Privacy in digital cities: Google Glass, the right to choose, and the enduring legacy of Jane Jacobs

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

I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few years discussing the evolution of cities, and the role of technology in that evolution, with architects, social scientists, politicians and academics. In the course of those discussions, every few weeks someone has suggested that Jane Jacobs laid the basic groundwork for understanding that evolution in her 1961 book “The Death and Life of Great Amercian Cities“.

That book is more than half a century old now, and clearly it was written in the context of the technologies of the time. And those technologies are a background presence in it, not it’s focus. But in the sense that construction technologies, transport technologies and digital technologies are only effective in cities when they are subservient to the needs of the everyday lives of people and communities, then Jacobs’ discourse on the proper understanding of those lives remains highly relevant; and should be inspirational to us in understanding how today’s technologies can serve them.

In particular, it is relevant to one of the great societal, ethical, political, legal and technical challenges of our time: privacy in a world of digital information.

The concept of privacy was central to Jacobs’ analysis of the functioning of cities. Her defining characteristic of cities is that the great size of their populations means that most people in them are strangers to each other; and that creating safety and security in that context is very different to creating it a town or village where a higher proportion of people are known to each other.

Her assertion was that cities are safe places for strangers to inhabit or visit when public and private life are clearly separated. When public life is lived on streets with a mixture of residential, retail, work and leisure activities, then those streets are busy at most times of day and night. They are therefore full of observers who inhibit anti-social behaviour, and can intervene to prevent it if necessary. In contrast, private life is safe when it is lived securely and separate from those public spaces, so that strangers cannot intrude.

Places that blur these distinctions can be dangerous. Parks in sparsely populated and entirely residential suburbs, for example, are short of observers; so that if the play of children, or the behaviour of others towards them, becomes threatening, there is less likelihood of a preventive intervention.

This thinking was brought to mind this week by Jan Chipchase’s discussion of the implications of Google Glass. Glass is a “wearable computer” mounted on false spectacles that displays information to overlay what we see. It can make video and audio recordings of the world we are experiencing, and can distribute those recordings through wireless connectivity to the internet. It responds to a voice-control interface and  by recognising manual gestures.

Chipchase compared the implications of these capabilities to our assumptions of what constitutes reasonable public behaviour. Is it acceptable that strangers in the same place should record each other’s behaviour and distribute those recordings with no indication that they are doing so? Chipchase suggested that to do so would create distrust and uneasiness in public situations.

Such unsignalled recording and distribution of public behaviour blurs boundaries between new forms of public and private context. In a physically public context, an individual is privately choosing to distribute detailed information concerning other individuals in that context to a much broader audience who are unknown to the subjects of the recording.

These public and private contexts are related to and extend those that Jacobs discussed; does blurring the boundaries between them undermine safety between strangers in an analogous way?

I think it does.

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

Suppose I have a conversation with a friend in a cafe about a birthday gift for my wife. If, unknown to us, that conversation is recorded and uploaded to the internet, what is the risk that my wife might discover the nature of what is intended to be a surprise gift?

If the recording is uploaded to Youtube and identified only with a time and a place, my wife is unlikely to stumble across it. But if it is uploaded to a Facebook group concerned with our local highstreet; and if it is tagged with the names of people, places and things extracted by speech-recognition technology from it’s audio content; and if it is recorded by a person who is related by friend-of-a-friend relationship to either me or my wife; then the chance of her encountering it through her own interactions with social media increases.

This is a fairly innocuous example – life is more pleasant when birthday presents are surprises, but it is hardly life-threatening when they are not. But there are many scenarios in which failures of privacy are harmful; and sometimes extremely so.

Chipchase suggested principles of behaviour for avoiding such failures – for example, ways in which Glass users could make it visibly clear to others in their vicinity that they are making a recording. Indeed, many photographers already make a point of establishing the consent of the people they are photographing; the failure of some “Paparazzi” to do so is what leads to the controversies concerning their behaviour.

This discussion is not intended as a criticism of Google Glass. On the contrary, I’m tremendously excited by it’s potential – I’ve written frequently on this blog about the astonishing possibilities that such technologies will create as they remove the boundary between human behaviour and information systems. But we do need take their implications seriously.

And while Glass is still a relatively narrowly distributed prototype, the humble smartphone and related technologies raise similar challenges. They have already fundamentally changed the relationships between our communications with other people, and our proximity to them.

(Our gestures when using smartphones may be directed towards the phones, or the people we are communicating with through them; but how are they interpreted by the people around us? “Oh, yeah? Well, if you point your smartphone at me, I’m gonna point my smartphone at you!” by Ed Yourdon)

If we use a relatively inconspicuous Bluetooth headset to make a call through a mobile phone hidden in a pocket; and if we gesture with our arms emphatically whilst speaking on that call; how should the people around us, who might be completely unaware that the call is taking place, interpret our actions? And what happens if they perceive those gestures to be rude or threatening?

Our use of such devices already creates a mass of data that diffuses into the world around us. 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.

As a result, two of the most frequent questions I am asked in panel debates or media interviews are: who owns all this data? And are big corporations using it and controlling it for their own purposes?

The answers to those questions are not simple, but they are important. Just as Jane Jacobs argued that the provision of privacy in urban environments is fundamental to their ability to successfully support all of their inhabitants; so privacy in digital environments is fundamental to the ability of all of us to benefit fairly from the information economy.

It is certainly true that organisations of all types and sizes are competing for the new markets and opportunities of the information economy that are created, in part, by the 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.

Max Barry’s novel “Jennifer Government” describes a world in which personal information is dominated by loyalty-card programmes that define not just the retail economy, but society as a whole – to the extent to which surnames have been replaced with institutional affiliations (hence the book is populated by characters such as Jennifer “Government”, John “Nike” and Violet “ExxonMobil”). It is simultaneously funny and scary because it is recognisable as one possible extrapolation from the world we live in today (though not, I hope, the most likely; and I should state that Nike and ExxonMobil feature in it in entirely fictitious roles).

A real information-based enterprise working to a different set of principles is MyDex, a Community Interest Company (CIC) who have created a platform for securely storing and sharing personal information. Incorporation as a CIC  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 business structure reflects principles which occur elsewhere in examples of commercial organisations whose operations are consistent with long-term community value.

(Hancock Bank’s vault, damaged by Hurricane Katrina. Photo by Social Stratification)

In Resilience, Andrew Zolli gives another example, that of Hancock Bank’s response to hurricane katrina. Hancock are a local institution in New Orleans, and their branch network was 90% destroyed by the hurricane. Whilst they recovered their central systems relatively quickly, without a branch network there was no way to interact with their customers – the citizens of a devastated city with a desperate need for cash to purchase food and basic supplies.

Hancock’s staff were able to set up temporary facilities to meet customers, but without any connection from those facilities to their central systems, how could they know who their customers were, let alone how much money each had in their current account?

Hancock answered this challenge by referring to it’s original charter, which described the bank as an institution that supported the city’s community – not as one which existed to make profits. On that basis they decided to lend $200 to anyone who would write their name and social security number on a piece of paper and sign it.

This astonishing action put desperately needed cash into the community. And the community remembered. After three years all but $250,000 of the $42,000,000 the bank lent in this way had been repaid; and the bank had 13,000 new customer accounts and a $1.5billion increase in deposits. Ultimately, their actions made very good business sense.

So how can we influence institutions to create strategies to deal with our personal information that are similarly consistent with long-term mutual benefit?

In Collapse, Jared Diamond explores at length the role of corporations, consumers, communities, campaigners and political institutions in influencing whether businesses such as fishing and resource extraction are operated in the long term interests of the ecosystem containing them – including their communities, environment and ecology – or whether they are being optimised only for short term financial gain and potentially creating damaging impacts as a consequence.

Diamond asserted that in principle a constructive,  sustainable relationship between such businesses and their ecosystems is perfectly compatible with business interest; and in fact is vital to sustaining long-term, profitable business operations. He described at length Chevron’s operations in the Kutubu oilfield in Papua New Guinea,  working in partnership with local communities to achieve social, environmental and business sustainability. The World Resources Institute’s recent report, “Aligning profit and environmental sustainability: stories from industry” contains many other examples.

But these examples are driven by what are now very visible and acknowledged challenges that directly affect business: climate change, water shortages and the increasing impact and severity of extreme weather events. How can we bring the same approach to the design of business models that deal with personal information?

(Photo by Stefan of Himeji, Japan, showing the forest that covers much of Japan’s landmass enclosing – and enclosed by – the city. In the 17th and 19th Centuries, Japan successfully slowed population growth and reversed a trend of of deforestation which threatened it’s society and economy, as described in Jared Diamond’s book “Collapse“.)

Collapse was written 8 years ago now; and it’s messages on how to influence the sustainability agenda of businesses in the last decade may provide insight into how we should influence the privacy agenda today. In Diamond’s view, the key was to understand where we as consumers can bring the most pressure to bear in the supply chains and markets which depend ultimately on the resources we care about. In Diamond’s words:

“… the most effective pressure on mining companies to change their practises has come not from individual consumers picketing mine sites, but from big companies that buy metals … and that sell to individual consumers”.

– Jared Diamond, Collapse, 2005, p 477

As well as applying pressure to those elements in the supply chain where consumers have purchasing power, some means are needed to monitor the behaviour of businesses and certify their performance. Schemes offering such certifications include those operated by the Forestry Stewardship Council for sustainable forestry; BREEAM for sustainable buildings and Fairtrade for socially sustainable food.

There are, of course, significant challenges with this approach: who defines how the impact of resource usage should be measured? Who performs the measurement? Are systems in place across supply chains to track the movement of resources through them such that accurate, end-to-end measurements can be made?

Whilst some of these challenges can be addressed with technology solutions – such as the tracking of food through the supply chain using RFID tags – some of them will only be addressed by informed consumers. Standards for measuring impact, for example, are often defined by non-governmental organisations; and their stakeholders usually include communities, consumers and businesses with an interest in the systems being measured. Typically, several such standards compete in any industry, offering different approaches to measurement. To understand what those standards are telling us; and to use them to choose products and services that promote the outcomes that matter to us, we need to be informed, not casual, consumers.

The lesson for privacy is that all of us need to be sophisticated guardians of our own security – just as we have become more sophisticated purchasers of food and users of technology. We need to exercise that sophistication in choosing to engage with organisations whose approaches to the security and privacy of our data is respectful and transparent, and which build a relationship or transaction of mutual value.

Conversely, we need to help organisations – public or private – that use personal data to understand what for us constitutes the mistreatment of data; especially through actions that are a side effect of our direct transactions with them, akin to the environmental impact of resource industries. And where there is no choice, or no transparency to enable choice, we need to lobby politicians to make clear that we care about these issues, and that we will vote for those who address them.

Of course the security agenda in a digital age is not a new one; but as technology spreads further and deeper into city systems, and into our interactions in city environments, it is useful to bear in mind the enduring legacy of Jane Jacob’s work, and be reminded that security is at the heart of cities, not just technology.

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

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

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

Design Pattern: City-Centre Enterprise Incubation

Summary of the pattern:

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

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

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

City systems, communities and infrastructures affected:

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

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

Commercial operating model:

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

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

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

Soft infrastructures, hard infrastructures and assets required:

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

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

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

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

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

Driving forces:

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

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

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

Benefits:

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

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

Implications and risks:

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

Alternatives and variations:

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

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

Examples and stories:

Examples of collaborative working spaces include:

Sources of information:

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Martin’s words:

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

(quoted from the Refactoring homepage).

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

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

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

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

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

(Image by TurkleTom)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finally, the same challenges appear in economic development.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The need for sympathetic digital urbanism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Photo of me wearing the Emotiv headset)

(Photo of me wearing the Emotiv headset)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Photo of 3D printer by Media Lab Prado)

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

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

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

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

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

The attraction of opposites part 1: little and big

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

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

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

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

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

The same concepts apply to technology infrastructures.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The attraction of opposites part 2: producer and consumer

(Photo of 3D-printed objects by Shapeways)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Collaborative governance; and better stories for Smarter Cities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DDespommier

(Dickson Despommier, inventor of the vertical farm, speaking at TEDxWarwick 2013)

It’s imperative that we tell these stories to inspire the evolution of our cities. The changes in coming decades will be so fast and so profound that cities that do not embrace them successfully will suffer severe decline.

Luckily, our ability to respond successfully to those changes depends on a technology that is freely available: language, used face to face in conversations. I can’t think of a more essential challenge than to use it to tell stories about how our world can be come smarter, fairer, and more sustainable.

And there’s no limit to what any one of us can achieve by doing this. Because it is collaborative governance rather than institutional authority that enables Smarter Cities, then there are no rules defining where the leadership to establish that governance will come from.

Whether you are a politician, academic, technologist, business person, community activist or simply a passionate individual; and whether your aim is to create a new partnership across a city, or simply to start an independent social enterprise within it; that leadership could come from you.

(This article is based on the script I wrote in preparation for my TEDxWarwick presentation on 13th March 2013).

A design pattern for a Smarter City: the City Information Partnership

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

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

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

Design Pattern: City Information Partnership

Summary of the pattern: A collaboration between city institutions, communities, service providers and research institutions to share and exploit city data in a socially and financially sustainable system.

City systems, communities and infrastructures affected:

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

  • Goals: Any.
  • People: Citizens; innovators.
  • Ecosystem: All.
  • Soft infrastructures: Innovation forums; networks and community organisations.
  • City systems: Any.
  • Hard infrastructures: Information and communications technology.

Commercial operating model:

City information partnerships are often incorporated as “Special Purpose Vehicles” (SPVs) jointly owned by city institutions such as local authorities; universities; other public sector organisations such as schools, healthcare providers and emergency services; services providers such as transportation authorities and utilities; asset owners and operators such as property developers and facility managers; local employers; and private sector providers such as technology companies.

A shared initial investment in technology infrastructure is often required; and in order to address legal issues such as intellectual property rights and liability agreements.

Long-term financial sustainability is dependent on the generation of commercial revenues by licensing the use of data by commercial operations. In cases where such initiatives have been supported only by public sector or research funding, that funding has eventually been reduced or terminated leading to the stagnation or cessation of the initiative.

Soft infrastructures, hard infrastructures and assets required:

Information partnerships only succeed where they are a component of a co-creative dialogue between individuals and organisations in city institutions such as entrepreneurs, community associations, local authorities and social enterprises.

Institutional support is required to provide the models of legal liability and intellectual property ownership that create a trusted and transparent context for collaborative innovation.

Technologies such as Cloud Computing platforms; information management; security; analytics, reporting; visualisation; and data catalogues are required to manage city information and make it available and useful to end users.

Information partnerships require the participation of organisations which between them own and are prepared to make available a sufficiently broad and rich collection of datasets.

Driving forces:

Information is transforming the world’s economy; it provides new insight to support business model creation and operation; makes new products and services possible; and creates new markets.

At the same time global and local demographic trends mean that the cost-base and resource usage of city systems must change.

Information partnerships expose city information to public, private, social and academic research and innovation to discover, create and operate new models for city services; with the potential for resale elsewhere; leading in turn to economic and social growth.

Benefits:

Community hacktivism can usually be engaged by information partnerships to create useful community “apps” such as local transport information and accessibility advice.

The creation of new information-based businesses creates local employment opportunities, and economic export potential.

Information partnerships can provide information resources for technology education in schools, colleges and universities.

New city services developed as a result of the information partnership may provide lower-carbon alternatives to existing city systems such as transportation.

Implications and risks:

If participating organisations such as local authorities include the requirement to contribute data to the information partnership in procurement criteria, then tendering organisations will include any associated costs in their proposals.

For information partnerships to be sustainable, the operating entity needs to be able to accrue and reinvest profits from licenses to exploit data commercially.

The financial returns and economic growth created by information partnerships can take time to develop.

Genuinely constructive partnerships rely on effective engagement between city institutions, businesses and communities.

Existing contracts between local authorities and service providers are unlikely to require that data is contributed to the partnership; and the costs associated with making the data associated with those services available will need to be negotiated.

Alternatives and variations:

Some organisations have provided single-party open data platforms. These can be effective – for example, the APIs offered by e-Bay and Amazon; but individual organisations within cities will rarely have a critical mass of valuable data; or the resources required to operate effective and sustained programmes of engagement with the local community.

Many advocates of open data argue that such data should be freely available. However, the majority of platforms that have made data available freely have struggled to make data available in a form that is usable; to expand the data available; to offer data at a reliable level of service; or to sustain their operations over time. Making good quality data available reliably requires effort, and that effort needs to be paid for.

Examples and stories:

Sources of information:

The UK Open Data Institute is championing open data in the UK – http://www.theodi.org/

O’Reilly Media have published many informative articles on their “Radar” website – http://search.oreilly.com/?q=open+data&x=0&y=0&tmpl=radar

The report “Information Marketplaces: The new economics of cities” published by Arup, The Climate Group, Accenture and Horizon, University of Nottingham – http://www.arup.com/Publications/Information_Marketplaces_the_new_economics_of_cities.aspx

Finally, I have written a series of articles on this blog that explore the benefits and challenges associated with the collaborative exploitation of city information:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The attraction of opposites, part 1: producer and consumer

20120605-005134.jpg

(Photograph of 3D printers by Rob Boudon)

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

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

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

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

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

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

The attraction of opposites, part 2: little and big

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG-20121104-00606

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

Co-operative Governance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A challenge for 2013: better stories for Smarter Cities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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