12 simple technologies for cities that are Smart, open and fair

(Fritz Lang’s 1927 dystopian film Metropolis pictured a city that exploited futuristic technologies, but only on behalf of a minority of its citizens. Image by Breve Storia del Cinema)

Efficiency; resilience; growth; vitality. These are all characteristics that cities desire, and that are regularly cited as the objectives of Smarter City programmes and other forward-looking initiatives.

But, though it is less frequently stated, a more fundamental objective underlies all of these: fairness.

The Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz has written extensively about the need to prioritise fairness as a policy and investment objective in a world that in many areas – and in many cities – is becoming more unequal. That inequality is demonstrated by the difference in life expectancy of 20 years or so that exists between the poorest and richest parts of many UK cities.

I think the Smart Cities movement will only be viewed as a success by the wider world if it contributes to redressing that imbalance.

So how do we design Smart City systems that employ technology to make cities more successful, resilient and efficient; in a way that distributes resources and creates opportunities more fairly than today?

One answer to that question is that the infrastructures and institutions of such cities should be open to citizens and businesses: accessible, understandable, adaptable and useful.

Why do we need open cities?

In the wonderful “Walkable City“, Jeff Speck describe’s the epidemiologist Richard Jackson’s stark realisation of the life-and-death significance of good urban design. Jackson was driving along a notorious 2 mile stretch of Atlanta’s 7-lane Buford highway with no pavements or junctions:

There, by the side of the road, in the ninety-five degree afternoon, he saw a woman in her seventies, struggling under the burden of two shopping bags. He tried to relate her plight to his own work as an epidemiologist. “If that poor woman had collapsed from heat stroke, we docs would have written the cause of death as heat stroke and not lack of trees and public transportation, poor urban form, and heat-island effects. If she had been killed by a truck going by the cause of death would have been “motor vehicle trauma”, and not lack of sidewalks and transit, poor urban planning and failed political leadership.”

(Pedestrian’s attempting to cross Atlanta’s notorious Buford Highway; a 7-lane road with no pavements and 2 miles between junctions and crossings. Photo by PBS)

Buford Highway is an infrastructure fit only for vehicles, not for people. It allows no safe access along or across it for the communities it passes through – it is closed to them, unless they risk their lives.

At the same time that city leaders are realising more and more that better planning is needed to create more equal cities, so it  is imperative that the digital infrastructures we deploy in cities are accessible and useful to citizens, not as dangerous to them as Buford Highway.

Unfortunately, there are already examples of city infrastructures using technologies that are poorly designed, that fail to serve the needs of  communities, or that fail in operation.

For instance, a network of CCTV cameras in Birmingham were eventually dismantled after it was revealed they had been erected to gather evidence of terrorist activities in Birmingham’s Muslim communities, rather than in support of their safety. And there have been many examples of the failure of both public sector agencies and private companies to properly safeguard the data they hold about citizens.

Market failures can result in the benefits of technology being more accessible to wealthier communities than poorer communities. For example,  private sector network providers will not deploy connectivity in areas which are insufficiently economically active for them to make a profit, and Government funding is not yet sufficient to close the gap. And community lenders, who typically offer loans at one-tenth to one-hundredth the cost of payday lenders, have so far lacked the resources to invest in the online technology that makes some payday loans so easy to take out – though this is starting to change.

One of the technology industry’s most notorious failures, the Greyhound Lines bus company’s 1993 “Trips” reservations system, made a city service – bus transport – unusable. The system was intended to make it quicker and easier for ticket agents to book customers onto Greyhound’s buses. But it was so poorly designed and operated so slowly that passengers missed their buses whilst they stood in line waiting for their tickets; were separated from their luggage; and in some cases were stranded overnight in bus terminals.

In the 21st Century, badly applied digital technology will create bad cities, just as badly designed roads and buildings did in the last century.

(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)

Smart Cities for the digitally disconnected

It’s possible to benefit from Smart city infrastructures without being connected to the internet or having skills in digital technology – Stockholm’s road-use charging scheme reduces congestion and pollution for everyone in the city, for example.

But the benefits of many Smart systems are dependent on being connected to the internet and having the skills to use it. From the wealth of educational material now available online (from the most sophisticated Harvard University courses to the most basic tutorials on just about any subject available on YouTube), to the increasing role of technology in high-paid careers, it’s absolutely obvious that the ability to access and use the internet and digital technologies in the future will be a crucial component of a successful life.

Smart cities won’t be fair cities if we take connectivity and skills for granted. Worldwide, fully one-third of the population has never been online; and even in as rich and advanced a country as the United Kingdom, 18% of adults – a fifth of the voting population – have never used the internet. At the risk of generalising a complex issue, many of those people will be those that Smart City services should create benefits for if they are to contribute to making cities fairer.

After legal challenges from private sector providers, the UK Government’s plan to assist cities in funding the deployment of ubiquitous broadband connectivity has been replaced by a voucher scheme that subsidises businesses connecting to existing networks. The scheme will not now directly help to improve broadband coverage in those areas that are poorly served because they are economically relatively inactive – precisely the areas that need the most help.

There’s been a lot of discussion of “net neutrality” recently – the principle that on the Internet, all traffic is equal, and that there is no way to pay for certain data to be treated preferentially. The principle is intended to ensure that the benefits of the internet are equally available to everyone.

But net neutrality is irrelevant to those who can’t access the internet at all; and the free market is already bypassing it in some ways. Network providers who control the local infrastructures that connect homes and businesses to the internet are free to charge higher prices for faster connections. Wealthy corporations and governments can bypass parts of the internet entirely with their own international cable networks through which they can route traffic between users on one continent and content on another.

Governments in emerging economies are building new cities to house their rapidly urbanising populations with ubiquitous, high-speed connectivity from the start. The Australian government is investing the profits from selling raw materials to support that construction boom in providing broadband coverage across the entire country. The least wealthy areas of European cities will be further disadvantaged compared to them unless we can find ways to invest in their digital infrastructure without contravening the European Union’s “State aid” law.

Technology as if people mattered

The UK’s Government Digital Service employ an excellent set of agile, user-centric design principles that are intended to promote the development of Smarter, digitally-enabled services that can be accessed by anyone anywhere who needs them, regardless of their level of skill with digital technology or ability to access the Internet.

The principles include: “Start with needs”; “Do the hard work to make it simple”; “Build for inclusion”; “Understand context”; and “Build digital services, not websites”.

(An electricity bill containing information provided by OPower comparing one household’s energy usage to their neighbours. Image from Grist)

A good example of following these principles and designing excellent, accessible digital services using common sense is the London Borough of Newham. By concentrating on the delivery of services through mobile telephones – which are much more widely owned than PCs and laptops – and on contexts in which a friend or family member assists the ultimate service user, Newham have achieved a remarkable shift to online services in one of London’s least affluent boroughs, home to many communities and citizens without access to broadband connectivity or traditional computers.

Similar, low-tech innovations in designing systems that people find useful can be found in some smart meter deployments.

In principle, the analytic technology in smart meters can provide insights that helps households and businesses reduce energy usage – identifying appliances that are operating inefficiently, highlighting leaks, and comparing households’ energy usage to that of their neighbours.

But most people don’t want to look at smart meter displays or consult a computer before they put the washing on or have a shower.

In one innovative project in the village of Chale, these issues were overcome by connecting analytic technology to a glow globe in the lounge – the globe simply glows red, orange or green depending on whether too much energy is being used compared to that expected for the time of day and year. A similarly effective but even more down-to-earth approach was adopted by OPower in the US who reported that they have helped households save 1.9 terawatt hours of power simply by including a report based on data from smart meters in a printed letter sent with customers’ electricity bills.

There are countless other examples. During peak traffic periods, Dublin’s “Live Drive” radio station plays a mixture of 80s pop music and traffic information derived from sophisticated analytics developed by IBM’s Smarter Cities Research team based on data from road sensors and GPS beacons in the city’s buses. And in India’s rural Karnataka region, which lacks internet infrastructure and where many workers lack literacy skills, let alone access to computers and smartphones, the benefits of online job portals have been recreated using “spoken web” technology using the existing traditional analogue telephone network.

(The inspirational Kilimo Salama scheme that uses

(The inspirational Kilimo Salama scheme that uses “appropriate technology” to make crop insurance affordable to subsistence farmers. Photo by Burness Communications)

In Kenya, Kilimo Salama has made crop insurance affordable for subsistence farmers by using remote weather monitoring to trigger payouts via Safaricom’s M-Pesa mobile payments service, rather than undertaking expensive site visits to assess claims. And the SMS for Life project in Tanzania uses the cheap and widely used SMS infrastructure to create a dynamic, collaborative supply chain for medicine between rural pharmacists.

These are all examples of what was originally described as “Intermediate Technology” by the economist Ernst Friedrich “Fritz” Schumacher in his influential work, “Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered“, and is now known as Appropriate Technology.

12 “appropriate technologies” for Smart Cities

Schumacher’s views on technology were informed by his belief that our approach to economics should be transformed “as if people mattered”. He asked:

What happens if we create economics not on the basis of maximising the production of goods and the ability to acquire and consume them – which ends up valuing automation and profit – but on the Buddhist definition of the purpose of work: “to give a man a chance to utilise and develop his faculties; to enable him to overcome his ego-centredness by joining with other people in a common task; and to bring forth the goods and services needed for a becoming existence.”

Schumacher pointed out that the most advanced technologies, to which we often look to create value and growth, are in fact only effective in the hands of those with the resources and skills required to use them- i.e. those who are already wealthy; and that by emphasising efficiency, output and profit they tend to further concentrate economic value in the hands of the wealthy – often specifically by reducing the employment of people with less advanced skills and roles.

In contrast, Schumacher felt that the most genuine “development ” of our society would occur when the most possible people were employed in a way that gave them the practical ability to earn a living ; and that also offered a level of human reward – much as Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” first identifies our most basic requirements for food, water, shelter and security; but next relates the importance of family, friends and “self-actualisation” (which can crudely be described as the process of achieving things that we care about).

This led him to ask:

What is that we really require from the scientists and technologists? I should answer:

We need methods and equipment which are:

    • Cheap enough so that they are accessible to virtually everyone;
    • Suitable for small-scale application; and
    • Compatible with man’s need for creativity

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

I can’t think of a more powerful set of tools that reflect these characteristics than the digital technologies that have emerged over the past decade, such as social media, smartphones, Cloud computing and Open Data. They provide a digital infrastructure of appropriate technologies that are accessible to everyone, but that connect with the large scale city infrastructures that support millions of urban lives; and they give citizens, communities and businesses the ability to adapt city infrastructures to their own needs.

I can think of at least 12 such technologies that are particularly important; and that fall into the categories of “Infrastructures that matter”; “Technologies for everyone”; and “The keys to the city”.

Infrastructures that matter

1.Broadband connectivity

I’ve covered the importance of broadband connectivity, and the challenges involved in providing it ubiquitously, already, so I won’t go into detail again here. But whether it’s fixed-line, mobile or wi-fi, its benefits are becoming so significant that it can’t be omitted.

2. Cloud computing

Before Cloud computing, anyone who wanted to develop a computing system for others to use had to invest up-front in an infrastructure capable of operating the service to a reasonable level of reliability. Cloud computing provides a much easier, cheaper alternative: rent a little bit of someone else’s infrastructure. And if your service becomes popular, don’t worry about carrying out complex and costly upgrades, just rent a little more.

Cloud computing has helped to democratise digital services by making it  it dramatically easier and cheaper for anyone to create and offer them.

Technologies for everyone

3. Mobile and Smart phones

In 2013, the number of cellphone subscriptions worldwide surpassed the number of people who have ever owned fixed line telephones.

In the developed world, we’re conscious of the increasing power of Smartphones; and Councils such as Newham are exploiting the fact that many people who lack the desire or resources to purchase a computer and a broadband connection possess and use relatively sophisticated Smartphones through which they access digital services and content.

But in some countries in the developing world, the real story is simply the availability of the first basic infrastructure – voice calls and SMS – that’s available to almost everyone, everywhere. According to one report, access to a basic mobile phone is more common than access to a toilet with proper drainage. In his TEDGlobal 2013 talk, Toby Shapshak described how entire business infrastructures and supply chains are being built upon SMS and similiarly “appropriate” technologies – to the extent that 4o% of Kenya’s GDP now passes through the M-Pesa mobile payments service offered by Safaricom. Banks, technology entrepreneurs, governments and others in the developed world are looking to this wave of innovation as a source of new ideas.

4. Social media

In his 2011 book “Civilization“, Niall Fergusson comments that news of the Indian Mutiny in 1857 took 46 days to reach London, travelling in effect at 3.8 miles an hour. By Jan 2009 when US Airways flight 1549 crash landed in the Hudson river, Jim Hanrahan’s message on Twitter communicated the news to the entire world four minutes later; it reached Perth, Australia at more than 170,000 miles an hour.

Social media is the tool that around a quarter of the world’s population now simply uses to stay in touch with friends and family at this incredible speed.

At a recent Mayoral debate on Smarter Cities, Ridwan Kamil, Mayor of Bandung, Indonesia, described how he has nurtured an atmosphere of civic engagement, trust and transparency by encouraging his staff to connect with the city’s 2.3 million Twitter-using citizens through social media. By encouraging citizens to report issues online and by publishing details of city spending, Mayor Kami has helped to combat corruption and improve public services. Montpellier in France is engaging with citizens through social media in a similar way, asking them to explore data about their city and suggest ways to improve it. And the ambitious control room set up in Rio de Janeiro by Mayor Eduardo Paes to help manage the city during the current World Cup uses social media not just as one of the information feeds that provides insight into what is happening in the city, but to keep citizens as well informed as possible.

The “Community Lovers Guide“, of which 60 editions have now been published across the world, contains stories of people and projects that have improved their communities. The guide is not concerned directly with technology; but many of the initiatives that it describes have used social media as a tool for engaging with stakeholders and supporters.

And we increasingly use social media to conduct business. From e-Bay to Uber, social media is being used to create “sharing economy” business models that replace traditional sales channels and supply chains with networks of peer-to-peer transactions in industries from financial services to agriculture to distribution to retail. Nearly 2 billion of us now regularly use the technologies that allow us to participate in those trading networks.

5. The touchscreen

Three years ago, I watched my then 2-year-old son teach himself how to use a touchscreen tablet to watch cartoons from around the world. He is a member of the first generation to grow up with the world’s information literally at their fingertips before they can read and write.

The simplicity of the touchscreen has already led to the adoption of tablet computers by huge numbers of people who would never have so willingly chosen to use a laptop computer and keyboard. As touchscreens and the devices that use them become cheaper and cheaper, many more people who currently don’t choose to access online content and services will do so without realising it, simply by interacting with the world around them.

We will rapidly develop even more intimate interfaces to technology. Three years ago, scientists at the University of Berkely used computers attached to an MRI scanner to recreate moving images from the magnetic field created by the brain of a person inside the scanner watching a film on a pair of goggles. And last year, scientists at the University of Washington used similar technology to allow one of them to move the other’s arm simply by thinking about it. Whilst it will take time for these technologies to become widely available – and there are certainly ethical issues concerning their use that must be addressed in the process – eventually they will make an important contribution to making information and the ability to communicate widely even more accessible than today.

6. Open Source software

Open Source software is one of the very few technologies that is free in principle to anyone with the time to understand how to use it. It is not free in the medium or long-term – most organisations that use it pay for some form of support or maintenance to be carried out on their Open Source systems. But it is free to get started, and the Open Source community is a great place to get help and advice whilst doing so.

My colleagues around the world work very hard to ensure that IBM’s technologies support open source technology, from interoperating with the MySQL database and CKAN open data portal; to donating IBM-developed technologies such as Eclipse, MQTT and Node-RED to the Open Source community; to IBM’s new “BlueMix” Cloud computing platform for developers which is built from Open Source technology and offers developers 50 pre-built services for inclusion in their Apps, many of which are open source.

Not all technology is Open Source, and there are good reasons why many technology companies large and small invest in developing products and services for cities that use proprietary software – often, simply to protect their investment. For as long as those products and services offer valuable capabilities that are not available as open source software, cities will use them.

But it is vital that city systems incorporating those technologies are nevertheless open for use by open source software, simply to make them as widely accessible as possible for people who need to adapt them to their own needs.

7. Intelligent hardware

The emergence of the internet as a platform for enabling sales, marketing and logistics over the last decade has enabled small and micro-businesses to reach markets across the world that were previously accessible only to much larger organisations with international sales and distribution networks.

More recently, the emergence and maturation of technologies such as 3D printingopen-source manufacturing and small-scale energy generation are enabling small businesses and community initiatives to succeed in new sectors by reducing the scale at which it is economically viable to carry out what were previously industrial activities – a trend recently labelled by the Economist magazine as the “Third Industrial Revolution“.

Arduino, an Open Source electronics prototyping platform, and the Raspberry Pi, a cheap and simple computer intended to simplify the process of teaching programming skills, provide very easy introductions to these technologies; and organisations such as Hub Launchpad and TechShop make it possible for entrepreneurs and small businesses to explore them in more depth.

The keys to the city

8. Open APIs 

An “API” is an “Application Programming Interface“: it is a tool that allows one computer system – such as an Open Source “app” written by an entrepreneur or social innovator – to use the information and capabilities of another computer system – such as a traffic information system for a city’s transport network.

For example, Amazon make an API available to developers that exposes all of the capabilities of Amazon Marketplace – from listing products, to changing prices to despatching goods to customers. Whilst these features are not free to use, they offer one way for businesses to create new online shops extremely quickly,  linked to a fulfilment operation to support them.

Open APIs are a tool that can make digital city infrastructures open to local innovation, and allow citizens, businesses and communities to adapt them to their own needs. For instance, Birmingham’s Droplet, a SmartPhone payment service that encourages local economic growth by making it easy to pay for goods and services from local merchants, offer a developer API to allow their fast, cheap payments system to be included in other city services.

A Smarter City infrastructure whose IT systems offer APIs to citizens, communities and businesses can be accessed and adapted by them. It is the very opposite of Atlanta’s Buford Highway.

(The UK’s Open Data Institute’s 2013 Summit. The ODI promotes open data in the UK and shares best practise internationally. Photo by the ODI)

9. Open Data

The Open Data movement champions the principle that any non-sensitive data from public services and infrastructures should be freely and openly available. Most such data is not currently available in this form – either because the organisations operating those services have yet to adopt the principle, or because the computer systems they use simply were not designed to make data available.

There are many reasons to support the idea of Open Data. McKinsey estimate its economic value to be at least $3 trillion per year, for example.

But perhaps more importantly, Open Data is a fundamental tool for democracy and transparency in a digital age. Niall Firth’s November 2013 editorial for the New Scientist magazine describes how citizens of developing nations are using open data to hold their governments to account, from basic information about election candidates to the monitoring of government spending.

The “Dublinked” information sharing partnership, in which Dublin City Council, three surrounding local authorities and  service providers to the city share information and make it available to their communities as “open data”, is a good example of the benefits that openness can bring. Dublinked now makes 3,000 datasets available to local authority analysts; to researchers from IBM Research and the National University of Ireland; and to businesses, entrepreneurs and citizens. The partnership is identifying new ways for the city’s public services and transport, energy and water systems to work; and enabling the formation of new, information-based businesses with the potential to export the solutions they develop in Dublin to cities internationally. It is putting the power of technology and of city information not only at the disposal of the city authority and its agencies, but also into the hands of communities and innovators.

10. Open Standards

Open Data and Open APIs will only be widely used and effective in cities across the world if they conform to Open Standards that mean that everyone, everywhere can use them in the same way.

In order to do something as simple as changing a lightbulb, we rely on open standards for the levels of voltage and power from our electricity supply; the physical dimensions of the socket and bulb and the characteristics of their fastenings; specifications of the bulb’s light and heat output; and the tolerance of the bulb and the fitting for the levels of moisture found in bathrooms and kitchens. Cities are much more complicated than lightbulbs; and many more standards will be required on order for us to connect to and re-configure their systems easily and reliably.

Open standards are also an important tool in avoiding city systems becoming “locked-in” to any particular supplier. By specifying common characteristics that all systems are required to demonstrate, it becomes more straightforward to exchange one supplier’s implementation for another.

Some standards that Smarter City infrastructures can use are already in place – for example, Web services and REST that specify the general ways in which computer systems interact, and the Common Alerting Protocol which is more specific to interactions between systems that monitor and control the physical world. But many others will need to be invented and encouraged to spread. The City Protocol Society is one organisation seeking to develop those new standards; and the British Standards Institute recently published the first set of national standards for Smarter Cities in the UK, including a standard for the interoperability of data between Smart City systems.

(Photo of the Brixton Pound by Charlie Waterhouse)

11. Local and virtual currencies and trading systems

Local trading systems use paper or electronic currencies that are issued and accepted within a particular place or region. They influence people and businesses to spend the money that they earn locally, thereby promoting regional economic synergies.

Examples include the Bristol Pound; the Droplet smartphone payment scheme in Birmingham; and schemes based on the bartering of goods, money, time and services, such as time banking. 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 Open APIs – they are increasingly being used as an infrastructure for Smarter City projects in domains such as transport, food supply and energy.

Smarter Cities will succeed at scale when we discover the business models that convert financial payments and investments into social, economic and environmental improvements in the places where we live and work. I can’t think of a more directly applicable tool for designing those business models than flexible, locally focussed currencies and payment infrastructures.

12. Identity stores

In order to use digital services, we have to provide personal information online. What happens to that personal information once we have finished using the service?

Social networks such as Facebook regularly cause controversy when they experiment with new ways to use the data that we freely share with them; often granting them extensive rights over that data in the process.

Our use of technologies such as social media, Smartphones and APIs creates a mass of data about us that is often retained by the operators of the services we use. Sometimes this is as a result of deliberate actions:  when we share geo-tagged photos through social media, for example. In other cases, it is incidental. The location and movement of GPS sensors in our smartphones is anonymised by our network providers and aggregated with that of others nearby who are moving similarly. It is then sold to traffic information services, so that they can sell it back to us through the satellite navigation systems in our cars to help us to avoid traffic congestion.

Organisations of all types and sizes are competing for the new markets and opportunities of the information economy that are created, in part, by this increased availability of personal information. That is simply the natural consequence of the emergence of a new resource in a competitive economy. But it is also true that as the originators of much of that information, and as the ultimate stakeholders in that economy, we should seek to establish an equitable consensus between us for how our information is used.

A different approach is being taken by organisations such as MyDex. MyDex are a Community Interest Company (CIC) who have created a platform that allows users to securely share personal information with digital service providers when they need to; but to revoke access when they have finished using the service.

Incorporation as a Community Interest Company allows MyDex:

“… to be sustainable and requires it be run for community benefit. Crucially, the CIC assets and the majority of any profits must be used for the community purposes for which Mydex is established. Its assets cannot be acquired by another party to which such restrictions do not apply.”

(From the MyDex website, http://mydex.org/about/ensuring-trust/).

As a result of both the security of their technology solution and the clarity with which personal and community interests are reflected in their business model, MyDex’s platform is now being used by a variety of public sector and community organisations to offer a personal data store to the people they support.

MyDex’s approach to creating trust in the use of personal data is not the only one, but it is a good example of a business model that explicitly addresses and prioritises the interests of the individual.

(The town plan for Edinburgh’s New Town, clearly showing the grid structure that gives rise to the adaptability that it is famous for showing for the past 250 years. Image from the JR James archive)

Smart Digital Urbanism

Architects and city planners such as Kelvin Campbell, founder of the Smart Urbanism movement and Jan Gehl, who inspired the “human-scale cities” movement have been identifying the fine-grained physical characteristics of large-scale urban environments that encourage vibrant communities and successful economies through the daily activities of people, families, communities and businesses.

A good example is provided by Edinburgh’s “New Town”, regarded as a masterpiece of urban planning that has proved adaptable and successful through the economic and social changes of the past 250 years. It has frequent road crossings, junctions and side-streets that slow down traffic; provides stopping opportunities for traffic and crossing opportunities for people, encouraging businesses to thrive; and has a mixture of small and large premises for a variety of businesses to occupy.

Smarter cities will not be fairer cities unless we identify and employ technologies for building them that create similar openness and accessibility for digital services and information. That’s precisely what I think Open Data, mobile phones, virtual currencies and the other technologies I’ve described in this article can achieve.

I can’t think of a more exciting idea than using them to address the economic, social and environmental challenge of our time and to build better cities and communities for tomorrow.

From field to market to kitchen: smarter food for smarter cities

(A US Department of Agriculture inspector examines a shipment of imported frozen meat in New Orleans in 2013. Photo by Anson Eaglin)

One of the biggest challenges associated with the rapid urbanisation of the world’s population is working out how to feed billions of extra citizens. I’m spending an increasing amount of my time understanding how technology can help us to do that.

It’s well known that the populations of many of the world’s developing nations – and some of those that are still under-developed – are rapidly migrating from rural areas to cities. In China, for example, hundreds of millions of people are moving from the countryside to cities, leaving behind a lifestyle based on extended family living and agriculture for employment in business and a more modern lifestyle.

The definitions of “urban areas” used in many countries undergoing urbanisation include a criterion that less than 50% of employment and economic activity is based on agriculture (the appendices to the 2007 revision of the UN World Urbanisation Prospects summarise such criteria from around the world). Cities import their food.

In the developed countries of the Western world, this criterion is missing from most definitions of cities, which focus instead on the size and density of population. In the West, the transformation of economic activity away from agriculture took place during the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th Centuries.

Urbanisation and the industrialisation of food

The food that is now supplied to Western cities is produced through a heavily industrialised process. But whilst the food supply chain had to scale dramatically to feed the rapidly growing cities of the Industrial Revolution, the processes it used, particularly in growing food and creating meals from it, did not industrialise – i.e. reduce their dependence on human labour – until much later.

As described by Population Matters, industrialisation took place after the Second World War when the countries involved took measures to improve their food security after struggling to feed themselves during the War whilst international shipping routes were disrupted. Ironically, this has now resulted in a supply chain that’s even more internationalised than before as the companies that operate it have adopted globalisation as a business strategy over the last two decades.

This industrial model has led to dramatic increases in the quantity of food produced and distributed around the world, as the industry group the Global Harvest Initiative describes. But whether it is the only way, or the best way, to provide food to cities at the scale required over the next few decades is the subject of much debate and disagreement.

(Irrigation enables agriculture in the arid environment of Al Jawf, Libya. Photo by Future Atlas)

One of the critical voices is Philip Lymbery, the Chief Executive of Compassion in World Farming, who argues passionately in “Farmageddon” that the industrial model of food production and distribution is extremely inefficient and risks long-term damage to the planet.

Lymbery questions whether the industrial system is sustainable financially – it depends on vast subsidy programmes in Europe  and the United States; and he questions its social benefits – industrial farms are highly automated and operate in formalised international supply chains, so they do not always provide significant food or employment in the communities in which they are based.

He is also critical of the industrial system’s environmental impact. In order to optimise food production globally for financial efficiency and scale, single-use industrial farms have replaced the mixed-use, rotational agricultural systems that replenish nutrients in soil  and that support insect species that are crucial to the pollination of plants. They also create vast quantities of animal waste that causes pollution because in the single-use industrial system there are no local fields in need of manure to fertilise crops.

And the challenges associated with feeding the growing populations of the worlds’ cities are not only to do with long-term sustainability. They are also a significant cause of ill-health and social unrest today.

Intensity, efficiency and responsibility

Our current food systems fail to feed nearly 1 billion people properly, let alone the 2 billion rise in global population expected by 2050. We already use 60% of the world’s fresh water to produce food – if we try to increase food production without changing the way that water is used, then we’ll simply run out of it, with dire consequences. In fact, as the world’s climate changes over the next few decades, less fresh water will be available to grow food. As a consequence of this and other effects of climate change, the UK supermarket ASDA reported recently that 95% of their fresh food supply is already exposed to climate risk.

The supply chains that provide food to cities are vulnerable to disruption – in the 2000 strike by the drivers who deliver fuel to petrol stations in the UK, some city supermarkets came within hours of running out of food completely; and disruptions to food supply have already caused alarming social unrest across the world.

These challenges will intensify as the world’s population grows, and as the middle classes double in size to 5 billion people, dramatically increasing demand for meat – and hence demand for food for the animals which produce it. Overall, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that we will need to produce 70% more food than today by 2050.

insect delicacies

(Insect delicacies for sale in Phnom Penh’s central market. The United Nations suggested last year that more of us should join the 2 billion people who include insects in their diet – a nutritious and environmentally efficient source of food)

But increasing the amount of food available to feed people doesn’t necessarily mean growing more food, either by further intensifying existing industrial approaches or by adopting new techniques such as vertical farming or hydroponics. In fact, a more recent report issued by the United Nations and partner agencies cautioned that it was unlikely that the necessary increase in available food would be achieved through yield increases alone. Instead, it recommended reducing food loss, waste, and “excessive demand” for animal products.

There are many ways we might grow, distribute and use food more efficiently. We currently waste about 30% of the food we produce: some through food that rots before it reaches our shops or dinner tables, some through unpopularity (such as bread crusts or fruit and vegetables that aren’t the “right” shape and colour), and some because we simply buy more than we need to eat. If those inefficiencies were corrected, we are already producing enough food to feed 11billion people, let alone the 9 billion population predicted for the Earth by 2050.

I think that technology has some exciting roles to play in how we respond to those challenges.

Smarter food in the field: data for free, predicting the future and open source beekeeping

New technologies give us a great opportunity to monitor, measure and assess the agricultural process and the environment in which it takes place.

The SenSprout sensor can measure and transmit the moisture content of soil; it is made simply by printing an electronic circuit design onto paper using commercially-available ink containing silver nano-particles; and it powers itself using ambient radio waves. We can use sensors like SenSprout to understand and respond to the natural environment, using technology to augment the traditional knowledge of farmers.

By combining data from sensors such as SenSprout and local weather monitoring stations with national and international forecasts, my colleagues in IBM Research are investigating how advanced weather prediction technology can enable approaches to agriculture that are more efficient and precise in their use of water. A trial project in Flint River, Georgia is allowing farmers to apply exactly the right amount of water at the right time to their crops, and no more.

Such approaches improve our knowledge of the natural environment, but they do not control it. Nature is wild, the world is uncertain, and farmers’ livelihoods will always be exposed to risk from changing weather patterns and market conditions. The value of technology is in helping us to sense and respond to those changes. “Pasture Scout“, for example, does that by using social media to connect farmers in need of pasture to graze their cattle with other farmers with land of the right sort that is currently underused.

These possibilities are not limited to industrial agriculture or to developed countries. For example, the Kilimo Salama scheme adds resilience to the traditional practises of subsistence farmers by using remote weather monitoring and mobile phone payment schemes to provide affordable insurance for their crops.

Technology is also helping us to understand and respond to the environmental impact of the agricultural practises that have developed in previous decades: as urban beekeepers seek to replace lost natural habitats for bees, the Open Source Beehive project is using technology to help them identify the factors leading to the “colony collapse disorder” phenomenon that threatens the world’s bee population.

Smarter food in the marketplace: local food, the sharing economy and soil to fork traceability

The emergence of the internet as a platform for enabling sales, marketing and logistics over the last decade has enabled small and micro-businesses to reach markets across the world that were previously accessible only to much larger organisations with international sales and distribution networks. The proliferation of local food and urban farming initiatives shows that this transformation is changing the food industry too, where online marketplaces such as Big Barn and FoodTrade make it easier for consumers to buy locally produced food, and for producers to sell it.

This is not to say that vast industrial supply-chains will disappear overnight to be replaced by local food networks: they clearly won’t. But just as large-scale film and video production has adapted to co-exist and compete with millions of small-scale, “long-tail” video producers, so too the food industry will adjust. The need for co-existence and competition with new entrants should lead to improvements in efficiency and impact – the supermarket Tesco’s “Buying Club” shows how one large food retailer is already using these ideas to provide benefits that include environmental efficiences to its smaller suppliers.

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

One challenge is that food – unlike music and video – is a fundamentally physical commodity: exchanging it between producers and consumers requires transport and logistics. The adoption by the food industry of “sharing economy” approaches – business models that use social media and analytics to create peer-to-peer transactions, and that replace bulk movement patterns by thousands of smaller interactions between individuals – will be dependent on our ability to create innovative distribution systems to support them. Zaycon Foods operate one such system, using online technology to allow consumers to collectively negotiate prices for food that they then collect from farmers at regular local events.

Rather than replacing existing markets and supply chains, one role that technology is already playing is to give food producers better insight into their behaviour. M-farm links farmers in Kenya to potential buyers for their produce, and provides them with real-time information about prices; and the University of Bari in Puglia, Italy operates a similar fish-market pricing information service that makes it easier for local fisherman to identify the best buyers and prices for their daily catch.

Whatever processes are involved in getting food from where it’s produced to where it’s consumed, there’s an increasing awareness of the need to track those movements so that we know what we’re buying and eating, both to prevent scandals such as last year’s discovery of horsemeat in UK food labelled as containing beef; and so that consumers can make buying decisions based on accurate information about the source and quality of food. The “eSporing” (“eTraceability”) initiative between food distributors and the Norwegian government explored these approaches following a breakout of E-Coli in 2006.

As sensors become more capable and less expensive, we’ll be able to add more data and insight into this process. Soil quality can be measured using sensors such as SenSprout; plant health could be measured by similar sensors or by video analytics using infra-red data. The gadgets that many of us use whilst exercising to measure our physical activity and use of calories could be used to assess the degree to which animals are able to exercise. And scientists at the University of the West of England in Bristol have developed a quick, cheap sensor that can detect harmful bacteria and the residues of antibiotics in food. (The overuse of antibiotics in food production has harmful side effects, and in particular is leading some bacteria that cause dangerous diseases in humans to develop resistance to treatment).

This advice from the Mayo Clinic in the United States gives one example of the link between the provenance of food and its health qualities, explaining that beef from cows fed on grass can have lower levels of fat and higher levels of beneficial “omega-3 fatty acids” than what they call “conventional beef” – beef from cows fed on grain delivered in lorries. (They appear to have forgotten the “convention” established by several millennia of evolution and thousands of years of animal husbandry that cows eat grass).

(Baltic Apple Pie – a recipe created by IBM’s Watson computer)

All of this information contributes to describing both the taste and health characteristics of food; and when it’s available, we’ll have the opportunity to make more informed choices about what we put on our tables.

Smarter food in the kitchen: cooking, blogging and cognitive computing

One of the reasons that the industrial farming system is so wasteful is that it is optimised to supply Western diets that include an unhealthy amount of meat; and to do so at an unrealistically low price for consumers. Enormous quantities of fish and plants – especially soya beans – that could be eaten by people as components of healthy diets are instead fed to industrially-farmed animals to produce this cheap meat. As a consequence, in the developed world many of us are eating more meat than is healthy for us. (Some of the arguments on this topic were debated by the UK’s Guardian newspaper last year).

But whilst eating less meat and more fish and vegetables is a simple idea, putting it into practise is a complex cultural challenge.

A recent report found that “a third of UK adults struggle to afford healthy food“. But the underlying cause is not economic: it is a lack of familiarity with the cooking and food preparation techniques that turn cheap ingredients into healthy, tasty food; and a cultural preference for red meat and packaged meals. The Sustainable Food School that is under development in Birmingham is one example of an initiative intending to address those challenges through education and awareness.

Engagement through traditional and social media also has an influence. The celebrity chefs that have campaigned for a shift in our diets towards more sustainably sourced fish and the schoolgirl who  provoked a national debate concerning the standard and health of school meals simply by blogging about the meals that were offered to her each day at school, are two recent examples in the UK; as is the food blogger Jack Monroe who demonstrated how she could feed herself and her two-year-old son healthy, interesting food on a budget of £10 a week.

My colleagues in IBM Research have explored turning IBM’s Watson cognitive computing technology to this challenge. In an exercise similar to the “invention test” common to television cookery competitions, they have challenged Watson to create recipes from a restricted set of ingredients (such as might be left in the fridge and cupboards at the end of the week) and which meet particular criteria for health and taste.

(An example of local food processing: my own homemade chorizo.)

Food, technology, passion

The future of food is a complex and contentious issue – the controversy between the productivity benefits of industrial agriculture and its environmental and social impact being just one example. I have touched on but not engaged in those debates in this article – my expertise is in technology, not in agriculture, and I’ve attempted to link to a variety of sources from all sides of the debate.

Some of the ideas for providing food to the world’s growing population in the future are no less challenging, whether those ideas are cultural or technological. The United Nations suggested last year, for example, that more of us should join the 2 billion people who include insects in their diet. Insects are a nutritious and environmentally efficient source of food, but those of us who have grown up in cultures that do not consider them as food are – for the most part – not at all ready to contemplate eating them. Artificial meat, grown in laboratories, is another increasingly feasible source of protein in our diets. It challenges our assumption that food is natural, but has some very reasonable arguments in its favour.

It’s a trite observation, but food culture is constantly changing. My 5-year-old son routinely demands foods such as humus and guacamole that are unremarkable now but that were far from commonplace when I was a child. Ultimately, our food systems and diets will have to adapt and change again or we’ll run out of food, land and water.

Technology is one of the tools that can help us to make those changes. But as Kentaro Toyama famously said: technology is not the answer; it is the amplifier of human intention.

So what really excites me is not technology, but the passion for food that I see everywhere: from making food for our own families at home, to producing it in local initiatives such as Loaf, Birmingham’s community bakery; and from using technology in programmes that contribute to food security in developing nations to setting food sustainability at the heart of corporate business strategy.

There are no simple answers, but we are all increasingly informed and well-intentioned. And as technology continues to evolve it will provide us with incredible new tools. Those are great ingredients for an “invention test” for us all to find a sustainable, healthy and tasty way to feed future cities.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deconstructing “quality of life”

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

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

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

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

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

Stress and Adaptability

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Urban data and quality of life in the district high street

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recognising the challenge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(“Which way to go?” by Peter Roome)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Define what a “Smarter City” means to you (Updated)
  2. Convene a stakeholder group to co-create a specific Smarter City vision; and establish governance and a credible decision-making process (Updated)
  3. Structure your approach to a Smart City by drawing on the available resources and expertise (Updated)
  4. Establish the policy framework (New)
  5. Populate a roadmap that can deliver the vision (Updated)
  6. Put the financing in place (Updated)
  7. Enable communities and engage with informality: how to make “Smarter” a self-sustaining process (Updated)

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

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

The Smarter City imperative

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Singapore Traffic Prediction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Formal sources include:

  • UN-HABITAT, the United Nations agency for human settlements, which recently published its “State of the World’s Cities 2012/2013” report. UNHABITAT promote socially and environmentally sustainable towns and cities, and their reports and statistics on urbanisation are frequently cited as authoritative. Their 2012/2013 report includes extensive consultation with cities around the world, and proposes a number of new mechanisms intended to assist decision-makers.
  • The Academy of Urbanism, a UK-based not-for-profit association of several hundred urbanists including policy-makers, architects, planners and academics, publishes the “Friebrug Charter for Sustainable Urbanism” in collaboration with the city of Frieburg, Germany. Frieburg won the Academy’s European City of the Year award in 2010 but its history of recognition as a sustainable city goes back further. The charter contains a number of useful principles and ideas for achieving consensual sustainability that can be applied to Smarter Cities.
  • The UK Technology Strategy Board’s “Future Cities” programme (link requires registration) and the ongoing EU investments in Smart Cities are both investing in initiatives that transfer Smarter City ideas and technology from research into practise, and disseminating the knowledge created in doing so.

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

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

Some very interesting such approaches have emerged from thinking in policy, economics, planning and architecture: the Collective Research Initiatives Trust‘s study of Mumbai, “Being Nicely Messy“; Colin Rowe and Fred Koetter’s “Collage City“; Manu Fernandez’s “Human Scale Cities” project; and the “Massive / Small” concept and associated “Urban Operating System” from Kelvin Campbell and Urban Initiatives, for example have all suggested an approach that involves a “toolkit” of ideas for individuals and organisations to apply in their local context.

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

A good balance between the top-down and bottom-up approaches can be found in the large number of “Smart Cities” and “Future Cities” communities on the web, such as UBM’s “Future Cities” site; Next City; the Sustainable Cities Collective; the World Cities Network; and Linked-In discussion Groups including “Smart Cities and City 2.0“, “Smarter Cities” and “Smart Urbanism“.

Finally, I published an extensive article on this blog in December 2012 which provided a framework for identifying the technology components required to support Smart City initiatives of different kinds – “Pens, paper and conversations. And the other technologies that will make cities smarter“.

4. Establish the policy framework

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. Populate a roadmap that can deliver the vision

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Photo of the Brixton Pound by Charlie Waterhouse)

6. Put the financing in place

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

In the same way that a well designed urban highway should connect rather than divide the city communities it passes through, the new technology platforms put in place to support Smarter City initiatives should be made open to communities and entrepreneurs to constantly innovate in their own local context. As I explored in “Smarter city myths and misconceptions” this idea should really be at the heart of our understanding of Smarter Cities.

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

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

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

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

Commentary: a new form of leadership

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

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

Zolli identified a particular style of individual behaviour that was crucial in bringing about these collaborations that he called “translational leadership“: the ability to build new bridges; to bring together the resources of local communities and national and international institutions; to harness technology at appropriate cost for collective benefit; to step in and out of institutional and community behaviour and adapt to different cultures, conversations and approaches to business; and to create business models that balance financial health and sustainability with social and environmental outcomes.

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

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

An address to the United Nations: science, technology and innovation for sustainable cities and peri-urban communities

I was honoured this week to be asked to address the 16th session of the United Nations’ Commission on Science and Technology for Development in Geneva on the topic of Smarter Cities. I was invited to speak following the Commission’s interest in my article “Open urbanism: why the information economy will lead to sustainable cities“, which was referenced in their report “Science, technology and innovation for sustainable cities and peri-urban communities“. I’ll write an article soon to describe what I learned from the other speakers and discussions at the Commission; but in the meantime, this is a reasonable representation of my spoken remarks.

(Photo of a street market in Dhaka, Bangladesh by Joisey Showa)

In the Industrial Revolution European cities were built upwards around lifts powered by the steam engine invented by James Watt and commercialised by Matthew Boulton in Birmingham. Over the last century we have expanded them outwards around private automobiles and roads.

We believed we could afford to base our cities and their economies on that model because its social and environmental costs were not included in its price. As our cities have become polluted and congested; as the world’s urban population grows dramatically; and as energy costs rise; that illusion is failing.

Professors Geoffrey West and Louis Bettencourt of Los Alamos Laboratory and the Sante Fe Institute said in their 2010 paper in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Nature that “At the start of the twenty-first century, cities emerged as the source of the greatest challenges that the planet has faced since humans became social.”

Technology offers powerful opportunities to address those challenges, and to support the lives of populations inside and around cities in new and more efficient ways, in both developed and developing markets. But technology will only deliver those benefits if we adapt governance and financial models to achieve broader social, economic and environmental outcomes; and if we use technology in a way that serves the genuine needs of local people, communities and businesses. A city that succeeds in transforming itself in this way is one that we call a Smarter City.

Those technologies are developing at an incredible rate. Two years ago, IBM’s “Watson”computer competed successfully against human beings in the television quiz show “Jeopardy”. Scientists at the University of California at Berkley have used a Magnetic Resonance Imaging facility to capture images from the thoughts of a person watching a film. And anything from prosthetic limbs to artificial food can be “printed” from digital designs.

The boundary between information systems, the physical world, and human minds, bodies and understanding is disappearing, and the world will be utterly transformed as a result.

But for who?

As digital and related technologies develop ever more rapidly, they will continue to change the way that value is created in local and global economies. Existing challenges in the acquisition of skills, digital exclusion and social mobility mean that life expectancy varies by 20 years or more even between areas within single cities in developed economies, let alone between the developed and developing world.

The challenge of digital exclusion is well known, of course; but the rapidity of these developments and the profound nature of their potential impact on city systems and economies imply a new sense of urgency in addressing it.

When my son was two years old I showed him a cartoon on an internet video site using the touchscreen tablet I’d just bought. When it finished, he instinctively reached out to touch the thumbnail image of the cartoon he wanted to watch next. The children of my son’s generation who grow up with that innate expectation that information across the world is literally at their fingertips will have an enormous advantage.

One of the things that we are exploring through Smarter City initiatives is how to make some of the power of these technologies more widely available to cities and communities.

(The multi-agency control centre in Rio de Janeiro built by Mayor Eduardo Paes to enable the city's agencies to manage the city effectively during the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games)

(The multi-agency control centre in Rio de Janeiro built by Mayor Eduardo Paes to enable the city’s agencies to manage the city effectively during the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games)

The city of Rio de Janeiro offers one example of what is possible when we successfully apply technology in cities. Under the leadership of Mayor Eduardo Paes a single operations centre for the city now coordinates the actions of 30 City services to manage the city safely and efficiently. Information feeds from the city’s road systems, CCTV cameras, public safety services and from an advanced weather forecasting solution that can predict the likelihood of life-threatening landslides are delivered to the centre in realtime, and used to trigger multi-agency responses, as well as alerts to the civilian population through channels such as social media .

But Rio is a large city in a rapidly growing Country; and it is preparing for a Football World Cup and Olympic Games within 2 years of each other. How can cities who are not in this position emulate Rio’s approach? And how can the power of this technology be made more broadly available to city communities as well as the agencies and institutions that serve them?

In Dublin, Ireland, the “Dublinked” information sharing partnership between the City and surrounding County Councils, the National University of Ireland, businesses and entrepreneurs is now sharing three thousand city datasets; using increasingly sophisticated, realtime tools to draw value from them; identifying new ways for the city’s transport, energy and water systems to work; and enabling the formation of new,  information-based businesses. It is putting the power of technology and of city information not only at the disposal of the city authority and its agencies, but also into the hands of communities and innovators.

But Dublin is the capital city of a developed country, with an internationally-recognised university, and which hosts large development and research facilities for multi-national technology companies such as IBM. How can cities without those advantages emulate Dublin’s successes?

One way is to re-use the results of research and “first-of-a-kind” projects whose cost has been borne in the developed world or in rapidly growing economies to pilot solutions in the developing world.

For example, my colleagues recently used knowledge gained through research in Dublin to suggest improvements to public transport in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire.

The project analysed anonymised movement data from the GPS sensors in the mobile telephones of bus passengers in order to identify clusters of start, end and intermediate points in their end-to-end journeys. By comparing existing bus routes to those points, the project identified four new bus routes and led to changes in many others.

As a result, 22 routes now show increased ridership. And by providing bus routes that better match the journeys that people really want to undertake, the need for them to travel to and from bus stops – often using unregulated and relatively unsafe “informal” travel services – is reduced to the extent that citywide travel time has decreased by 10%.

But we are not just seeking to replicate what works in a handful of high-profile cities as if the same solutions apply everywhere. It’s not always the case that they do, especially without local adaptation. And it’s vital to also enable new initiatives that arise from specific local contexts in cities everywhere, whatever their resources.

Consequently, in Sunderland, we were asked by the City Council: how do you make Hendon Smarter?

Sunderland is typical of the many post-industrial cities in Europe that are rebuilding economies following the decline of industries such as coalmining, bulk manufacturing and shipbuilding in the late 20th Century. Hendon in Sunderland’s East End is one of the areas that suffered most from that decline, and it still has low levels of employment, skills and social mobility.

What we have learned in Sunderland and elsewhere is that it is often private sector entrepreneurs and community innovators who have the widest set of ideas about how technology can be used cleverly to achieve the outcomes that are important to their cities, particularly in an environment with limited access to finance, skills and technology resources.

The large institutions of a city can assist those innovators by acting as an aggregator for their common needs for such resources, making them easier to acquire and use. They can also introduce external partners with research and development capability to those aggregate needs, which for them can represent a new market opportunity worthy of investment.

It’s rare that these connections work directly: government bodies and their large-scale suppliers have very different business models and cultures to small-scale innovators; and often there is little history of interaction, cooperation and trust. The role of “bridging organisations” and networks between individuals is extremely important.

(The SES "Container City" incubation facility for social enterprise in Sunderland)

(The “Container City” incubation facility for social enterprises operated by Sustainable Enterprise Strategies in Sunderland)

In Sunderland, Sustainable Enterprise Strategies, who provide business support to small businesses and social enterprises in Hendon, provided the bridge between the City Council and IBM; and community innovators, such as Lydia’s House who train vulnerable adults in skills such as furniture-making, and Play Fitness, who engage children from deprived backgrounds in physical exercise and education by using digital technology to connect exercise equipment to computer games. Sunderland Software City, the city’s technology business incubator, plays a similar role within the local community of entrepreneurial technology businesses.

This approach is not specific to Sunderland, the UK or the developed world. Our work in Sunderland was inspired by a previous project in Wuxi, China; and in turn it has informed our approaches in cities as far afield as the United States, the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

In many countries in many geographies, new organisational models are emerging from these co-operative ecosystems. For example:

  • Community Interest Companies for managing shared assets such as land, natural resources, or locally-produced food or energy, such as the Eco-Island initiative on the Isle of Wight; or similar models internationally such as Waste Concern in Bangladesh.
  • Social Enterprises such as Lydia’s House and Play Fitness, which develop financially sustainable business models, but which are optimised to deliver social, environmental or long-term economic benefits, rather than the maximum short-term financial return.
  • New partnerships between public sector agencies; educational institutions; service and technology providers; communities; and individuals – such as the Dubuque 2.0 sustainability partnership in where the city authority, residents and utility providers have agreed to share in the cost of fixing leaks in water supply identified by smart meters.

Often such organisations create innovative business models in the form of marketplaces in industries in which money-flows already exist. The changes to those money-flows created by smarter systems form the basis of the potential for returns upon which a business case for investment can be made.

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

Arguably, the widespread use of mobile phone technology in the developing world, and in particular the ubiquity of mobile payments systems in Africa, is more advanced in its ability to create such marketplaces using very low cost infrastructure than in communities in the developed world . Both financial services institutions and technology entrepreneurs in the West are watching these innovations closely and learning from them.

Examples include SMS for Life, which uses a text messaging system to implement a dynamic, distributed supply chain for medicines between collaborating pharmacies in several African countries. And Kilimo Salama provides affordable insurance for small-scale farmers by using remote weather monitoring to trigger payouts via mobile phones, rather than undertaking expensive site visits to assess claims. This is a good example of a private-sector aggregator – in this case an insurer – investing in a technology – remote weather monitoring – to serve a large number of end-users – the farmers – who can’t afford it directly.

In cities, we are starting to see these ideas applied to the creation of food distribution schemes; sustainable transport systems that share the use of resources such as cars and vans and perform dynamic matching between networks of independent consumers and providers of transport services; and many other systems that reinforce local trading opportunities and create social and economic growth.

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

But the role of technology in these markets is not just to introduce consumers and providers of services to each other; but to do so in a way that informs consumers about the impact of the choices they are about to make.

In Singapore, algorithms are used by the city’s traffic managers to predict traffic flow and congestion in the city up to one hour ahead with 85% accuracy. This allows them to take measures to prevent the predicted congestion occurring.

In a later project in California, those predictions made by those algorithms were provided to individual commuters in San Francisco’s Bay Area. Each commuter was told, in advance, the likely duration of their journey to the city each day, including the impact of any congestion that would develop whilst their journey was underway. This allowed them to make new choices: to travel at a different time; by a different route or mode of transport; or not to travel at all.

And we can appeal not only to individual motivations, but to our sense of community and place. In a smart water meter project in Dubuque, households were given information that told them whether their domestic appliances were being used efficiently, and alerted to any leaks in their supply of water. To a certain extent, households acted on this information to improve the efficiency of their water usage.

However a control group were also given a “green points” score telling them how their water conservation compared to that of their near neighbours. The households given that information were twice as likely to take action to improve their efficiency.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs tells us that once the immediate physical needs and safety of ourselves and our family are secured, that our motivations are next dictated by our relationships with the people around us – our families, communities and peers. Our ability to relate information to community contexts allows information-based services to appeal to those values.

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

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

A new style of personal leadership can be found in many of the situations in which these ideas are successfully applied: people from a variety of backgrounds who have the ability to build new bridges; to bring together the resources of local communities and national and international institutions; to harness technology at appropriate cost for collective benefit; to step in and out of institutional and community behaviour and adapt to different cultures, conversations and approaches to business; and to create business models that balance financial health and sustainability with social and environmental outcomes.

The more that national and local governments can collaborate with the private sector, bridging organisations and communities to encourage this style of leadership and support and reward these new models of business, the more successfully we’ll put the power of technology into the hands of the people, businesses and communities most able to design, use and operate the new services that will make their cities better.

Large organisations have resources; small organisations have the ability to create valuable innovations in true sympathy with the detail of their local context. Private sector has the expertise to invest in assets that create future value; public sector has the responsibility to govern for the good of all. It is only by working together across all of these boundaries at once that we will really succeed in making cities Smarter in a way that is sustainable and equitably distributed. And that must be the only definition of “Smarter” that makes sense.

Death, life and place in great digital cities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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