The sharing economy and the future of movement in smart, human-scale cities

("Visionary City" by William Robinson Leigh)

(William Robinson Leigh’s 1908 painting “Visionary City” envisaged future cities constructed from mile-long buildings of hundreds of stories connected by gas-lit skyways for trams, pedestrians and horse-drawn carriages. A century later we’re starting to realise not only that developments in transport and power technology have eclipsed Leigh’s vision, but that we don’t want to live in cities constructed from buildings on this scale.)

One of the defining tensions throughout the development of cities has been between our desire for quality of life and our need to move ourselves and the things we depend on around.

The former requires space, peace, and safety in which to work, exercise, relax and socialise; the latter requires transport systems which, since the use of horsedrawn transport in medieval cities, have taken up space, created noise and pollution – and are often dangerous. Enrique Penalosa, whose mayorship of Bogota was defined by restricting the use of car transport, often refers to the tens of thousands of children killed by cars on the world’s roads every year and his astonishment that we accept this as the cost of convenient transport.

This tension will intensify rapidly in coming years. Not only are our cities growing larger and denser, but according to the analysis of city systems by Professors Geoffrey West and Louis Bettencourt of the Los Alamos National Laboratory and Professor Ian Robertson’s study of human behaviour, our interactions within them are speeding up and intensifying.

Arguably, over the last 50 years we have designed cities around large-scale buildings and transport structures that have supported – and encouraged – growth in transport and the size of urban economies and populations at the expense of some aspects of quality of life.

Whilst standards of living across the world have improved dramatically in recent decades, inequality has increased to an even greater extent; and many urbanists would agree that the character of some urban environments contributes significantly to that inequality. In response, the recent work of architects such as Jan Gehl and Kelvin Campbell, building on ideas first described by Jane Jacobs in the 1960s, has led to the development of the “human scale cities” movement with the mantra “first life, then space, then buildings”.

The challenge at the heart of this debate, though, is that the more successful we are in enabling human-scale value creation; the more demand we create for transport and movement. And unless we dramatically improve the impact of the systems that support that demand, the cities of the future could be worse, not better, places for us to live and work in.

Human scale technology creates complexity in transport

As digital technology pervades every aspect of our lives, whether in large-scale infrastructures such as road-use charging systems or through the widespread adoption of small-scale consumer technology such as smartphones and social media, we cannot afford to carry out the design of future cities without considering it; nor can we risk deploying it without concern for its affect on the quality of urban life.

Digital technologies do not just make it easier for us to communicate and share information wherever we are: those interactions create new opportunities to meet in person and to exchange goods and services; and so they create new requirements for transport. And as technologies such as 3D printing, open-source manufacturing and small-scale energy generation make it possible to carry out traditionally industrial activities at much smaller scales, some existing bulk movement patterns will be replaced by thousands of smaller, peer-to-peer interactions created by transactions in online marketplaces. We can already see the effects of this trend in the vast growth of traffic delivering goods that are purchased or exchanged online.

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

Digital technology will create not just great growth in our desire to travel and move things, but great complexity in the way we will do so. Today’s transport technologies are not only too inefficient to scale to our future needs; they’re not sophisticated and flexible enough to cope with the complexity and variety of demand.

Many of the future components of transport systems have already been envisaged, and deployed in early schemes: elevated cycleways; conveyor belts for freight; self-driving vehicles and convoys; and underground pneumatic networks for recycling. And to some extent, we have visualised the cities that they will create: Professor Miles Tight, for example, has considered the future living scenarios that might emerge from various evolutions of transport policy and human behavioural choices in the Visions 2030 project.

The task for the Smarter Cities movement should be to extend this thinking to envision the future of cities that are also shaped by emerging trends in digital technology and their effect on the wider economy and social systems. We won’t do that successfully by considering these subjects separately or in the abstract; we need to envision how they will collectively enable us to live and work from the smallest domestic scale to the largest city system.

(Packages from Amazon delivered to Google’s San Francisco office. Photo by moppet65535)

What we’ll do in the home of the future

Rather than purchasing and owning goods such as kitchen utensils, hobby and craft items, toys and simple house and garden equipment, we will create them on-demand using small-scale and open-source manufacturing technology and smart-materials. It will even be possible – though not all of us will choose to do so – to manufacture some food in this way.

Conversely, there will still be demand for handmade artisan products including clothing, gifts, jewellery, home decorations, furniture, and food. Many of us will earn a living producing these goods in the home while selling and marketing them locally or through online channels.

So we will leave our home of the future less often to visit shops; but will need not just better transport services to deliver the goods we purchase online to our doorsteps, but also a new utility to deliver the raw materials from which we will manufacture them ourselves; and new transport services to collect the products of our home industries and to deliver supplies to them.

We will produce an increasing amount of energy at home; whether from existing technologies such as solar panels or combined heat and power (CHP) systems; or through new techniques such as bio-energy. The relationships between households, businesses, utilities and transportation will change as we become producers of energy and consumers of waste material.

And whilst remote working means we will continue to be less likely to travel to and from the same office each day, the increasing pace of economic activity means that we will be more likely to need to travel to many new destinations as it becomes necessary to meet face to face with the great variety of customers, suppliers, co-workers and business partners with whom online technologies connect us.

What we’ll do in the neighbourhoods of the future

As we increasingly work remotely from within our homes or by travelling far away from them, less of us work in jobs and for businesses that are physically located within the communities in which we live; and some of the economic ties that have bound those communities in the past have weakened. But most of us still feel strong ties to the places we live in; whether they are historical, created by the character of our homes or their surrounding environment, or by the culture and people around us. These ties create a shared incentive to invest in our community.

Perhaps the greatest potential of social media that we’re only begin to exploit is its power to create more vibrant, sustainable and resilient local communities through the “sharing economy”.

The motivations and ethics of organisations participating in the sharing economy vary widely – some are aggressively commercial, whilst others are “social enterprises” with a commitment to reinvest profits in social growth. The social enterprise sector, comprised of mutuals, co-operatives, employee-owned businesses and enterprises who submit to “triple bottom line” accounting of financial, social and environmental capital, is about 15% of the value of most economies, and has been growing and creating jobs faster than traditional business since the 2008 crash. There is enormous potential for cities to achieve their “Smarter” objectives for sustainable, equitably distributed economic growth through contributions from social enterprises using technology to implement sharing economy business models within their region.

Sharing economy models which enable transactions between participants within a walkable or cyclable area can be a particularly efficient mechanism for collaboration, as the related transport can be carried out using human power. Joan Clos, Exective Director of UN-Habitat, has asserted that cities will only become sustainable when they are built at a sufficient population density that a majority of interactions within them can be carried out in this way (as reported informally by Tim Stonor from Dr. Clos’s remarks at the “Urban Planning for City Leaders” conference at the Crystal, London in 2012).

The Community Lovers’ Guide has published stories from across Europe of people who have collaborated to make the places that they share better, often using technology; and schemes such as Casserole Club and Land Share are linking the supply and demand of land, food, gardening and cooking skills within local communities, helping neighbours to help each other. At local, national and international levels, sharing economy ideas are creating previously unrealised social and economic value, including access to employment opportunities that replace some of those traditional professions that are shrinking as the technology used by industrial business changes.

Revenue-earning businesses are a necessary component of vibrant communities, at a local neighbourhood scale as well as city-wide. At the Academy of Urbanism Congress in Bradford this year, Michael Ward, Chair of the Centre for Local Economic Strategies, asserted that “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?”

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

So whilst we work remotely from direct colleagues, we may chose to work in a collaborative workspace with near neighbours, with whom we can exchange ideas, make new contacts and start new enterprises and ventures. As the “maker” economy emerges from the development of sophisticated, small-scale manufacturing, and the resurgence in interest in artisan products, community projects such as the Old Print Works in Balsall Heath, Birmingham are emerging in low-cost ex-industrial space as people come together to share the tools and expertise required to make things and run businesses.

We will also manage and share our use of resources such as energy and water at neighbourhood scale. The scale and economics of movement of the raw materials for bio-energy generation, for example, currently dictate that neighbourhood-scale generation facilities – as opposed to city-wide, regional or domestic scale – are the most efficient. Aston University’s European Bio-Energy Research Institute is demonstrating these principles in the Aston district of Birmingham. And schemes from the sustainability pilot in Dubuque, Iowa to the Energy Sharing Co-operative in the West Midlands of the UK and the Chale community project on the Isle of Wight have shown that community-scale schemes can create shared incentives to use resources more efficiently.

One traditional centre of urban communities, the retail high street or main street, has fared badly in recent times. The shift to e-commerce, supermarkets and out-of-town shopping parks has led to many of them loosing footfall and trade, and seeing “payday lenders“, betting shops and charity shops take the place of traditional retailers.

High streets needs to be freed from the planning, policy and tax restrictions that are preventing their recovery. The retail-dominated highstreet of the 20th century emerged from a particular and temporary period in the evolution of the private car as the predominant form of transport supporting household-scale economic transactions. Developments in digital and transport technology as well as economy and society have made it non-viable in its current form; but legislation that prevents change in the use of highstreet property, and that keeps business taxes artificially high, is preventing highstreets from adapting in order to benefit from technology and the opportunities of the sharing economy.

Business Improvement Districts, already emerging in the UK and US to replace some local authority services, offer one way forward. They need to be given more freedom to allow the districts they manage to develop as best meets the economic and social needs of their area according to the future, not the past. And they need to become bolder: to invest in the same advanced technology to maximize footfall and spend from their customers as shopping malls do on behalf of their tenants, as recommended by a recent report to UK Government on the future of the high street.

The future high street will not be a street of clothes shops, bookshops and banks: some of those will still exist, but the high street will also be a place for collaborative workers; for makers; for sharing and exchanging; for local food produce and artisan goods; for socialising; and for starting new businesses. We will use social media to share our time and our resources in the sharing economy; and will meet on the high street when those transactions require the exchange of physical goods and services. We will walk and cycle to local shops and transport centres to collect and deliver packages for ourselves, or for our neighbours.

The future of work, life and transport at city-scale

Whilst there’s no universally agreed definition, an urban areas is generally agreed to be a continuously built-up area with a total population of between 2,000 and 40 million people; living at a density of around 1,000 per square kilometre; and employed primarily in non-agricultural activities (the appendices to the 2007 revision of the UN World Urbanisation Prospects summarise such criteria from around the world; 38.7 million is estimated to be the population of the world’s largest city, Tokyo, in 2025 by the UN World Urbanisation Prospects 2011).

(An analysis based on GPS data from mobile phones of end-to-end journeys undertaken by users of Abidjan’s bus services. By comparing existing bus routes to end-to-end journey requirements, the analysis identified four new bus routes and led to changes in many others. As a result, 22 routes now show increased ridership, and city-wide journey times have decreased by 10%.)

That is living at an industrial scale. The sharing economy may be a tremendously powerful force, but – at least for the foreseeable future – it will not scale to completely replace the supply chains that support the needs of such enormous and dense populations.

Take food, for example. One hectare of highly fertile, intensively farmed land can feed 10 people. Birmingham, my home city, has an area of 60,000 hectares of relatively infertile land, most of which is not available for farming at all; and a population of around 1 million. Those numbers don’t add up to food self-sufficiency; and Birmingham is a very low-density city – between one-half and one-tenth as dense as the growing megacities of Asia and South America.

Until techniques such as vertical farming and laboratory-grown food become both technically and economically viable, and culturally acceptable – if they ever do – cities will not feed themselves. And these techniques hardly represent locally-grown food exchanged between peers – they are highly technical and likely to operate initially at industrial scale. Sharing economy businesses such as Casserole Club, Kitchen Surfing, and Big Barn will change the way we distribute, process and prepare food within cities, but many of the raw materials will continue to be grown and delivered to cities through the existing industrial-scale distribution networks that import them from agricultural regions.

We are drawn to cities for the opportunities they offer: for work, for entertainment, and to socialise. As rapidly as technology has improved our ability to carry out all of those activities online, the world’s population is still increasingly moving to cities. In many ways, technology augments the way we carry out those activities in the real world and in cities, rather than replacing them with online equivalents.

Technology has already made cultural events in the real world more frequent, accessible and varied. Before digital technology, the live music industry depended on mass-marketing and mass-appeal to create huge stadium-selling tours for a relatively small number of professional musicians; and local circuits were dominated by the less successful but similar-sounding acts for which sufficiently large audiences could be reached using the media of the time. I attempted as an amateur musician in the pre-internet 1990s to find a paying audience for the niche music I enjoyed making: I was not successful. Today, social media can be used to identify and aggregate demand to make possible a variety of events and artforms that would never previously have reached an audience. Culture in the real-world is everywhere, all the time, as a result, and life is the richer for it. We discover much of it online, but often experience it in the real world.

(Birmingham’s annual “Zombie Walk” which uses social media to engage volunteers raising money for charity. Photo by Clare Lovell).

Flashmobs” use smartphones and social media to spontaneously bring large numbers of people together in urban spaces to celebrate; socialise or protest; and while we will play and tell stories in immersive 3D worlds in the future – whether we call them movies, interactive fiction or “massive multi-player online role-playing games” – we’ll increasingly do so in the physical world too, in “mixed reality” games. Technologies such as Google Glasscognitive computing and Brain/Computer Interfaces will accelerate these trends as they remove the barrier between the physical world and information systems.

We will continue to come to city centres to experience those things that they uniquely combine: the joy and excitement of being amongst large numbers of people; the opportunity to share ideas; access to leading-edge technologies that are only economically feasible at city-scale; great architecture, culture and events; the opportunity to shop, eat, drink and be entertained with friends. All of these things are possible anywhere; but it is only in cities that they exist together, all the time.

The challenge for city-scale living will be to support the growing need to transport goods and people into, out of and around urban areas in a way that is efficient and productive, and that minimises impact on the liveability of the urban environment. In part this will involve reducing the impact of existing modes of transport by switching to electric or hydrogen power for vehicles; by predicting and optimising the behaviour of traffic systems to prevent congestion; by optimising public transport as IBM have helped AbidjanDublin, Dubuque and Istanbul to do; and by improving the spatial organisation of transport through initiatives such as Arup’s Regent Street delivery hub.

We will also need new, evolved or rejuvenated forms of transport. In his lecture for the Centenary of the International Federation for Housing and Planning, Sir Peter Hall spoke eloquently of the benefits of Bus Rapid Transit systems, urban railways and trams. All can combine the speed and efficiency of rail for bringing goods and people into cities quickly from outlying regions, with the ability to stop frequently at the many places in cities which are the starting and finishing points of end-to-end journeys.

Vehicle journeys on major roads will be undertaken in the near future by automated convoys travelling safely at a combined speed and density beyond the capability of human drivers. Eventually the majority of journeys on all roads will be carried out by such autonomous vehicles. Whilst it is important that these technologies are developed and introduced in a way that emphasises safety, the majority of us already trust our lives to automated control systems in our cars – every time we use an anti-lock braking system, for example. We will still drive cars for fun, pleasure and sport in the future – but we will probably pay dearly for the privilege; and our personal transport may more closely resemble the rapid transit pods that can already be seen at Heathrow Terminal 5.

Proposals intended to accelerate the adoption of autonomous vehicles include the “Qwik lane” elevated highway for convoy traffic; or the “bi-modal glideway” and “tracked electric vehicle” systems which could allow cars and lorries to travel at great speed safely along railway networks or dedicated “tracked” roads. Alternative possibilities which could achieve similar levels of efficiency and throughput are to extend the use of conveyor belt technology – already recognised as far more efficient than lorries for transporting resources and goods over distances of tens of miles in quarries and factories – to bring freight in and out of cities; or to use pneumatically powered underground tunnel networks, which are already being used in early schemes for transporting recyclable waste in densely populated areas. Elon Musk, the inventor of the Tesla electric supercar, has even suggested that a similar underground “vacuum loop” could be used to replace long-distance train and air travel for humans, at speeds over 1000 kilometres per hour.

The majority of these transport systems won’t offer us as individuals the same autonomy and directness in our travel as we believe the private car offers us today – even though that autonomy is often severely restricted by traffic congestion and delays. Why will we chose to relinquish that control?

(Optimod's vision for integrated, predictive mobile, multi-modal transport information)

(Optimod‘s vision for integrated, predictive mobile, multi-modal transport information)

Some of us will simply prefer to, finding different value in other ways to get around.

Walking and cycling are gaining in popularity over driving in many cities. I’ve personally found it a revelation in recent years to walk around cities rather than drive around them as I might previously have done. Cities are interesting and exciting places, and walking is often an enjoyable as well as efficient way of moving about them. (And for urbanists, of course, walking offers unparalleled opportunities to understand cities). Many of us are also increasingly conscious of the health benefits of walking and cycling, particularly as recent studies in the UK and US have shown that adults today will be the first generation in recorded history to die younger than their parents because of our poor diets and sedentary lifestyles.

Alternatively, we may choose to travel by public transport in the interests of productivity – reading or working while we travel, especially as network coverage for telephony and the internet improves. As the world’s population and economies grow, competition and the need to improve productivity will lead more and more of us to this take this choice.

It is increasingly easy to walk, cycle, or use public or shared transport to travel into and around cities thanks to the availability of bicycle hire schemes, car clubs and walking route information services such as walkit.com. The emergence of services that provide instant access to travel information across all forms of transport – such as the Moovel service in Germany or the Optimod service in Lyon, France – will enhance this usability, making it easier to combine different forms of transport into a single journey, and to react to delays and changes in plans whilst en route.

Legislation will also drive changes in behaviour, from national and international initiatives such as the European Union legislation limiting carbon emissions of cars to local planning and transport policies – such as Birmingham’s recent Mobility Action Plan which announced a consultation to consider closing the city’s famous system of road tunnels.

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

Are we ready for the triumph of the digital city?

Regardless of the amazing advances we’re making in online technology, life is physical. Across the world we are drawn to cities for opportunity; for life-support; to meet, work and live.  The ways in which we interact and transport ourselves and the goods we exchange have changed out of all recognition throughout history, and will continue to do so. The ever increasing level of urbanisation of the world’s population demonstrates that there’s no sign yet that those changes will make cities redundant: far from it, they are thriving.

It is not possible to understand the impact on our lives of new ideas in transport, technology or cities in isolation. Unless we consider them together and in the context of changing lifestyles, working patterns and economics, we won’t design and build cities of the future to be resilient, sustainable, and equitable.  The limitation of our success in doing that in the past is illustrated by the difference in life expectancy of 20 years between the richest and poorest areas of UK cities; the limitation of our success in doing so today is illustrated by the fact that a huge proportion of the world’s population does not have access to the digital technologies that are changing our world.

I recently read the masterplan for a European city district regarded as a good example of Smart City thinking. It contained many examples of the clever and careful design of physical space for living and for today’s forms of transport, but did not refer at all to the changes in patterns of work, life and movement being driven by digital technology. It was certainly a dramatic improvement over some plans of the past; but it was not everything that a plan for the future needs to be. 

Across domains such as digital technology, urban design, public policy, low carbon engineering, economic development and transport we have great ideas for addressing the challenges that urbanisation, population growth, resource constraints and climate change will bring; but a lot of work to do in bringing them together to create good designs for the liveable cities of the future.

A design pattern for a Smarter City: Local Currencies and Alternative Trading Systems

(Photo of the Brixton Pound by Charlie Waterhouse)

(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: Local Currencies and Alternative Trading Systems

Summary of the pattern:

There are many definitions of a “smart city”, but they all incorporate the concept of innovations, enabled by technology, that change the relationships between the creation of financial and social value and the consumption of resources.

Money is our universal system for quantifying the exchange of value; but most of the systems which measure value using money do not incorporate social or environmental factors – externalities as they are known by economists. Consequently a variety of alternative systems of trading and exchange have emerged amongst online communities and in local ecosystems that are exploring new ways to create sustainable regional economic and social improvement.

Some of these schemes use paper or electronic currencies that are issued and accepted within a particular place or region; and that have the effect of influencing people and businesses to spend the money that they earn locally, promoting regional economic synergies. Last year, Bristol became the 5th UK town or city to operate its own currency using this model, and “Droplet” operate a local smartphone payment scheme in Birmingham and London.

Other schemes are based on the bartering of goods, money, time and services, such as time banking. And some schemes combine both elements – 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.

As these schemes develop – and in particular as they adopt technologies such as smartphones and offer open APIs to allow developers to incorporate their capabilities in new services – they are increasingly being used as an infrastructure for Smarter City projects in domains such as transport, food supply and energy.

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

Such schemes exploit the potential for the combination of information technology and local currencies to calculate rates of exchange that compare the social, environmental and economic cost of goods and services to their immediate, contextual value to the participants in the transaction. The academic field of service science has evolved to study the ways in which such possibilities lead to business and service invocation.

This trend is particularly strong in some African nations where a lack of physical and transport infrastructure has led to a surge in business innovation supported by mobile payments schemes. For example, the Kilimo Salama scheme in Kenya provides affordable insurance to subsistence farmers by using remote weather monitoring to trigger payouts via mobile phones, rather than undertaking expensive site visits to assess claims.

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: Wealth, health, opportunity, choice, sustainability
  • People: Any
  • Ecosystem: All
  • Soft infrastructures: Leadership and governance, networks and community organisations
  • City systems: Transport systems, health, culture, economy, retail, leisure; and potentially others
  • Hard infrastructures: Information and communication technology

Commercial operating models, alternatives and variations:

Four main types of commercial model exist, each constituting a variation of this pattern:

  • Local currencies operated as social enterprises within specific towns or cities, pursing local economic objectives, often issuing paper currencies. Examples include the Bristol, Brixton, Lewes, Stroud, and Totnes pounds. These schemes link to national and universal currency by offering defined processes and rates of exchange. Often the financial backing is provided by a credit union or other mutual financial organisation.
  • Smartphone payment schemes operated by private enterprises, usually entrepreneurial technology companies. These companies may not have local economic objectives as a primary focus, but will usually deploy their services and build businesses with a network of merchants in a specific city in order to create the critical mass necessary to persuade consumers to adopt the service. These schemes link to traditional payment systems either through direct integration to banking services, or though the billing systems offered by mobile network operators.
  • Recycling and bartering networks such as Freecycle which operate very informally and are locally focused as they involve people physically meeting to exchange goods or services. Such networks are often governed at least as much by codes of behaviour as they are by being legally constituted as formal bodies.
  • Local loyalty schemes operated by city councils or by businesses on behalf of local communities, and that encourage local businesses to collectively reward customers for using their products and services. Examples include the “Backing Birmingham” b-card; the not-for-profit “tag” scheme that operates in Durham, Manchester and Stockport; and Local Loyalty Powys.

In addition, it is likely that formal banking institutions and payments intermediaries will enter this market in some form. Many financial institutions started as or are now social enterprises, or express community objectives in their charters; credit unions, for example, or Hancock Bank, whose charter as a community bank led them to take powerful actions to assist the citizens of New Orleans to recover from hurricane Katrina in 2005 .

These institutions are increasingly exploring the role they can take in supporting Smarter Cities, both directly  or through supporting innovation facilities like the Future Cities programme at the Level39 incubator in London’s financial district.

Soft infrastructures, hard infrastructures and assets required:

Local currencies and trading schemes are formed where an entrepreneurial organisation – whether a private business or a social enterprise – works together with a community organisation – either an institution such as a city council, or a community such as a local business network. Trust and collaboration between the entrepreneur, institution and community are vital to success. In particular, city institutions can support the scheme by allowing employees to chose to be paid through it in whole or in part – Lambeth Council offers employees the choice to be paid in part in Brixton pounds; and Bristol’s mayor takes his entire salary in Bristol Pounds.

A Payments or billing service, or mechanisms to print local currency and govern its exchange for national currency are also required in order to integrate the local scheme with the traditional economy. The governance of these arrangements is crucial to convincing individuals and businesses to trust this new independent form of currency.

Schemes achieve the highest level of adoption where they are supported by strong local economic and business communities, such as Business Improvement Districts or campaigns such as Coffee Birmingham.

(The QR code that enabled Will Grant of Droplet to buy me a coffee at Birmingham Science Park Aston using Droplet’s local smartphone payment solution; and the receipt that documents the transaction)

Driving forces:

The factors that lead to the emergence of local currencies and alternative trading systems include:

  • The desire from local government, within local communities and amongst local businesses and entrepreneurs to support local economic and social growth.
  • Disillusion with traditional financial systems following the 2008 crash, recent banking scandals, and the reluctance of some banks to lend to small business; along with an awareness that alternative models are increasingly viable for some purposes.
  • The increasing availability of low-cost payment systems to support transactions in online marketplaces that exchange local resources, such as local food initiatives, community energy schemes, shared transport systems and timebanks.

Benefits:

Benefits of local currencies and alternative trading systems include:

  • The potential to link the formal economy with informal transactions, some of which are crucial to creating value in communities with the fewest resources.
  • The ability to include local externalities in the rate of exchange associated with transactions.
  • Reinforcement of local economic synergies.
  • The creation of brand value for towns and cities with flourishing local currencies.

Alternatives and variations:

Alternatives and variations of this pattern are described under “Commercial operating models, alternatives and variations” above.

Implications and risks:

Local currencies are not universally admired. Some merchants complain that it is inconvenient to accept payment in a currency with restrictions on spending, or that requires conversion to national currency; and some commentators have questioned whether they achieve anything that couldn’t be achieved through simpler means. Newspaper and BBC journalists have explored these issues in reports describing the Lewes Pound.

Local currency schemes must also offer some mechanism to protect the value of currency held by users of the scheme. This might be achieved if the currency is operated by a mutual financial organisation such as a credit union; or by depositing matching funds in national currency in a traditional bank account. Where printed notes are issued, steps must be taken to prevent them being easily reproduced fraudulently.

Finally, in order to succeed, local currencies need to achieve a critical mass of users and of accepting merchants. Lambeth Council accept payments of business rates in Brixton pounds, and allow employees to take part of their salaries in the currency. Both actions support growth in use of the currency. The presence of strong community groups amongst local businesses can also boost such schemes.

(George Ferguson, Bristol’s Mayor, whose salary is paid in Bristol Pounds . His red trousers are famous . Photo by PaulNUK)

Examples and stories:

The story of Hancock Bank’s actions to assist the citizens of New Orleans to recover from hurricane Katrina in 2005 is told in this video, and shares many of the values that local currencies are based on.

Hancock Bank’s actions were the result of senior management basing their decisions on the company’s purpose, expressed in its charter, to support the communities of the city. This is in contrast to the behaviour of Bob Diamond, who resigned as CEO of Barclays Bank following the Libor rate-manipulation scandal, who under questioning by parliamentary committee could not remember what the Bank’s founding principles, written by community-minded Quakers, stated.

Rose Goslinga tells the story of forming the Kilimo Salama micro-insurance scheme here.

Sources of information:

In addition to the sources already linked to in this pattern, Brett Scott’s “Heretic’s guide to global finance” explores a number of ways to adapt the traditional financial system to achieve social and environmental objectives.

How to build a Smarter City: 23 design principles for digital urbanism

(Bradford’s City Park, winner of the Academy of Urbanism’s “Great Place” award for 2013. The park is a public space that has been reclaimed for city life from traffic, and which evolves from a daytime public square into an evening water-feature. The fountains and lighting can adapt to and follow individual or crowd movements. Photo by Chloe Blanchfield. )

At the same time that cities everywhere are seeking funds for Smarter City initiatives, and often relying on central government or research grants to do so, I know of literally billions of Pounds, Euros, and Dollars that are being spent on relatively conventional development and infrastructure projects that aren’t particularly “smart”.

Why is that?

One reason is that we have yet to turn our experience to date into prescriptive, re-usable guidance. Many examples of “Smarter City” projects have demonstrated that in principle technologies such as social media, information marketplaces and the “internet of things” can support city-level objectives such as wellbeing, social mobility, economic growth and infrastructure resilience. But these individual results do not yet constitute a normalised evidence base to indicate which approaches apply in which situations, and to predict in quantitative terms what the outcomes will be.

And whilst a handful of cities such as Portland and Dublin have implemented information platforms on which sophisticated research can be carried out to predict the effect that technology and other interventions will have on a specific city, elsewhere we are in the early stages of considering the strategic role that technology should play in the overall design, planning and governance of cities.

We have been in this position before. In her seminal 1961 work “The Death and Life of Great American Cities“, Jane Jacobs wrote of the extant planning regime that in her opinion was impeding, or even destroying, the growth of healthy, urban cities in favour of a misguided faith in the suburban “Garden City” vision and its derivatives:

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

(The White Horse Tavern in Greenwich Village, New York. The rich urban life of the area was described by one of the Taverns’ many famous patrons, the urbanist Jane Jacobs. Photo by Steve Minor).

Similarly, today’s planning and procurement practises do not explicitly 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.

I was recently asked by a city that I work closely with to contribute suggestions for how their next planning strategy could reflect the impact of the technology agenda. Drawing on experiences and conversations with cities, Universities, government bodies and professional organisations over the last year, including the “Digital Urbanism” workshop help at the Academy of Urbanism Congress 2013 in Bradford, UK on 16th May, I put together a set of intentionally provocative candidate “design principles” for them to consider.

I’ve reproduced those principles in this article. They will not be universally accepted, and it is not possible yet to provide a mature body of evidence to support them. Whilst some will seem obvious, some may be controversial – or simply naive. Many will change or be discarded in time; some will be found to be misguided or unworkable. Because the outcomes we are seeking are often qualitative – “vibrant communities”, for example – and because research into city systems and the work of standards bodies is still ongoing, many of them are aspirational and subjective. But by presenting active principles rather than passive observations, my hope is to stimulate a useful debate.

A final caveat: my profession is technology, not the architecture of buildings and structures, urban design or town-planning. I therefore lack the depth of background in urban thinking that will be shared by many of those who I hope to engage in this debate; and as a consequence, some of this material may duplicate well-established thinking; be unsophisticated in content or expression; or just plain wrong. I hope that you will forgive and accept the attempts of a passionate newcomer to contribute thinking from a new domain into one that is well established; and help me to improve on this first attempt.

Candidate Design Principles for Digital Urbanism

(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)

The importance of “place” in town planning and urban design has come to encapsulate experience from a variety of domains about what makes urban environments successful from the perspective of the people, businesses and communities who use them. It was summarised by Copenhagen’s City Architect, Tina Saaby, in her address to the Academy of Urbanism Congress 2013 as “Consider urban life before urban space; consider urban space before buildings”.

In identifying “urban life” as the starting point, I think Tina was reminding us to begin always by considering the needs and behaviour of individual people, and then their interactions with each other. This was the basis of Jane Jacobs’ understanding of cities and systems such as their economies and governments; and more recently it has been used by Professor Geoffrey West of the Sante Fe Institute to perform detailed, quantitative analyses of the performance of city systems.

It’s equally important to use urban life and “place” as our starting points when guiding the application of technology in city systems, and so by analogy, a candidate principle for the digital agenda in cities could be:

Principle 1: Consider urban life before urban place; consider urban place before technology.

Recent scientific work has shown that the rate of change is increasing in modern society – and specifically in cities as they grow. For example, Geoffrey West’s work shows 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; it is powering the growth of cities in emerging markets today; and it is driving the overall growth in global population. Professor Ian Robertson of Trinity College Dublin has even shown that as cities get bigger, people in them walk faster.

So in the many cities which are growing both organically and by continuing to attract immigration, two further candidate principles could be:

Principle 2: Demonstrate sustainability, scalability and resilience over an extended timeframe.

Principle 3: Demonstrate flexibility over an extended timeframe.

Physical Infrastructures and Construction

A difficulty in most existing buildings is to adapt them to support new technology infrastructures – to update wiring, or to add cabling for new network technologies, for example. Any specific prediction concerning our needs for such infrastructures in the future will likely be wrong; but it is certain that those needs will be different from today; and so:

Principle 4: New or renovated buildings should be built to contain sufficient space for current and anticipated future needs for technology infrastructure such as broadband cables; and of materials and structures that do not impede wireless networks. Spaces for the support of fixed cabling and other infrastructures should be easily accessible in order to facilitate future changes in use.

Furthermore, broader trends that are influenced by technology – such as mobile working, collaborative working spaces, pop-up shops and the demise of some traditional retail enterprises – are evidence that the rate of change in the uses to which we want to put buildings and urban spaces is increasing. This leads to another candidate principle:

Principle 5: New or renovated buildings should be constructed so as to be as functionally flexible as possible, especially in respect to their access, infrastructure and the configuration of interior space; in order to facilitate future changes in use.

Connectivity and Information Accessibility

Sources as respected as McKinsey and Imperial College have asserted that we are entering an age in which economic value will be created through the use of the digital information that is increasingly ubiquitous not just in our online activities but in the systems that operate physical services such as transport, utilities and buildings.

A fundamental requirement to participate in the information economy is to be connected to digital networks, leading to candidate design principle six:

Principle 6: Any development should ensure wired and wireless connectivity is available throughout it, to the highest standards of current bandwidth, and with the capacity to expand to any foreseeable growth in that standard.

(An analysis based on GPS data from mobile phones of end-to-end journeys undertaken by users of Abidjan’s bus services. By comparing existing bus routes to end-to-end journey requirements, the analysis identified four new bus routes and led to changes in many others. As a result, 22 routes now show increased ridership, and city-wide journey times have decreased by 10%.)

Organisations of all types and sizes are competing for the new markets and opportunities that digital information creates – that is simply the natural consequence of the emergence of a new resource in a competitive economy. Much of that information results from data created by the actions and activities of all of us as individuals; so we are the ultimate stakeholders in the information economy, and should seek to establish an equitable consensus for how our data is used.

However, in most cases converting the data that is created by our actions into useful information with a business value requires either a computing infrastructure to process the data or human expertise to assess it. Both of those have a cost associated with them that must be borne by some individual or organisation.

Those forces of the information economy may only ever be resolved in specific contexts rather than in universal principle. But any new development or supporting technology system that adds to the cost of allowing data associated with it to be openly exploited in principle adds a potential impediment to future economic and social productivity. So, even if the means to bear the costs associated with providing useful information are not agreed initially:

Principle 7: Any new development should demonstrate that all reasonable steps have been taken to ensure that information from its technology systems can be made openly available without additional expenditure. Whether or not information is actually available will be dependent on commercial and legal agreement, but it should not be additionally subject to unreasonable expenditure. And where there is no compelling commercial or legal reason to keep data closed, it should actually be made open.

A central tenet of the Smarter Cities movement is to create value by integrating systems. The integration of technology systems is made simpler and less expensive when those systems conform to standards for the format, meaning, encoding and interchange of data. However, standards for interoperability for Smarter City systems are in the early stages of development, including contributions from initiatives such as the British Standards Institute’s Smarter Cities Strategy, the City Protocol Society, and IBM’s SCRIBE Research project into city information models. Candidate principle eight therefore states that:

Principle 8: The information systems of any new development should conform to the best available current standards for interoperability between IT systems in general; and for interoperability in the built environment, physical infrastructures and Smarter Cities specifically.

There is much debate as to whether, beyond basic network connectivity, higher-level digital services should form part of a national or civic infrastructure to support businesses and communities in creating growth through digital technologies. The EU “Future Internet” project FI-WARE and Imperial College’s “Digital Cities Exchange” research programme are both investigating the specific digital services that could be provided as enabling infrastructure to support this growth; and the British Standards Institute is exploring related standards to encourage growth amongst SMEs.

A further candidate principle expresses the potential importance of this research to the economic competitiveness of cities in the information economy:

Principle 9: New developments should demonstrate that they have considered the commercial viability of providing the digital civic infrastructure services recommended by credible research sources.

Sustainable Consumerism

(Graphic of energy use in Amsterdam from "Smart City Amsterdam" by Daan Velthauzs)

(Graphic of energy use in Amsterdam from “Smart City Amsterdam” by Daan Velthauzs)

The price of energy is expected to rise in the long term until new energy sources are scalably commercialised; and the UK specifically is expected to experience power shortfalls by 2015. Many urban areas are already short of power, limited simply by the capacity of existing delivery subsystems.

Overall it is clear that it is economically and environmentally sensible to reduce our use of energy. One way to do so is to make better use of the information from city systems and buildings that describe energy usage. Property developers in Amsterdam used such information to lower the cost of energy infrastructure for new developments by collaborating to create an investment case for smart grid infrastructure.

Candidate principle ten is therefore:

Principle 10: Any data concerning a new development that could be used to reduce energy consumption within that development, or in related areas of a city, should be made open.

As consumer awareness of energy costs and sustainability has increased, developers of residential communities that have provided state-of-the-art technologies for sustainable living have reported strong demand, leading to a further candidate principle:

Principle 11: Property development proposals should indicate how they will attract business and residential tenants through providing up-to-date sustainable infrastructures for heat and power such as CHP, smart metering, local energy grids and solar energy.

Urban Communities

Developments carried out according to plans developed in collaboration with existing residents have provided some of the most interesting examples of successful placemaking. Social media, virtual reality and other digital technologies offer the opportunity to enable richer, more widespread consultations and explorations of planned developments by the communities that they will effect. Candidate principles twelve and thirteen express the possibility for these technologies to contribute to placemaking and successful urban developments:

Principle 12: Consultations on plans for new developments should fully exploit the capabilities of social media, virtual worlds and other technologies to ensure that communities affected by them are given the widest, most immersive opportunity possible to contribute to their design.

Principle 13: Management companies, local authorities and developers should have a genuinely engaging presence in social media so that they are approachable informally.

(Photograph by Meshed Media of Birmingham’s Social Media Cafe, where individuals from every part of the city who have connected online meet face-to-face to discuss their shared interest in social media.)

City communities are not passive observers to the Smarter City phenomenon. They may be crowd-sourcing mapping information for OpenStreetMap; running or participating in hacking events such as the Government Open Hackday in Birmingham last year; or they may be creating new social enterprises or regional technology startups, such as the many city currencies and trading schemes that are appearing.

But access to and familiarity with social media is far from ubiquitous; the potential for new communities to adopt and benefit from such technology is enormous, and need not be expensive. Informal programmes to spread awareness and provide education, such as the social media surgeries started by Podnosh in Birmingham, can have a powerful effect helping communities to exploit social technology to uncover hidden synergies and connections.

Principle 14: Local authorities should support awareness and enablement programmes for social media and related technologies, particularly “grass roots” initiatives within local communities.

Local food initiatives – in which local food processing is more important than local food growing in cities with limited open space but plentiful manufacturing space – have the potential to strengthen community ties; provide employment opportunities; promote healthier diets; and reduce the carbon impact of food supply systems. They can be supported by measures such as the provision of generous gardens, allotments or public space in the physical environment; and by the use of technology to enable online food markets or related distribution systems.

Such initiatives are generally operated by private sector organisations – often small-scale entrepreneurial or social enterprises; but their formation may be facilitated by local authorities or developers during the course of development or regeneration programmes. Candidate principle fifteen is therefore:

Principle 15: Urban development and regeneration programmes should support the formation, activity and success of local food initiatives by cooperating with local community and business support programmes to support the infrastructures they need to succeed and grow.

Demographic and economic trends indicate that we are living longer and needing to support ourselves later in life. A variety of technologies can provide or contribute to that support:

Principle 16: Residential accommodation should incorporate space for environmental monitoring, interactive portals, and connectivity to enable remote support, telehealth systems and homeworking.

Economic Development and Vitality

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

In his address to the Academy of Urbanism Congress, economist Michael Ward, Chair of the Centre for Local Economic Strategies, asserted that:

“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?

Many have the mix of technology, creative and industrial capabilities to be successful in future economies in principle; but in practise those capabilities are in separate geographical locations, between which it is difficult for serendipitous interactions to create new innovations – I discussed these issues in the context of Birmingham, my home city, in an article a few weeks ago.

Spatial modelling techniques can predict the impact of planned developments on these characteristics of the cities surrounding them – i.e. whether they will improve or worsen connectivity between value-creating districts in different economic sectors. Candidate principles seventeen and eighteen express how these techniques could be used:

Principle 17: New developments should demonstrate through the use of the latest urban modelling techniques that they will increase connectivity – particularly by walking and cycling – between important value-creating districts and economic priority zones that are adjacent or near to them.

Principle 18: Developments should offer the opportunity of serendipitous interaction and innovation between stakeholders from different occupations.

The nature of work, business and employment in many industries is changing, driven by technology. Whilst these changes may not take place at the same speed in all businesses, in all industries, in all places; it will become increasingly important over time that cities and districts provide the facilities that future enterprises will require:

Principle 19: Developments should provide, or should be adaptable to provide, facilities to enable the location and success of future ways of working including remote and mobile working, “fab labs” (3d printing facilities), “pop-up”  establishments and collaborative working spaces.

Governance

Most urban spaces and developments do not succeed immediately; time is required for them to attract and adapt to the uses that they will eventually successfully support. That condition of success will be more rapidly achieved or new developments, and will be sustained for longer, if it is possible to easily adapt them. Such adaptability is particularly important given the speed of change and innovation that digital technology can enable, leading to candidate principle twenty:

Principle 20: Planning, usage and other policies governing the use of urban space and structures should facilitate innovation and changes of use, including temporary changes of use.

Privacy and Public Safety

Privacy and security are perhaps the greatest current challenges of the digital age; but that is simply a reflection of their importance in all aspects of our lives. Jane Jacobs’ description of urban systems in terms of human and community behaviour was based on those concepts, and is still regarded as the basis of our understanding of cities.

But new technologies 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. So candidate principle twenty-one is:

Principle 21: Any information system in a city development should provide a clear policy for the use of personal information. Any use of that information should be with the consent of the individual.

Transport

(Packages from Amazon delivered to Google’s San Francisco office. Photo by moppet65535)

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. Candidate principle twenty-two expresses the need for transport plans to take account of this potential:

Principle 22: Transport plans supporting new developments should demonstrate that they have not only provided for traditional transport demand, but also that which might be created by online business models and other social technologies.

Extensions

This article is an early attempt to express candidate design principles for Smarter Cities; and I have not attempted to systematically address all of the potential domains of city systems where technology may have a role to play. Such an exercise would undoubtably yield further candidate principles. In addition, many other efforts are underway to encode emerging knowledge about the successful use of technology in city systems through organisations such as the City Protocol Society and the British Standards Institute or research programmes such as Imperial College’s Digital Cities Exchange. And so a final candidate principle encourages continuous awareness of the progress of such initiatives:

Principle 23: New developments should demonstrate that their design takes account of the latest best and emerging practises and patterns from Smarter Cities, smart urbanism, digital urbanism and placemaking.

Conclusion

When I first began to extract candidate design principles from my workshop and meeting notes, I doubted whether I would identify more than a handful; I was certainly not expecting to identify more than twenty. I think that it is encouraging to observe that there is so much that can be stated positively about the potential of technology to create value in cities.

My sense, though, is that an overarching set of five to ten principles would be much more useful in defining an approach to Smarter Cities that could be broadly adopted. In order to identify what those principles should be, I will need to more clearly define their audience and purpose. Such an exercise will probably form the basis of a subsequent article for this blog.

But in the meantime, I hope that I have offered food for thought; and I look forward to hearing your views.

My thanks to those who have commented on the principles I shared on twitter ahead of posting this: Leo HollisTony SmithWe Make GoodIan OwenOsvaldoFred Bartels and Frederico Muñoz.

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:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inspirational Simpli-City

(Recycling bins in Curitiba, Brazil photographed by Ana Elisa Ribeiro)

In the past few years, terms such as “Smart Cities” and “Future Cities” have emerged to capture the widespread sense that the current decade is one in which trends in technology, the economy, demographics and the environment are coinciding in an exciting and meaningful way.

Common patterns have emerged in the technology platforms that enable us to address these economic, social and environmental challenges. For example, the “Digital Cities Exchange” research programme at Imperial College, London; the “FI-WARE” project researching the core platform for the “future internet”; the “European Platform for Intelligent Cities (EPIC)“; and IBM’s own “Intelligent Operations Centre” all share a similar architecture.

I think of these platforms as 21st Century “civic infrastructures”. They will provide services that can be composed into new city systems and local marketplaces. Those services will include the management of personal data and identity; authentication; local currencies; micro-payments; and the ability to access data about city systems, amongst others.

But whilst some trends in technology are technically cohesive and can be defined by a particular architecture – as was the case for client/server computing, distributed computing, the initial emergence of the mobile internet, or Service-Oriented Architecture (SOA) – other trends are more nebulous.

Five years ago, my role for IBM was to develop and evangelise the opportunities that social computing  and “Web 2.0” represented for our customers. Whilst various patterns emerged to express the ways in which technology at that time could provide new value to businesses, communities and individuals, no single technology or platform accompanied the trend. Rather, “Web 2.0” was the label for a period in time in which the internet and related technologies once again became a valuable source of innovation following the “dot.com crash”. Tim O’Reilly, widely credited with coining the term “Web 2.0”, acknowledged this interpretation in his “How to succeed in 2007” interview with CNN.

Cities are such complex systems of systems, and face such a multitude of challenges in a rich variety of contexts, that no single technology solution could possibly address them all. In fact an incredibly rich variety of technologies has already been used to create “Smart” systems in cities. But whilst I’m preparing an article that I hope to publish on this blog next week that lays out a framework for considering those technologies systematically, there’s a more fundamental observation that’s worth making:

Some of the technologies at the heart of urban innovations are incredibly simple.

15 years ago, I lived through the transformation of a city neighbourhood that illustrates this point. It involved community activism and crowdsourced information, enabled by an accessible technology – analogue photography.

As a University student in Birmingham, I lived in rented accommodation in the city’s Balsall Heath area. Balsall Heath has one of Birmingham’s largest Muslim communities, in addition to its substantial student population.

And, for the best part of half a century from the 1950s to the 1990s, it was Birmingham’s “red light” district, the centre of prostitution in the city.

At the time, Balsall Heath’s prostitution trade was so open that Cheddar Road – just across the street from the house that I lived in – was the only road in the UK with houses with “red light” front rooms.

Balsall Heath was clearly a district with substantial differences in culture – which were accommodated very peacefully, I should say. But in 1994, members of the Muslim community decided to change their neighbourhood. They put out old sofas and chairs on street corners, and sat on them each night, photographing anyone walking or driving around the area seeking prostitutes. Those simple steps tapped into the social motivations of those people and had a powerfully discouraging effect on them. Over the course of a year, prostitution was driven out of Balsall Heath for the first time in 50 years. It has never returned, and the district and its communities were strengthened as a result. The UK Prime Minister David Cameron has referred to the achievements of Balsall Heath’s community as an inspiration for his “Big Society” initiative.

I have just given a very simplified description of a complex set of events and issues; and in particular, I did not include the perspective of the working women who were perhaps the most vulnerable people involved. But this example of a simple technology (analogue photography) applied by a community to improve their district, with an understanding of the personal and social motivations that affect individual behaviour and choice, is an example that I have been regularly reminded of throughout my work in social media and Smarter Cities.

(Photo from Digital Balsall Heath of residents warning kerb-crawlers on Cheddar Road in the 1990s that they would be watched and recorded)

The city systems facing economic, demographic and environmental challenges today are immensely complex. They provide life-support for city populations – feeding, transporting, and educating them; providing healthcare; and supporting individuals, communities and businesses. As we continue to optimise their operation to support larger, more dense urban populations, maintaining their resilience is a significant challenge.

At the same time, though, the simplicity of Balsall Heath’s community action in the 1990s is inspirational; and there are many other examples.

Jaime Lerner started one of the earliest and most effective city recycling programmes in the world by harnessing the enthusiasm of children to influence the behaviour of their parents. In Mexico City a new “bartering market” allows residents to exchange recyclable waste material for food. In Kenya, SMS messages are used to optimise the distribution of malaria medication between local pharmacists; and in Australia, OzHarvest redistribute excess food from restaurants and hotels to charities supporting the vulnerable.

These innovations will not always be simply transferable from one city to another; but they could form the basis of a catalogue or toolkit of re-usable ideas, as was suggested by the Collective Research Initiatives Trust (CRIT) in their research on urban innovation in Mumbai, “Being Nicely Messy“, echoing Colin Rowe and Fred Koetter’s “Collage City“.

As I wrote recently in the article “Zen and the art of messy urbanism“, many of the Smart systems of tomorrow will be surprising innovations that cut across and disrupt the industry sectors and classifications of city systems that we understand today; and in order to provide food, energy, water, transport and other services to city populations, they will need to be robustly engineered. But drawing inspiration from good, simple ideas with their roots in human behaviour rather than new technology is surely a good starting point from which to begin our journey towards discovering them.

Should technology improve cities, or should cities improve technology?

(Photo of the Queens Arms in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter by Ian Edwards)

I was honoured this week to be invited to join the Academy of Urbanism, a society of professionals, academics and policy makers from a variety of backgrounds whose work is concerned in some way with cities. As a technology professional who has increasingly worked in an urban context over the past few years, I try to be as conscious of what I don’t know about cities as what I do; and I’m hoping that the Academy will offer me the opportunity to learn from its many expert members.

In fact, in a discussion today with an expert from the property development sector, I found myself reversing my usual direction of thinking concerning the relationship between technology and cities: when asked “how can technology contribute to improving property development” I replied that I was more interested in the question “how can property development improve technology?”.

I spend a lot of my time working both with City Councils and with the ecosystems of entrepreneurs and small businesses in cities; especially those businesses that create or use technology. Such businesses are – rightly, in my view – seen as the heart of a sustainable economy by many cities. They create innovate products and services in high value markets; they often operate in local networks of supply and demand that create self-reinforcing growth in the city economy; and they export products and services nationally and internationally.

Almost by definition these businesses create value in a way that is agile and closely linked to local market and cultural context; they are the antithesis of the sort of large-scale, process-driven, technology work that it is easy and cost-effective to describe in writing in order that its delivery can be commissioned from the lowest cost supplier internationally. These are amongst the reasons that the excellent Microsoft-sponsored “Developing the Future” report in 2007 cited this sector as key to growth in the UK economy.

It’s obvious that making office space and technology infrastructure such as broadband connectivity available to businesses of this sort is important; what’s less obvious is what else is required in order to create a successful, sustainable, growing cluster of such businesses with the capability to have a significant overall impact on a city economy.

Two aspects of that challenge that have been interesting me recently are: how do cities attract the young, skilled people who might start or work for such businesses? And: how can cities make themselves attractive places for those people to grow older, mature their business and professional skills, and start families?

Whilst I often write on this blog about my own work in the UK, I spoke at length with a colleague this week who is helping a fast-growing African city to contemplate these precise issues. In a single, global economy, they matter to cities everywhere.

By coincidence, the Urban Repairs Club visited the Jewellery Quarter in my home city of Birmingham this week. Their report of what they found is insightful and very relevant to this subject. I moved to Birmingham in 1990, just in time to annoy shoppers in the city’s old Bullring shopping centre by busking as a university student, before it was replaced by the new Bullring which revitalised the city’s retail centre. The Urban Repairs Club article well reflects both the changes for the better since that period; and the challenges that remain.

(Photo of machines from the industrial revolution in Birmingham’s Science Museum by Chris Moore)

Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter was at the heart of the Industrial Revolution; it is where the powered mass-manufacture of designed items (such as badges, coins, and belt buckles) was first invented, in between the creation of one-off objects of art and the mass production of undecorated functional items.

It retains that industrial heritage today in a way that is entirely uncontrived and that has not been “restored” or recreated as a homage to history. It contains green spaces; some of Birmingham’s most interesting restaurants and evening venues; and affordable housing. In many ways it reminds me of the comments made by London-based technology entrepreneurs in the recent Demos “Tale of Tech City” report describing what attracts them to Shoreditch – and what will not necessarily attract them to use the facilities of the Olympic legacy sites.

At the risk of entering into a controversial debate in my home city, one of its challenges is that the attractions of the Jewellery Quarter are less than ideally connected to some key economic areas in Birmingham, such as the technology incubation campus at Birmingham Science Park Aston; or the hearts of the digital media and creative sectors around Fazeley Studios and the Custard Factory. The Urban Repairs Club report discusses some of the features of Birmingham’s urban landscape that cause this separation: it is possible to walk between all of these areas, for example; but it is not pleasant to do so, and it is not a walk I would undertake on a dark autumn or winter evening with my family. That reluctance might arise more from my perception of the area’s character than its reality; but it’s on the basis of perception that such decisions are taken.

A colleague in Birmingham commented that the deficiencies of urban environments such as those highlighted by the Urban Repairs Club are often impacts of decisions in property development and transport that are driven by financial and economic outcomes and that don’t adequately recognise the importance of social mobility, social cohesion and sustainability.

Those comments reminded me of a passage in Jared Diamond’s 2005 book, “Collapse“. In it, Diamond is concerned with the ways in which societies respond to environmental challenges that threaten their survival. As historic examples, he studies Easter Island and Norse Greenland, and in the present day he discusses the situations of Australia and the US State of Montana.

(Photo by Stefan of Himeji, Japan, showing the forest that covers much of Japan’s landmass enclosing – and enclosed by – the city)

In particular, his comments on Japan’s successful slowing of population growth and reversal of deforestation between the 17th and 19th Centuries struck me:

“… a suite of factors … caused both the elite and the masses in Japan to recognise their long-term stake in preserving their own forests, to a degree greater than for most other people.”

He goes on to say that those factors included the fact that the ruling Tokugawa shoguns:

“… having imposed peace and eliminated rival armies at home, correctly anticipated that they were at little risk of a revolt at home or an invasion from overseas. They expected their own Tokugawa family to remain in control of Japan, which in fact it did for 250 years.”

Unless I’m misreading the current political situation, 250 years of hereditary governance is not something that’s likely to happen in the UK; but there’s a hint of the modern-day expression of that stability of vested interest in the Urban Repair Club’s report. In it, they highlight that the property section of Birmingham’s newspaper, the Birmingham Post has the subtitle: “EdgbastonHarborneHerefordshireStaffordshireSolihullWarwickshireShropshireStourbridgeWorcestershire”; and that if these are the areas that Birmingham’s citizens are thought to aspire to live in, then it’s notable that only two of them (Edgbaston and Harborne) are in Birmingham; the others are mostly nearby market towns and the counties that surround them.

This is a typical consequence of the trend in the UK for those who are approaching middle-age, and becoming more experienced businesspeople and professionals, to leave cities as they also become parents; in the search for more space, better schools and a more peaceful lifestyle. Edward Glaesar referred to the same drive in “The Triumph of the City” and reflected that he himself had moved from a city centre to a suburb for precisely these reasons.

If we could counter that trend, we might help cities to address two challenges: the loss from the city-centre economy of some of their most important business talent (as highlighted in the Centre for Cities reports “Outlook for Cities 2012” and “Hidden potential: Supporting growth in Sunderland & other mid-sized cities“); and the development of longer-term relationships between people and place; particularly those people whose careers advance to the point that they are in the position to take the investment and property development decisions that shape our cities.

(Photo byC. Wess Daniels of Bournville, the urban village created by the long-standing relationship between the Cadbury family and the area of Birmingham in which their chocolate factory is located)

The Urban Repairs Club article suggests that some of the Corporations responsible for modern developments in Birmingham act in their own short-term financial interest, and not in the city’s interest. In contrast to this are the attitudes expressed recently by Sir Roger Carr, president of the Confederation of British Industry and chair of Centrica, the UK’s largest energy company; and Gianpiero Petriglieri, Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD. Recognising the reality that we live in a globalised world with a single capitalist economy, both Sir Roger and Professor Petriglieri are meditating on the opportunity for business to be a force for good; and on the importance of globally mobile leaders retaining a prolonged, local sense of place. I suspect that the truth is complex and consists of elements of all of these perspectives.

To return to Jared Diamond, in an analysis of the factors common to successful responses to environmental challenges, he comments:

“Leaders who don’t just react passively, who have the courage to anticipate crises or to act early, and who make strong insightful decisions of top-down management really can make a huge difference to their societies. So can similarly courageous, active citizens practicing bottom-up management.”

Achieving that balance will help cities such as Birmingham, and others across the world, to be successful in achieving many of their goals, including the creation of high-value, sustainable local economies – whether in the technology sector or elsewhere.

The relationships between sustainability and economy are many-faceted. Diamond comments that his analysis included examples in which:

“one society succeeded while one or more societies practising different economies in the same environment failed”

And that therefore:

“not only the environment, but also the proper choice of an economy to fit the environment, is important.”

Correspondingly, the right urban environment is needed to support the economy. Not just one in which the technology and transport infrastructure is available to support distribution, services and operations; but one that attracts people to live and work; and that provides both physical and social mobility for everyone. Those are challenges that in some ways technology can assist – through the provision of more complete, holistic information, for example – but they will not be solved by technology. They’ll be solved – I hope – by the combination of talent and disciplines represented in organisations such as the Academy of Urbanism; or that in some cases come together naturally in city communities to create enlightened “bottom-up” activism.

I’m hoping to learn much more about all of these possibilities as I get to know my fellow Academicians.

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