6 inconvenient truths about Smart Cities

(When cities forget about people: La Defense, Paris, photographed by Phil Beard)

(I recently took the difficult decision to resign from IBM after nearly 20 years to become IT Director for Smart Data and Technology for Amey, one of the largest infrastructure and services companies in the UK, and a subsidiary of the Ferrovial Group. It’s a really exciting opportunity for me to build a team to create new Smart City services and infrastructures. If you’d like to work in the Smart Cities field, please have a look at the roles I’m hiring for. I’ll be continuing to write the Urban Technologist, and this seemed a good point to share my view of the current state of the Smart Cities movement.)

The last year has shown a huge acceleration of interest and action in the Smart Cities market – in the UK, and around the world. What has long been a topic of interest to technology companies, academics, urban designers and local authorities was covered extensively by mainstream media organisation such as the BBC, the Independent newspaper, New Statesman magazine and marketing magazine The Drum.

But what progress has been made implementing Smart Cities ideas?

In the UK, many local authorities have implemented Open Data portals, usually using Open Source platforms such as CKAN and investing a few £10,000s of resources. These are important first steps for building the ecosystems to share and build new service models using data. Some cities, notably Glasgow and Milton Keynes, have been successful deploying more sophisticated schemes supported by research and innovation grants – though as I pointed out last year, exciting as these initiatives are, research and innovation funds will not scale to support every city in the country.

Further afield, local authorities in Europe, the United States and Asia have constructed more substantial, multi-million Euro / Dollar business cases to invest their own funds in platforms that combine static open data with realtime data from sensors and infrastructure, and which use social media and smartphones to improve engagement between citizens, communities, businesses and both public- and private-sector service providers. The Center for Data Innovation recently wrote a nice summary of two reports explaining the financing vehicles that these cities are using.

This has not happened in the UK yet to the same extent. The highly centralised nature of public sector spending means that cities here have not yet been able to construct such ambitious business cases – Centre for Cities’ report “Outlook for Cities 2014” highlighted this as a general barrier to the UK’s cities carrying out initiatives to improve themselves, and reported that UK cities have autonomy over only about 17% of their funding as compared to an average of 55% across countries represented by the OECD.

As more city deals are signed and the city devolution agenda progresses, this will start to change – but I think that will still take a long time to happen.

(The London Underground is just one example of a transport operator using technology to help it operate more efficiently, safely and effectively)

Where similar technology platforms and channels of engagement are nevertheless starting to appear in the UK is through business cases based on efficiencies and increased customer satisfaction for private sector organisations that offer services such as transportation and asset management to cities, citizens and local authorities.

This approach means there’s even more of a need for collaboration between stakeholders in local ecosystems in order to establish and express common objectives – such as resilience, economic growth and social mobility – which can then guide the outcomes of those smart services through policy tools such as procurement practises and planning frameworks. Recent recommendations from the British Standards Institute on the adaptation of city planning policy to enable the Smart City agenda have highlighted the need for such collaboration.

As a consequence of this increased activity, more and more people and organisations of every type are becoming interested in Smart Cities – from oil companies to car manufacturers to politicians. This broadening of interest led to some extraordinary personal experiences for me last year, which included discussing Smart Cities with ex-US Vice President Al Gore (whose investment company Generation IM explores opportunities to invest in assets, technologies and developments that promote sustainability) and very briefly with the UK’s Princess Anne, a supporter of a leadership training scheme that will focus on Smart Cities this year.

But to be honest, I still don’t think we have really understood what a “Smart City” is; why it’s one of the most important concepts of our time; or how we can turn the concept into reality broadly and at scale.

I’ll explore six “inconvenient truths” in this article to describe why I think that’s the case; and what we can do about it:

  1. The “Smart City” isn’t a technology concept; it’s the political challenge of adapting one of the most powerful economic and social forces of our time to the needs of the places where most of us live and work.
  2. Cities won’t get smart if their leaders aren’t involved.
  3. We can’t leave Smart Cities to the market, we need the courage to shape the market.
  4. Smart cities aren’t top down or bottom up. They’re both.
  5. We need to tell honest stories.
  6. No-one will do this for us – we have to act for ourselves.

1. The “Smart City” isn’t a technology concept; it’s the political challenge of adapting one of the most powerful economic and social forces of our time to the needs of the places where most of us live and work

(Photograph of Macau in the evening by Michael Jenkin illustrating some the great complexity of cities: economic growth, social inequality and pollution)

One topic that’s endlessly revisited as more and more people encounter and consider the idea of a Smart City is just how we define that idea. The best definition I thought I had developed is this, updated slightly from the article “7 Steps to a Smarter City“:

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

But such definitions are contentious. Most obviously there’s the basic issue of whether “smart” implies a central role for digital technology – every technology company takes this approach, of course – or whether it’s simply about being more creative in the way that we manipulate the resources around us to achieve the outcomes we desire, whether that involves digital technology or not.

More broadly, a “city” is such a terrifically broad, complex and multi-disciplinary entity – and one whose behaviour is the aggregate of the millions of individual behaviours of its inhabitants, both enabled and constrained by the environment they experience – that it’s pretty much impossible to create any concise definition without missing out something important.

And of course those who live or work in towns and rural areas raise the challenge that limiting the discussion to “cities” omits important stakeholders from discussions about our future – as do those concerned with the national infrastructures that are not located wholly in cities, but without which neither cities nor any other habitations could survive as they do today.

I don’t think we’ll ever achieve a formal, functional definition of a “Smart City” that everyone will agree to. Much as the popularity of the term “Web 2.0” between (roughly) 2003 and 2010 marked the period in time when interest in the internet re-emerged following the “dot com crash“, rather than defining a specific architecture or group of technologies, I think our interest in “Smart Cities” is best understood as the consequence of a period in history in which a large number of people became aware of – and convinced by – a set of inter-related trends:

In this context, it’s less useful to attempt to precisely define the concept of a smart city, and more important to encourage and enable each of us – every community, city, government and organisation – to develop our own understanding of the changes needed to overcome the challenges and take the opportunities before us, and of the rapidly evolving role of technology in doing so.

Why is it so important that we do that?

In their report “Cities Outlook 1901“, Centre for Cities explored the previous century of urban development in the UK, examining why at various times some cities thrived and some did not. They concluded that the single most important influence on the success of cities was their ability to provide their citizens with the right skills and opportunities to find employment, as the skills required in the economy changed as technology evolved.

The challenges faced by cities and their residents in this century will be unlike any we have faced before; and technology is changing more quickly, and becoming more powerful, than it ever has before. Creating “Smart Cities” involves taking the right political, economic, social and engineering approaches to meeting those challenges.

Cities that do so will be successful. Cities that don’t, won’t be. That is the digital divide of the 21st Century, and for everyone’s sake, I hope we are all on the right side of it.

2. Cities won’t get smart if their leaders aren’t involved

(The Sunderland Software Centre, a multi-£million new technology startup incubation facility in Sunderland’s city centre. The Centre is supported by a unique programme of events and mentoring delivered by IBM’s Academy of Technology, and arising from Sunderland’s Smart City strategy)

Let me tell a short tale of two cities and their Smart transformations.

For a long time I’ve written occasional articles on this blog about Sunderland, a city whose leaders, people and social entrepreneurs have inspired me. Sunderland is one of the very few cities in the UK who have spent significant sums of their own money on Smart City projects and supporting technologies, justified by well-constructed business cases. They have publicised investments of well over £10 million, most recently including their visionary “City Intelligence Hub” initiative.

The seeds of the Intelligence Hub idea were apparent when I first worked with the Council, as can be seen from an article written at the time by the Council’s Chief Executive, Dave Smith, for the Guardian’s Local Government Network Blog, explaining why data and Open Data are crucial to the future of effective, transparent public services.

It is no coincidence at all that one of the cities that has been boldest in investing in technology to support its economic, social and environmental objectives has a Chief Executive who shows belief, leadership and engagement in the ideas of Smart Cities.

Milton Keynes have approached their Smart City agenda in a different way. Rather than making significant investments themselves to procure solutions, they have succeeded in attracting enormous investments from technology companies, universities and innovation bodies to develop and test new solutions in the city.

It is similarly no coincidence that – like Bristol, London and Glasgow, to name just three more – Milton Keynes Council have senior leadership figures – initially the then Chief Executive, Dave Hill, followed by Director of Strategy, Geoff Snelson – who regularly attend Smart Cities conferences and government bodies, and who actively convene Smart Cities collaborations. Their very visible presence demonstrates their belief in the importance of Smart City approaches to those organisations seeking to invest in developing them.

A strategy to transform the operations of a local authority (or any other organisation) using technology, and to re-invest the savings achieved by doing so into new services and initiatives that create economic growth, social mobility and resilience is not going to succeed without direct Executive leadership. Similarly, technology vendors, service providers and research funding bodies are most attracted to invest in developing new ideas and capabilities in cities whose most senior leaders are directly seeking them – they all need the outcomes of their investment to achieve real change, and it’s only through the leaders that such change will happen.

For the most part, where this level of leadership is not engaged I have not seen cities create business cases and issue procurements for Smart City solutions, and I have not seen them be successful winning research and innovation investments.

Finally, let’s be really clear about what most of those city leaders need to do: they need to follow Sunderland’s lead, not Milton Keynes’s.

The research and innovation funding from the EU and the UK that Milton Keynes has attracted will only fund  projects that explore for the first time the capabilities of new, technology-enabled approaches to urban challenges. Those funding sources will not support the widespread deployment of successful approaches in cities around the UK and around the world.

The vast majority of cities will only benefit from Smart Cities initiatives by financing them through robust business cases based on a combination of financial efficiency and social, environmental or economic value – as Sunderland and some cities outside the UK are already doing.

Cities won’t get smart if their leaders aren’t involved in actively driving their institutions to adopt new business cases and operating models. Those that don’t risk leaving the fate of their cities not to chance; but to “the market”.

3. We can’t leave Smart Cities to the market, we need the courage to shape the market

(Photograph by Martin Deutsche of plans to redevelop Queen Elizabeth Park, site of the 2012 London Olympics. The London Legacy Development’s intention, in support of the Smart London Plan, is “for the Park to become one of the world’s leading digital environments, providing a unique opportunity to showcase how digital technology enhances urban living. The aim is to use the Park as a testing ground for the use of new digital technology in transport systems and energy services.”)

As I wrote in my last article on this blog, as the price of digital technologies such as smartphones, sensors, analytics, open source software and cloud platforms reduces rapidly, market dynamics will drive their aggressive adoption to make construction, infrastructure and city services more efficient, and hence make their providers more competitive.

But those market dynamics do not guarantee that we will get everything we want for the future of our cities: efficiency and resilience are not the same as health, happiness and opportunity for every citizen.

If we are to achieve those objectives, then we need the right policy environment – at national and local level – to augment the business case for efficient, resilient “smart city” infrastructures to ensure that they are deployed in a way that makes them open to access and adaptation by ordinary people, businesses and communities; and so that they create the conditions and environment in which vibrant, fair digital cities grow from the successful innovations of their citizens, communities and businesses in the information economy.

In far too many discussions of Smart Cities I hear the argument that we can’t invest in these ideas because we lack the “normalised evidence base” that proves their benefits. I think that’s the wrong view. There are more than enough qualitative examples and stories that demonstrate that these ideas have real value and can make lives better. If we insist on moving no further until there’s a deeper, broader corpus of quantified evidence, then there’ll be no projects to deliver the evidence – a chicken and egg problem.

Writing in “The Plundered Planet”, the economist Paul Collier asserts that any proposed infrastructure of reasonable novelty and significant scale is effectively so unique – especially when considered in its geographic, political, social and economic context – that an accurate cost/benefit case simply cannot be constructed in advance based on comparable prior examples, because those examples don’t – and never will – exist.

Instead we need policy legislation to recognise the importance of digital infrastructure for cities so that it becomes a “given” in any public service or infrastructure business case, not something that has to be individually justified.

This is not a new idea. For example, the Economist magazine wrote recently about the efforts involved in distributing the benefits of the industrial revolution to society at large rather than solely to business owners and the professional classes.

More specifically to cities, in her seminal 1961 work “The Death and Life of Great American Cities“, Jane Jacobs wrote that:

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

The “anti-city images” Jacobs was referring to were the vast urban highways built over the last half century to enable the levels of road traffic thought to be vital to economic growth. Since Jacobs’ time, a growing chorus of urbanists from Bogota’s ex-Mayor Enrique Penalosa to town planner Jeff Speck, architect Jan Gehl and London’s current Mayor Boris Johnson has criticised those infrastructures for the great harm they cause to human life – they create noise, pollution, a physical barrier to walking through our cities, and too often they injure or kill us.

Just as Jacobs reminded us to focus on the nature of individual human life in order to understand how cities should be built, Dan Hill of the Future Cities Catapult wrote as long ago as 2008 on the need to understand similar subtleties in the application of digital technology to cities.

Fifty years after she wrote, we should follow Dan’s example and take Jane Jacobs’ advice.

4. Smart cities aren’t top down or bottom up. They’re both.

(The SMS for Life project uses the cheap and widely used SMS infrastructure – very much the product of “top-down” investment – to create a dynamic, collaborative supply chain for medicines between pharmacies in Africa – a “bottom-up” innovation. Photo by Novartis AG)

In case it wasn’t really clear last time I wrote about it (or the time before that), I am utterly fed up with the unconstructive argument about whether cities are best served by “top down” or “bottom up” thinking.

It’s perfectly obvious that we need both: the “bottom up” creativity through which everyone seeks to create a better life for themselves, their family, their business and their community from the resources available to them; and the top-down policies and planning that – when they work best – seek to distribute resources fairly so that everyone has the opportunity to innovate successfully.

It’s only by creating harmony between these two approaches that we will shape the market to create the cities we want and need.

Over the last few years I’ve been inspired by extraordinary thinkers from many disciplines who have tackled the need for this balance. Some of them are creating new ideas now; others created amazing ideas years or decades ago that are nevertheless imperative today. All of them are worth reading and learning from:

  • The economist E F Schumacher, who identified that investment in the distribution and accessibility of “appropriate technologies” was the best way to stimulate and support development in a way that gave rise to the broadest possible opportunities for people to be successful.
  • Andrew Zolli, head of the philanthropic PopTech foundation, who describes the inspiring innovators who synthesise top-down and bottom-up approaches to achieve phenomenal societal changes as “translational leaders” – people with the ability to engage with both small-scale, informal innovation in communities and large-scale, formal institutions with resources.
  • Jan Gehl who inspired the “human scale cities” movement by relating the scale of city structures –  from pavements to housing blocks to skyscrapers – to the human senses, and the nature of our lives and movement.
  • And, of course, Jane Jacobs, whose book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” was the first written in the context of modern society and cities to point out that cities, however vast their physical size and population, can only ever be understood by considering the banal minutiae of the daily lives of ordinary people like you and I – why we walk along this street or that; how well we know our neighbours; how far it is to walk to the nearest school, shop or park; and whether we and our families feel happy and safe.

5. We need to tell honest stories

(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.)

Any “smart city” initiative that successfully uses digital technology to create a financially sustainable social, economic or environmental improvement, in a particular physical place and on behalf of a particular community, must draw together skills from a wide variety of disciplines such as architecture, economics, social science, psychology and technology. Experts from these disciplines use a vast and confusing array of language and terminology; and all of us are frequently guilty of focussing on the concerns of our discipline, rather than communicating the benefits of our work in plain language.

The leaders of city institutions and businesses, who we are asking to take the courageous and forward-looking decisions to invest in our ideas, are understandably not familiar with this torrent of technical terminology, which can easily appear to be (and too often is) jargon; and new ideas that appear to be presented in jargon are unlikely to be trusted.

Simon Giles of Accenture was quoted in an article on UBM’s Future Cities site as saying that the Smart Cities industry has not done a good enough job of selling the benefits of its ideas to a wide audience. Simon is a very smart guy, and I think that’s a challenge we need to face up to, and start to tell better stories about the differences Smart Cities will make to everyday lives.

In the Community Lover’s Guide to Birmingham, for example, Nick Booth describes the way his volunteer-led social media surgeries helped the Central Birmingham Neighbourhood Forum, Brandwood End Cemetery and Jubilee Debt Campaign to benefit from technology.

Another Birmingham initiative, the Northfield Ecocentre, crowdfunded £10,000 to support their “Urban Harvest” project. The funds helped the Ecocentre pick unwanted fruit from trees in domestic gardens in Birmingham and distribute it between volunteers, children’s centres, food bank customers and organisations promoting healthy eating; and to make some of it into jams, pickles and chutneys to raise money so that in future years the initiative can become self-sustaining.

In the village of Chale on the Isle of Wight, a community not served by the national gas power network and with significant levels of fuel poverty, my IBM colleague Andy Stanford-Clark has helped an initiative not only to deploy solar panels and smart meters to generate energy and measure its use by each household; but to co-design with residents how they will use that technology, so that the whole community feels a sense of ownership and inclusion in the initiative. The project has resulted in a significant drop in rent arrears as residents use the technology to reduce their utility bills, in some cases by up to 50 percent. Less obviously, the sense of shared purpose has extended to the creation of a communal allotment area in the village and a successful campaign to halve bus fares to nearby towns.

There are countless other examples. Play Fitnessgamify” exercise to persuade children to get fit, and work very hard to ensure that their products are accessible to children in communities of any level of wealth. Casserole Club use social media to introduce people who can’t cook for themselves to people who are prepared to volunteer to cook for others. The West Midlands Collaborative Commerce Marketplace uses analytics technology to help it’s 10,000 member businesses work together to win more than £4billion in new contracts each year. … and so on.

None of these initiatives are purely to do with technology. But they all use technologies that simply were not available and accessible as recently as a few years ago to achieve outcomes that are important to cities and communities. By understanding how the potential of technology was apparent to the stakeholders in such initiatives, why it was affordable and accessible to them, and how they acquired the skills to exploit it, we can learn how to design Smart Cities in a way that encourages widespread grass-roots, localised innovation.

It’s vital that these stories are honest and grounded in reality. London School of Economics Professor Adam Greenfield rightly criticised technology companies that have overstated (and misunderstood) the potential benefits of Smart Cities ideas by describing “autonomous, intelligently functioning IT systems that will have perfect knowledge of users’ habits”. No-one trusts such hyperbole, and it undermines our efforts to communicate sensibly the very real difference that sympathetically applied technology can make to real lives, businesses, communities and places.
BLANK

6. No-one will do this for us – we have to act for ourselves

Harborne Food School

(The Harborne Food School, started by Shaleen Meelu in 2014, as a community business initiative to promote healthy, sustainable approaches to food)

No single person or organisation can shape the Smart Cities market so that it delivers the cities that we need. Local governments have the ethics of civic duty and care but lack the expertise in financing and business model innovation to convert existing spending schemes into the outcomes they desire. Private sector corporations as institutions are literally amoral and strongly incentivised by the financial markets to maximise profits. Many social enterprises are enormously admirable attempts to fuse these two models, but often lack the resources and ability to scale.

Ultimately, though, all of these organisations are staffed and run by people like you and I; and we can choose to influence their behaviour. Hence my new employer Amey measures itself against a balanced scorecard that measures social, environmental and wellbeing performance in addition to financial profits; and my previous employer IBM has implemented a re-use and recycling system so sophisticated and effective that only 0.3% of the resources and assets that reach the end of their initial useful life are disposed of in landfill or by incineration: the vast majority are re-used, have their components re-manufactured or materials recycled.

Most of us won’t ever be in a position to determine the reporting model or approach to recycling of corporations as large as Amey or IBM. But all of us make choices every day about the products we buy, the organisations we work for, the politicians we vote for, the blog articles we read, share and write and the activities we prioritise our resources on.

Those choices have real effects, and digital technology gives us all the opportunity for our choices to have more impact than ever before. This blog, which costs me nothing to operate other than the time it takes me to write articles, now reaches thousands of readers in over 150 counties. Air BnB took 2 years to accumulate the same number of rentable rooms that it took the Hilton Hotel chain 50 years to build.

It has never been easier to express an opinion widely or create a new way of doing things. That’s exactly what Shaleen Meelu did when she started the Harborne Food School to promote healthier, more sustainable approaches to food, with the support of Birmingham’s Smart City community. It’s an opportunity all of us should seize; and it’s absolutely the best opportunity we have to create better cities and a better world for ourselves.

Advertisements

A design pattern for a Smarter City: Online Peer-to-Peer and Regional Marketplaces

(Photo of Moseley Farmers’ Market in Birmingham by Bongo Vongo)

(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: Online Peer-to-Peer and Regional Marketplaces

Summary of the pattern:

A society is defined by the transactions that take place within it, whether their characteristics are social or economic, and whether they consist of material goods or communication. Many of those transactions take place in some form of marketplace.

As traditional business has globalised and integrated over the last few decades, many of the systems that support us – food production and distribution, energy generation, manufacturing and resource extraction, for example – have optimised their operations globally and consolidated ownership to exploit economies of scale and maximise profits. Those operations have come to dominate the marketplaces for the goods and services they consume and process; they defend themselves from competition through the expense and complexity of the business processes and infrastructures that support their operations; through their brand awareness and sales channels to customers; and through their expert knowledge of the availability and price of the resources and components they need.

However, in recent years dramatic improvements in information and communication technology – especially social mediamobile devicese-commerce and analytics – have made it dramatically easier for people and organisations with the potential to transact with each other to make contact and interact. Information about supply and demand has become more freely available; and it is increasingly easy to reach consumers through online channels – this blog, for instance, costs me nothing to write other than my own time, and now has readers in over 140 countries.

In response, online peer-to-peer marketplaces have emerged to compete with traditional models of business in many industries – Apple’s iTunes famously changed the music industry in this way; YouTube has transformed the market for video content and Prosper and Zopa have created markets for peer-to-peer lending. And as technologies such as 3D printing and small-scale energy generation improve, these ideas will spread to other industries as it becomes possible to carry out activities that previously required expensive, large-scale infrastructure at a smaller scale, and so much more widely.

(A Pescheria in Bari, Puglia photographed by Vito Palmi)

Whilst many of those marketplaces are operated by commercial organisations which exist to generate profit, the relevance of online marketplaces for Smarter Cities arises from their ability to deliver non-financial outcomes: i.e. to contribute to the social, economic or environmental objectives of a city, region or community.

The e-Bay marketplace in second hand goods, for example, has extended the life of over $100 billion of goods since it began operating by offering a dramatically easier way for buyers and sellers to identify each other and conduct business than had ever existed before. This spreads the environmental cost of manufacture and disposal of goods over the creation of greater total value from them, contributing to the sustainability agenda in every country in which e-Bay operates.

Local food marketplaces such as Big Barn and Sustaination in the UK, m-farm in Kenya and the fish-market pricing information service operated by the University of Bari in Puglia, Italy, make it easier for consumers to buy locally produced food, and for producers to sell it; reducing the carbon footprint of the food that is consumed within a region, and assisting the success of local businesses.

The opportunity for cities and regions is to encourage the formation and success of online marketplaces in a way that contributes to local priorities and objectives. Such regional focus might be achieved by creating marketplaces with restricted access – for example, only allowing individuals and organisations from within a particular area to participate – or by practicality: free recycling networks tend to operate regionally simply because the expense of long journeys outweighs the benefit of acquiring a secondhand resource for free. The cost of transportation means that in general many markets which support the exchange of physical goods and services in small-scale, peer-to-peer transactions will be relatively localised.

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: all
  • People: employees, business people, customers, citizens
  • Ecosystem: private sector, public sector, 3rd sector, community
  • Soft infrastructures: innovation forums; networks and community forums
  • Hard infrastructures: information and communication technology, transport and utilities network

Commercial operating model:

The basic commercial premise of an online marketplace is to invest in the provision of online marketplace infrastructure in order to create returns from revenue streams within it. Various revenue streams can be created: for example, e-Bay apply fees to transactions conducted through their marketplace, as does the crowdfunding scheme Spacehive; whereas Linked-In charges a premium subscription fee to businesses such as recruitment agencies in return for the right to make unsolicited approaches to members.

More complex revenue models are created by allowing value-add service providers to operate in the marketplace – such as the payment service PayPal, which operated in e-Bay long before it was acquired; or the start-up Addiply, who add hyperlocal advertising to online transactions. The marketplace operator can also provide fee-based “white-label” or anonymised access to marketplace services to allow third parties to operate their own niche marketplaces – Amazon WebStore, for example, allows traders to build their own, branded online retail presence using Amazon’s services.

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

Online marketplaces are operated by a variety of entities: entrepreneurial technology companies such as Shutl, for example, who offer services for delivering goods bought online through a marketplace provding access to independent delivery agents and couriers; or traditional commercial businesses seeking to “servitise” their business models, create “disruptive business platforms” or create new revenue streams from data.

(Apple’s iTunes was a disruptive business platform in the music industry when it launched – it used a new technology-enabled marketplace to completely change flows of money within the industry; and streaming media services such as Spotify have servitised the music business by allowing us to pay for the right to listen to any music we like for a certain period of time, rather than paying for copies of specific musical works as “products” which we own outright. Car manufacturers such as Peugeot are collaborating with car clubs to offer similar “pay-as-you-go” models for car use, particularly as an alternative to ownership for electric cars. Some public sector organisations are also exploring these innovations, especially those that possess large volumes of data.)

Marketplaces can create social, economic and environmental outcomes where they are operated by commercial, profit-seeking organisations which seek to build brand value and customer loyalty through positive environmental and societal impact. Many private enterprises are increasingly conscious of the need to contribute to the communities in which they operate. Often this results from the desire of business leaders to promote responsible and sustainable approaches, combined with the consumer brand-value that is created by a sincere approach. UniLever are perhaps the most high profile commercial organisation pursuing this strategy at present; and Tesco have described similar initiatives recently, such as the newly-launched Tesco Buying Club which helps suppliers secure discounts through collective purchasing. There is a clearly an opportunity for local communities and local government organisations to engage with such initiatives from private enterprise to explore the potential for online marketplaces to create mutual benefit.

In other cases, marketplaces are operated by not-for-profit organisations or social enterprises for whom creating social or economic outcomes in a financially and environmentally sustainable way is the first priority. The social enterprise approach is important if cities everywhere are to benefit from information marketplaces: most commercially operated marketplaces with a geographic focus operate in large, capital cities: these provide the largest customer base and minimise the risk associated with the investment in creating the market. If towns, cities and regions elsewhere wish to benefit from online marketplaces, they may need to encourage alternative models such as social enterprise to deliver them.

Finally, Some schemes are operated entirely on free basis, for example the Freecycle recycling network; or as charitable or donor-sponsored initiatives, for example the Kiva crowdfunding platform for charitable initiatives.

Soft infrastructures, hard infrastructures and assets required:

(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)

The technology infrastructures required to implement online marketplaces include those associated with e-commerce technology and social media: catalogues of goods and services; pricing mechansims; support for marketing campaigns; networks of individuals and organisations and the ability to make connections between them; payments services and multi-channel support.

Many e-commerce platforms offer support for online payments integrated with traditional banking systems; or mobile payments schemes such as the M-Pesa scheme in Kenya can be used. Alternatively, the widespread growth in local currencies and alternative trading systems might offer innovative solutions that are particularly relevant for marketplaces with a regional focus.

In order to be successful, marketplaces need to create an environment of trust in which transactions can be undertaken safely and reliably. As the internet has developed over the past two decades, technologies such as certificate-based identity assurance, consumer reviews and reputation schemes have emerged to create trust in online transactions and relationships. However, many online marketplaces provide robust real-world governance models in addition to tools to create online trust: the peer-to-peer lender Zopa created “Zopa Safeguard“, for example, an independent, not-for-profit entity with funds to re-imburse investors whose debtors are unable to repay them.

Marketplaces which involve the transaction of goods and services with some physical component – whether in the form of manufactured goods, resources such as water and energy or services such as in-home care – will also require transport services; and the cost and convenience of those services will need to be appropriate to the value of exchanges in the marketplace. Shutl’s transportation marketplace is in itself an innovation in delivering more convenient, lower cost delivery services to online retail marketplaces. By contrast, community energy schemes, which attempt to create local energy markets that reduce energy usage and maximise consumption of power generated by local, renewable resources, either need some form of smart grid infrastructure, or a commercial vehicle, such as a shared energy performance contract.

Driving forces:

  • The desire of regional authorities and business communities to form supply chains, market ecosystems and trading networks that maximise the creation and retention of economic value within a region; and that improve economic growth and social mobility.
  • The need to improve efficiency in the use of assets and resources; and to minimise externalities such as the excessive transport of goods and services.
  • The increasing availability and reducing cost of enabling technologies providing opportunities for new entrants in existing marketplaces and supply chains.

Benefits:

  • Maximisation of regional integration in supply networks.
  • Retention of value in the local economy.
  • Increased efficiency of resource usage by sharing and reusing goods and services.
  • Enablement of new models of collaborative asset ownership, management and use.
  • The creation of new business models to provide value-add products and services.

Implications and risks:

(West Midlands police patrolling Birmingham’s busy Frankfurt Market in Christmas, 2012. Photo by West Midlands Police)

Marketplaces must be carefully designed to attract a critical mass of participants with an interest in collaborating. It is unlikely, for example, that a group of large food retailers would collaborate in a single marketplace in which to sell their products to citizens of a particular region. The objective of such organisations is to maximise shareholder value by maximising their share of customers’ weekly household budgets. They would have no interest in sharing information about their products alongside their competitors and thus making it easier for customers to pick and choose suppliers for individual products.

Small, specialist food retailers have a stronger incentive to join such marketplaces: by adding to the diversity of produce available in a marketplace of specialist suppliers, they increase the likelihood of shoppers visiting the marketplace rather than a supermarket; and by sharing the cost of marketplace infrastructure – such as payments and delivery services – each benefits from access to a more sophisticated infrastructure than they could afford individually.

Those marketplaces that require transportation or other physical infrastructures will only be viable if they create transactions of high enough value to account for the cost of that infrastructure. Such a challenge can even apply to purely information-based marketplaces: producing high quality, reliable information requires a certain level of technology infrastructure, and marketplaces that are intended to create value through exchanging information must pay for the cost of that infrastructure. This is one of the challenges facing the open data movement.

If the marketplace does not provide sufficient security infrastructure and governance processes to create trust between participants – or if those participants do not believe that the infrastructure and governance are adequate – then transactions will not be carried out.

Some level of competition is inevitable between participants in a marketplace. If that competition is balanced by the benefits of better access to trading partners and supporting services, then the marketplace will succeed; but if competitive pressures outweigh the benefits, it will fail.

Alternatives and variations:

  • Local currencies and alternative trading systems are in many ways similar to online marketplace; and are often a supporting component
  • Some marketplaces are built on similar principles, and certainly achieve “Smart” outcomes, but do not use any technology. The Dhaka Waste Concern waste recycling scheme in Bangladesh, for example, turns waste into a market resource, creating jobs in the process.

Examples and stories:

Sources of information:

I’ve written about digital marketplaces several times on this blog, including the following articles:

Industry experts and consultancies have published work on this topic that is well worth considering:

%d bloggers like this: