering the “affordances” they offer to actors within them. An “affordance” is a capability within a system that is not exercised until an actor chooses to exercise it in order to create value that is specific to them, and specific to the time, place and context within which they act.

An “affordance” might be the ability to start a temporary business or “pop-up” shop within a disused building by exploiting a temporary exemption from planning controls. Or it might be the ability to access open city data and use it as the basis of new information-based business services. (I explored some ideas from science, technology, economics and urbanism for creating adaptability in cities in an article in March this year).

(Photo by lecercle of a girl in Mumbai doing her homework on whatever flat surface she could find. Her use of a stationary tool usually employed for physical mobility to enhance her own social mobility is an example of the very basic capacity we all have to use the resources available to us in innovative ways)

Stress and adaptability are linked. The more personal effort that city residents must exert in order to adapt to changing circumstances (i.e. the less that a city offers them useful affordances), then the more stress they will be subjected to.

Stress; rates of change; levels of effort and cost exerted on various activities: these are all things that can be measured.

Urban data and quality of life in the district high street

In order to explore these ideas in more depth, our discussion at the Urban Systems Collaborative meeting explored a specific scenario systematically. We considered a number of candidate scenarios – from a vast city such as New York, with a vibrant economy but affected by issues such as flood risk; through urban parks and property developments down to the scale of an individual building such as a school or hospital.

We chose to start with a scenario in the middle of that scale range that is the subject of particularly intense debate in economics, policy and urban design: a mixed-demographic city district with a retail centre at its heart spatially, socially and economically.

We imagined a district with a population of around 50,000 to 100,000 people within a larger urban area; with an economy including the retail, service and manufacturing sectors. The retail centre is surviving with some new businesses starting; but also with some vacant property; and with a mixture of national chains, independent specialist stores, pawnshops, cafes, payday lenders, pubs and betting shops. We imagined that local housing stock would support many levels of wealth from benefits-dependent individuals and families through to millionaire business owners. A district similar to Kings Heath in Birmingham, where I live, and whose retail economy was recently the subject of an article in the Economist magazine.

We asked ourselves what data might be available in such an environment; and how it might offer insight into the elements of Maslow’s hierarchy.

We began by considering the first level of Maslow’s hierarchy, our physiological needs; and in particular the availability of food. Clearly, food is a basic survival need; but the availability of food of different types – and our individual and cultural propensity to consume them – also contributes to wider issues of health and wellbeing.

(York Road, Kings Heath, in the 2009 Kings Heath Festival. Photo by Nick Lockey)

Information about food provision, consumption and processing can also give insights into economic and social issues. For example, the Economist reported in 2011 that since the 2008 financial crash, some jobs lost in professional service industries such as finance in the UK had been replaced by jobs created in independent artisan industries such as food. Evidence of growth in independent businesses in artisan and craft-related sectors in a city area may therefore indicate the early stages of its recovery from economic shock.

Similarly, when a significant wave of immigration from a new cultural or ethnic group takes place in an area, then it tends to result in the creation of new, independent food businesses catering to preferences that aren’t met by existing providers. So a measure of diversity in food supply can be an indicator of economic and social growth.

So by considering a need that Maslow’s hierarchy places at the most basic level, we were able to identify data that describes an urban area’s ability to support that need – for example, the “Enjoy Kings Heath” website provides information about local food businesses; and furthermore, we identified ways that the same data related to needs throughout the other levels of Maslow’s hierarchy.

We next considered how economic flows within and outside an area can indicate not just local levels of economic activity; but also the area’s trading surplus or deficit. Relevant information in principle exists in the form of the accounts and business reports of businesses. Initiatives such as local currencies and loyalty schemes attempt to maximise local synergies by minimising the flow of money out of local economies; and where they exploit technology platforms such as Droplet’s SmartPhone payments service, which operates in London and Birmingham, the money flows within local economies can be measured.

These money flows have effects that go beyond the simple value of assets and property within an area. Peckham high street in London has unusually high levels of money flow in and out of its economy due to a high degree of import / export businesses; and to local residents transferring money to relatives overseas. This flow of money makes business rents in the area disproportionally high  compared to the value of local assets.

Our debate also touched on environmental quality and transport. Data about environmental quality is increasingly available from sensors that measure water and air quality and the performance of sewage systems. These clearly contribute insights that are relevant to public health. Transport data provides perhaps more subtle insights. It can provide insight into economic activity; productivity (traffic jams waste time); environmental impact; and social mobility.

My colleagues in IBM Research have recently used anonymised data from GPS sensors in SmartPhones to analyse movement patterns in cities such as Abidjan and Istanbul on behalf of their governments and transport authorities; and to compare those movement patterns with public transport services such as bus routes. When such data is used to alter public transport services so that they better match the end-to-end journey requirements of citizens, an enormous range of individual, social, environmental and economic benefits are realised.

(The origins and destinations of end-to-end journeys made in Abidjan, identified from anonymised SmartPhone GPS data)

(The origins and destinations of end-to-end journeys made in Abidjan, identified from anonymised SmartPhone GPS data)

Finally, we considered data sources and aspects of quality of life relating to what Maslow called “self-actualisation”: the ability of people within the urban environment of our scenario to create lifestyles and careers that are individually fulfilling and that reward creative self-expression. Whilst not direct, measurements of the registration of patents, or of the formation and survival of businesses in sectors such as construction, technology, arts and artisan crafts, relate to those values in some way.

In summary, the exercise showed that a great variety of data is available that relates to the ability of an urban environment to provide Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to people within it. To gain a fuller picture, of course, we would need to repeat the exercise with many other urban contexts at every scale from a single building up to the national, international and geographic context within which the city exists. But this seems a positive start.

Recognising the challenge

Of course, it is far from straightforward to convert these basic ideas and observations into usable techniques for deriving insight and value concerning quality of life from urban data.

What about the things that are extremely hard to measure but which are often vital to quality of life – for example the cash economy? Physical cash is notoriously hard to trace and monitor; and arguably it is particularly important to the lives of many individuals and communities who have the most significant quality of life challenges; and to those who are responsible for some of the activities that detract from quality of life – burglary, mugging and the supply of narcotics, for example.

The Urban Systems Collaborative’s debate also touched briefly on the question of whether we can more directly measure the outcomes that people care about – happiness, prosperity, the ability to provide for our families, for example. Antti Poikola has written an article on his blog, “Vital signs for measuring the quality of life in cities“, based on the presentation on that topic by Samir Menon of Tata Consulting Services. Samir identified a number of “happiness indices” that have been proposed by the UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, the European Quality of Life Survey, the OECD’s Better Life Index, and the Social Progress Index created by economist Michael Porter. Those indices generally attempt to correlate a number of different quantitative indicators with qualitative information from surveys into an overall score. Their accuracy and usefulness is the subject of contentious debate.

As an alternative, Michael Mezey of the Royal Society for the Arts recently collected descriptions of attempts to measure happiness more directly by identifying the location of issues or events associated with positive or negative emotions – such as parks and pavements fouled by dog litter or displays of emotion in public. It’s fair to say that the results of these approaches are very subjective and selective so far, but it will be interesting to observe what progress is made.

There is also a need to balance our efforts between creating value from the data that is available to us – which is surely a resource that we should exploit – with making sure that we focus our efforts on addressing our most important challenges, whether or not data relevant to them is easily accessible.

And in practise, a great deal of the data that describes cities is still not very accessible or useful. Most of it exists within IT systems that were designed for a specific purpose – for example, to allow building owners to manage the maintenance of their property. Those systems may not be very good at providing data in a way that is useful for new purposes – for example, identifying whether a door is connected to a pavement by a ramp or by steps, and hence how easy it is for a wheelchair user to enter a building.

(Photo by Closed 24/7 of the Jaguar XF whose designers used “big data” analytics to optimise the emotional response of potential customers and drivers)

Generally speaking, transforming data that is useful for a specific purpose into data that is generally useful takes time, effort and expertise – and costs money. We may desire city data to be tidied up and made more readily accessible; just as we may desire a disused factory to be converted into useful premises for shops and small businesses. But securing the investment required to do so is often difficult – this is why open city data is a “brownfield regeneration” challenge for the information age.

We don’t yet have a general model for addressing that challenge, because the socio-economic model for urban data has not been defined. Who owns it? What does it cost to create? What uses of it are acceptable? When is it proper to profit from data?

Whilst in principle the data available to us, and our ability to derive insight and knowledge from it, will continue to grow, our ability to benefit from it in practise will be determined by these crucial ethical, legal and economic issues.

There are also more technical challenges. As any mathematician or scientist in a numerate discipline knows, data, information and analysis models have significant limitations.

Any measurement has an inherent uncertainty. Location information derived from Smartphones is usually accurate to within a few meters when GPS services are available, for example; but only to within a few hundred meters when derived by triangulation between mobile transmission masts. That level of inaccuracy is tolerable if you want to know which city you are in; but not if you need to know where the nearest defibrilator is.

These limitations arise both from the practical limitations of measurement technology; and from fundamental scientific principles that determine the performance of measurement techniques.

We live in a “warm” world – roughly 300 degrees Celsius above what scientists call “absolute zero“, the coldest temperature possible. Warmth is created by heat energy; that energy makes the atoms from which we and our world are made “jiggle about” – to move randomly. When we touch a hot object and feel pain it is because this movement is too violent to bear – it’s like being pricked by billions of tiny pins. This random movement creates “noise” in every physical system, like the static we hear in analogue radio stations or on poor quality telephone lines.

And if we attempt to measure the movements of the individual atoms that make up that noise, we enter the strange world of quantum mechanics in which Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle states that the act of measuring such small objects changes them in unpredictable ways. It’s hardly a precise analogy, but imagine trying to measure how hard the surface of a jelly is by hitting it with a hammer. You’d get an idea of the jelly’s hardness by doing so, but after the act of “measurement” you wouldn’t be left with the same jelly. And before the measurement you wouldn’t be able to predict the shape of the jelly afterwards.

(A graph from my PhD thesis showing experimental data plotted against the predictions of an analytic. Notice that whilst the theoretical prediction (the smooth line) is a good guide to the experimental data, that each actual data point lies above or below the line, not on it. In addition, each data point has a vertical bar expressing the level of uncertainty involved in its measurement. In most circumstances, data is uncertain and theory is only a rough guide to reality.)

Even if our measurements were perfect, our ability to understand what they are telling us is not. We draw insight into the behaviour of a real system by comparing measurements of it to a theoretical model of its behaviour. Weather forecasters predict the weather by comparing real data about temperature, air pressure, humidity and rainfall to sophisticated models of weather systems; but, as the famous British preoccupation with talking about the weather illustrates, their predictions are frequently inaccurate. Quite simply this is because the weather system of our world is more complicated than the models that weather forecasters are able to describe using mathematics; and process using today’s computers.

This may all seem very academic; and indeed it is – these are subjects that I studied for my PhD in Physics. But all scientists, mathematicians and engineers understand them; and whether our work involves city systems, motor cars, televisions, information technology, medicine or human behaviour, when we work with data, information and analysis technology we are very much aware and respectful of their limitations.

Most real systems are more complicated than the theoretical models that we are able to construct and analyse. That is especially true of any system that includes the behaviour of people – in other words, the vast majority of city systems. Despite the best efforts of psychology, social science and artificial intelligence we still do not have an analytic model of human behaviour.

For open data and Smarter Cities to succeed, we need to openly recognise these challenges. Data and technology can add immense value to city systems – for instance, IBM’s “Deep Thunder” technology creates impressively accurate short-term and short-range predictions of weather-related events such as flash-flooding that have the potential to save lives. But those predictions, and any other result of data-based analysis, have limitations; and are associated with caveats and constraints.

It is only by considering the capabilities and limitations of such techniques together that we can make good decisions about how to use them – for example, whether to trust our lives to the automated analytics and control systems involved in anti-lock braking systems, as the vast majority of us do every time we travel by road; or whether to use data and technology only to provide input into a human process of consideration and decision-making – as takes place in Rio when city agency staff consider Deep Thunder’s predictions alongside other data and use their own experience and that of their colleagues in determining how to respond.

In current discussions of the role of technology in the future of cities, we risk creating a divide between “soft” disciplines that deal with qualitative, subjective matters – social science and the arts for example; and “hard” disciplines that deal with data and technology – such as science, engineering, mathematics.

In the most polarised debates, opinion from “soft” disciplines is that “Smart cities” is a technology-driven approach that does not take human needs and nature into account, and does not recognise the variability and uncertainty inherent in city systems; and opinion from “hard” disciplines is that operational, design and policy decisions in cities are taken without due consideration of data that can be used to inform them and predict their outcomes. As Stephan Shakespeare wrote in the “Shakespeare Review of Public Sector Information“, “To paraphrase the great retailer Sir Terry Leahy, to run an enterprise without data is like driving by night with no headlights. And yet that is what government often does.”

There is no reason why these positions cannot be reconciled. In some domains “soft” and “hard” disciplines regularly collaborate. For example, the interior and auditory design of the Jaguar XF car, first manufactured in 2008, was designed by re-creating the driving experience in a simulator at the University of Warwick, and analysing the emotional response of test subjects using physiological sensors and data. Such techniques are now routinely used in product design. And many individuals have a breadth of knowledge that extends far beyond their core profession into a variety of areas of science and the arts.

But achieving reconciliation between all of the stakeholders involved in the vastly complex domain of cities – including the people who live in them, not just the academics, professionals and politicians who study, design, engineer and govern them – will not happen by default. It will only happen if we have an open and constructive debate about the capabilities and the limitations of data, information and technology; and if we are then able to communicate them in a way that expresses to everyone why Smarter City systems will improve their quality of life.

(“Which way to go?” by Peter Roome)

What’s next?
It’s astonishing and encouraging that we could use a model of individual consciousness to navigate the availability and value of data in the massively collective context of an urban scenario. To continue developing an understanding of the ability of information and technology to contribute to quality of life within cities, we need to expand that approach to explore the other dimensions we identified that affect perceptions of quality of life: culture, age and family status, for example; and within both larger and smaller scales of city context than the “district” scenario that we started with.

And we need to compare that approach to existing research work such as the Liveable Cities research collaboration between UK Universities that is establishing an evidence-based technique for assessing wellbeing; or the IBM Research initiative “SCRIBE” which seeks to define the meaning of and relationships between the many types of data that describe cities.

As a next step, the Urban Systems Collaborative attendees suggested that it would be useful to consider how people in different circumstances in cities use data, information and technology to take decisions:  for example, city leaders, businesspeople, parents, hostel residents, commuters, hospital patients and so forth across the incredible variety of roles that we play in cities. You can find out more about how the Collaborative is taking this agenda forward on their website.

But this is not a debate that belongs only within the academic community or with technologists and scientists. Information and technology are changing the cities, society and economy that we live in and depend on. But that information results from data that in large part is created by all of our actions and activities as individuals, as we carry out our lives in cities, interacting with systems that from a technology perspective are increasingly instrumented, interconnected and intelligent. We are the ultimate stakeholders in the information economy, and we should seek to establish an equitable consensus for how our data is used; and that consensus should include an understanding and acceptance between all parties of both the capabilities and limitations of information and technology.

I’ve written before about the importance of telling stories that illustrate ways in which technology and information can change lives and communities for the better. The Community Lovers’ Guide to Birmingham is a great example of doing this. As cities such as Birmingham, Dublin and Chicago demonstrate what can be achieved by following a Smarter City agenda, I’m hoping that those involved can tell stories that will help other cities across the world to pursue these ideas themselves.

(This article summarises a discussion I chaired this week to explore the relationship between urban data, technology and quality of life at the Urban Systems Collaborative’s London workshop, organised by my ex-colleague, Colin Harrison, previously an IBM Distinguished Engineer responsible for much of our Smarter Cities strategy; and my current colleague, Jurij Paraszczak, Director of Industry Solutions and Smarter Cities for IBM ResearchI’m grateful for the contributions of all of the attendees who took part. The article also appears on the Urban Systems Collaborative’s blog).

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.

Death, life and place in great digital cities

("Lives on the Line" by James Cheshire at UCL's Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis, showing the variation in life expectancy and correlation to child poverty in London. From Cheshire, J. 2012. Lives on the Line: Mapping Life Expectancy Along the London Tube Network. Environment and Planning A. 44 (7). Doi: 10.1068/a45341)

(“Lives on the Line” by James Cheshire at UCL’s Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis, showing the variation in life expectancy and correlation to child poverty in London. From Cheshire, J. 2012. Lives on the Line: Mapping Life Expectancy Along the London Tube Network. Environment and Planning A. 44 (7). Doi: 10.1068/a45341)

At the recent Base Birmingham Conference, Scott Cain of the UK Technology Strategy Board (TSB) explained some of the reasons why Glasgow was awarded the TSB’s £24m Future Cities Demonstrator project this year.

Among them all, including the arrival of the Commonwealth Games in 2014 and the strength of the proposed delivery partnership, one stood out for me: the challenge of addressing the difference in life expectancy of 28 years between the wealthiest and poorest areas of the city.

That’s a deeply serious problem, and it’s inarguably worth supporting the city’s attempts to tackle it. Glasgow’s demonstrator project includes a variety of proposals to tackle life expectancy and other issues correlated with it – such as fuel poverty, public safety and health – using technology- and information-enabled approaches.

But whilst Glasgow has the widest variation in life expectancy in the UK, it is far from alone in having a significant one. The variation in life expectancy in London is about 20 years, and has been mapped against its tube network. Life expectancy in Birmingham ranges from 75 to 84 and has similarly been mapped against the local rail network; and in Plymouth it varies by 12.6 years across the city. Life expectancy in many cities varies by as much as 10 years, and is widely viewed as an unacceptable inequality between the opportunities for life offered to children born in different places.

Glasgow, Plymouth, London and Birmingham are just a few examples of cities with active strategies to address this inequality; but all of them are crafting and executing those strategies in an incredibly tough environment.

Many nations in the developed world are facing times of budget cuts and austerity as they tackle high levels of public, commercial and domestic debt built up in the decades leading to the 2008 financial crisis. At the same time, growth in the population, economies and middle classes of the emerging world are creating new wealth, and new demand for resources, across the world. So the cities of the developed world are seeking to rebalance inequalities in their own communities at a time when the resources available to them to do so are shrinking as a consequence of a rebalancing of inequalities that is, to an extent, taking place on a global scale (and quite rightly).

(Photo of Geoffery West describing the scaling laws that determine animal characteristics by Steve Jurvetson. Note that whilst the chart focusses on mammals, the scaling laws are more broadly applicable.)

The physicist Geoffrey West has analysed in detail the performance of city systems, and one interpretation of his work is that it demonstrates that this challenge is inevitable. He showed that larger cities create more wealth, more efficiently, than smaller cities. In doing so, they attract residents, grow bigger still, and accelerate wealth creation further. This self-reinforcing process results in an ever-increasing demand for resources. It powered the growth of cities in the developed world through the Industrial Revolution; and it is powering the growth of cities in emerging markets today.

In an interview with the New York Times, West described two possible ends to this process: a catastrophe caused by a failure in the supply of resources; or an intervention to alter the relationship between value creation and resource consumption.

Many would argue that we are already experiencing failures in supply – for example, the frightening effects of recent grain shortages caused by droughts that are probably attributable to climate change; or predictions that the UK will face regular blackouts by about 2015 due to a shortfall in power generation.

At the heart of the Smarter Cities movement is the belief that the use of engineering and IT technologies, including social media and information marketplaces, can create more efficient and resilient city systems. Might that idea offer a way to address the challenges of supporting wealth creation in cities at a sustainable rate of resource usage; and of providing city services to enable wellbeing, social mobility and economic growth at a reduced level of cost?

Many examples demonstrate that – in principle – Smarter Cities concepts can do that. Analytics technologies have been used to speed up convergence and innovation across sectors in city economies; individuals, communities and utility providers have engaged in the collective, sustainable use of energy and water resources, as has happened in Dubuque; local trading and currency systems are being used to encourage the growth of economic activity with local social and environmental benefits; information technology enables more efficient transportation systems such as California’s Smarter Traveller scheme or the local transport marketplaces created by Shutl and Carbon Voyage; and business-to-business and business-to-consumer marketplaces such as Big Barn and Sustaination are supporting local food initiatives.

But there are two problems with broadly applying these approaches to improve cities everywhere.

(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)

Firstly, they do not always translate in a straightforward way from one place and system to another. For example, a neighbourhood in Dubuque achieved an overall reduction in water and energy usage when each household was given information comparing their own resource consumption to an anonymised average for those around them. Households with higher-than-average resource use were motivated to become better neighbours.

But a recycling scheme in London that adopted a similar approach found instead that it lowered recycling rates across the community: households who learned that they were putting more effort into recycling than their neighbours asked themselves “if my neighbours aren’t contributing to this initiative, then why should I?”

These are good examples of “Smarter City” initiatives that are enabled by technology; but that are more importantly dependent on changes in the behaviour of individuals and communities. The reasons that those changes take place cannot always be copied from one context to another. They are a crucial part of a design process that should be carried out within individual communities in order to co-create useful solutions for them.

Secondly, there is a truth about social media, information marketplaces and related “Smarter City” technologies that is far too rarely explored, but that has serious implications. It is that:

Rather than removing the need to travel and transport things, these technologies can dramatically increase our requirements to do so.

For example, since I began writing this blog about 18 months ago, I have added several hundred connections to my social media network. That’s hundreds of new people who I now know it’s worth my while to travel to meet in person. And sure enough, as my network has grown in social media, so have the demands of my traveling schedule.

Similarly, e-Bay CEO John Donahoe recently described the environmental benefits created by the online second-hand marketplace extending the life of over $100 billion of goods since it began, representing a significant reduction in the impact of manufacturing and disposing of goods. But such benefits of online marketplaces are offset by the carbon impact of the need to transport goods between the buyers and sellers who use them; and by the social and economic impact in cities that are too often dominated by road traffic rather than human life.

Increasing the demand for transport in cities could be very damaging. Some urbanists such as the architect and town planner Tim Stonor and Enrique Peñalosa, former mayor of Bogotá, assert that the single biggest cause of poorly functioning city environments today is the technology around which most of them have been built for the last century: the automobile. And whilst recent trends have started to address those challenges – “human scale” approaches to town planning and architecture; the cycling and walkability movements; and, in some cases, improvements in public transport – most cities still have congested transport systems that make cities more dangerous and unpleasant than we would like.

(Photo of pedestrian barriers in Hackney, London by mpromber, showing how they impede the movement of people engaging in local transactions at the expense of road traffic passing through the area)

We are opening Pandora’s box. These tremendously powerful technologies could indeed create more efficient, resilient city systems. But unless they are applied with real care, they could exacerbate our challenges. If they act simply to speed up transactions and the consumption of resources in city systems, then they will add to the damage that has already been done to urban environments, and that is one of the causes of the social inequality and differences in life expectancy that cities are seeking to address.

And as serious as these issues are today, they will be even more important in the future:

At this week’s Academy of Urbanism Congress in Bradford, economist Michael Ward, Chair of the Centre for Local Economic Strategies, expressed most succinctly a point that many speakers touched on:

“The key task facing civic leaders in the 21st Century is this: how, in a period of profound and continuing economic changes, will our citizens earn a living and prosper?”

For cities to provide jobs, they need successful businesses; and technology will have a dramatic effect on what it means to be a successful business in the 21st Century.

Over the last two decades, the internet, mobile phone and social media have redefined the boundaries of the communications, technology, media, publishing and technology industries. The companies that thrived through those changes were those who best understood how to use technology to merge capabilities from across those industries into new business models. In the coming decade as digitisation extends to industries such as manufacturing through technologies such as 3D printing and smart materials, more and more industry sectors will be redefined by similar levels of disruption and convergence.

So how are the economies of our cities placed to be successful in that world of change?

My home city Birmingham has many of the economic capabilities required to exploit those imminent changes successfully. It has a manufacturing base that includes advanced digital capability; it has a growing technology industry and a strong creative sector. Professional services companies offer financial and legal support, and local Universities have world-class research capability in disciplines such as healthcare and medical technology.

But as in many cities, those capabilities are concentrated in separate areas of the city. The collage of photographs below depicts some of Birmingham’s value-creating districts, placed in relation to some of the spatial characteristics of the city that divide them.

(A collage of photographs of some of Birmingham's value-creating districts, placed in relation to some of the spatial characteristics of the city that divide them).

(A collage of photographs of some of Birmingham’s value-creating districts, placed in relation to some of the spatial characteristics of the city that divide them. See the end of this article for attributions).

In the top left of the collage, the Jewellery Quarter, a centre of advanced manufacturing to the North of the City Centre, is separated from the digital technology incubation capability of Innovation Birmingham on the Aston University Campus, and from financial and legal expertise in the Colmore Row business district, by the four-lane Great Charles Street Queensway, part of the city-centre ringroad.

The Aston Campus is separated from the Eastside learning quarter, home to Millennium Point and Birmingham City University, by the Jennens Road dual carriageway. Eastside itself is separated from the creative media cluster around the Custard Factory and Fazeley Studios in Digbeth in the South East by the East Coast mainline from Birmingham to London; and by the semi-dereliction of some parts of the Digbeth manufacturing district.

To the South West, the enormous medical research capability around the University Hospital of Birmingham and University of Birmingham and it’s Research Park are three miles from the City Centre. And whilst the retail core of the city was dramatically transformed by the Bullring redevelopment over a decade ago, it lacks the independent shops, cafe and culture that might naturally attract those who work in the surrounding creative districts to congregate together.

The city’s Big City Plan and independent initiatives such as Coffee Birmingham are doing much to address these issues – and in particular, the city centre now boasts a number of fine cafes and delicatessens such as the Urban Coffee Company and York’s Bakery Cafe. But nevertheless these examples illustrate challenges many cities face in adapting their spatial structure to the needs of the new economy to bring their collective capabilities together to create new ideas and innovations.

(Visitors to Birmingham's new Eastside city park which connects the city centre and train stations to the Eastside learning district)

(Visitors to Birmingham’s new Eastside city park which connects the city centre and train stations to the Eastside learning district)

I took my family to Birmingham’s new Eastside City Park recently; the park is intended to address some of the challenges I have just described by better connecting the learning quarter to the city centre and train stations by providing a walking and cycling route between them, as well as an open space with value in its own right.

By coincidence, I had just read the chapter in Jane Jacobs’ seminal “Death and Life of Great American Cities” which addresses the factors which determine whether city parks and spaces work or fail; and describes how difficult it can be to make them successful. I was therefore delighted to see the Eastside park full of people – families with children playing; couples relaxing in the sun; students and workers stopping for food and coffee. This vibrancy, created by the proximity of mixed business, learning and leisure facilities, did not happen by accident. It is a product both of the careful design of the park; and of the context of the park’s creation within a multi-decade strategy for regenerating the surrounding district, which incorporates the expansion and re-location of two colleges and two universities in the area.

Birmingham’s Eastside park – like Bradford’s new City Park, winner of the Academy of Urbanism’s “Great Place 2013″ award – is a great example of reclaiming for people an important area that had previously been shaped by the requirements of cars, trucks and lorries.

But as a new generation of technology, digital technology, starts to shape our cities, how can we direct the deployment of that technology to be sympathetic to the needs of people and communities, rather than hostile to them, as too much of our urban transport infrastructure has been?

This is an urgent and vital issue. For example, privacy and security are perhaps the greatest current challenges of the digital age – as epitomised by the challenge issued to Google this week by United States politicians concerning the privacy implications of their latest innovation, “Google Glass”. But these concerns are not limited to the online world. Jane Jacobs based her understanding of city systems on privacy and safety. Google Glass epitomises the way that innovations in consumer technology are changing the relationship between physical and digital environments; with the consequence that a failure in privacy or security digital systems could affect community vitality or public safety in cities.

A particularly stark example is the 3D-printed gun, which I first mentioned last August. A reliable process for producing these is now being disseminated by the pro-firearms movement in the United States. As half a century of widespread sharing of music demonstrates, we cannot rely on Digital Rights Management technology for gun control. Other developments that I think need a similar level of consideration are the ability to create artificial meat in laboratories, which has been suggested as one way to feed a growing world population; and the increasing ability of information systems to interact directly with our own minds and bodies. To my mind these technologies challenge our fundamental assumptions about what it means to be human, and our relationship with nature.

(Google’s wearable computer, Google Glass. Photograph by Apostolos)

So how are we to resolve the dilemma that emerging technologies offer both the best chance to address our challenges and great potential to exacerbate them?

The first step is for us to collectively recognise what is at stake: the safety and resilience of our communities; and the nature of our relationship with the environment. Digital technology is not just supporting our world, it is beginning to transform it.

The second step is for the designers of cities and city services – architects, town planners, transport officers, community groups and social innovators –  to take control of the technology agenda in their cities and communities, rather than allow technologists to define it by default.

My role as a technologist is to create visions for what is possible; and to communicate those visions clearly to stakeholders in cities. In doing so it is important to communicate the whole story – the risks and uncertainties inherent in it, not just the great gadgets that make it possible. If I do that, I’m enabling the potential consumers of technology to make informed choices – for example, choosing whether or not to use certain online services or digital devices based on an understanding of their approaches to the use of personal information.

The truth, though, is that we are in the very earliest stages of considering these technologies in that way in the overall design, planning and governance of cities. A huge number of the initiatives that are currently exploring their use are individual projects focussed on their own goals; they are not city-wide strategic initiatives. And whilst some are led by city authorities, many more are community initiatives, such as the Social Media Surgeries which began in Birmingham but which now run internationally; or are led by business – technology corporations like IBM and Google, the developers of buildings such as the Greenhouse in Leeds, or small start-ups like Shutl.

In contrast, it is the role of policy-makers, town planners, and architects to understand how technology can help cities achieve their overall objectives such as economic growth, improvements in social mobility and reductions in the disparity in life expectancy. It is also their role to put in place any necessary constraints and governance to manage the impact of those technologies – for example, policies that oblige the developers of new buildings to make data from those buildings openly available as part of an overall “open data” strategy for a city.

As well as technologists, three crucial groups of advisers to that process are social scientists, design thinkers and placemakers. They have the creativity and insight to understand how digital technologies can meet the needs of people and communities in a way that contributes to the creation of great places, and great cities – places like the Eastside city park that are full of life.

Tina Saaby, Copenhagen’s City Architect, expressed a beautiful principle of placemaking in her address to the Academy of Urbanism Congress:

“Consider urban life before urban space; consider urban space before buildings”

In my view, we should apply a similar principle to technology:

 “Consider urban life before urban place; consider urban place before technology

(Tina Saaby, Copenhagen's City Architect, addressing the Academy of Urbanism Congress in Bradford)

(Tina Saaby, Copenhagen’s City Architect, addressing the Academy of Urbanism Congress in Bradford)

Without this perspective, I don’t personally believe that we’ll create the great digital places that we need.

That’s why I spent last week exploring this topic with placemakers, town planners and policy-makers in a “digital urbanism” workshop at the Academy of Urbanism Congress; and it’s why I’ll be exploring it in June with social scientists and researchers of city systems at the University of Durham. I’ll be writing again soon on this blog about what I’m learning from those meetings.

Not everything promised by technology will transpire or succeed, and it is often right to be sceptical of individual ideas until they’re proven. But there should be no question of the magnitude and impact of the changes that technology will create in the near future. And it’s down to us to take charge of those changes for our benefit as individuals and communities.

(The photographic collage of Birmingham involves some of my own photographs, but also the following images:

No-one is going to pay cities to become Smarter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Encourage Venture Capital Investment

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

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

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

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

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

2. Build Markets, not Infrastructure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Procure Infrastructure Smartly

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

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

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

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

4. Work With Ethical Investors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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