From Christmas lights to bio-energy: how technology will change our sense of place

(Photo of Vancouver from the waterfront in Kitsilano by James Wheeler)

Why do we care about cities?

Why are private sector companies, public sector authorities and organisations such as the European Union making such enormous investments in “Smarter Cities“, “Sustainable Cities” and “Future Cities”?

Usually we would say it’s because of a combination of social, environmental and economic challenges facing us all. But there’s a powerful personal force at work too: where we live matters to us.

The choices that the 7 billion of us who share the planet make that are affected by our relationship with the places where we live have an incredible impact, especially when they are concentrated in cities. For example, the combined carbon impact of those who commute into cities to work each day because they choose to live in the less densely populated areas outside them is immense.

If we’re going to succeed in facing the significant challenges facing us, we need to exploit the powerful connections between people and places to motivate us to choose and behave differently.

The super-rich own houses around the world and have the means to travel between them as they choose or as their business demands it; and some professionals or tradespeople choose or accept a life that involves constant travel in the interests of work and employment. But on the whole, these are the exceptions.

Humans are physical not virtual. Whilst we move or travel from time to time out of choice or necessity, most people work and live day-by-day within a place. Some people and communities face challenges of social and transport mobility, and simply have no choice about where they live. Others may have some choice of location, but are limited by means to investing in living in one place. To a greater or lesser degree we all want to make the most of that investment, and don’t want to relocate too often or travel too far or frequently away from home in order to work.

The value we perceive in our connections to places is determined by their physicality, economics and communities. Many cities and regions exploit this by publicising the attractive qualities of the environment that they can offer – to individuals looking for homes, or to businesses looking for locations to operate from. Whilst the qualities of natural geography are certainly an important contributor to the quality of those environments, many of the other factors are to do with the people within them.

The choices and actions of people can have unusual effects on their environment; for example, the residents of Broadwater Road in Southampton choose collectively to mount striking lighting displays on their houses every Christmas. Or local regulations can constrain the choices of residents to achieve sometimes impressive results, such as in the beautiful urban village of Bourneville in Birmingham.

(Photo of the beautifully maintained frontage of houses in Bournville, Birmingham, by C. Wess Daniels)

Place and economy have many and complex influences on each other. The “Silicon Roundabout” cluster of entrepreneurial technology businesses in London exists where it does because of a combination of proximity to London’s financial services sector – and its venture capitalisists – and the availability of cheap flats, pubs and food outlets. These latter make it an affordable, attractive place to live for the young people with technology skills that start-up companies need to hire.

In other cases, the influences are less constructive. London’s economy has succeeded through businesses that rely on higly educated, skilled people; who in turn are recompensed with some of the highest wages in the country. Accordingly, house prices are extremely high. This it turn makes it difficult or impossible for many people in careers with more modest salaries to afford housing – for example, teachers. If there’s one thing that educated, successful people can be pretty much guaranteed to care about, it’s providing a high quality education for their children. But their success and affluence makes it hard for teachers to live nearby and provide it.

Modern communication technologies provide new opportunities for communities to form and interact in ways that give them more insight into and control over the impact of their interactions. Somewhere between the inventions of the telegraph and virtual worlds, we passed a tipping point: the earliest technologies were simply means to pass messages between people who already knew each other; the ones we have now – especially social media – enable people to identify, contact and transact with complete strangers based on some common interest.

Some simple examples of these technologies allowing communities to behave in more sustainable ways are the recycling network Freecyle, the LandShare initiative that provides access to untended land to people who want to grow food but don’t have gardens, and Carbon Voyage, one of many platforms that promote the sharing of cars, taxis and other forms of transport.

These technologies gives us the opportunity to build new marketplaces and currencies which can be used to encourage transactions that create social, environmental and economic value for communities. For example, organisations such as Big Barn and Sustaination are building new business-to-consumer and business-to-business marketplaces to encourage more sustainable food production and consumption.

(Photo of a 3D printer at work by Media Lab Prado)

What’s even more interesting is to look ahead to emerging technologies that could make it possible for such community markets to create some very surprising disruptions in the way city systems and some industries work. Smart materials and 3D printers, combined with the reduction in cost differentials between emerging and mature markets, are bringing some striking changes to manufacturing; meaning that in some cases it is more important to be able to manufacture customised items locally in immediate response to individual demand than it is to globally source the lowest cost manufacturer of commodity items.

New innovations in user interfaces are also making it easier to connect people to digital information and services. Whilst significant challenges remain in making such services truly accessible to all, it’s already striking to see tablet computers and e-readers being widely used by people who would never choose to buy or use a laptop. And once you’ve seen how naturally very young toddlers interact with tablet computers in particular, you realise how significantly the world will change in future years.

(Photo of me wearing the Emotiv headset)

Technology has already advanced even further; Emotiv‘s headset, which measures brain activity, has already been used by my colleagues to drive a London Taxi around an airfield by using the headset to monitor their thoughts; and Professor Kevin Warwick of Reading University has pioneered the use of computing technology embedded in our bodies as a means of interacting with information systems in our environment. As such technologies mature and spread they’ll have impacts that are impossible to predict.

The New Optimists, a community of scientists and industry experts came together in Birmingham recently to explore the opportunities that new technologies offer for highly distributed energy production systems in communities. Domestic solar panels are an obvious means to do this; but geo-thermal energy, wind and tidal energy are other candidates. Southampton is already producing its own geo-thermal energy, for example, and Eco-Island are attempting to harness several such approaches to make the Isle of Wight not just self-sufficient in terms of energy, but a net exporter. The European Bio-Energy Research Institution (EBRI) at Aston University in Birmingham is developing new, more efficient means of producing energy from biological waste material such as discarded food. A prototype power-plant is already providing energy to 800 households in Shropshire. The New Optimists discussion looked ahead to the possibility that such technologies could be scaled-down even further for use in individual homes.

The systems exploiting these technologies in communities are winning investment because they are market-based: they create money-flows and revenue streams against which investments can be justified. Whilst their focus is local, it is not isolated: complete self-sufficiency will probably never be achieved, and is usually not the goal. Rather, it’s to maximise the benefits of local trading whilst making the impact of import and export more transparent so that more informed choices can be made.

Such place-based trading networks could connect the choices we make every day more directly with their impact on the places in which we live and work; exploiting our consciousness of the investments we’ve made in those places to persuade us to choose differently to protect and improve them. And if they’re linked sufficiently to the industrial national and international supply chains that provide what can’t be sourced locally, they could take into account the wider social and environmental impact of imported goods and services too. Of course, that will only be achieved if those systems are made more transparent, but the pressure to do that already exists. And the more we have the means to exploit transparency, the more effective that pressure will be.

We want to make our cities and lives more sustainable because we’re conscious of the environmental, social and economic challenges facing our planet; we’re most likely to do so through choices that have positive impacts we can see on the places where we live. Technology will continue to provide new mechanisms that can make such choices available to us; but its down to us as individuals and communities to harness and use them.

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

(Image by TurkleTom)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Accessibility or Bust

(Photo: “Cable Confusion” by e-magic)

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

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

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

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

Or will they?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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