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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deconstructing “quality of life”

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

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

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

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

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

Stress and Adaptability

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Urban data and quality of life in the district high street

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recognising the challenge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(“Which way to go?” by Peter Roome)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seven steps to a Smarter City; and the imperative for taking them (updated 8th September 2013)

(Interior of the new Library of Birmingham, opened in September 2013. Photo by Andy Mabbett)

(Interior of the new Library of Birmingham, opened in September 2013. Photo by Andy Mabbett licensed under Creative Commons via Wikimedia Commons)

(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 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 “Seven steps to a Smarter City” in the navigation bar above).

As I’ve worked with cities over the past two years developing their “Smarter City” strategies and programmes  to deliver them, I’ve frequently written articles on this blog exploring the main challenges they’ve faced: establishing a cross-city consensus to act; securing funding; and finding the common ground between the institutional and organic natures of city ecosystems.

We’ve moved beyond exploration now. There are enough examples of cities making progress on the “Smart” agenda for us to identify  the common traits that lead to success. I first wrote “Five steps to a Smarter City: and the philosophical imperative for taking them” in September 2012 to capture what at the time seemed to be emerging practises with promising potential, and have updated it twice since then. A year later, it’s time for a third and more confident revision.

In the past few months it’s also become clear that an additional step is required to recognise the need for new policy frameworks to enable the emergence of Smarter City characteristics, to complement the direct actions and initiatives that can be taken by city institutions, businesses and communities.

The revised seven steps involved in creating and achieving a Smarter City vision are:

  1. Define what a “Smarter City” means to you (Updated)
  2. Convene a stakeholder group to co-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 and expertise (Updated)
  4. Establish the policy framework (New)
  5. Populate a roadmap that can deliver the vision (Updated)
  6. Put the financing in place (Updated)
  7. Enable communities and engage with informality: how to make “Smarter” a self-sustaining process (Updated)

I’ll close the article with a commentary on a new form of leadership that can be observed at the heart of many of the individual initiatives and city-wide programmes that are making the most progress. Described by Andrew Zolli in “Resilience: why things bounce back” as “translational leadership“, it is characterised by an ability to build unusually broad collaborative networks across the institutions and communities – both formal and informal – of a city.

But I’ll begin with what used to be the ending to this article: why Smarter Cities matter. Unless we’re agreed on the need for them, it’s unlikely we’ll take the steps required to achieve them.

The Smarter City imperative

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

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

I think it’s vitally important to take a pro-active approach to Smarter Cities.

According to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs’ 2011 revision to their “World Urbanisation Prospects” report, between now and 2050 the world’s population will rise by 2-3 billion. The greatest part of that rise will be accounted for by the growth of Asian, African and South American “megacities” with populations of between 1 and 35 million people.

As a crude generalisation, this unprecedented growth offers four challenges to cities in different circumstances:

  • For rapidly growing cities: we have never before engineered urban infrastructures to support such growth. Whenever we’ve tried to accommodate rapid urban growth before, we’ve failed to provide adequate infrastructure, resulting in slums. One theme within Smarter Cities is therefore the attempt to use technology to respond more successfully to this rapid urbanisation.
  • For cities in developed economies with slower growth: urbanisation in rapidly growing economies is creating an enormous rise in the size of the world’s middle-class, magnifying global growth in demand for resources such as energy, water, food and materials; and creating new competition for economic activity. So a second theme of Smarter Cities that applies in mature economies is to remain vibrant economically and socially in this context, and to improve the distribution of wealth and opportunity, against a background of modest economic growth, ageing populations with increasing service needs, legacy infrastructure and a complex model of governance and operation of city services.
  • For cities in countries that are still developing slowly: increasing levels of wealth and economic growth elsewhere  create an even tougher hurdle than before in creating opportunity and prosperity for the populations of those countries not yet on the path to growth. At the same time that economists and international development organisations attempt to ensure that these nations benefit from their natural resources as they are sought by growing economies elsewhere, a third strand of Smarter Cities is concerned with supporting wider growth in their economies despite a generally low level of infrastructure, including technology infrastructure.
(Photo of Masshouse Circus, Birmingham, a concrete urban expressway that strangled the citycentre before its redevelopment in 2003, by Birmingham City Council)

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

We have only been partly successful in meeting these challenges in the past. As public and private sector institutions in Europe and the United States evolved through the previous period of urbanisation driven by the Industrial Revolution they achieved mixed results: standards of living rose dramatically; but so unequally that life expectancy between the richest and poorest areas of a single UK city often varies by 10 to 20 years.

In the sense that city services and businesses will always seek to exploit the technologies available to them, our cities will become smarter eventually as an inevitable consequence of the evolution of technology and growing competition for resources and economic activity.

But if those forces are allowed to drive the evolution of our cities, rather than supporting a direction of evolution that is proactively chosen by city stakeholders, then we will not solve many of the challenges that we care about most: improving the distribution of wealth and opportunity, and creating a better, sustainable quality of life for everyone. As I argued in “Smarter City myths and misconceptions“, “business as usual” will not deliver what we want and need – we need new approaches.

I do not pretend that it will be straightforward to apply our newest tool – digital technology – to achieve those objectives. In “Death, Life and Place in Great Digital Cities“, I explored the potential for unintended consequences when applying technology in cities, and compared them to the ongoing challenge of balancing the impacts and benefits of the previous generations of technology that shaped the cities we live in today – elevators, concrete and the internal combustion engine. Those technologies enabled the last century of growth; but in some cases have created brutal and inhumane urban environments which limit the quality of life that is possible within them.

But there are nevertheless many ways for cities in every circumstance imaginable to benefit from Smarter City ideas, as I described in my presentation earlier this year to the United Nations Commission on Science and Technology for Development, “Science, technology and innovation for sustainable cities and peri-urban communities“.

The first step in doing so is for each city and community to decide what “Smarter Cities “means to them.

Singapore Traffic Prediction

(A prediction of traffic speed and volume 30 minutes into the future in Singapore. In a city with a growing economy and a shortage of space, the use of technology to enable an efficient transportation system has long been a priority)

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.”

IBM describes a Smarter City in similar terms, more specifically stating that the role of technology is to create systems that are “instrumented, interconnected and intelligent.”

Those definitions are useful; but they don’t reflect the different situations of cities everywhere, which are only very crudely described by the four contexts I identified above. We should not be critical of any of the general definitions of Smarter Cities; they are useful in identifying the nature and scope of powerful ideas that could have widespread benefits. But a broad definition will never provide a credible direction for any individual city given the complexities of its challenges, opportunities, context and capabilities.

Additionally, definitions of “Smarter Cities” that are based on relatively advanced technology concepts don’t reflect the origins of the term “Smart” as recognised by the social scientists I met with in July at a workshop at the University of Durham.  The “Smart” idea is more than a decade old, and emerged from the innovative use of relatively basic digital technologies to stimulate economic growth, community vitality and urban renewal.

As I unifying approach, I’ve therefore come recently to conceive of a Smarter City as follows:

A Smarter City systematically creates and encourages innovations in city systems that are enabled by technology; that change the relationships between the creation of economic and social value and the consumption of resources; and that contribute in a coordinated way to achieving a vision and clear objectives that are supported by a consensus amongst city stakeholders.

In co-creating a consensual approach to “Smarter Cities” in any particular place, it’s important to embrace the richness and variety of the field. Many people are very sceptical of the idea of Smarter Cities; often I find that their scepticism arises from the perception that proponents of Smarter Cities are intent on applying the same ideas everywhere, regardless of their suitability, as I described in Smarter City myths and misconceptions” in July.

For example, highly intelligent, multi-modal transport infrastructures are vital in cities such as Singapore, where a rapidly growing economy has created an increased demand for transport; but where there is no space to build new road capacity. But they are much less relevant – at least in the short term – for cities such as Sunderland where the priority is to provide better access to digital technology to encourage the formation and growth of new businesses in high-value sectors of the economy. Every city, individual or organisation that I know of that is successfully pursuing a Smarter City initiative or strategy recognises and engages with that diversity,

Creating a specific Smarter City vision is therefore a task for each city to undertake for itself, taking into account its unique character, strengths and priorities. This process usually entails a collaborative act of creativity by city stakeholders – I’ll explore how that takes place in the next section.

To conclude, it’s likely that the following generic objectives should be considered and adapted in that process:

  • A Smarter 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 Smarter 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 Smarter 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 Smarter 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 Smarter 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.
  • A Smarter City harnesses technology effectively and makes it accessible; because technology continues to define the new infrastructures that are required to achieve efficiencies in operation; and to enable economic and social growth.

2. Convene a stakeholder group to co-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.

It’s crucial that this vision is co-created by a group of stakeholders; as a city leader commented to me last year: “One party can’t bring the vision to the table and expect everyone else to buy into it”.

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 be sufficiently creative, empowered and inclusive, the group of stakeholders needs to encompass not only the leaders of key city institutions and representatives of its breadth of communities; it needs to contain original thinkers; social entrepreneurs and agents of change. As someone commented to me recently following a successful meeting of such a group: “this isn’t a ‘usual’ group of people”. In a similar meeting this week, a colleague likened the process of assembling such a group to that of building the Board of a new company.

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.

Finally, to create and execute a vision that can succeed, the group needs to tell stories. A Smarter City encompasses all of a city’s systems, communities and businesses; the leaders in that ecosystem can only act with the support of their shareholders, voters, citizens, employees and neighbours. We will only appeal to such a broad constituency by telling simple stories that everyone can understand. I discussed some of the reasons that lead to this in “Better stories for Smarter Cities: three trends in urbanism that will reshape our world” in January and “Little/big; producer/consumer; and the story of the Smarter City” in March. Both articles cover similar ground; and were written as I prepared for my TEDxWarwick presentation, “Better Stories for Smarter Cities”, also in March.

The article “Smart ideas for everyday cities” from December 2012 discusses all of 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 and 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.

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

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.

Formal sources include:

  • UN-HABITAT, the United Nations agency for human settlements, which 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.
  • 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.
  • The UK Technology Strategy Board’s “Future Cities” programme (link requires registration) and the ongoing EU investments in Smart Cities are both investing in initiatives that transfer Smarter City ideas and technology from research into practise, and disseminating the knowledge created in doing so.

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

It is also important to consider how change is achieved in systems as complex as cities. In “Do we need a Pattern Language for Smarter Cities” I noted some of the challenges involve in driving top-down programmes of change; and contrasted them to what can happen when an environment is created that encourages innovation and attempts to influence it to achieve desired outcomes, rather than to adopt particular approaches to doing so. And in “Zen and the art of messy urbanism” I explored the importance of unplanned, informal and highly creative “grass-roots” activity in creating growth in cities, particularly where resources and finances are constrained.

Some very interesting such approaches have emerged from thinking in policy, economics, planning and architecture: 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 the “Massive / Small” concept and associated “Urban Operating System” from Kelvin Campbell and Urban Initiatives, for example have all suggested an approach that involves a “toolkit” of ideas for individuals and organisations to apply in their local context.

The “tools” in such toolkits are similar to the “design patterns“ invented by the town planner Christopher Alexander in the 1970s as a tool for capturing re-usable experience in town planning, and later adopted by the Software industry. I believe they offer a useful way to organise our knowledge of successful approaches to “Smarter Cities”, and am slowly creating a catalogue of them, including the “City information partnership” and “City-centre enterprise incubation“.

A good balance between the top-down and bottom-up approaches can be found in the large number of “Smart Cities” and “Future Cities” communities on the web, such as UBM’s “Future Cities” site; Next City; the Sustainable Cities Collective; the World Cities Network; and Linked-In discussion Groups including “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“.

4. Establish the policy framework

The influential urbanist Jane Jacobs wrote in her seminal 1961 work ”The Death and Life of Great American Cities“:

“Private investment shapes cities, but social ideas (and laws) shape private investment. First comes the image of what we want, then the machinery is adapted to turn out that image. The financial machinery has been adjusted to create anti-city images because, and only because, we as a society thought this would be good for us. If and when we think that lively, diversified city, capable of continual, close- grained improvement and change, is desirable, then we will adjust the financial machinery to get that.”

Jacobs’ was concerned with redressing the focus of urban design away from vehicle traffic and back to meeting the daily requirements of human lives; but today, it is similarly true that our planning and procurement practises do not recognise the value of the Smart City vision, and therefore are not shaping the financial instruments to deliver it. This is not because those practises are at fault; it is because technologists, urbanists, architects, procurement officers, policy-makers and planners need to work together to evolve those practises to take account of the new possibilities available to cities through technology.

It’s vitally important that we do this. As I described in November 2012 in “No-one is going to pay cities to become Smarter“, the sources of research and innovation funding that are supprting the first examples of Smarter City initiatives will not finance the widespread transformation of cities everywhere. But there’s no need for them to: the British Property Federation, for example, estimate that £14 billion is invested in the development of new space in the UK each year – that’s 500 times the annual value of the UK Government’s Urban Broadband Fund. If planning regulations and other policies can be adapted to promote investment in the technology infrastructures that support Smarter Cities, the effect could be enormous.

I ran a workshop titled “Can digital technology help us build better cities?” to explore these themes in May at the annual Congress of the Academy of Urbanism in Bradford; and have been exploring them with a number of city Councils and institutions such as the British Standards Institute throughout the year. In June I summarised the ideas that emerged from that work in the article “How to build a Smarter City: 23 design principles for digital urbanism“.

Two of the key issues to address are open data and digital privacy.

As I explored in “Open urbanism:  why the information economy will lead to sustainable cities” in December 2012, open data is a vital resource for creating successful, sustainable, equitable cities. But there are thousands of datasets relevant to any individual city; owned by a variety of public and private sector institutions; and held in an enormous number of fragmented IT systems of varying ages and designs. Creating high quality, consistent, reliable data in this context is a “Brownfield regeneration challenge for the information age”, as I described in October 2012. Planning and procurement regulations that require city information to be made openly available will be an important tool in creating the investment required to overcome that challenge.

(The image on the right was re-created from an MRI scan of the brain activity of a subject watching the film shown in the image on the left. By Shinji Nishimoto, Alex G. Huth, An Vu and Jack L. Gallant, UC Berkley, 2011)

(The image on the right was re-created from an MRI scan of the brain activity of a subject watching the film shown in the image on the left. By Shinji Nishimoto, Alex G. Huth, An Vu and Jack L. Gallant, UC Berkley, 2011)

Digital privacy matters to Smarter Cities in part because technology is becoming ever more fundamental to our lives as more and more of our business is transacted online through e-commerce and online banking. Additionally, the boundary between technology, information and the physical world is increasingly disappearing – as shown recently by the scientists who demonstrated that one person’s thoughts could control another’s actions, using technology, not magic or extrasensory phenomena. That means that our physical safety and digital privacy are increasingly linked – the emergence this year of working guns 3D-printed from digital designs is one of the most striking examples. 

Jane Jacobs defined cities by their ability to provide privacy and safety amongst their citizens; and her thinking is still regarded by many urbanists as the basis of our understanding of cities. As digital technology becomes more pervasive in city systems, it is vital that we evolve the policies that govern digital privacy to ensure that those systems continue to support our lives, communities and businesses successfully.

5. 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

The Smarter City design patterns I described in the previous section also provide potential ideas, including City information partnerships and City-centre enterprise incubation; I’m hoping shortly to add new patterns such as Community Energy Initiatives, Social Enterprises, Local Currencies and Information-Enabled Resource Marketplaces.

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.

(Photo of the Brixton Pound by Charlie Waterhouse)

6. 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.

But for cities to seek direct funding for Smarter Cities is only one approach; I compared it to four other approaches in “Gain and responsibility: five business models for sustainable cities” in August:

  1. Cross-city Collaborations
  2. Scaling-up Social Enterprise
  3. Creativity in finance
  4. Making traditional business sustainable
  5. Encouraging entrepreneurs everywhere

The role of traditional business is of particular importance. Billions of us depend for our basic needs – not to mention our entertainment and leisure – on global supply chains operated on astounding scales by private sector businesses. Staples such as food, cosmetics and cleaning products consume a vast proportion of the world’s fresh water and agricultural capacity; and a surprisingly small number of organisations are responsible for a surprisingly large proportion of that consumption as they produce the products and services that many of us use. We will only achieve smarter, sustainable cities, and a smarter, sustainable world, in collaboration with them. The CEOs of  Unilever and Tesco have made statements of intent along these lines recently, and IBM and Hilton Hotels are two businesses that have described the progress they have already made.

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.

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

 

7. 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. As I explored in “Smarter city myths and misconceptions” this idea should really be at the heart of our understanding of Smarter Cities.

I’ve explored those themes frequently in articles on this blog; including the two articles that led to my TEDxWarwick presentation, “Better stories for Smarter Cities: three trends in urbanism that will reshape our world” and “Little/big; producer/consumer; and the story of the Smarter City“. Both of them explored the importance of large city institutions engaging with and empowering the small-scale hyperlocal innovation that occurs in cities and communities everywhere; and that is often the most efficient way of creating social and economic value.

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.

The Physicist Geoffrey West is one of many scientists who has explored the roles of technology and population growth in speeding up city systems; as our world changes more and more quickly, our cities will need to become more agile and adaptable – technologists, town planners and economists all seem to agree on this point. In “Refactoring, nucleation and incubation: three tools for digital urban adaptability” I explored how ideas from all of those professions can help them to do so.

Smarter, agile cities will enable 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 2012 and in several other articles described in “5. Put the financing in place” above.

Commentary: a new form of leadership

Andrew Zolli’s book “Resilience: why things bounce back” contains many examples of “smart” initiatives that have transformed systems such as emergency response, agriculture, fishing, finance and gang culture, most, but not all, of which are enabled by technology.

A common theme from all of them is productive co-operation and co-creation between large formal organisations (such as businesses and public sector institutions) and informal community groups or individuals (examples in Resilience include subsistence farmers, civic activitists and pacific island fishermen). Jared Diamond made similar observations about successful examples of socially and environmentally sustainable resource extraction businesses, such as Chevron’s sustainable operations in the Kutubu oilfield in Papua New Guinea, in his book “Collapse“.

Zolli identified a particular style of individual behaviour that was crucial in bringing about these collaborations that he called “translational leadership“: 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.

That’s precisely the behaviour and leadership that I see in successful Smarter Cities initiatives. It’s sometimes shown by the leaders of public authorities, Universities or private businesses; but it’s equally often shown by community activists or entrepreneurs.

For me, this is one of the most exciting and optimistic insights about Smarter Cities: the leaders who catalyse their emergence can come from anywhere. And any one of us can choose to take a first step in the city where we live.

Gain and responsibility: five business models for sustainable cities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Cross-city Collaborations

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

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

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

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

2. Scaling-up Social Enterprise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Creativity in finance

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Making traditional business sustainable

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. Encouraging entrepreneurs everywhere

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evolution and revolution

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

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

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

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

Death, life and place in great digital cities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A design pattern for a Smarter City: City-Centre Enterprise Incubation

(The Custard Factory in Birmingham, at the heart of the city’s creative media sector in the central district of Digbeth)

(In “Do we need a Pattern Language for Smarter Cities” I suggested that “design patterns“, a tool for capturing re-usable experience invented by the town-planner Christopher Alexander, might offer a useful way to organise our knowledge of successful approaches to “Smarter Cities”. I’m now writing a set of design patterns to describe ideas that I’ve seen work more than once. The collection is described and indexed in “Design Patterns for Smarter Cities” which can be found from the link in the navigation bar of this blog).  

Design Pattern: City-Centre Enterprise Incubation

Summary of the pattern:

This pattern describes the provision of mixed facilities to incubate technology, creative and social enterprises in an urban environment.

The intention is to foster growth across the high-value sectors of a city economy in a way that maximises the potential for cross-sectoral interaction and innovation. Locating incubation facilities in a city centre rather than on an out-of-town campus encourages such cross-fertilisation between existing and new businesses. The city environment – its transport systems, retailers, businesses, residents and visitors – can also serve as a “living lab” in which to test new products and services.

Such incubation facilities are often operated through hybrid public/private models so that they are financially sustainable, but act so as to promote the success of enterprises which contribute to the host city’s strategic objectives – for example, promoting growth in key sectors of the economy or creating jobs or skills in specific areas or communities.

City systems, communities and infrastructures affected:

(This description is based on the elements of Smarter City ecosystems presented in ”The new Architecture of Smart Cities“).

  • Goals: Any.
  • People: Primarily innovators. Citizens, employees and visitors play a secondary role as the potential consumers of new services created through innovation.
  • Ecosystem: All.
  • Soft infrastructures: Innovation forums; networks and community organisations.
  • City systems: Any.
  • Hard infrastructures: Information and communications technology, spaces and buildings.

Commercial operating model:

City-centre incubation facilities are often operated by “Special Purpose Vehicles” (SPVs) jointly owned by city institutions such as local authorities; universities; and organisations providing incubation services to businesses and social enterprises. Alternatively, some are established through collaborative business models such as Co-Operatives, Social Enterprises or Community Interest Companies. This enables them to offer the revenue-generating services that enable financial self-sufficiency; but also to focus on incubating those enterprises that contribute most significantly to the city’s overall strategic objectives, rather than simply generated the highest revenue income.

Some investment is often made in shared technology or services for use by tenant enterprises: for example, access to Cloud computing resources; collaboration tools; video conferencing services; 3D-printing or 3D-cutting facilities. Such services may be procured through the creation of partnerships with technology vendors or service providers who are seeking to build their own ecosystem of entrepreneurial business partners.

Long-term financial sustainability is dependent on the generation of commercial revenues from services offered to successfully operating businesses and social enterprises.

Soft infrastructures, hard infrastructures and assets required:

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

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

An active incubation programme depends on a complex ecosystem of relationships and capabilities, including: the generation of new entrepreneurial talent through the education system; the attraction of external entrepreneurs and businesses to re-locate; access to market insight and development capability, mentoring and finance; the provision of business support and growth services such as office space, computing capability, legal and financial advice; and access to business partners and market opportunities.

Unless they are of significant size and diversity, cities and regions will be most successful if they focus their business development capacity on the stimulation of growth in specific sectors that maximise the value of their existing regional economic, social, geographic and infrastructural capability.

Such focus may lead to some supporting capabilities, including technology, being common to many businesses in a locality. For example, 3D printing is an increasingly useful tool for prototyping manufactured objects; but the cost of highly capable 3D printers may be beyond the capability of individual small businesses to afford. Similarly a Cloud Computing platform dedicated to supporting small, entrepreneurial businesses may enable the cost of some technology capabilities to be shared by a regional cluster.

Driving forces:

An economy of sustainable, profitable businesses is at the heart of the long term vitality of cities and the regions surrounding them. As economic growth in emerging markets combines with increasingly rapid advances in science and technology, maintaining such an economy requires constant innovation by businesses; and it is in the interests of cities to stimulate and support such innovation.

Michael Porter’s analysis of economic clusters shows that this innovation is created when businesses adopt new technology; or when they adopt existing technologies from outside their current market sector. Whereas many science parks have been based on or near to University campuses to enable access to new technology, an increasing number of more broadly focussed incubation facilities are based in city centres in order to facilitate cross-sectorial interaction and innovation. Some of these can additionally exploit their proximity to city-centre Universities.

City centre locations also provide the opportunity to create businesses with unique capabilities or value. New technologies that emerge from University-based science are often the result of a global research agenda; but innovations that are created through cross-sectorial interaction in a city economy are shaped by the specific characteristics of that economy, and of the city’s geography and demographics. They may thereby create unique products and services that it is harder to replicate elsewhere, providing a competitive advantage in the global economy.

Benefits:

  • Enable local organic economic growth and job creation through small and entrepreneurial businesses.
  • Enable local businesses to exchange ideas across sectors to maintain the value of existing products and services; and to create new ones.
  • Provide access to leading edge technology and market insight to local economic clusters through the attraction of technology and service providers seeking partnerships with clusters of entrepreneurial businesses.
  • Coordinate regional investment and incubation capacity in support of business growth in areas of strategic local importance.
  • Create an offer that is attractive to talented people and businesses to locate in a place.

(Technology entrepreneurs in Birmingham Science Park Aston exploring how their skills can contribute to innovative services in the city, photographed by Sebastian Lenton)

Implications and risks:

  • There are very many factors that affect the success of initiatives intended to provide business incubation and stimulate economic growth, including the availability of affordable housing, the attractiveness of the urban environment and the availability of skills. Some of those factors are difficult to influence, and some take considerable time and investment to affect.
  • It is difficult to “pre-let” incubation capacity, so initial investments are usually speculative.
  • Rental revenues for incubation space provide relatively short term financial returns, but job creation, economic growth and other intended outcomes are long-term.
  • Genuinely constructive partnerships rely on effective engagement between city institutions, businesses and communities that can take time to achieve.

Alternatives and variations:

Collaborative working spaces exist in many cities to offer small businesses, entrepreneurs and mobile workers convenient, attractive, flexible and vibrant places to work. Whilst they are not always explicitly intended to incubate new businesses, or businesses in specific sectors, they clearly represent an incubation capacity; and most also invest in shared resources such as office space and digital connectivity.

Cutting edge examples also use technologies such as 3D-cutting to constantly re-fashion furniture and interior structures to adapt the shared space to changing requirements to support presentations, workshops, prototyping, conferences and events. Many collaborative working spaces attractive creative and media rather than technology businesses; but these sectors now overlap to such a significant extent that the distinction between them is increasingly slight.

Examples and stories:

Examples of collaborative working spaces include:

Sources of information:

Some of the articles on this blog refer to this topic and provide further links to information sources:

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

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

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

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

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

In Martin’s words:

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

(quoted from the Refactoring homepage).

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

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

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

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

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

(Image by TurkleTom)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finally, the same challenges appear in economic development.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Photo of me wearing the Emotiv headset)

(Photo of me wearing the Emotiv headset)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Photo of 3D printer by Media Lab Prado)

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

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

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

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

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

The attraction of opposites part 1: little and big

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

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

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

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

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

The same concepts apply to technology infrastructures.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The attraction of opposites part 2: producer and consumer

(Photo of 3D-printed objects by Shapeways)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Collaborative governance; and better stories for Smarter Cities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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).

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