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.

Death, life and place in great digital cities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The need for sympathetic digital urbanism

(Photo of me wearing the Emotiv headset, which measures the magnetic waves created by brain activity.)

(Photo of me wearing the Emotiv headset, which measures the magnetic waves caused by brain activity.)

(I’m a guest blogger on UBM’s Future Cities community; this article was published there last week. It builds on themes I first explored here in the article “Little/big; producer/consumer; and the story of the Smarter City“)..

Technology is changing how we understand cities, and how we will understand ourselves in the context of urban environments. We’re only at the beginning of this complex revolution.

Consider that scientists from Berkeley have used a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scanner to reconstruct images perceived by a test subject’s brain activity while the subject watched a video. A less sensitive mind-reading technology is already available as a headset from Emotiv. (My colleagues have used Emotiv to help a paralysed person communicate by sending directional instructions from his thoughts to a computer.)

Developments in biotechnology, nanotechnology, and advanced manufacturing show similarly remarkable interactions between information systems and the physical and biological world: solar panels that can mend themselves; living biological tissues that can be printed.

These technologies, combined with our ability to process and draw insight from digital information, could offer real possibilities to engineer more efficient and sustainable city systems, such as transportation, energy, water, and food. But using them to address the demographic, financial, and environmental challenges of cities will raise questions about our relationship with the natural world, what it means to live in an ethical society, and what defines us as human.

(The remainder of this article, which explores ways in which we might answer those questions, can be found on UBM’s Future Cities site, as “Make Way for Sensitive Cities“).

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.

DDespommier

(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).

Better stories for Smarter Cities: three trends in urbanism that will reshape our world

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

Towards the end of last year, it became clearer how cities could take practical steps to position themselves to transform to meet the increasing economic, environmental and social challenges facing them; and to seek investment to support those transformations, as I described in “Smart Ideas for Everyday Cities“.

Equally important as those practical approaches to organisation, though, are the conceptual tools that will shape those transformations. Across fields as diverse as psychology, town planning, mathematics, construction, service-design and technology, some striking common themes have emerged that are shaping those tools.

Those themes imply that we will need to take radically different approaches to city systems driven by the astonishing, exciting and sometimes disturbing changes that we’re likely to see taking place increasingly rapidly in our world over the next decade.

To adopt the terminology of Irene Ng, a Researcher in new economic models and service science at the University of Warwick, these changes will create both “needs-led” and “capability-led” drivers to do things differently.

“Needs-led” changes will be driven by the massive growth taking place in the global middle class as economies across the world modernise. The impacts will be varied and widespread, including increasing business competition in a single, integrated economy; increasing competition for resources such as food, water and energy; and increasing fragility in the systems that supply those resources to a population that is ever more concentrated in cities. We are already seeing these effects in our everyday lives: many of us are paying more for our food as a proportion of our income than a few years ago.

At a recent lecture on behalf of the International Federation for Housing and Planning and the Association of European Schools of Planning, Sir Peter Hall, Professor of Planning and Regeneration at the Bartlett School of Planning, spoke of the importance of making the growth of cities sustainable through the careful design of the transport systems that support them. In the industrial revolution, as Edward Glaeser described in Triumph of the City, cities grew up around lifts powered by steam engines; Sir Peter described how more recently they have grown outwards into suburbs populated with middle-class car-owners who habitually drive to work, schools, shops, gyms and parks.

This lifestyle simply cannot be sustained – in the developed world or in emerging economies – across such an explosively growing number of people who have the immediate wealth to afford it, but who are not paying the full price of the resources it consumes. According to the exhibition in Siemens’ “Crystal” building, where Sir Peter’s lecture was held, today’s middle class is consuming resources at one-and-a-half times the rate the world creates them; unless something changes, the rate of growth of that lifestyle will hurl us towards a global catastrophe.

So, as the Collective Research Initiatives Trust (CRIT) observed in their study of the ongoing evolution of Mumbai, “Being Nicely Messy“, the structure of movement and the economy will have to change.

(Siemens’ Crystal building in London, a show case for sustainable technology in cities, photographed by Martin Deutsch)

Meanwhile, the evolution of technology is creating incredible new opportunities for “capability-led” change.

In the last two decades, we have seen the world revolutionised by information and communication technologies such as the internet and SmartPhones; but this is only the very start of a transformation that is still gathering pace. Whilst so far these technologies have created an explosion in the availability of information, recent advances in touch-screen technology and speech recognition are just starting to demonstrate that the boundary between the information world and physical, biological and neural systems is starting to disappear.

For example, a paralysed woman recently controlled a robotic arm by thought; and prosthetic limbs, a working gun and living biological structures such as muscle fibre and skin are just some of the things that can be 3D printed on demand from raw materials and digital designs.

What changes to our urban systems will these developments – and the ones that follow them – lead to?

Following the decline of industries such as manufacturing, resource-mining and ship-building,  many post-industrial cities in the developed world are rebuilding their economies around sectors with growth potential, such as environmental technology and creative media. They are also working with the education system to provide their citizens with access to the skills those sectors require.

Supplying the skills that today’s economy needs can be a challenge. Google’s Chairman Eric Schmidt lambasted the British Education system last year for producing insufficient computer programming skills; and a cross-industry report, “Engineering the Future“, laid out the need for increased focus on environmental, manufacturing, technology and engineering skills to support future economic growth in the UK. As the rate of change in science and technology increases, the skills required in a consequently changing economy will also change more rapidly; providing those skills will be an even bigger challenge.

Or will it? How much of a leap forward is required from the technologies I’ve just described, to imagining that by 2030, people will respond to the need for changing skills in the market by downloading expertise Matrix-style to exploit new employment opportunities?

Most predictions of the future turn out to be wrong, and I’m sure that this one will be, in part or in whole. But as an indication of the magnitude of changes we can expect across technology, business, society and our own physical and mental behaviour I expect it will be representative.

Our challenge is to understand how these needs-led and capability-led transformations can collectively create a world that is sustainable; and that is sympathetic to us as human beings and communities. That challenge will be most acute where both needs and capabilities are most concentrated – in cities. And across economics, architecture, technology and human behaviour, three trends in urban thinking have emerged – or, at least, become more prominent – in recent years that provide guiding principles for how we might meet that challenge.

The attraction of opposites, part 1: producer and consumer

20120605-005134.jpg

(Photograph of 3D printers by Rob Boudon)

In the Web 2.0 era (roughly 2003-2009), the middle classes of the developed world became connected by “always-on” broadband connections, turning these hundreds of millions of information-consumers into information-producers. That is why in 2007 (and every year since) more new information was created than in all of the previous 5 millenia. Industries such as publishing, music and telecommunications have been utterly transformed as a result.

The disappearance of the boundary between  information, physical and biological systems, and the explosive growth in the population with access to the technologies responsible for that disappearance, will transform every economic and social structure we can imagine through the same producer / consumer revolution.

We can already produce as well as consume transport resources by participating in car-sharing schemes; and energy by exploiting domestic solar power and bio-energy. The falling cost and increasing sophistication of 3D printers are just starting to make it feasible to manufacture some products in the home, particularly in specialist areas such as railway modelling; and platforms such as the Amazon Turk and Slivers of Time can quickly connect producers and consumers in the service industries.

Business-to-business and business-to-consumer marketplaces such as Big Barn and Sustaination provide the same service in local food systems. And the transport industry is evolving to serve these new markets: for instance, Shutl provide a marketplace for home delivery services through a community of independent couriers; and a handful of cities are deploying or planning recycling systems in which individual items of waste are distributed to processing centres through pneumatically powered underground transport networks.

Of course, from the earliest development of farming in human culture, we have all been both producers and consumers in a diversified economy. What’s new is the opportunity for technology to dramatically improve the flexibility, timeliness and efficiency of the value-chains that connect those two roles. Car-sharing not only reduces the amount of fuel used by our journeys; it could reduce the resources consumed by manufacturing vehicles that spend the majority of their lives stationary on drives or in car parks. Markets that more efficiently connect food production, processing and consumption could reduce the thousands of miles that food currently travels between farm and fork, often crossing its own path several times; they could create employment opportunities in small-scale food processing; not to mention reducing the vast quantity of food that is produced but not eaten, and goes to waste.

Irene Ng explores these themes wonderfully in her new book, “Value and Worth: Creating New Markets in the Digital Economy“; they offer us exciting opportunities for economic and social growth, and an evolution towards a more sustainable urban future – if we can harness them in that way.

The attraction of opposites, part 2: little and big

Some infrastructures can be “blunt” instruments: from roads and railway lines which connect their destinations but which cut apart the communities they pass through; to open data platforms which provide vast quantities of data “as-is” but little in the way of information and services customised to the needs of local individuals and communities.

Architects such as Jan Gehl have argued that the design process for cities should concentrate on the life between buildings, rather than on the structure of buildings; and that cities should be constructed at a “human-scale” – medium-sized buildings, not tower-blocks and sky-scrapers; and streets that are walkable and cycle-able, not dominated by cars. In transport, elevated cycleways and pedestrian roundabouts have appeared in Europe and Asia. These structures prevent road traffic infrastructures form impeding the fluid movement of cycling and walking – transport modes which allow people to stop and interact in a city more easily and often than driving.

At a meeting held in London last year to establish the UK’s chapter to the City Protocol Society, Keith Coleman of Capgemini offered a different view by comparing the growth in size of cities to the structure of the world’s largest biological organisms. In particular, Keith contrasted the need to provide infrastructure – such as the Pando forest in Utah, a single, long-lived and vastly extensive root system supporting millions of individual trees that live, grow and die independently – with the need to provide capabilities – such as those encoded in the genes of the Neptune sea grass, which is not a single organism, but rather a genetically identical colony which collectively covers 5% of the Mediterranean sea floor.

The Collective Research Initiatives Trust‘s study of Mumbai, “Being Nicely Messy“, Colin Rowe and Fred Koetter’s “Collage City“, Manu Fernandez’s “Human Scale Cities” project and CHORA’s Taiwan Strait Atlas project have all suggested an approach to urban systems that is more like the Neptune sea grass than the Pando forest: the provision of a “toolkit” for individuals and organisations to apply in their local context

My own work, initially in Sunderland, was similarly informed by the Knight Foundation’s report on the Information Needs of Communities, to which I was introduced by Conn Crawford of Sunderland City Council. It counsels for a process of engagement and understanding between city institutions and communities, in order that the resources of large organisations can be focused on providing the information and services that can be most effectively used by individual citizens, businesses and social organisations.

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

Kelvin Campbell of Urban Initiatives has perhaps taken this thinking furthest in the urban context in his concept of “Massive Small” and the “urban operating system”. Similar thinking appears throughout research on resilience in systems such as cities, coral reefs, terrorist networks and financial systems, as described by Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy in “Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back“. And it is reflected in the work that many researchers and professionals across fields as diverse as city planning, economics and technology are doing to understand how institutional city systems can engage effectively with “informal” activity in the economy.

In IBM we have adapted our approach too. To take one example, a few years ago we launched our “Global Entrepreneur” programme, through which we engage directly with small, startup businesses using technology to develop what we call “Smarter Planet” and “Smarter Cities” solutions. These businesses are innovating in specific markets that they understand much better than we do; using operating models that IBM does not have. In turn, IBM’s resources can help them build more resilient solutions more quickly and cost-effectively, and reach a wider set of potential customers across the world.

A civic infrastructure that combines economics and technology and that, whilst it has a long history,  is starting to evolve rapidly, is the local currency. Last year Bristol became the fifth place in the UK to launch its own currency; whilst in Switzerland an alternative currency, the Wir, is thought to have contributed to the stability of the Swiss economy for the last century by providing an alternative, more flexible basis for debt, by allowing repayments to made in kind through bartering, as well as in currency.

Such systems can promote local economic synergy, and enable the benefits of capital fluidity to be adapted to the needs of local contexts. And from innovations in mobile banking in Africa to Birmingham’s DropletPay SmartPhone payment system, they are rapidly exploiting new technologies. They are a clear example of a service that city and economic institutions can support; and that can be harnessed and used by individuals and organisations anywhere in a city ecosystem for the purposes that are most important and valuable to them.

IMG-20121104-00606

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

Co-operative Governance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A challenge for 2013: better stories for Smarter Cities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The six steps to a Smarter City; and the philosophical imperative for taking them (updated 9th January 2013)

Eastside City Park

(Birmingham’s new Eastside City Park, opened late last year as a public space and walking route, adjacent to Millennium Point and the new Birmingham City University campus)

(This article originally appeared in September 2012 as “Five steps to a Smarter City: and the philosophical imperative for taking them“. Because it contains an overall framework for approaching Smart City transformations, I’ll keep it updated to reflect the latest content on this blog, and ongoing developments in the industry. It can also be accessed through the page link “Six steps to a Smarter City” in the navigation bar above). 

In recent weeks I have valued open and frank discussions between city leaders, financiers and developers, policy makers, academics, architects, planners – and even some technologists. They have revealed simple ideas that are common to those cities that are successfully implementing transformations across city systems to achieve city-wide outcomes.

I have also explored, in more philosophical articles that are largely categorised in the “Urbanism” section of this blog, the need for cities to encourage “messy”, “informal”, “organic” and “bottom-up” forms of innovation in hyperlocal contexts within cities. To do so requires a new openness and willingness to engage between city institutions and communities.

I’ve updated this article to accommodate those topics; I believe they are vital to creating and sustaining the meaningful changes that we increasingly recognise our cities need.

  1. Define what a “Smarter City” means to you
  2. Convene a stakeholder group to create a specific Smarter City vision; and establish governance and a credible decision-making process (Updated)
  3. Structure your approach to a Smart City by drawing on the available resources of expertise (Updated)
  4. Populate a roadmap that can deliver the vision (Updated)
  5. Put the financing in place (Updated)
  6. Think beyond the future and engage with informality: how to make “Smarter” a self-sustaining process (Updated) … and a philosophical imperative for doing so

1. Define what a “Smarter City” means to you

Many urbanists and cities have grappled with how to define what a “Smart City”, a “Smarter City” or a “Future City” might be. It’s important for cities to agree to use an appropriate definition because it sets the scope and focus for what will be a complex collective journey of transformation.

In his article “The Top 10 Smart Cities On The Planet“, Boyd Cohen of Fast Company defined a Smart City as follows:

“Smart cities use information and communication technologies (ICT) to be more intelligent and efficient in the use of resources, resulting in cost and energy savings, improved service delivery and quality of life, and reduced environmental footprint–all supporting innovation and the low-carbon economy.”

This definition shares a useful distinction that was made to me by the Technology Strategy Board‘s Head of Sustainability, Richard Miller: a “Smart City” is one that transforms itself into a “Future City” by using technology. In IBM we use the phrase “Smarter City” to describe a city that is making progress on that path.

As is frequently quoted, more than half of the world’s population now lives in urban areas; and in the UK where I live, that’s true of more than 90% of us. So its not surprising that so many people have strong views on what Smart, Smarter and Future Cities should be.

Personally I think that a useful and holistic definition of a “Future City” needs to include the following concepts:

  • A Future City is in a position to make a success of the present: for example, it is economically active in high-value industry sectors and able to provide the workforce and infrastructure that companies in those sectors need.
  • A Future City is on course for a successful future: with an education system that provides the skills that will be needed by future industries as technology evolves.
  • A Future City creates sustainable, equitably distributed growth: where education and employment opportunities are widely available to all citizens and communities, and with a focus on delivering social and environmental outcomes as well as economic growth.
  • A Future City operates as efficiently & intelligently as possible: so that resources such as energy, transportation systems and water are used optimally, providing a low-cost, low-carbon basis for economic and social growth, and an attractive, healthy environment in which to live and work.
  • A Future City enables citizens, communities, entrepreneurs & businesses to do their best; because making infrastructures Smarter is an engineering challenge; but making cities Smarter is a societal challenge; and those best placed to understand how societies can change are those who can innovate within them.

If those objectives provide – an admittedly very generic – view of what a “Future City” is, then a “Smarter City” is one that uses technology to accomplish them.

Creating a more specific vision is a task for each city to undertake for itself, taking into account its unique character, strengths and challenges. This process usually entails a collaborative act of creativity by city stakeholders.

2. Convene a stakeholder group to create a specific Smarter City vision

For a city to agree a shared “Smarter City” vision involves bringing an unusual set of stakeholders together in a single forum: political leaders, community leaders, major employers, transport and utility providers, entrepreneurs and SMEs, universities and faith groups, for example. The task for these stakeholders is to agree a vision that is compelling, inclusive; and specific enough to drive the creation of a roadmap of individual projects and initiatives to move the city forward.

This is a process that I’m proud to be taking part in in Birmingham through the City’s Smart City Commission, whose vision for the city was published in December. I discussed how such processes can work, and some of the challenges and activities involved, in July 2012 in an article entitled “How Smarter Cities Get Started“.

To attract the various forms of investment that are required to support a programme of “Smart” initiatives, these stakeholder groups need to be decision-making entities, such as Manchester’s “New Economy” Commission, not discussion forums.  They need to take investment decisions together in the interest of shared objectives; and they need a mature understanding and agreement of how risk is shared and managed across those investments.

Whatever specific form a local partnership takes, it needs to demonstrate transparency and consistency in its decision-making and risk management, in order that its initiatives and proposals are attractive to investors. These characteristics are straightforward in themselves; but take time to establish amongst a new group of stakeholders taking a new, collaborative approach to the management of a programme of transformation.

The article “Smart ideas for everyday cities” from December 2012 discusses these challenges, and examples of groups that have addressed them, in more detail.

3. Structure your approach to a Smart City by drawing on the available resources of expertise

Any holistic approach to a Smarter City needs to recognise the immensely complex context that a city represents: a rich “system of systems” comprising the physical environment, economy, transport and utility systems, communities, education and many other services, systems and human activities.

In “The new architecture of Smart Cities” in September 2012 I laid out a framework  for thinking about that context; in particular highlighting the need to focus on the “soft infrastructure” of conversations, trust, relationships and engagement between people, communities, enterprises and institutions that is fundamental to establishing a consensual view of the future of a city.

In that article  I also asserted that whilst in Smarter Cities we are often concerned with the application of technology to city systems, the context in which we do so – i.e. our understanding of the city as a whole – is the same context as that in which other urban professionals operate: architects, town planners and policy-makers, for example. An implication is that when looking for expertise to inform an approach to “Smarter Cities”, we should look broadly across the field of urbanism, and not restrict ourselves to that material which pertains specifically to the application of technology to cities.

So whilst  “City Protocol” seems to be the strongest emerging initiative to determine frameworks and standards for approaching Smarter Cities – and certainly should be considered by any city starting on that path – there are other resources that can be drawn on. The UK is establishing one of three local charters to the society.

UN-HABITAT, the United Nations agency for human settlements, recently published its “State of the World’s Cities 2012/2013” report. UNHABITAT promote socially and environmentally sustainable towns and cities, and their reports and statistics on urbanisation are frequently cited as authoritative. Their 2012/2013 report includes extensive consultation with cities around the world, and proposes a number of new mechanisms intended to assist decision-makers. It focuses extensively on South America, Africa, Asia and the Middle East; but also considers a number of European and North American examples.

(The components of a Smart City architecture I described in “The new architecture of Smart Cities“)

The World Bank’s Urban Development page contains a number of reports covering many aspects of urbanisation relevant to Smarter Cities, such as “Transforming Cities with Transit”, “Urban Risk Assessments: Towards a Common Approach” and a forthcoming report in December to promote “sustainable urban development through cross-sector integration by focusing on the careful coordination of transit and land development”. At the Bank’s “Rethinking Cities” symposium in Barcelona in October, they also announced that they would be publishing a book of the same title containing a set of viewpoints on similar themes.

The Academy of Urbanism, a UK-based not-for-profit association of several hundred urbanists including policy-makers, architects, planners and academics, publishes the “Friebrug Charter for Sustainable Urbanism” in collaboration with the city of Frieburg, Germany. Frieburg won the Academy’s European City of the Year award in 2010 but its history of recognition as a sustainable city goes back further. The charter contains a number of useful principles and ideas for achieving consensual sustainability that can be applied to Smarter Cities.

A number of current research programmes are seeking to define more technical standards for achieving the interoperability between city systems that underpins many Smarter City ideas. Imperial College in the UK have established the Digital City Exchange initiative; Imperial have a depth of expertise across urban systems such as transport and energy, and are working with a number of academic and industry partners.

The European Union Platform for Intelligent Cities (EPIC) project is similarly researching  architectures and standards for Smart Cities technology infrastructure – my colleagues in IBM and at Birmingham City University are amongst the participants. And the “FI-WARE” project, also funded by the European Union, is researching architectures and standards for a “future internet platform”: one of its focusses is the integration of city systems, and particularly how cities can provide technology infrastructures on which SMEs and entrepreneurs can base innovative new city services.

With the UK Technology Strategy Board continuing to invest through it’s “Future Cities” programme (link requires registration) and the EU announcing new investments in Smart Cities recently, research activity in this area will surely grow.

Consultancies, technology and service providers also offer useful views. IBM’s own perspectives and case studies can be found at http://www.ibm.com/smartercities/Arup have published a number of viewpoints, including “Information Marketplaces: the new economics of cities“; and McKinsey’s recent report “Government designed for new times: a global conversation” contains a number of sections dedicated to technology and Smarter Cities.

The large number of “Smart Cities” and “Future Cities” communities on the web can also be good sources of emerging new knowledge, such as UBM’s “Future Cities” site; the Sustainable Cities Collective; and Linked-In discussion Groups such as “Smart Cities and City 2.0“, “Smarter Cities” and “Smart Urbanism“.

Finally, I published an extensive article on this blog in December 2012 which provided a framework for identifying the technology components required to support Smart City initiatives of different kinds – “Pens, paper and conversations. And the other technologies that will make cities smarter“; and I specifically discussed the challenges and technologies associated with the city information and “open data” platforms that underlie many of those initiatives in “Why open city data is the brownfield regeneration challenge of the information age” in October 2012.

(The discussion group at #SmartHack in Birmingham, described in “Tea, trust and hacking – how Birmingham is getting Smarter“, photographed by Sebastian Lenton)

4. Populate a roadmap that can deliver the vision

In order to fulfill a vision for a Smarter City, a roadmap of specific projects and initiatives is needed, including both early “quick wins” and longer term strategic programmes.

Those projects and initiatives take many forms; and it can be worthwhile to concentrate initial effort on those that are simplest to execute because they are within the remit of a single organisation; or because they build on cross-organisational initiatives within cities that are already underway.

In my August 2012 article “Five roads to a Smarter City” I gave some ideas of what those initiatives might be, and the factors affecting their viability and timing, including:

  1. Top-down, strategic transformations across city systems;
  2. Optimisation of individual infrastructures such as energy, water and transportation;
  3. Applying “Smarter” approaches to “micro-city” environments such as industrial parks, transport hubs, university campuses or leisure complexes;
  4. Exploiting the technology platforms emerging from the cost-driven transformation to shared services in public sector;
  5. Supporting the “Open Data” movement.

In “Pens, paper and conversations. And the other technologies that will make cities smarter” in December 2012, I described a framework for identifying the technology components required to support Smart City initiatives of different kinds, such as:

  1. Re-engineering the physical components of city systems (to improve their efficiency)
  2. Using information  to optimise the operation of city systems
  3. Co-ordinating the behaviour of multiple systems to contribute to city-wide outcomes
  4. Creating new marketplaces to encourage sustainable choices, and attract investment

It is also worthwhile to engage with service and technology providers in the Smart City space; they have knowledge of projects and initiatives with which they have been involved elsewhere. Many are also seeking suitable locations in which to invest in pilot schemes to develop or prove new offerings which, if successful, can generate follow-on sales elsewhere. The “First of a Kind” programme in IBM’s Research division is one example or a formal programme that is operated for this purpose.

A roadmap consisting of several such individual activities within the context of a set of cross-city goals, and co-ordinated by a forum of cross-city stakeholders, can form a powerful programme for making cities Smarter.

5. Put the financing in place

A crucial factor in assessing the viability of those activities, and then executing them, is putting in place the required financing. In many cases, that will involve cities approaching investors or funding agencies. In “Smart ideas for everyday cities” in December 2012 I described some of the organisations from whom funds could be secured; and some of the characteristics they are looking for when considering which cities and initiatives to invest in.

There are very many individual ways in which funds can be secured for Smart City initiatives, of course; I described some more in “No-one is going to pay cities to become Smarter” in November 2012, and several others in two articles in September 2012:

In “Ten ways to pay for a Smarter City (part one)“:

And in “Ten ways to pay for a Smarter City (part two):

I’m a technologist, not a financier or economist; so those articles are not intended to be exhaustive or definitive. But they do suggest a number of practical options that can be explored.

(Meeting with social entrepreneurs in Sunderland who create local innovations in the city)

6. Think beyond the future and engage with informality: how to make “Smarter” a self-sustaining process

Once a city has become “Smart”, is that the end of the story?

I don’t think so. The really Smart city is one that has put in place soft and hard infrastructures that can be used in a continuous process of reinvention and creativity.

In the same way that a well designed urban highway should connect rather than divide the city communities it passes through, the new technology platforms put in place to support Smarter City initiatives should be made open to communities and entrepreneurs to constantly innovate in their own local context.

I described that process along with some examples of it in “The amazing heart of a Smarter City: the innovation boundary” in August 2012. In October 2012, I described some of the ways in which Birmingham’s communities are exploring that boundary in “Tea, trust and hacking: how Birmingham is getting smarter“; and in November I emphasised in “Zen and the art of messy urbanism” the importance of recognising the organic, informal nature of some of the innovation and activity within cities that creates value.

When it works well, the result is the ongoing creation of new products, services or even marketplaces that enable city residents and visitors to make choices every day that reinforce local values and synergies. I described some of the ways in which technology could enable those markets to be designed to encourage transactions that support local outcomes in “Open urbanism: why the information economy will lead to sustainable cities” in October 2012 and “From Christmas lights to bio-energy: how technology will change our sense of place” in August 2012. The money-flows within those markets can be used as the basis of financing their infrastructure, as I discussed in “Digital Platforms for Smarter City Market-Making” in June 2o12 and in several other articles described in “5. Put the financing in place” above.

(Artist’s impression of a vertical urban farm shared by Curbed SF)

A philosophical imperative

It’s worth at this point reminding ourselves why we’re compelled to make cities Smarter. I’ve often referred to the pressing economic and environmental pressures we’re all aware of as the reasons to act; but they are really only the acute symptoms of an underlying demographic trend and its effect on the behaviour of complex systems within cities.

The world’s population is expected to grow towards 10 billion in 2070; and most of that growth will be within cities. The physicist and biologist Geoffrey West’s work on cities as complex systems showed that larger, denser cities are more successful in creating wealth. That creation of wealth attracts more residents, causing further growth – and further consumption of resources. At some point it’s inevitable that this self-reinforcing growth triggers a crisis.

If this sounds alarmist, consider the level of civic unrest associated with the Eurozone crisis in Greece and Spain; or that in the 2000 strike by the drivers who deliver fuel to petrol stations in the UK, some city supermarkets came within hours of running out of food completely. Or simply look to the frightening global effects of recent grain shortages caused by drought in the US.

Concern over this combination of the cost of resources and uncertainty in their supply has lead to sustainability becoming a critical economic and social issue, not just a long-term environmental one. The concept of “resilience” has emerged to unify these concepts; and it demands changes in the way that cities behave.

As an example of just how far-reaching this thinking has become, consider the supply of food to urban areas. Whilst definitions vary, urban areas are usually defined as continuously built-up areas with a population of at least a few thousand people, living at a density of at least a few hundred people per square kilometer. Actual population densities in large cities are much higher than this, typically a few tens of thousands per square kilometer in developed economies, and sometimes over one hundred thousand per square kilometer in the largest megacities in emerging economies.

In contrast, one square kilometer of intensively farmed land with fertile soil in a good climate can feed approximately 1000 people according to Kate Cooper of the New Optimists forum, which is considering scenarios for Birmingham’s food future in 2050. Those numbers tell us that, then unless some radical new method of growing food appears, cities will never feed themselves, and will continue to rely on importing food from ever larger areas of farmland to support their rising populations.

(Photo by TEDxBrainport of Dr Mark Post explaining how meat can be grown artificially)

As I’ve noted before, such radical new methods are already appearing: artificial meat has been grown in laboratories; and the idea of creating “vertical farms” in skyscrapers is being seriously explored.

But these are surely scientific and engineering challenges; so why do I refer to a philosophical imperative?

I’ve previously referred to artificial meat and vertical farming as examples of “extreme urbanism“. They certainly push the boundaries of our ability to manipulate the natural world. And that’s where the philosophical challenge lies.

Do we regard ourselves as creatures of nature, or as creatures who manipulate nature? To what extent do we want to change the character of the world from which we emerged? As the population of our planet and our cities continues to rise, we will have to confront these questions, and decide how to answer them.

Geoffrey West’s work clearly predicts what will happen if we continue our current course; and I think it is likely that scientists and engineers will rise to the challenge of supporting even larger, denser cities than those we currently have. But personally I don’t think the result will be a world that I will find attractive to live in.

Organisations such as Population Matters campaign carefully and reasonably for an alternative path; an agenda of education, access to opportunity and individual restraint in the size of our families as a means to slow the growth of global population, so that more orthodox solutions can be affective – such as increasing the efficiency of food distribution, reducing food wastage (including our personal food wastage) and changing dietary habits – for instance, to eat less meat.

I don’t claim to know the answer to these challenges, but I’m thankful that they are the subject of urgent research by serious thinkers. The challenge for cities is to understand and incorporate this thinking into their own strategies in ways that are realistic and practical, in order that their Smarter City programmes represent the first steps on the path to a sustainable future.

The future of open urbanism

(I’m a guest blogger on UBM’s Future Cities community; this article was published there last week. It builds on themes I first explored here in the article “Open urbanism: why the information economy will lead to sustainable cities“).

(Delegates browsing the exhibition space in Fira Barcelona at the World Bank’s Urban Research and Knowledge Symposium “Rethinking Cities”)

The rapid evolution of sensors, analytics, and automation technologies and their application to city systems such as transport, energy, and utilities offer a glimpse of the future.

These systems will support city populations more efficiently and sustainably. In South Bend, Ind., for example, an analytic system helps to predict and prevent wastewater overflows, avoiding the need to invest in hundreds of millions of dollars for upgrades for the system’s physical capacity.

However, the real power of these intelligent infrastructures is in their ability to influence our choices.

Stockholm’s road-use charging system, for example, influences the behaviour of travelers considering driving into the city and has reduced congestion and improved environmental quality.

At the World Bank’s “Rethinking Cities” Symposium in Barcelona in October, I took part in a panel discussion on whether this approach of including “externalities” (such as social and environmental costs) in prices would encourage widespread adoption of sustainable behaviours. The panel concluded that, whilst pricing is a useful tool, it’s not the only one and not sufficient on its own.

(The remainder of this article, which explores the opportunity for technology to encourage sustainable choices, can be found on UBM’s Future Cities site, as “The Future of Open Urbanism“).

%d bloggers like this: