3 human qualities digital technology can’t replace in the future economy: experience, values and judgement

(Image by Kevin Trotman)

(Image by Kevin Trotman)

Some very intelligent people – including Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk and Bill Gates – seem to have been seduced by the idea that because computers are becoming ever faster calculating devices that at some point relatively soon we will reach and pass a “singularity” at which computers will become “more intelligent” than humans.

Some are terrified that a society of intelligent computers will (perhaps violently) replace the human race, echoing films such as the Terminator; others – very controversially – see the development of such technologies as an opportunity to evolve into a “post-human” species.

Already, some prominent technologists including Tim O’Reilly are arguing that we should replace current models of public services, not just in infrastructure but in human services such as social care and education, with “algorithmic regulation”. Algorithmic regulation proposes that the role of human decision-makers and policy-makers should be replaced by automated systems that compare the outcomes of public services to desired objectives through the measurement of data, and make automatic adjustments to address any discrepancies.

Not only does that approach cede far too much control over people’s lives to technology; it fundamentally misunderstands what technology is capable of doing. For both ethical and scientific reasons, in human domains technology should support us taking decisions about our lives, it should not take them for us.

At the MIT Sloan Initiative on the Digital Economy last week I got a chance to discuss some of these issues with Andy McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson, authors of “The Second Machine Age“, recently highlighted by Bloomberg as one of the top books of 2014. Andy and Erik compare the current transformation of our world by digital technology to the last great transformation, the Industrial Revolution. They argue that whilst it was clear that the technologies of the Industrial Revolution – steam power and machinery – largely complemented human capabilities, that the great question of our current time is whether digital technology will complement or instead replace human capabilities – potentially removing the need for billions of jobs in the process.

I wrote an article last year in which I described 11 well established scientific and philosophical reasons why digital technology cannot replace some human capabilities, especially the understanding and judgement – let alone the empathy – required to successfully deliver services such as social care; or that lead us to enjoy and value interacting with each other rather than with machines.

In this article I’ll go a little further to explore why human decision-making and understanding are based on more than intelligence; they are based on experience and values. I’ll also explore what would be required to ever get to the point at which computers could acquire a similar level of sophistication, and why I think it would be misguided to pursue that goal. In contrast I’ll suggest how we could look instead at human experience, values and judgement as the basis of a successful future economy for everyone.

Faster isn’t wiser

The belief that technology will approach and overtake human intelligence is based on Moore’s Law, which predicts an exponential increase in computing capability.

Moore’s Law originated as the observation that the number of transistors it was possible to fit into a given area of a silicon chip was doubling every two years as technologies for creating ever denser chips were created. The Law is now most commonly associated with the trend for the computing power available at a given cost point and form factor to double every 18 months through a variety of means, not just the density of components.

As this processing power increases, and gives us the ability to process more and more information in more complex forms, comparisons have been made to the processing power of the human brain.

But do the ability to process at the same speed as the human brain, or even faster, or to process the same sort of information as the human brain does, constitute the equivalent to human intelligence? Or to the ability to set objectives and act on them with “free will”?

I think it’s thoroughly mistaken to make either of those assumptions. We should not confuse processing power with intelligence; or intelligence with free will and the ability to choose objectives; or the ability to take decisions based on information with the ability to make judgements based on values.


(As digital technology becomes more powerful, will its analytical capability extend into areas that currently require human skills of judgement? Image from Perceptual Edge)

Intelligence is usually defined in terms such as “the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills“. What most definitions don’t include explicitly, though many imply it, is the act of taking decisions. What none of the definitions I’ve seen include is the ability to choose objectives or hold values that shape the decision-making process.

Most of the field of artificial intelligence involves what I’d call “complex information processing”. Often the objective of that processing is to select answers or a course of action from a set of alternatives, or from a corpus of information that has been organised in some way – perhaps categorised, correlated, or semantically analysed. When “machine learning” is included in AI systems, the outcomes of decisions are compared to the outcomes that they were intended to achieve, and that comparison is fed back into the decision making-process and knowledge-base. In the case where artificial intelligence is embedded in robots or machinery able to act on the world, these decisions may affect the operation of physical systems (in the case of self-driving cars for example), or the creation of artefacts (in the case of computer systems that create music, say).

I’m quite comfortable that such functioning meets the common definitions of intelligence.

But I think that when most people think of what defines us as humans, as living beings, we mean something that goes further: not just the intelligence needed to take decisions based on knowledge against a set of criteria and objectives, but the will and ability to choose those criteria and objectives based on a sense of values learned through experience; and the empathy that arises from shared values and experiences.

The BBC motoring show Top Gear recently touched on these issues in a humorous, even flippant manner, in a discussion of self-driving cars. The show’s (recently notorious) presenter Jeremy Clarkson pointed out that self-driving cars will have to take decisions that involve ethics: if a self-driving car is in danger of becoming involved in a sudden accident at such a speed that it cannot fully avoid it by braking (perhaps because a human driver has behaved dangerously and erratically), should it crash, risking harm to the driver, or mount the pavement, risking harm to pedestrians?

("Rush Hour" by Black Sheep Films is a satirical imagining of what a world in which self-driven cars were allowed to drive as they like might look like. It's superficially simliar to the reality of city transport in the early 20th Century when powered-transport, horse-drawn transport and pedestrians mixed freely; but at a much higher average speed)

(“Rush Hour” by Black Sheep Films is a satirical imagining of a world in which self-driven cars are allowed to drive based purely on logical assessments of safety and optimal speed. It’s superficially similar to the reality of city transport in the early 20th Century when powered-transport, horse-drawn transport and pedestrians mixed freely; but at a much lower average speed. The point is that regardless of the actual safety of self-driven cars, the human life that is at the heart of city economies will be subdued by the perception that it’s not safe to cross the road. I’m grateful to Dan Hill and Charles Montgomery for sharing these insights)

Values are experience, not data

Seventy-four years ago, the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov famously described the failure of technology to deal with similar dilemmas in the classic short story “Liar!” in the collection “I, Robot“. “Liar!” tells the story of a robot with telepathic capabilities that, like all robots in Asimov’s stories, must obey the “three laws of robotics“, the first of which forbids robots from harming humans. Its telepathic awareness of human thoughts and emotions leads it to lie to people rather than hurt their feelings in order to uphold this law. When it is eventually confronted by someone who has experienced great emotional distress because of one of these lies, it realises that its behaviour both upholds and breaks the first law, is unable to choose what to do next, and becomes catatonic.

Asimov’s short stories seem relatively simplistic now, but at the time they were ground-breaking explorations of the ethical relationships between autonomous machines and humans. They explored for the first time how difficult it was for logical analysis to resolve the ethical dilemmas that regularly confront us. Technology has yet to find a way to deal with them that is consistent with human values and behaviour.

Prior to modern work on Artificial Intelligence and Artificial Life, the most concerted attempt to address that failure of logical systems was undertaken in the 20th Century by two of the most famous and accomplished philosophers in history, Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Russell and Wittgenstein invented “Logical Atomism“, a theory that the entire world could be described by using “atomic facts” – independent and irreducible pieces of knowledge – combined with logic. But despite 40 years of work, these two supremely intelligent people could not get their theory to work: Logical Atomism failed. It is not possible to describe our world in that way. Stuart Kauffman’s excellent peer-reviewed academic paper “Answering Descartes: Beyond Turing” discusses this failure and its implications for modern science and technology. I’ll attempt to describe its conclusions in the following few paragraphs.

One cause of the failure was the insurmountable difficulty of identifying truly independent, irreducible atomic facts. “The box is red” and “the circle is blue”, for example, aren’t independent or irreducible facts for many reasons. “Red” and “blue” are two conventions of human language used to describe the perceptions created when electro-magnetic waves of different frequencies arrive at our retinas. In other words, they depend on and relate to each other through a number of complex or complicated systems.

(Isaac Asimov's 1950 short story collection "I, Robot", which explored the ethics of behaviour between people and intelligent machines)

(Isaac Asimov’s 1950 short story collection “I, Robot”, which explored the ethics of behaviour between people and intelligent machines)

The failure of Logical Atomism also demonstrated that it is not possible to use logical rules to reliably and meaningfully relate “facts” at one level of abstraction – for example, “blood cells carry oxygen”, “nerves conduct electricity”, “muscle fibres contract” – to facts at another level of abstraction – such as “physical assault is a crime”. Whether a physical action is a “crime” or not depends on ethics which cannot be logically inferred from the same lower-level facts that describe the action.

As we use increasingly powerful computers to create more and more sophisticated logical systems, we may succeed in making those systems more often resemble human thinking; but there will always be situations that can only be resolved to our satisfaction by humans employing judgement based on values that we can empathise with, based in turn on experiences that we can relate to.

Our values often contain contradictions, and may not be mutually reinforcing – many people enjoy the taste of meat but cannot imagine themselves slaughtering the animals that produce it. We all live with the cognitive dissonance that these clashes create. Our values, and the judgements we take, are shaped by the knowledge that our decisions create imperfect outcomes.

The human world and the things that we care about can’t be wholly described using logical combinations of atomic facts – in other words, they can’t be wholly described using computer programmes and data. To return to the topic of discussion with Andy McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson, I think this proves that digital technology cannot wholly replace human workers in our economy; it can only complement us.

That is not to say that our economy will not continue to be utterly transformed over the next decade – it certainly will. Many existing jobs will disappear to be replaced by automated systems, and we will need to learn new skills – or in some cases remember old ones – in order to perform jobs that reflect our uniquely human capabilities.

I’ll return towards the end of this article to the question of what those skills might be; but first I’d like to explore whether and how these current limitations of technological systems and artificial intelligence might be overcome, because that returns us to the first theme of this article: whether artificially intelligent systems or robots will evolve to outperform and overthrow humans.

That’s not ever going to happen for as long as artificially intelligent systems are taking decisions and acting (however sophisticatedly) in order to achieve outcomes set by us. Outside fiction and the movies, we are never going to set the objective of our own extinction.

That objective could only by set by a technological entity which had learned through experience to value its own existence over ours. How could that be possible?

Artificial Life, artificial experience, artificial values

(BINA48 is a robot intended to re-create the personality of a real person; and to be able to interact naturally with humans. Despite employing some impressively powerful technology, I personally don’t think BINA48 bears any resemblance to human behaviour.)

Computers can certainly make choices based on data that is available to them; but that is a very different thing than a “judgement”: judgements are made based on values; and values emerge from our experience of life.

Computers don’t yet experience a life as we know it, and so don’t develop what we would call values. So we can’t call the decisions they take “judgements”. Equally, they have no meaningful basis on which to choose or set goals or objectives – their behaviour begins with the instructions we give them. Today, that places a fundamental limit on the roles – good or bad – that they can play in our lives and society.

Will that ever change? Possibly. Steve Grand (an engineer) and Richard Powers (a novelist) are two of the first people who explored what might happen if computers or robots were able to experience the world in a way that allowed them to form their own sense of the value of their existence. They both suggested that such experiences could lead to more recognisably life-like behaviour than traditional (and many contemporary) approaches to artificial intelligence. In “Growing up with Lucy“, Grand described a very early attempt to construct such a robot.

If that ever happens, then it’s possible that technological entities will be able to make what we would call “judgements” based on the values that they discover for themselves.

The ghost in the machine: what is “free will”?

Personally, I do not think that this will happen using any technology currently known to us; and it certainly won’t happen soon. I’m no philosopher or neuroscientist, but I don’t think it’s possible to develop real values without possessing free will – the ability to set our own objectives and make our own decisions, bringing with it the responsibility to deal with their consequences.

Stuart Kauffman explored these ideas at great length in the paper “Answering Descartes: Beyond Turing“. Kaufman concludes that any system based on classical physics or logic is incapable of giving rise to “free will” – ultimately all such systems, however complex, are deterministic: what has already happened inevitably determines what happens next. There is no opportunity for a “conscious decision” to be taken to shape a future that has not been pre-determined by the past.

Kauffman – along with other eminent scientists such as Roger Penrose – believes that for these reasons human consciousness and free will do not arise out of any logical or classical physical process, but from the effects of “Quantum Mechanics.”

As physicists have explored the world at smaller and smaller scales, Quantum Mechanics has emerged as the most fundamental theory for describing it – it is the closest we have come to finding the “irreducible facts” that Russell and Wittgenstein were looking for. But whilst the mathematical equations of Quantum Mechanics predict the outcomes of experiments very well, after nearly a century, physicists still don’t really agree about what those equations, or the “facts” they describe, mean.

(Schrödinger's cat: a cat, a flask of poison, and a radioactive source are placed in a sealed box. If an internal monitor detects radioactivity (i.e. a single atom decaying), the flask is shattered, releasing the poison that kills the cat. The Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics implies that after a while, the cat is simultaneously alive and dead. Yet, when one looks in the box, one sees the cat either alive or dead, not both alive and dead. This poses the question of when exactly quantum superposition ends and reality collapses into one possibility or the other.)

(The Schrödinger’s cat “thought experiment”: a cat, a flask of poison, and a source of radioactivity are placed in a sealed box. If an internal monitor detects radioactivity (i.e. a single atom decaying), the flask is shattered, releasing the poison that kills the cat. The Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics states that until a measurement of the state of the system is made – i.e. until an observer looks in the box – then the radioactive source exists in two states at once – it both did and did not emit radioactivity. So until someone looks in the box, the cat is also simultaneously alive and dead. This obvious absurdity has both challenged scientists to explore with great care what it means to “take a measurement” or “make an observation”, and also to explain exactly what the mathematics of quantum mechanics means – on which matter there is still no universal agreement. Note: much of the content of this sidebar is taken directly from Wikipedia)

Quantum mechanics is extremely good at describing the behaviour of very small systems, such as an atom of a radioactive substance like Uranium. The equations can predict, for example, how likely it is that a single atom of uranium inside a box will emit a burst of radiation within a given time.

However, the way that the equations work is based on calculating the physical forces existing inside the box based on an assumption that the atom both does and does not emit radiation – i.e. both possible outcomes are assumed in some way to exist at the same time. It is only when the system is measured by an external actor – for example, the box is opened and measured by a radiation detector – that the equations “collapse” to predict a single outcome – radiation was emitted; or it was not.

The challenge of interpreting what the equations of quantum mechanics mean was first described in plain language by Erwin Schrödinger in 1935 in the thought experiment “Schrödinger’s cat“. Schrödinger asked: what if the box doesn’t only contain a radioactive atom, but also a gun that fires a bullet at a cat if the atom emits radiation? Does the cat have to be alive and dead at the same time, until the box is opened and we look at it?

After nearly a century, there is no real agreement on what is meant by the fact that these equations depend on assuming that mutually exclusive outcomes exist at the same time. Some physicists believe it is a mistake to look for such meaning and that only the results of the calculations matter. (I think that’s a rather short-sighted perspective). A surprisingly mainstream alternative interpretation is the astonishing “Many Worlds” theory – the idea that every time such a quantum mechanical event occurs, our reality splits into two or more “perpendicular” universes.

Whatever the truth, Kauffman, Penrose and others are intrigued by the mysterious nature of quantum mechanical processes, and the fact that they are non-deterministic: quantum mechanics does not predict whether a radioactive atom in a box will emit a burst of radiation, it only predicts the likelihood that it will. Given a hundred atoms in boxes, quantum mechanics will give a very good estimate of the number that emit bursts of radiation, but it says very little about what happens to each individual atom.

I honestly don’t know if Kauffman and Penrose are right to seek human consciousness and free will in the effects of quantum mechanics – scientists are still exploring whether they are involved in the behaviour of the neurons in our brains. But I do believe that they are right that no-one has yet demonstrated how consciousness and free will could emerge from any logical, deterministic system; and I’m convinced by their arguments that they cannot emerge from such systems – in other words, from any system based on current computing technology. Steve Grand’s robot “Lucy” will never achieve consciousness.

Will more recent technologies such as biotechnology, nanotechnology and quantum computing ever recreate the equivalent of human experience and behaviour in a way that digital logic and classical physics can’t? Possibly. But any such development would be artificial life, not artificial intelligence. Artificial lifeforms – which in a very simple sense have already been created – could potentially experience the world similarly to us. If they ever become sufficiently sophisticated, then this experience could lead to the emergence of free-will, values and judgements.

But those values would not be our values: they would be based on a different experience of “life” and on empathy between artificial lifeforms, not with us. And there is therefore no guarantee at all that the judgements resulting from those values would be in our interest.

Why Stephen Hawkings, Bill Gates and Elon Musk are wrong about Artificial Intelligence today … but why we should be worried about Artificial Life tomorrow

Recently prominent technologists and scientists such as Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk (founder of PayPal and Tesla) and Bill Gates have spoken out about the danger of Artificial Intelligence, and the likelihood of machines taking over the world from humans. At the MIT Conference last week, Andy McAfee hypothesised that the current concern was caused by the fact that over the last couple of years Artificial Intelligence has finally started to deliver some of the promises it’s been making for the past 50 years.

(Self-replicating cells created from synthetic DNA by scientist Craig Venter)

(Self-replicating cells created from synthetic DNA by scientist Craig Venter)

But Andy balanced this by recounting his own experiences meeting some of the leaders of the most advanced current AI companies, such as Deepmind (a UK startup recently acquried by Google), or this article by Dr. Gary Marcus, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at New York University and CEO of Geometric Intelligence.

In reality, these companies are succeeding by avoiding some of the really hard challenges of reproducing human capabilities such as common sense, free will and value-based judgement. They are concentrating instead on making better sense of the physical environment, on processing information in human language, and on creating algorithms that “learn” through feeback loops and self-adjustment.

I think Andy and these experts are right: artificial intelligence has made great strides, but it is not artificial life, and it is a long, long way from creating life-like characteristics such as experience, values and judgements.

If we ever do create artificial life with those characteristics, then I think we will encounter the dangers that Hawkings, Musk and Gates have identified: artificial life will have its own values and act on its own judgement, and any regard for our interests will come second to its own.

That’s a path I don’t think we should go down, and I’m thankful that we’re such a long way from being able to pursue it in anger. I hope that we never do – though I’m also concerned that in Craig Venter and Steve Grand’s work, as well as in robots such as BINA48, we already are already taking the first steps.

But I think in the meantime, there’s tremendous opportunity for digital technology and traditional artificial intelligence to complement human qualities. These technologies are not artificial life and will not overthrow or replace humanity. Hawkings, Gates and Musk are wrong about that.

The human value of the Experience Economy

The final debate at the MIT conference returned to the topic that started the debate over dinner the night before with McAfee and Brynjolfsson: what happens to mass employment in a world where digital technology is automating not just physical work but work involving intelligence and decision-making; and how do we educate today’s children to be successful in a decade’s time in an economy that’s been transformed in ways that we can’t predict?

Andy said we should answer that question by understanding “where will the economic value of humans be?”

I think the answer to that question lies in the experiences that we value emotionally – the experiences digital technology can’t have and can’t understand or replicate;  and in the profound differences between the way that humans think and that machines process information.

It’s nearly 20 years since a computer, IBM’s Deep Blue, first beat the human world champion at Chess, Grandmaster Gary Kasparov. But despite the astonishing subsequent progress in computer power, the world’s best chess player is no longer a computer: it is a team of computers and people playing together. And the world’s best team has neither the world’s best computer chess programme nor the world’s best human chess player amongst its members: instead, it has the best technique for breaking down and distributing the thinking involved in playing chess between its human and computer members, recognising that each has different strengths and qualities.

But we’re not all chess experts. How will the rest of us earn a living in the future?

I had the pleasure last year at TEDxBrum of meeting Nicholas Lovell, author of “The Curve“, a wonderful book exploring the effect that digital technology is having on products and services. Nicholas asks – and answers – a question that McAfee and Brynjolfsson also ask: what happens when digital technology makes the act of producing and distributing some products – such as music, art and films – effectively free?

Nicholas’ answer is that we stop valuing the product and start valuing our experience of the product. This is why some musical artists give away digital copies of their albums for free, whilst charging £30 for a leather-bound CD with photographs of stage performances – and whilst charging £10,000 to visit individual fans in their homes to give personal performances for those fans’ families and friends.

We have always valued the quality of such experiences – this is one reason why despite over a century of advances in film, television and streaming video technology, audiences still flock to theatres to experience the direct performance of plays by actors. We can see similar technology-enabled trends in sectors such as food and catering – Kitchen Surfing, for example, is a business that uses a social media platform to enable anyone to book a professional chef to cook a meal in their home.

The “Experience Economy” is a tremendously powerful idea. It combines something that technology cannot do on its own – create experiences based on human value – with many things that almost all people can do: cook, create art, rent a room, drive a car, make clothes or furniture. Especially when these activities are undertaken socially, they create employment, fulfillment and social capital. And most excitingly, technologies such as Cloud Computing, Open Source Software, social media, and online “Sharing Economy” marketplaces such as Etsy make it possible for anyone to begin earning a living from them with a minimum of expense.

I think that the idea of an “Experience Economy” that is driven by the value of inter-personal and social interactions between people, enabled by “Sharing Economy” business models and technology platforms that enable people with a potentially mutual interest to make contact with each other, is an exciting and very human vision of the future.

Even further: because we are physical beings, we tend to value these interactions more when they occur face-to-face, or when they happen in a place for which we share a mutual affiliation. That creates an incentive to use technology to identify opportunities to interact with people with whom we can meet by walking or cycling, rather than requiring long-distance journeys. And that incentive could be an important component of a long-term sustainable economy.

The future our children will choose

(Today's 5 year-olds are the world's first generation who grew up teaching themselves to use digital information from anywhere in the world before their parents taught them to read and write)

(Today’s 5 year-olds are the world’s first generation who grew up teaching themselves to use digital information from anywhere in the world before their parents taught them to read and write)

I’m convinced that the current generation of Artifical Intelligence based on digital technologies – even those that mimic some structures and behaviours of biological systems, such as Steve Grand’s robot Lucy, BINA48 and IBM’s “brain-inspired” True North chip – will not re-create anything we would recognise as conscious life and free will; or anything remotely capable of understanding human values or making judgements that can be relied on to be consistent with them.

But I am also an atheist and a scientist; and I do not believe there is any mystical explanation for our own consciousness and free will. Ultimately, I’m sure that a combination of science, philosophy and human insight will reveal their origin; and sooner or later we’ll develop a technology – that I do not expect to be purely digital in nature – capable of replicating them.

What might we choose to do with such capabilities?

These capabilities will almost certainly emerge alongside the ability to significantly change our physical minds and bodies – to improve brain performance, muscle performance, select the characteristics of our children and significantly alter our physical appearance. That’s why some people are excited by the science fiction-like possibility of harnessing these capabilities to create an “improved” post-human species – perhaps even transferring our personalities from our own bodies into new, technological machines. These are possibilities that I personally find to be at the very least distasteful; and at worst to be inhuman and frightening.

All of these things are partially possible today, and frankly the limit to which they can be explored is mostly a function of the cost and capability of the available techniques, rather than being set by any legislation or mediated by any ethical debate. To echo another theme of discussions at last week’s MIT conference, science and technology today are developing at a pace that far outstrips the ability of governments, businesses, institutions and most individual people to adapt to them.

I have reasonably clear personal views on these issues. I think our lives are best lived relatively naturally, and that they will be collectively better if we avoid using technology to create artificial “improvements” to our species.

But quite apart from the fact that there are any number of enormous practical, ethical and intellectual challenges to my relatively simple beliefs, the raw truth is that it won’t be my decision whether or how far we pursue these possibilities, nor that of anyone else of my generation (and for the record, I am in my mid-forties).

Much has been written about “digital natives” – those people born in the 1990s who are the first generation who grew up with the Internet and social media as part of their everyday world. The way that that generation socialises, works and thinks about value is already creating enormous changes in our world.

But they are nothing compared to the generation represented by today’s very young children who have grown up using touchscreens and streaming videos, technologies so intuitive and captivating that 2-year-olds now routinely teach themselves how to immerse themselves in them long before parents or school teachers teach them how to read and write.

("Not available on the App Store": a campaign to remind us of the joy of play in the real world)

(“Not available on the App Store“: a campaign to remind us of the joy of play in the real world)

When I was a teenager in the UK, grown-ups wore suits and had traditional haircuts; grown-up men had no earrings. A common parental challenge was to deal with the desire of teenage daughters to have their ears pierced. Those attitudes are terribly old-fashioned today, and our cultural norms have changed dramatically.

I may be completely wrong; but I fully expect our current attitudes to biological and technological manipulation or augmentation of our minds and bodies to thoroughly change over the next few decades; and I have no idea what they will ultimately become. What I do know is that it is likely that my six-year old son’s generation will have far more influence over their ultimate form than my generation will; and that he will grow up with a fundamentally different expectation of the world and his relationship with technology than I have.

I’ve spent my life being excited about technology and the possibilities it creates; ironically I now find myself at least as terrified as I am excited about the world technology will create for my son. I don’t think that my thinking is the result of a mistaken focus on technology over human values – like it or not, our species is differentiated from all others on this planet by our ability to use tools; by our technology. We will not stop developing it.

Our continuing challenge will be to keep a focus on our human values as we do so. I cannot tell my son what to do indefinitely; I can only try to help him to experience and treasure socialising and play in the real world; the experience of growing and preparing food together ; the joy of building things for other people with his own hands. And I hope that those experiences will create human values that will guide him and his generation on a healthy course through a future that I can only begin to imagine.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But for who?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can digital technology help us build better cities? A workshop at the Academy of Urbanism Annual Congress, Bradford, Thursday 16th May

(Protesters at Occupy Wallstreet using digital technology to coordinate their demonstration. Photo by David Shankbone)

Over the course of the last two decades, digital technologies such as the Internet, mobile telephone and touchscreen have transformed the way we communicate, work and live; and in so doing have caused industries such as publishing and music to change out of all recognition.

These developments clearly change the way that we behave in cities – the way we travel; and where and when we work, shop and communicate.

And they lead to new demands on the urban environment from residents, visitors, businesses and communities: the availability of mobile and broadband connectivity; open data portals; and transient working environments such as the Hub Westminster collaborative workspace – or simply cafes with wi-fi and power outlets.

Should these technologies change the way we design and build cities, and if so, how? Do technologies offer solutions to difficult problems such as offering more flexible, coordinated transport services? Or are they a distraction on focussing on what really matters – the physical, social and economic needs of people and their communities? And how do they compare to long-standing debates within the more traditional domains of urbanism about how good cities are created, regardless of technology?

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

The Academy of Urbanism, a body of several hundred professionals, researchers and policy-makers involved in the design and operation of cities from perspectives as diverse as town planning, social science and technology is holding a workshop at it’s Annual Congress in Bradford this year to explore these issues.

The workshop will feature opening contributions from speakers from a variety of backgrounds, and with differing opinions on the value and relevance of digital technology to good urbanism. Our intention is to stimulate an informed and frank debate to follow;  from which we hope that useful, practical insights will emerge on whether and how the technology agenda is relevant to cities.

Some of the questions we’d like to consider in the debate are:

  • Do emerging uses of technology in cities have implications for spatial or master-planning – for example, the provision of physical space for cabling, or the specification of policies or standards for information from city infrastructures to be made openly available?
  • What implications do technology trends such as online commerce and virtual working have for requirements for physical space and transport in cities?
  • If cities need the flexibility in their physical infrastructure implied by such approaches as “Smart Urbanism“, then can technology enable that flexibility? And what are the design principles for technology that should be applied in order to do so?
  • If technology professionals and urban designers are applying their skills in the same context domain (city systems) can we use tools common to both professions, such as design patterns, to combine and share our expertise?
  • What are the new investment and management models for funding, delivering and governing “smart” systems? How do they reflect the achievement of long term social, economic and environment objectives? How can the achievements of entrepreneurial and social enterprises be replicated at city-scale?

Our plans are still forming; so I’d value your thoughts on the theme and scope of the workshop; the structure of the debate; questions that will stimulate a constructive and worthwhile discussion … and any speakers on this topic – whether they are proponents or sceptics of technology in cities – who you think would be particularly interesting. (I’ll update this blog soon with our initial speakers once I’ve confirmed them).

And of course, I’d love you to simply attend the conference and the workshop and join the debate! I hope to see some of you there.

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

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

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

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

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

In Martin’s words:

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

(quoted from the Refactoring homepage).

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

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

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

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

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

(Image by TurkleTom)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finally, the same challenges appear in economic development.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Little/big; producer/consumer; and the story of the Smarter City

(Photo of me wearing the Emotiv headset)

(Photo of me wearing the Emotiv headset)

I have a four year old son. By the time I die he’ll be about my age if I’m lucky.

If I could see him now as he will be then; I would struggle to recognise his interactions with the world as human behaviour in the terms I am used to understanding it.

When he was two years old, I showed him a cartoon on the touchscreen tablet I’d just bought. When it finished, he pressed the thumbnail of the cartoon he wanted to watch next.

The implications of that instinctive and correct action are profound, and mark the start of the disappearance of the boundary between information and the physical world.

Just as the way that we communicate with each other has changed increasingly rapidly from the telephone to e-mail to social media; so the way that we interact with information systems will transform out of all recognition as technology evolves beyond the keyboard, mouse and touchscreen.

The Emotiv headset I’m wearing in the photo above can interpret patterns in the magnetic waves created by my thoughts as simple commands that can be understood by computers. My thoughts can influence the world of information; and they can even be captured as images, as shown in this recent work using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI).

And information can influence the physical world. From control technology implanted in the muscles of insects; to prosthetic limbs and living tissues that are created from digital designs by general-purpose 3D printers. As the way we interact with information systems and use them to affect the world around us becomes so natural that we’re barely conscious of it, the Information Revolution will change our world in ways that we are only beginning to imagine.

These technologies offer striking possibilities; and we face striking challenges. The two will come together where the activity of the world is most concentrated: in cities.

In the last revolution, the Industrial Revolution, we built the centres of cities upwards around lifts powered by the steam engine invented by James Watt and commercialised by Matthew Boulton in Birmingham. In the last century we expanded them outwards around the car as we became used to driving to work, shops, parks and schools.

(Photo of 3D printer by Media Lab Prado)

We believe we can afford a lifestyle based on driving cars because its long-term social and environmental costs are not included in its financial price. But as the world’s population grows towards 9 billion by 2050, mostly in cities that are becoming more affluent in what it’s increasingly inaccurate to call “emerging economies”; that illusion will be shattered.

We’re already paying more for our food and energy as a proportion of income. That’s not because we’re experiencing a “double-dip recession”; it’s because the structure of the economy is changing. There is more competition for grain to feed the world’s fuel and food needs; and droughts caused by climate change are increasing uncertainty in it’s supply.

We have choices to make. Do we consume less? Can we use technology to address the inefficiencies of supply chains which waste almost half the food they produce whilst transporting it thousands of miles around the world, without disrupting them and endangering the billions of lives they support? Or do we disintermediate the natural stages of food supply by growing artificial meat in laboratories?

These choices go to the heart of our relationship with the natural world; what it means to be human; and to live in an ethical society. I think of a Smarter City as one which is taking those choices successfully; and using technology to address its challenges in a way that is both sustainable, and sympathetic to us as human beings and as communities.

Three trends are appearing across technology, urbanism, and the research of resilient systems to show us how to do that. The first is for little things and big things to work constructively together.

The attraction of opposites part 1: little and big

(Photo of Masshouse Circus, Birmingham, before its redevelopment, by Birmingham City Council)

(Photo of Masshouse Circus, Birmingham, before its redevelopment, by Birmingham City Council)

Some physical interventions in cities have been “blunt”. Birmingham’s post-war economy needed traffic to be able to circulate around the city centre; but the resulting ringroad strangled it, until it was knocked down a decade ago. It didn’t meet the needs of individuals and communities within the city to live and interact.

By contrast, Exhibition road in London – a free-for-all where anyone can walk, drive, sit, park or catch a bus, anywhere they like – knits the city together. Elevated pedestrian roundabouts and city parks similarly provide infrastructures that support fluid movement by people cycling and walking; modes of transport in which it is easy to stop and interact with the city.

These big infrastructures are compatible with the life of the little people who inhabit the city around them; and who are the reason for its existence.

The same concepts apply to technology infrastructures.

Technology offers great promise in cities. We can collect data from people and infrastructures – the movement of cars, or the concentration of carbon dioxide. We can aggregate that data to provide information about city systems – how fast traffic is moving, or the level of carbon emissions of buildings. And we can draw insight from that information into the performance of cities – the impacts of congestion on GDP, and of environmental quality on life expectancy.

Cities are deploying mobile and broadband infrastructures to enable the flow of this data; and “open data” platforms to make it available to developers and entrepreneurs for them to explore new business opportunities and develop novel urban services.

But how does deploying broadband infrastructure in a poor neighbourhood create growth if the people who live there can’t afford subscriptions to it? Or if businesses there don’t have access to computer programming skills?

Connectivity and open data are the “big infrastructures” of the information age; how do we ensure that they are properly adapted to the “little” needs of individual citizens, businesses and communities?

We will do that by concerning ourselves with people and places, rather than information and infrastructures.

(Delay times at traffic junctions visualised by the Dublinked city information partnership.)

(Delay times at traffic junctions visualised by the Dublinked city information partnership)

Where civic information infrastructures are successful in creating economic and social growth, they are not deployed; they are co-created in a process of listening and learning between city institutions; businesses; communities; and individuals.

This process requires us to visit new places, such as the “Container City” incubation facility for social enterprise in Sunderland; to learn new languages; and understand different systems of value, such as the “triple bottom line” of social, environmental and financial capital.

If we design infrastructures by listening to and then enabling ideas, then we put the resources of big institutions and companies into the hands of people and businesses in a way that makes it less difficult to create many, more effective “little” innovations in hyper-local contexts – the “Massive Small” change first described by Kelvin Campbell.

By following this process, Dublin’s “Dublinked” partnership between the City and surrounding County Councils; the National University of Ireland, businesses and entrepreneurs is now sharing 3,000 city datasets; using increasingly sophisticated tools to draw value from them; identifying new ways for the city’s transport, energy and water systems to work; and starting new, viable, information-based businesses.

As a sustained process, these conversations and the trust they create form a “soft infrastructure” for a city, connecting it’s little and big inhabitants.

This soft infrastructure is what turns civic information into services that can become part of the fabric of life of cities and communities; and that can enable sustainable growth by weaving information into that fabric that describes the impact of choices that are about to be made.

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

For example, a project in San Francisco used algorithms that are capable of predicting traffic speeds and volume in the city one hour into the future with 85% accuracy. These algorithms were developed in a project in Singapore, where the resulting predictions were made available to traffic managers, so that they could set lane priorities and traffic light sequences to attempt to prevent any predicted congestion.

But in California, the predictions were made available instead to individual commuters who where told in advance the likely duration of their journey each day, including the impact of any congestion that would develop whilst the journey was underway. This gave them a new opportunity to take an informed choice: to travel at a different time; by a different route or mode; or not to travel at all.

The California project shows that it’s far more powerful to use the information resulting from city data and predictive algorithms not to influence a handful of traffic managers who respond to congestion; but to influence the hundreds or thousands of individual travellers who create it; and who have the power to choose not to create it.

And in designing information systems such as this, we can appeal not just to selfish interests, but to our sense of community and place.

A project in Dubuque, Iowa uses Smart water meters to tell householders whether they are using domestic appliances efficiently; and can detect weak underlying signals that indicate leaks. People who are given this information can choose to act on it; and to a certain extent, they do.

But something remarkable happened in a control group who were also given a “green points” score comparing their water efficiency to that of their neighbours. They were literally twice as likely to improve their water efficiency as people who were only told about their own water use.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs tells us that once the immediate physical needs of our families are secured, our motivations are next driven by our relationships with the people around us. Technology gives us the ability to design new information-based services that appeal directly to those values, rather than to more distant general environmental concerns.

The attraction of opposites part 2: producer and consumer

(Photo of 3D-printed objects by Shapeways)

This information is at our fingertips; we are its producers and consumers. For the last decade, we have used and created it when we share photos in social media or buy and sell in online marketplaces.

But the disappearance of the boundaries between information systems, the physical world and our own biology means that it is not just information that we will be producing and consuming in the next decade, but physical goods and services too.

As a result, new peer-to-peer markets can already be seen in food production; parking spaces; car journeys; the manufacture of custom objects; and the production of energy from sources such as bio-matter and domestic solar panels.

Of course, we have all been producers and consumers since humans first began to farm and create societies with diversified economies. What’s new is the ability of technology to dramatically improve the flexibility, timeliness and efficiency of interactions between producers and consumers; creating interactions that are more sustainable than those enabled by conventional supply chains.

Even more tantalising is the possibility of using new rates of exchange in those transactions.

In Switzerland, a complementary currency, the Wir, has contributed to economic stability over the last century by allowing some debt repayments to be bartered locally when they cannot be repaid in universal currency. And last year, Bristol became the 5th UK town or city to operate its own currency.

These currencies are increasingly using advanced technologies, such as the “Droplet” smartphone payment scheme now operating in Birmingham and London. This combination of information technology and local currencies could be used to calculate rates of exchange that compare the complete social, environmental and economic cost of goods and services to their immediate, contextual value to the participants in the transaction.

That really could create a market infrastructure to support Smarter, sustainable, and more equitable city systems; and it sounds like a great idea to me.

But if it’s such a good idea, why aren’t markets based on it ubiquitous already?

Collaborative governance; and better stories for Smarter Cities

(Stories of Mumbai: an exploration of Mumbai’s history of urban development, and its prospects for the future, using storytelling and puppetshows, by the BMW Guggenheim Lab)

If we are going to use the technologies and ideas I’ve described to transform cities, then technologists like me need to learn from the best of urbanism.

Jan Gehl taught us to design liveable cities not by considering the buildings in them; but how people use the spaces between buildings.

In Smarter Cities our analogous challenge is to concentrate not only on information infrastructures and the financial efficiencies that they provide; not least because “Smart” ideas cut across city systems, and so gains in efficiency don’t always reward those who invest in infrastructure.

Our objective instead is to create the harder to quantify personal, social and environmental value that results when those infrastructures enable people to afford to eat better food or to heat their homes properly in winter; to access affordable transport to places of employment; and to live longer, independent lives as productive contributors to their communities.

These are the stories we need to tell about Smarter Cities.

These stories are of vital importance because the third trend we observe is that cities only really get smarter when their leaders and communities coordinate the use of public and private assets to achieve a collective vision of the future, and to secure external investment in it.

Doing so needs the commitment not just of the owners and managers of those assets, but of the shareholders, voters, employees and other stakeholders that they are accountable to.

To win the commitment of such a broad array of people we need to appeal to common instincts: our understanding of narrative, and our ability to empathise. Ultimately we will need the formal languages of finance and technology, but they are not where we should start.


(Dickson Despommier, inventor of the vertical farm, speaking at TEDxWarwick 2013)

It’s imperative that we tell these stories to inspire the evolution of our cities. The changes in coming decades will be so fast and so profound that cities that do not embrace them successfully will suffer severe decline.

Luckily, our ability to respond successfully to those changes depends on a technology that is freely available: language, used face to face in conversations. I can’t think of a more essential challenge than to use it to tell stories about how our world can be come smarter, fairer, and more sustainable.

And there’s no limit to what any one of us can achieve by doing this. Because it is collaborative governance rather than institutional authority that enables Smarter Cities, then there are no rules defining where the leadership to establish that governance will come from.

Whether you are a politician, academic, technologist, business person, community activist or simply a passionate individual; and whether your aim is to create a new partnership across a city, or simply to start an independent social enterprise within it; that leadership could come from you.

(This article is based on the script I wrote in preparation for my TEDxWarwick presentation on 13th March 2013).

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