4 ways to get on with building Smart Cities. And the societal failure that stops us using them.

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(William Robinson Leigh’s 1908 painting “Visionary City” envisaged future cities constructed from mile-long buildings of hundreds of storeys 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.)

The Smart City refuses to go away
In 2013 Adam Greenfield wrote “Against the Smart City”  in criticism of the large-scale corporate- and government-led projects in cities such as Masdar, Songdo and Rio that had begun to co-opt the original idea of “Smart Communities” and citizens, given a more powerful voice in their own governance by Internet communication, into what he saw – and what some still see – as a “top-down” approach to infrastructure and services divorced from the interest of ordinary citizens.

But despite regular reprisals of this theme accompanied by assertions that the Smart City is a misguided idea that is doomed to die away, notably last year in the UK’s Guardian newspaper, the Smart City has neither been abandoned as mistaken nor faded from prominence as it would have done by now if it were nothing but a technology buzzword. (Whether they have disappeared entirely or simply become everyday parts of the landscape, ideas that once dominated the technology industry such as “Service Oriented Architecture“, “Web 2.0” and “e-business” have risen to prominence and disappeared again within the lifetime of “Smart Cities”).

Instead, the various industry, community, political, academic and design interests associated with the Smart City idea have gradually learned how to combine the large-scale, intelligent infrastructures needed to support the incredible level and speed of urbanisation around the world with the accessible technologies that allow citizens, communities and businesses to adapt those infrastructures to their own needs and create more successful lives for themselves. As a consequence, new cities and new media organisations are still adding to those already debating the idea – I’ve received invitations to new events in the UK, Ireland, Malaysia, China and the Middle East already this year, and mainstream reputable sources such as the Daily Telegraph, Fortune magazine, the Economist and Forbes have covered the trend.

Yet despite all of this interest from industry and the public sector, the reality is that we still haven’t seen significant investment in those ideas on a sustainable basis.

If you read this blog regularly then you’ll know that I don’t believe that our primary focus for funding Smart City initiatives should be through the innovation funds provided by bodies such as Innovate UK or programmes such as the European Union’s Horizon 2020. Those are both great vehicles for driving innovation out of research organisations into business and public services; but for any city facing an acute challenge the bidding processes take too long and consume too many resources; the high levels of competition mean there can be a relatively low chance of receiving funds; and projects funded in this way often don’t solve the challenge of paying for the resulting solution on an ongoing basis. Most of the sustainable solutions that result from them are new business products and services: once the initial funded pilot with a local authority has finished, where does the money come from to pay for an ongoing commercial solution?

There are, however, a clear set of routes to securing sustainable investment that the most forward-looking cities have demonstrated. They don’t require cities to attract flagship technology industries to invest in them as proving-grounds for new products and services; they don’t require the inward investment that comes from international sporting and cultural events; and they’re not the preserve of rich or fast-growing capital cities on the international stage.

They do require senior city leaders – Mayors, Council Leaders and their Executive officers – to adopt and drive them; and they also require collaboration and partnership with other city institutions and with private sector suppliers.

And they require bravery, integrity and commitment from those private sector suppliers – such as my employer Amey – to offer new partnerships to our customers. Smart Cities won’t come about through us selling our products and services in transactional exchanges; they’ll come about through new partnerships in which we agree to share not just the responsibility to invest in technology and innovation, but also responsibility for the risks involved in achieving the objectives that cities care about.

But while these approaches to delivering Smart Cities will require hard and careful work, and real investment in collaboration, they are all accessible to any city that chooses to use them; and there’s no reason at all why that process can’t begin today.

Getting started: agreeing on aspirations

The starting point to putting a Smart City strategy in place is to create a specific, aspirational vision rooted in the challenges, opportunities and capabilities of a particular place and its communities, and that can win support from local stakeholders. I have seen (broadly) two types of Smart Cities visions of this sort created over the last few years.

1. Local Authority visions for digital services and infrastructure

Many local authorities have developed plans for smart, digital local services, coupled with plans for regional investment in infrastructure (such as 4G and broadband connectivity), digital skills and business-enablement. A good example is Hampshire County Council’s “Digital Hampshire” plan (Hampshire is a relatively large and economically healthy County in the UK with a population of 1.3 million and GDP just over £30billion).

One of the earliest examples was Sunderland’s “Economic Masterplan”, which which has driven around £15m of investment by the City Council so far, with further and potentially more significant initiatives now underway. (Sunderland are a medium-sized city in the UK, with a population of approximately 300,000. The city has been focussed for many years on modernising and diversifying its economy following the decline of the shipbuilding and coalmining industries. They are genuine, if often unacknowledged, thought leaders in Smart Cities).

2. City-wide or region-wide collaborative visions

In some cities and regions a wide variety of stakeholders, usually facilitated by a Local Authority or University leader, have developed collaborative plans including commitments and initiatives from local businesses, Universities, transport organisations and service providers as well as government agencies. These visions tend to contain more ambitious plans, for example the provision of “Smart Home” connectivity in new affordable housing developments, multi-modal transport payment schemes, local renewable energy generation schemes etc. London and Birmingham are good examples of this type of plan; and London in particular have used it to drive significant investments in Smart infrastructure through property development.

In both cities, formal collaborations were established to create these visions and drive the strategies to implement them – Birmingham’s Smart City Commission (which I’ve recently re-joined after having been a member of its first incarnation) and London’s Smart London Board (on which I briefly represented IBM before joining Amey).

Whether the first or the second type of plan is the right approach for any specific city, region or community depends on the level of support and collaboration amongst stakeholders in the local authority and the wider city and region – and of course, many plans in reality are somewhere between those two types. If the enthusiasm and leadership are there, neither type of plan need be a daunting process – Oxford recently built a plan of the second type from scratch between the City Council, local Universities and businesses in around 6 months by working with existing local partnerships and networks.

Moving forward: focussing on delivery and practical funding mechanisms

The degree to which cities and regions have then implemented these strategies is determined by how well they’ve focussed on realistic sources of investment and funding. For example, whilst some cities – notably Sunderland and London – have secured significant investments from sustainable sources rather than from research and innovation funds, many others – so far – have not.

I have probably tested some of my relationships with local authorities and innovation agencies to the limit by arguing repeatedly that many Smart City initiatives and debates focus far too much on applying for central Government funds and grants from Research and Innovation funding agencies; and far too little on sustainable business and investment models for new forms of city infrastructure and services.

I make these arguments because there are at least four approaches that any city can use to exploit existing, ongoing streams of funding and investment to implement a Smart City vision in a sustainable way – if their leaders and stakeholders have the conviction to make them happen; and because I passionately believe that these are the mechanisms that can unlock the opportunity for cities across the country and around the world to realise the huge social, economic and environmental benefits that technology developments can enable if they are harnessed in the right way:

  1. Include Smart City criteria in the procurement of services by local authorities to encourage competitive innovation from private sector providers
  2. Encourage development opportunities to include “smart” infrastructure
  3. Commit to entrepreneurial programmes
  4. Enable and support Social Enterprise

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

1. Include Smart City criteria in the procurement of services by local authorities to encourage competitive innovation from private sector providers

Sunderland City Council are at the forefront of investing in Smart City technology simply by reflecting their aspirations in their procurement practises for the goods and services they need to operate as a Council. They have included objectives from their Economic Masterplan in four procurements for IT solutions now, totalling around £15m – for example, the transformation of their IT infrastructure from a traditional platform to a Cloud computing platform was awarded to IBM based on IBM’s commitment to help the Council to use the Cloud platform to help local businesses, social enterprises, charities and entrepreneurs to succeed.

Whilst specific procurement choices in any given service are different in every case – whether to procure support for in-house delivery or to outsource to an external provider; or whether to form a PFI, Joint Venture or other such partnership structure for example – the principle of using business-as-usual procurements to invest in the Smart agenda is one that can be applied by any local authority or other organisation responsible for the delivery of public or city services or infrastructure.

This approach is dependent on the procurement of outcomes – for example, the quality of road surfaces, the smoothness of traffic flow, contributions to social mobility and small business growth – rather than of capabilities or resources. Outcomes-based procurements between competing providers create the incentive from the release of the tender through to the completion of the contract for private sector providers to invest in innovation and technology to deliver the most competitive offer to the customer.

Over the last 10 months in Amey, where many of our customer relationships are outcomes-based, whether they are with local governments, other public sector organisations or regulated industries such as utilities, I’ve rapidly put together a portfolio of Smart City initiatives that are supported by very straightforward business cases based on those commitments to outcomes. These initiatives are not just making our own operations more cost effective (and safer) – although they are doing both of those, and that’s what guarantees our ongoing financial commitment to them; they are also delivering new social insights, new forms of citizen engagement and new opportunities for community collaboration for our customers.

The stakeholders whose commitment is needed to implement this approach include Local Authority Chief Executives, Council Leaders, Cabinet members and their Chief Financial Officers or Finance Directors, as well as procuring Executives in services such as highways management, parking services, social care, health and wellbeing and IT. They can also include representatives of local transport organisations for initiatives focussed on transport and mobility.

I won’t pretend that an outcomes-based approach is always easy to adopt, either for local government organisations or their suppliers. In particular, if we want to apply this approach to the highest-level Smart City aspirations for social mobility, economic growth and resilience, then there is a need for dialogue between all parties to establish how to express those outcomes in a way that incentivises the private sector to invest in innovation to deliver them; and to do so in a way that both rewards them appropriately for their achievements whilst giving local government and the citizens and communities they serve good value for money and exemplary service.

In discussions at the last meeting of the UK Government’s Smart Cities Forum, recently re-convened after the general election, there was clearly an appetite for that discussion on both sides: but it needs a neutral, trusted intermediary to facilitate it. That’s not a role that anyone is playing at the moment – neither in government, nor in industry, nor in academia, nor in the conference circuit, nor in the various innovation agencies that are active in Smart Cities. It’s a role that we badly need one – or all of them – to step up to.

(The Urban Sciences Building at Newcastle Science Central, a huge, University-driven regeneration project in central Newcastle that combines facilities for the research and development of new solutions for urban infrastructure with on-site smart infrastructure and services)

2. Encourage development opportunities to include “smart” infrastructure
In 2012 after completing their first Smart City Vision, Birmingham City Council asked what was both an obvious and a fundamentally important question – but one that, to my knowledge, no-one had thought to ask before:

“How should our Planning Framework be updated to reflect our Smart City vision?”

Birmingham’s insight has the potential to unlock an incredible investment stream – the British Property Federation estimates that £14billion is spent each year in the UK on new-build developments alone. Just a tiny fraction of that sum would dwarf the level of direct investment in Smart Cities we’ve seen to date.

Birmingham’s resulting “Digital Blueprint” contains 10 “best practise recommendations” for planning and development drawn in part from a wider set that resulted from a workshop that I facilitated for the Academy of Urbanism, a professional body of town planners, urban designers and architects in the UK. The British Standards Institute has recently taken these ideas forward and published guidance that is starting to be used by other cities.

But progress is slow. To my knowledge the only example of these ideas being put into practise in the UK (though I’d love to be proven wrong) is through the Greater London Authority (GLA) and London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC) who included criteria from the Smart London Plan in their process last year to award the East Wick and Sweetwater development opportunity to the private sector. This is a multi-£100million investment from a private sector pension fund to build 1,500 new homes on the London Olympics site along with business and retail space.

On behalf of IBM last year I contributed several Smart City elements of the winning proposal; it was astonishing to see how straightforward it was to justify committing multi-£million technology investments from the private sector in the development proposal simply because they would enable the construction and development consortium to win the opportunity to generate long-term profits at a much more significant level. Crucially, the LLDC demanded that the benefits of those investments should be felt not just by residents and businesses in the new development; but by residents and businesses in existing, adjoining neighbourhoods.

There is not much information on this aspect of the development in the public domain, but you can get some idea from this blog by the Master Planner subcontracted to the development. A similar approach is now being taken to an even larger redevelopment in London at Old Oak and Park Royal.

If cities in the UK and beyond are to take advantage of this potentially incredibly powerful mechanism, then we need to win over some crucial stakeholders: Local Authority Directors of Planning, regional development agencies, property developers, financiers and construction companies. Local Universities can be ideal partners for this approach – if they are growing and investing in new property development, there is a clear opportunity for their research departments to collaborate with property and infrastructure developers to create Smart City environments that showcase the capabilities of all parties. Newcastle Science Central is an example of this approach; it’s a real shame that elsewhere in the UK some significant investments are being made to extend University property – often on the basis of increased revenues from student fees – with no incorporation of these possibilities, at the same time that those same Universities’ own research groups are making countless bids into competitive research and innovation funds.

3. Commit to entrepreneurial programmes

[Priya Prakash of the entrepreneurial company Design 4 Social Change describes a project she is leading on behalf of Amey to improve citizen engagement with the services that we deliver for our customers]

Many Smart City initiatives are fundamentally business model innovations – new ways of combining financial success and sustainability with social, economic or environmental improvements in services such as transport, utilities or food. And most business model innovations are created by startup companies, funded by Venture Capital investment. Air B’n’B and Uber are two often-cited examples at the moment of how quickly such businesses, based on new, technology-enabled operating models, can create an enormous impact.

What if you could align that impact with the objectives of a city or region?

The “Cognicity” programme run by the Level 39 technology incubator in London’s Canary Wharf financial district has achieved this alignment by linking Venture Capital- and Angel-backed startup companies to the infrastructure requirements of the next phase of development at Canary Wharf. The West Midlands Public Transport Executive Centro and Innovation Birmingham have agreed a similar initiative to advance transport priorities in Birmingham through externally-funded innovation. Oxford are pursuing the same approach through their “Smart Oxford Challenge” in partnership with Nominet, a trust that supports social innovation. And Amey and our parent company Ferrovial are similarly supporting a “Smart Lab” in collaboration with the University of Sheffield and Sheffield City Council.

A variety of stakeholders are vital to creating entrepreneurial programmes that succeed and that crucially can attract finance to support the ideas that they generate – endless unfunded civic hackathons create ideas but too often fail to have an impact due to a lack of funding and a lack of genuine engagement from local authorities to adopt the solutions they make possible. Innovation funding agencies, especially those with a local or social focus are vital; as are the local Universities, technology incubators and social enterprise support organisations that both attract innovators and have the resources to support them. Finally, where they exist, local Angel Investors or Venture Capital organisations have an obvious role to play.

(Casserole Club, a social enterprise developed by FutureGov uses social media to connect people who have difficulty cooking for themselves with others who are happy to cook an extra portion for a neighbour; a great example of a locally-focused “sharing economy” business model which creates financially sustainable social value.)

4. Enable and support Social Enterprise

The objectives of Smart Cities (which I’d summarise for this purpose as “finding ways to invest in technology to enable social, environmental and economic improvements”) are analogous to the “triple bottom line” objectives of Social Enterprises – organisations whose finances are often sustained by revenues from the products or services that they provide, but that commit themselves to social, environmental or economic outcomes, rather than to maximising their financial returns to shareholders. A vast number of Smart City initiatives are carried out by these organisations when they innovate using technology.

Cities that find a way to systematically enable social enterprises to succeed could unlock a reservoir of beneficial innovation. An international example that began in the UK is the Impact Hub network, a global community of collaborative workspaces. The Impact Hub network has worked with a variety of national and local governments to create support programmes to encourage the formation of socially innovative and responsible organisations.

Social Enterprise UK help and support authorities seeking to work with Social Enterprises in this way through their “Social Enterprise Place” initiative; Oxfordshire was the first County to be awarded “Social Enterprise County” under this initiative in recognition of their engagement programme with Social Enterprise.

Another possibility is for local authorities to work in partnership with crowdfunding organisations. Plymouth City Council, for example, offer to match-fund any money raised from crowdfunding for social innovations. This approach can be tremendously powerful: whilst the availability of match-funding from the local authority attracts crowdfunded donations, often sufficient funds are donated through crowdfunding that ultimately the match funding is not required. Given the sustained pressure we’re seeing on public sector finances, this ability to enable a small amount of local authority investment go a very long way is really powerful.

The stakeholders whose commitment is required to make this approach effective include local authorities – whose financial commitment to support new ideas is vital – as well as representatives of the Charitable and Social Enterprise sectors; businesses with support programmes for Social Enterprise (such as Deloitte Consulting’s Social Innovation Pioneers programme); and local incubators and business support services for Social Enterprise.

Why Smart Cities are a societal failure

Market dynamics guarantee that we’ll see massive investment in smart technology over the next few years – the meteoric rise of Uber and Air B’n’B is just one manifestation of that imperative. Consider also how astonishing your SmartPhone is compared to anything you could have imagined a few years ago – and the phenomenal levels of investment in technology that have driven that development; or how quickly the level of technology available in the average car has increased – let alone what happens when self-driving, connected vehicles become widely available.

But what will be the result of all that investment?

Before the recent UK general election, I admonished a Member of Parliament who closed a Smart Cities discussion with the words “I don’t suppose we’ll be talking about this subject for a couple of months now; we’ve got an election to consider” with the response: “Apple have just posted the largest quarterly profit in Corporate history by selling mobile supercomputers to the ordinary people who vote for you. Why on earth isn’t the topic of “who benefits from this incredibly powerful technology that is reshaping our society” absolutely central to the election debate?” (Apple’s results had just been announced earlier that day).

That exchange (and the fact that these issues indeed barely surfaced at all throughout the election period) marks the core of the Smart Cities debate, and highlights our societal failure to address it.

Most politicians appreciate that technology is changing rapidly and that these changes merit attention; but they do not appreciate quite how fundamentally important and far-reaching those changes are. My sense is that they think they can deal with technology-related issues such as “Smart Cities” as self-contained subjects of secondary importance to the more pressing concerns of educational attainment, economic productivity and international competitiveness.

That is a fundamentally mistaken view. Over the next decade, developments in technology, and the way that we adapt to them, will be one of the most important factors influencing education, the economy and the character of our society.

Let me justify that assertion by considering the skills that any one of us will need in order to have a successful life as our society and economy develop.

It is obvious that we will need the right technical skills in order to use the technologies of the day effectively. But of course we will also need interpersonal skills to interact with colleagues and customers; economic skills to help focus our efforts on creating value for others; and organisational skills to enable us to do so in the context of the public and private institutions from which our society is constructed.

One single force is changing all of those skills more rapidly than we have ever known before: technology. When the Millennium began we would not have dreamed of speaking to our families wherever and whenever we liked using free video-calling, and we could not have started a business using the huge variety of online tools available to us today. From startups to multinational corporations, we are all comfortable building and operating companies that use continually evolving technology to coordinate the activities of people living in different countries on different continents; and to create innovative new ways of doing so.

Whatever you think are the most important issues in the world today, if you are not at least considering the role of technology within them, then you will misunderstand how they will develop over time. And the process of envisioning and creating that future is another way to define what we mean by Smart Cities and smart communities: the challenges and opportunities we face, and the changes that technology will create, come together in the places where we live, work, travel and play; and their outcomes will be determined both by the economics of those places, and by how how they are governed.

Unfortunately, most of us are not even engaged with these ideas. A recent poll conducted by Arqiva on behalf of YouGov found that 96% of respondents were unaware of any Smart City initiatives in the cities they lived in. If ordinary people don’t understand and believe in the value of Smart Cities, they are unlikely to vote for politicians who attempt to build them or enact policies that support them. That lack of appreciation represents a failure on the part of those of us – like me – who do appreciate the significance of the changes we’re living through to communicate them, and to make an effective case to take decisive action.

As an example of that failure, consider again Birmingham’s thought-leading “Digital Blueprint” and it’s ten design principles. To repeat, they are “best practise recommendations”: they are not policies. They are not mandatory or binding. And as a consequence, I am sorry to say that in practise they have not been applied to the literally £billions of investment in development and regeneration taking place in the city that I live in and love.

That’s a lost opportunity that greatly saddens me.

[Drones co-operate to build a rope bridge. As such machines become more capable and able to carry out more cheaply and safely tasks previously performed by people, and that are central to the construction and operation of city infrastructure and services, how do we ensure that society at large benefits from such technology?]

As a society we cannot afford to keep losing such opportunities (and Birmingham is not alone: taking those opportunities is by far the exception, and not the rule). If we do, our aspirations will be simply be overtaken by events, and the consequences could be profound.

Writing in “The 2nd Machine Age”, MIT Professors of Economics Andy McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson argue that the “platform business models” of Air B’n’B and Uber are becoming a dominant force in the economy – they cite the enormous market valuations of corporations such as Nike, Google, Facebook and Amazon that use such models, in addition to the rapid growth of new businesses. Their analysis further demonstrates that, if left unchecked, the business models and market dynamics of the digital economy will concentrate the value created by those businesses into the hands of a small number of platform creators and shareholders to a far greater extent than traditional business models have done so throughout history to date. I had the opportunity to meet Andy and Erik earlier this year, and they were deeply concerned that we should act to prevent the stark increase in inequality that their findings predict.

These are innovative businesses using Smart technology, but those social and economic outcomes won’t make a smart world, a smart society or Smart Cities. The widespread controversy created by Uber’s business model is just the tip of the iceberg of the consequences that we could see.

As I’ve quoted many, many times on this blog, Jane Jacobs got this right in 1961 when she wrote in “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” that:

“Private investment shapes cities, but social ideas (and laws) shape private investment. First comes the image of what we want, then the machine is adapted to turn out that image.”

We have expressed over and over again the “image of what we want” in countless aspirational visions and documents. But we have not adapted the machine to turn out that image.

Our politicians – locally and nationally – have not understood that the idea of a “Smart City” is really a combination of technology, social, environmental and economic forces that will fundamentally transform the way our society works in a way that will change the life of everyone on this planet; that the outcomes of those changes are in no way understood, and in no way guaranteed to be beneficial; and that enacting the policies, practises and – yes – laws, to adapt those changes to the benefit of everyone is a defining political challenge for our age.

I am not a politician, but this is also a challenge for which I accept responsibility.

As a representative of business – in particular a business that delivers a vast number of services to the public sector – I recognise the enormous responsibility I accept by working in a leadership role for an example of what has become one of the most powerful forces in our economy: the private corporation. It is my responsibility – and that of my peers, colleagues and competitors – to drive our business forward in a way that is responsible to the interests of the society of which we are part, and that is not driven only by the narrow financial concerns of our shareholders.

There should be absolutely no conflict between a responsible, financially successful company and one that operates in the long term interest of the society which ultimately supports it.

But that long-term synergy is only made real by a constant focus on taking the right decisions every day. From the LIBOR scandal to cheating diesel emissions tests it’s all too obvious that there are many occasions when we get those decisions wrong. Businesses are run by people; people are part of society; and we need to treat those simple facts far more seriously as an imperative in everyday decision-making than we currently do.

It is inevitable that our world, our cities and our communities will be dramatically reshaped by the technologies that are developing today, and that will be developed in the near future. They will change – very quickly – out of all recognition from what we know today.

But whether we will honestly benefit from those technologies is a different and uncertain question. Answering that question with a “yes” is a personal, political, business and organisational challenge that all of us need to face up to much more seriously and urgently than we are have done so far.

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Reclaiming the “Smart” agenda for fair human outcomes enabled by technology

(Lucie & Simon’s “Silent World“, a series of photographs of cities from which almost all trace of people has been removed.)

Over the last 5 years, I’ve often used this blog to explore definitions of what a “Smart City” is. The theme that’s dominated my thinking is the need to synthesise human, urban and technology perspectives on cities and our experience of them.

The challenge with attempting such a broad synthesis within a succinct definition is that you end up with a very high-level, conceptual definition – one that might be intellectually true, but that does a very poor job of explaining to the wider world what a Smart City is, and why it’s important.

We need a simple, concise definition of Smart Cities that ordinary people can identify with. To create it, we need to reclaim the “Smart” concept from technologies such as analytics, the Internet of Things and Big Data, and return to it’s original meaning – using the increasingly ubiquitous and accessible communications technology enabled by the internet to give people more control over their own lives, businesses and communities.

I’ve written many articles on this blog about the futile and unsophisticated argument that rages on about whether Smart Cities should be created by “top-down” or “bottom-up” approaches: clearly, anything “Smart” is a subtle harmonisation of both.

In this article, I’d like to tackle an equally unconstructive argument that dominates Smart Cities debates: are Smart Cities defined by the role of technology, or by the desire to create a better future?

It’s clear to me that anything that’s really “Smart” must combine both of those ideas.

In isolation, technology is amoral, inevitable and often banal; but on the other hand a “better future” without a means to achieve it is merely an aspiration, not a practical concept. Why is it “Smart” to want a better future and better cities today in a way that wanting them 10, 20, 50 or 100 years ago wasn’t?

Surely we can agree that focussing our use of a powerful and potentially ubiquitously accessible new technology – one that’s already transforming our world – on making the world a better place, rather than just on making money, is an idea worthy of the “Smart” label?

In making this suggestion, I’m doing nothing more than returning to the origin of the term “Smart” in debates in social science about the “smart communities” that would emerge from our new ability to communicate freely and widely with each other following the emergence of the Internet.

Smart communities are enabled by ubiquitous access to empowering technology

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 – the speed of a brisk walk. By contrast, in January 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.

(In the 1960s, the mobile phone-like “communicators” used in Star Trek were beyond our capability to manufacture; but they were used purely for talking. Similarly, while William Gibson’s 1980s vision of “cyberspace” was predictive and ambitious in its descriptions of virtual environments and data visualisations, the people who inhabited it interacted with each other almost as if normal space has simply been replaced by virtual space: there was no sense of the immense power of social media to enable new connections.)

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. Along with mobile devicese-commerce technology and analytics, social media has made it dramatically easier for individuals, communities and small businesses anywhere around the world with the potential to transact with each other to make contact and interact without needing the enormous supply chains and sales and marketing channels that previously made such activity the prerogative of large, multi-national corporations.

It was in a workshop with social scientists at the University of Durham that I first became aware that “Smart” concepts originated in social science in the 1990s and pre-date the famous early large-scale technology infrastructure projects in cities like Masdar and Songdo. The term was coined to describe the potential for new forms of governance, citizen engagement, collective intelligence and stakeholder collaboration enabled by Internet communication technologies. The hope was that new forms of exchange and contract between people and organisations would create a better chance of realising the underlying outcomes we really want – health, happiness and fulfilment:

“The notion of smart community refers to the locus in which such networked intelligence is embedded. A smart community is defined as a geographical area ranging in size from a neighbourhood to a multi-county region within which citizens, organizations and governing institutions deploy and embrace NICT [“New Information and Communication Technologies”] to transform their region in significant and fundamental ways (Eger 1997). In an information age, smart communities are intended to promote job growth, economic development and improve quality of life within the community.”

(Amanda Coe, Gilles Paquet and Jeffrey Roy, “E-Governance and Smart Communities: A Social Learning Challenge“,  Social Science Computer Review, Spring 2001)

But technology’s not Smart unless it’s used to create human value

It’s no surprise that technology companies such as Cisco, Siemens and my former employer IBM came to similar realisations about the transformative potential of digital technology in addressing societal as well as business challenges as technology spread from the back office into the everyday world, leading, for example, to the launch of IBM’s “Smarter Planet” initiative in 2008, a pre-cursor to their “Smarter Cities” programme.

Let’s pause at this point to say: that’s a tremendously exciting idea. A technology company – Apple – recently recorded the largest corporate profit in the history of business. Microsoft’s founder Bill Gates was just recognised as the richest person on the planet. Technology companies make enormous profits, and they feed significant portions of those profits back into research and development. Shouldn’t it be wonderful that some of those resources are invested into exploring how to make cities, communities and people more successful?

(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)

IBM, for example, has invested millions of dollars of effort in implementing Smarter Cities projects in cities such as Dubuque through the IBM Research “First of a Kind” programme; and has helped over a hundred cities worldwide develop new initiatives and strategies through the charitable “Smarter Cities Challenge” – advising Kyoto on how to become a more “walkable” city, for instance.

So what’s the problem?

Large technology corporations are often criticised in debates on this topic for their size, profitability and “top-down” approaches – and the local authorities who work with them are often criticised too. In my experience, that criticism is based on an incomplete understanding of the people involved, and how the projects are carried out; and I think it misses the point.

The real question we should be asking is more subtle and important: what happens to the social elements of an idea once it becomes apparent to businesses both large and small that they can make money by selling the technologies that enable it?

I know very well the scientists, engineers and creatives at many of the companies, social enterprises and government bodies – of any size – who are engaged in Smart Cities initiatives. They are almost universally extremely bright, well intentioned and humane, and fully capable of talking with passion about the social and environmental value of their work. “Top-down” is at best a gross simplification of the projects that they carry out, and at worst a gross misrepresentation. Their views dominated the early years of the Smart Cities market as it developed.

But as the market has matured and grown, the focus has switched from research, exploration and development to the marketing and selling of well-defined product and service offerings. Amidst the need to promote those offerings to potential customers, and to differentiate them against competitors, it’s easy for the subtle intertwining of social, economic, environmental and technology ideas to be drowned out.

That’s what led to the unfortunate statement that armed Professor Adam Greenfield with the ammunition he needed to criticise the Smart Cities movement. A technology company that I won’t name made an over-reaching and mis-guided assertion that Smart Cities would create “autonomous, intelligently functioning IT systems that will have perfect knowledge of users’ habits” – blissfully ignoring the fact that such perfection is scientifically and philosophically impossible, not to mention inhuman and undesirable.

As a scientist-turned-technologist-turned-wannabe-urbanist working in this field, and as someone who’s been repeatedly inspired by the people, communities, social scientists, social innovators, urban designers and economists I’ve met over the past 5 years, I started writing this blog to explore and present a more balanced, humane vision of a Smart City.

Zen and the art of Smart Cities: opposites should create beautiful fusions, not arguments

Great books change our lives, and one of many that has changed mine is “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” by Robert M. Pirsig. Pirsig explores the relationship between what he called “romantic” perspectives of life, which focus on emotional meaning and value “quality”, and “rational” perspectives, which focus on the reasons our world behaves in the way that it does and value “truth”. He argues that early Greek philosophers didn’t distinguish between “quality” and “truth”, and that by considering them together we can learn to value things that are simultaneously well-intentioned and well-formed.

This thinking is echoed in Alan Watts’ “The Way of Zen“, in which he comments on the purpose of the relentless practise of technique that is part of the Zen approach to art that:

“The very technique involves the art of artlessness, or what Sabro Hasegawa has called the ‘controlled accident’, so that paintings are formed as naturally as the rocks and grasses which they depict”

(Alan Watts, “The Way of Zen“)

In other words, by working tirelessly to perfect their technique – i.e. their use of tools – artists enable themselves to have “beautiful accidents” when inspiration strikes.

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

Modern technologies from social media to Smartphones to Cloud computing and Open Source software are both incredibly powerful and, compared to any previous generation of technology, incredibly cheap.

If we work hard to ensure that they can be used to access and manipulate the technologies that will inevitably be used to make the operations of city infrastructures and public services more efficient, then they have incredible potential to be a tool for people everywhere to shape the world around them to their own advantage; and for us to collectively create a world that is fairer, healthier and more resilient.

But unless we re-claim the word “Smart” to describe those outcomes, the market will drive our energy and resources in the direction of narrower financial interests.

The financial case for investment in Smart technologies is straightforward: as the costs of smartphones, sensors, analytics, and cloud computing infrastructure reduce rapidly, market dynamics will drive their aggressive adoption to make construction, infrastructure and city services more efficient, and hence make their providers more competitive.

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

So how can we adapt that investment drive to create the outcomes that we want?

Can responsible business create a better world?

Some corporate behaviours promote these outcomes, driven by the voting and buying powers of citizens and consumers. Working for Amey, for example, my customers are usually government organisations who serve an electorate; or private sector companies who are regulated by government bodies. In both cases, there is a direct chain of influence leading from individual citizen needs and perceptions through to the way we operate and deliver our services. If we don’t engage with, respect and meet those needs and expectations, we will not be successful. I can observe that influence at work driving an ethic of service, care and responsibility throughout our business at Amey, and it’s been an inspiration to me since joining the company.

UniLever have taken a similar approach, using consumer desires for sustainable products to link corporate performance to sustainable business practices; and Jared Diamond wrote extensively 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“. Business models such as social enterprise and the sharing economy also offer great potential to link business success to positive social and environmental outcomes.

But ultimately our investment markets are still strongly focused on financial performance, and reward the businesses that make the most money with the investment that enables them to grow. This is why many social enterprises do not scale-up; and why many of the rapidly growing “sharing economy” businesses currently making the headlines have nothing at all to do with sharing value and resources, but are better understood as a new type of profit-seeking transaction broker.

Responsible business models are a choice made by individual business leaders, and they depend for their successful operation on the daily choices and actions of their employees. They are not a market imperative. For as long as that is the case, we cannot rely on them to improve our world.

Policy, legislation and regulation

I’ve quoted from Jane Jacobs on many occasions on this blog that “private investment shapes cities, but social ideas (and laws) shape private investment”.

It’s a source of huge frustration to me that so much of the activity in the Smart Cities community ignores that so obviously fundamental principle, and focuses instead on the capabilities of technology or on projects funded by research grants.

The recent article reporting a TechUK Smart Cities conference titled “Milton Keynes touted as model city for public sector IoT use” is a good example. Milton Keynes have many Smart City projects underway that are technologically very interesting, but every one of them is funded by a significant grant of funds from a central government department, a research or innovation funding body, or a technology company. Not a single project has been paid for by a sustainable, re-usable business case. Other cities can aspire to emulate Milton Keynes all they want, but they won’t win research and innovation funding to re-deploy solutions that have already been proven.

Research and innovation grants provide the funding that proves for the first time that a new idea is viable. They do not pay for that idea to be enacted across the world.

(Shaleen Meelu and Robert Smith with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall at the opening of the Harborne Food School. The School is a Community Interest Company that promotes healthy, sustainable approaches to food through courses offered to local people and organisations)

(Shaleen Meelu and Robert Smith with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall at the opening of the Harborne Food School. The School is a Community Interest Company that promotes healthy, sustainable approaches to food through courses offered to local people and organisations)

Policy, legislation and regulation are far more effective tools for enabling widespread change, and are what we should be focussing our energy and attention on.

The Social Value Act requires that public authorities, who spend nearly £200 billion every year on private sector goods and services, procure those services in a way that creates social value – for example, by requiring that national or international service providers engage local small businesses in their supply chains.

In an age in which private companies are investing heavily in the use of digital technology because it provides them with by far the most powerful tool to increase their success, surely local authorities should fulfil their Social Value Act obligations by using procurement criteria to ensure that those companies employ that same tool to create social and environmental improvements in the places and communities in which they operate?

Similary, the British Property Federation estimates that £14 billion is invested in the development of new property in the UK each year. If planning and development frameworks oblige that property developers describe and quantify the social value that will be created by their developments, and how they will use technology do so – as I’ve promoted on this blog for some time now, and as the British Standards Institute have recently recommended – then this enormous level of private sector investment can contribute to investing in technology for public benefit; just as those same frameworks already require investment in public space around commercial buildings.

The London Olympic Legacy Development Corporation have been following this strategy in support of the Greater London Authority’s Smart London Plan. As a result, they are securing private sector investment in deploying technology not only to redevelop the Olympic park using smart infrastructure; but also to ensure that that investment benefits the existing communities and business economies in neighbouring areas.

A Smart manifesto for human outcomes enabled by technology

These business models, policy measures and procurement approaches are bold, difficult measures to enact. They are not as sexy as Smartphones, analytics and self-driving cars. But they are much more important if what we want to achieve are positive human outcomes, not just financially successful technology companies and a continuous stream of research projects.

What will make it more likely that businesses, local governments and national governments adopt them?

Citizen understanding. Consumer understanding. A definition of smart people, places, communities, businesses and governments that makes sense to everyone who votes, works, stands for election, runs a business, or buys things. In other words, everyone.

If that definition doesn’t include the objective of making the world a healthier, happier, fairer, more sustainable place for everyone, then it’s not worth the effort. If it doesn’t include harnessing modern technology, then it misses the point that human ingenuity has recently given us a phenomenal new toolkit that make possible things that we’d never previously dreamt of.

I think it should go something like this:

“Smart people, places, communities, businesses and governments work together to use the modern technologies that are changing our world to make it fairer and more sustainable in the process, giving everyone a better chance of a longer, healthier, happier and more fulfilling life.”

I’m not sure that’s a perfect definition; but I think it’s a good start, and I hope that it combines the right realisation that we do have unprecedented tools at our disposal with the right sentiment that what really matters is how we use them.

(I’d like to thank John Murray of Scottish Enterprise for a useful discussion that inspired me to write this article)

No-one wants top-down, technology-driven cities. They’d be dumb, not smart.

("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 storeys 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.)

But “bottom up” is not enough; in order to succeed at scale, grass-roots innovation and localism need support from a new environment of policy, finance, infrastructure and technology.

I took part in a panel discussion last week with Leo Johnson, co-author of “Turnaround Challenge: Business and the City of the Future” (and, coincidentally, the brother of London’s Mayor, Boris Johnson). Leo argued in an impassioned speech that we should avoid overly deterministic “top-down” approaches to developing sustainable cities, and should instead encourage “bottom-up” innovation. His points echoed some of the criticisms levelled at parts of the Smart Cities movement by writers such as Adam Greenfield and Richard Sennett.

But these are arguments against a proposition that I simply don’t think anyone is advocating today.

In all of my contacts across the world, in technology, government and urban design, I don’t know anyone who thinks it would be “smart” for cities to be run wholly by technological systems; who believes that digital data can provide “perfect knowledge” about city systems; or who thinks that cities built and run entirely by deterministic plans driven from the top down would be healthy, vibrant places to live (or indeed are possible at all).

Smart cities are not about putting machines in control, and they are not about imposing an idealistic, corporate way of life. They are simply about harnessing the ever-advancing capabilities of technology in our efforts to create a more sustainable, equitable, resilient world in the cities in which more and more of us are living.

The ultimate purpose of cities is to enable the people who live and work in them to lead safe and rewarding lives with their families. The raw material from which the life of cities is built is therefore small-scale – it is the activity of individual people in their personal and family life or going about their work. Consequently, there is an enormous focus in smart cities and smart urbanism on “bottom-up” thinking : how can we enable private businesses, community innovators and citizen-led initiatives to be successful, and to create sustainable wealth and social value? If the opportunities to do that are widely available, then cities as a whole will be more successful, and, when economic or climate events affect their circumstances, they will be more adaptable and resilient.

But let’s be frank: that’s an awfully big “if”.

There’s nothing new about “bottom-up” creativity – that’s simply what people do as they get on with life, using whatever resources are available to them to craft a living, support their families and build successful businesses. But the truth is that we are not very good at all at creating environments in which everybody has an equal chance of succeeding in those efforts.

For bottom-up creativity to be broadly successful, citizens, communities and businesses must be able to adapt the city infrastructures that provide food, water, energy, transport and resources to serve their specific needs and opportunities. Those infrastructures are vast – they support 3 billion urban lives worldwide today, and will need to scale to support 3 billion more by 2050. Communities and neighbourhoods with persistently low levels of economic activity and social mobility – those most in need of innovative answers to their challenges – are often those who have the least access to those infrastructures, and whose issues can include poor schools, disconnection from transport networks, exclusion from mainstream financial systems, fuel poverty and so on. Those problems will not solve themselves: we will only adapt city infrastructures and institutions to serve these communities better through significant effort from the businesses and governments that control and govern them.

(When planning policy and other regulations allow, urban farms can adapt the physical infrastructure of cities to create new sources of food. A similar combination of policy innovation and grass-roots creativity could enable similarly creative uses of digital infrastructure and information in cities. Photo by ToadLickr)

From the governance of cities, to the policies that affect investment, to the oversight, administration and operation of city infrastructures – these processes work top-down; and in order for us to rely on “bottom-up” creativity improving cities for all of their citizens, we must adapt and improve them to better support that creativity.

Technology plays three roles in this context. Firstly, smartphones, tablets, 3D printers and social media are examples of new consumer and citizen tools that we could barely imagine as recently as a decade ago. They make immense power available to bottom-up, small-scale activity and local innovations, and have resulted in the emergence of significant economic trends such as the “sharing economy” of business models based on peer-to-peer transactions.

Secondly, though, many of those technologies depend fundamentally on the availability of connectivity infrastructure; and that infrastructure is not available everywhere. Some 18% of adults in the UK have never been online; and children today without access to the internet at home and in school are at an enormous disadvantage. Most cities and countries have not yet addressed this challenge. 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. This challenge has not and will not be addressed by bottom-up creativity; it requires top-down legislation and investment.

Thirdly, technology can help to open up the operations and infrastructures of big institutions and companies to local innovation – from the provision of “open data” and API interfaces that allow these systems to be adapted to new uses; to the use of technology to measure and trace the social and environmental impact of goods and services in order to inform consumer choice so that it can become a lever to improve the impact of the vast supply chains that supply cities. Unilever and Tesco are just two examples of businesses pursuing this business strategy.

These are the roles of technology that enable a meeting or balance between top-down and bottom-up forces in cities – a balance that Anthony Townsend, author of “Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia” has advocated in our online exchanges.

Smart cities is not a prescriptive, top-down, corporate movement. The perception that it was arose because a handful of early and highly visible examples such as Masdar and Songdo were new, large-scale developments financed by strong economic growth in emerging markets; or because some of the rapid urbanisation taking place today is in countries with strongly hierarchical governance. These examples also gave emphasis to the importance of efficiently and intelligently operating large-scale city infrastructures – without which we’ll never sustainably and resiliently support the 6 billion city inhabitants predicted by the United Nations’ World Urbanisation Prospects report by 2050.

(Delegates at Gov Camp 2013 at IBM’s Southbank office, London. Gov Camp is an annual conference which brings together anyone interested in creating new uses of digital technology in public services. Photo by W N Bishop)

But we must give equal recognition to the vast amount of bottom-up creativity that took place throughout this period; that continues today; and which has exploited technology in strikingly innovative ways.

The “open data” movement has become a force for transparency in government and for addressing social and environmental issues. “Civic hacking” communities have sprung up around the world, using this data to create novel new public services. Many of my colleagues have contributed to that movement, either representing IBM, or simply as personal contributions to the cities in which they live – as have the employees of many other businesses. And community initiatives everywhere now routinely exploit technologies such as social media and crowdfunding; or co-create schemes to apply commercial technologies for their own purposes. For example, in the village of Chale on the Isle of Wight, a community with significant levels of fuel poverty worked together to use smart energy meters to reduce their energy bills by up to 50%.

There are two serious challenges in how we apply these ideas more broadly that demand debate:

And:

The Economist magazine reminded us of the importance of those questions in a recent article describing the enormous investments made in public institutions in the past in order to distribute the benefits of the Industrial Revolution to society at large rather than concentrate them on behalf of business owners and the professional classes.

We have only partially been successful in those efforts. As one measure, it’s common for life expectancy to vary by around 20 years between the poorest and richest parts of the same city in the UK. Scandinavian cities do not show that disparity – their culture and system of taxation, benefits and collective insurance create a more equal opportunity to live. In the UK, the US and other societies that emphasise greater retention of private wealth and the distribution of opportunity through flexible market economies, how can we better approach Scandinavia’s level of equality?

These questions are much more important than perpetuating an adversarial debate between “top down” and “bottom up” thinking. No-one wants top-down, technology driven cities. They’d be dumb, not smart. And no-one believes that digital data can provide “perfect knowledge” – we all understand that perfect knowledge is neither possible nor desirable.

Digital data and technology do much more realistic and exciting things. They allow us to uncover the hidden opportunity to transact locally with people and businesses in our community. They reveal patterns in the messy complexity of social, economic, physical and environmental systems that help us to look ahead to likely outcomes, take proactive measures and do more with less. And they make it possible for us to connect to people around the world who we’ve never met but with whom we share an interest or can create a new opportunity.

A smart city creates an environment in which technology, infrastructure, policies and culture make people safe, and provide the resources and opportunities they need – including better access to technology and information – to create safer and more rewarding lives.

That’s not top-down or bottom-up. It’s common sense. Let’s stop arguing and start applying it.

Smarter City myths and misconceptions

(A good example of a technology dilemma: do smartphones encourage social interaction, or inhibit it?. Photo by LingHK)

Part of my job is to communicate the ideas behind Smarter Cities, and to support those ideas with examples of the value they create when applied in cities such as Sunderland, Dublin, Birmingham and Rio.

In doing so, I often find myself countering a few common challenges to the concept of a Smarter City that I believe are based on a misconception of how Smarter Cities initiatives are carried in practise out by those involved in them.

Everyone that I know who works in this space – for technology vendors, for city Councils, Universities, charities, social enterprises, small businesses, or for any of the other institutions who might be involved in a city initiative – understands one thing in particular: that cities are incredibly complicated. Understanding how to apply any intervention to achieve a specific change or outcome in them is extremely difficult.

I know technology very well; and I have no difficulty imagining new ways in which it could be used in cities. But understanding how in practise people might respond to those ideas is more complex. Will they be motivated to adopt a new technology, or a new technology-enabled service? Why? Will they appropriate it for some purpose other than it was intended? Is that a good or a bad thing? What might the side effects be?

In the case of real innovations, it’s not always possible to answer those questions definitively, of course; but it’s important to consider them in the course of the design process. And to do so we need the skills not just of technologists and businesspeople but social scientists, urban designers, economists, community workers – and, depending on the context, any number of other specialisms.

However, we are still going through the process of creating a shared understanding of Smarter Cities between all of those disciplines; and of communicating that understanding to the world at large. In the conversations taking place today as we try to do that, here are five of the most common challenges that I encounter to the idea of Smarter Cities; and why I think those challenges are based on misconceptions of how we actually go about building them.

I’ll start with the misconception that I’m most guilty of myself:

Myth or misconception 1: Everybody knows we need Smarter Cities

(Most people live in cities, and most people use technology: people socialising with technology at a flashmob in Liverpool. Photo by blogadoon)

I spend most of my professional life working on Smarter Cities projects; it’s easy for me to forget that most people aren’t even aware of the concept, let alone convinced by it.

I doubt that many of the one third of the world’s population who aren’t connected to the internet, for example, are particularly familiar with the term Smarter Cities; nor the 14% of UK adults who’ve never used it. For many of them – and, I suspect, billions of other people who may be internet users, but who spend most of their energy focussing on their busy social, working and family lives – it will simply not have reached their attention.

This matters because whilst most people do not spend their time considering the ideas we discuss in the world of Smarter Cities, most of them nevertheless use city systems and technology.

As most people reading this blog will know, according to sources including the World Health Organisation, more than half of the world’s population now lives in urban areas; and in the UK where I live, that’s true of more than 90% of us. So most people live in cities; and many who don’t are employed in occupations such as farming and transport which are increasingly dominated by the need to support the populations of cities.

Similarly, by the end of this year, ABI Research estimate there will be 1.4 billion SmartPhone users in the world; there are already 5 billion mobile phone users. Most people happily adopt the latest consumer technologies relatively quickly once they become affordable.

Every person who lives in a city is a target customer for private sector service providers; a taxpayer or voter for city officials; a potential campaigner or activist; or the leader or employee of an organisation providing city services. Politicians, businesses and public officials will only deliver Smarter Cities when people want them; and people won’t want them until they know what they are, and why they matter to them as individuals.

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

Of course, there are also many people who are perfectly aware of the Smarter Cities movement, but who disagree with its ideas. In practise, I often find that such disagreements are less to do with the specific characteristics of any of the technologies involved, but arise from a concern that in principle Smarter Cities represents a technocratic assertion that we should change the way we design and build cities by putting the capabilities of technology ahead of the needs of citizens.

That’s simply not the case; and I’ll argue why it’s not by describing a few more misconceptions I’ve encountered.

Myth or misconception 2: The idea of applying technology in cities is new

(Human activity and transport technology have been competing for space in cities for centuries. Photo of urban streetlife circa 1900 by the Kheel Center, Cornell University)

Urbanists such as the architect and town planner Tim Stonor  and Enrique Peñalosa, former mayor of Bogotá, have argued powerfully for city design to shift its emphasis towards human behaviour, and away from a focus on the last technology that transformed them: the car.

That debate about the role of technology in cities, then, is far from new. Jane Jacobs, writing in the 1960s when she was concerned that rapid growth in road transport was dominating the thinking of planners, quoted at length an essay on the development of cities in the Industrial Revolution to illustrate the extent to which, a century earlier, city streets were dominated by the previous generation of transport technology – the horse.

As human beings we have used technology since we first made tools from stones and wood. From there we embarked on a complex process of socio-technological evolution that continues today.

What is arguably a new characteristic of that evolution in current times is what appears to be the prolonged exponential growth we’ve experienced in the capability of digital technologies over the past few decades.

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. The astonishing speed and ease of communication which we take for granted has led to an explosion of information; more new information was created in 2007 than in the preceding 5000 years.

Only history will tell if the speed and societal impact of the developments we’re experiencing in digital technology constitute a historical tipping point in the form of an “Information Revolution”, or if we’re simply experiencing an increase in speed of a process that begin with the development of language and includes the inventions of writing and the printing press.

It’s useful sometimes to be reminded of that historical perspective, and to remember that the evolution of human beings, human behaviour, technology and cities is a single process.

Myth or misconception 3: Smarter Cities are inhuman technologies that risk being as damaging in their effects on cities as road traffic

(Technology is part of everyday social life. Photo taken in St. James Park London by David Jones)

In describing to her readers the role of horse-drawn transport in shaping the cities of the Industrial Revolution, Jane Jacobs reminded them that it’s impact on them was similar to that of the motor car in the 20th Century: horses were physically dangerous to pedestrians; took up a lot of space; created effluent pollution in city streets that we would find unthinkably repellent today; and that their hooves and cobbles were incredibly noisy.

However, her point was that none of this was evidence that either horse-drawn transport or cars destroy cities. On the contrary, they enable cities to grow.

Technology and cities have evolved together through history entirely as a consequence of our natural behaviour as individuals: we have dense cities with busy streets because people want to move and interact, not because someone invented the elevator or the car or first harnessed a horse.

Our challenge is always to bring the benefits and the impact of technology to an acceptable balance on behalf of people and communities. Fifty years on, Jacobs’ work should still remind us to focus not on technology, or planning, or pollution; but on the needs and behaviour of people.

There is nothing inhuman about technology; but is not always the case that we design technological services in a way that shows understanding and empathy of the human requirements of their end users. Whilst that is itself an eminently human failing, it is one that we must challenge. Digital privacy and e-commerce are just two examples of technologies that can have such a profound effect on the physical health and vitality of cities that it is imperative we employ them intelligently.

And we are fully capable of doing so. The residents of Stockholm voted to extend a road-use charging pilot to a permanent scheme after it was shown to reduce journey times and increase their reliability. And amongst the stories of successful community initiatives in the Birmingham Community Lovers’ Guide are several that depend on social media technology.

Smarter city initiatives succeed when they result in services that are well-designed to meet the needs of people; when people are involved in their co-creation; or when people are free to choose when and how to use the technologies available to them. Many urban and technology professionals would say that those statements simply repeat the principles of good design in their field.

Myth or misconception 4: Masdar and Songdo are the Smartest cities on the planet; OR: Masdar and Songdo are inhuman follies of technology

(A ventilation tower using natural airflow in Masdar, UAE. Photo by Tom Olliver)

In 2011 FastCompany named Songdo, South Korea, as the Smartest City in the World. Songdo, like Masdar in the United Arab Emirates, has been newly constructed using extremely high technology techniques in planning, construction and operation to create a liveable, efficient city. However: both have come in for criticism for being “inhuman”.

In my view, they are neither the Smartest Cities in the world, nor inhuman. Like everywhere else, they fall between those two extremes. But they are also absolutely necessary explorations of what we can achieve; and the people designing and building them are seeking to do so in the best interests of their inhabitants.

According to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, by 2050, the world’s population will grow by 3 billion, mostly in cities with populations of 1 to 30 million inhabitants in rapidly growing economies in Asia, Africa and South America. We have never before engineered urban infrastructures to support such growth.Whenever we’ve tried to accommodate rapid, urban growth before, we’ve also failed to provide adequate infrastructure. Slums are the inevitable result of that failed urbanisation; and while some aspects of their self-organizing economies work very effectively, they don’t provide their inhabitants with a quality of life that most of us consider acceptable.

Masdar and Songdo are attempts to support rapid, sustainable urbanisation that should be applauded. They may not get everything right – but who does?

I recently asked a respected architect why it was that so many new urban developments seem not to take adequately into account the natural behaviour of the people expected to use them. He replied that new developments rarely work immediately: our behaviour adapts to make the best of the environment around us; when that environment changes, it takes time for us to adapt to its new form. Until we do so, that new form will not appear to suit us.

Being “Smarter” is most fundamentally about doing things in a different way: by challenging preconceptions, and by making intelligent use of available resources. Today, those resources include digital technologies: the “Internet of Things“, which allows us to collect data from and interact intimately with physical systems; “big data“, which allows us to draw sophisticated insight from that data; and social media, which puts the power of those insights into the hands of people, businesses and communities.

But the concept of “Smart” pre-dates those technologies, just as it pre-dates Songdo and Masdar. I spent a day discussing Smarter Cities with social scientists from around the world recently at a workshop at the University of Durham. From their perspective the idea is more than a decade old, and emerged from thinking about the innovative use of more basic technologies in stimulating economic growth and urban renewal.

I’m tremendously excited about the power we could unleash by making the capabilities of the sophisticated infrastructures of cities such as Masdar and Songod as accessible to and appropriateable by small-scale, local innovators as “mundane” technologies already are. That’s what happens in Dublin when the information shared by local authorities and services providers in the Dublinked partnership is made available to people and businesses as Open Data; and in Rio when the information provided by 30 city agencies and analysed in the city’s new operations centre is shared through social media.

Myth or misconception 5: Business as usual will deliver the result

(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)

No, it won’t.

As public and private sector institutions 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.

Why should we expect more equitable outcomes this time when the challenges facing us are of such enormous magnitude and taking place so quickly?

Many city leaders, businesspeople, activists and innovators recognise the need for new thinking to align the objectives of the business models that define the majority of the world’s economy with the need for what Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, described as sustainable, equitably distributed growth.

Consequently, new organisational models and co-operative ecosystems are emerging to deliver Smarter initiatives:

  • Social Enterprises, 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 Dublinked; or 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.

There are also, of course, enormous roles for traditional public and private sector organisations to play as they evolve their existing operations.

Local authorities define the planning, policy and procurement frameworks that define the criteria that private sector investments in cities must fulfil. I was recently asked by a city I work closely with to contribute suggestions for how those frameworks could reflect the role of “Smarter City” ideas. I identified 23 candidate design principles for requiring that investments in physical infrastructure in the city not only conform to the city’s spatial strategy; but also contribute to its Smarter City vision, including the deployment of a cohesive civic technology infrastructure. That’s just one example of the many ways public sector authorities are evolving their policies to accommodate new challenges and new technologies.

And whilst their responsibility to shareholders is to achieve profitability and growth, many private sector businesses do so whilst balancing positive social and environmental impacts. As Smarter solutions demonstrate their ability to support business operations more efficiently through exploiting advanced technology, more businesses seeking that balance will adopt them.

But to what extent does market demand incent businesses to seek that balance?

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 and natural environment – or whether they are being optimised only for short term financial gain and potentially creating damaging impacts as a consequence.

(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“.)

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.

However, the investment markets and shareholders are – to grossly oversimplify the issue – relatively ambivalent to these concerns, compared to their primary interest in financial returns over the short or medium term.

This is perhaps one of the most contentious issues in the domain of Smarter Cities; and one of the most important for us to resolve.

Some would say that the enormous market demand created by 2050 by those 3 billion new inhabitants of emerging market megacities will incent the private sector to develop sustainable services to supply them. Bill McKibben, writting in Rolling Stone magazine last year on “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math“, argued that, on the contrary, trillions of dollars of investment are already locked into unsustainable business models.

Diamond himself argued that consumer choice could influence businesses to adopt sustainable models; but only when accurate, reliable information about the social and environmental impact of resources, goods and services flows through supply networks to inform consumers at the point where they are able to choose. Others argue that new approaches such as social enterprise are required.

I personally think that all of those positions have some validity; and that we’ll need to both develop new business models and adapt existing ones if we are to create successful, sustainable cities. Doing so will require the intelligent application of all of the skills and technologies at our disposal.

Mea Culpa

I’ll conclude this article by issuing a challenge: help me to find the misconceptions in my own thinking.

In working in this domain – and in particular in writing this blog – I offer opinions that go far beyond the areas of technology in which I consider myself expert, and extend into the other professional domains that are relevant to Smarter Cities.

I’ve described here the misconceptions and over-simplifications of Smarter Cities that I encounter in my work; I have no doubt whatsoever that in turn I harbour misconceptions in areas that are not my speciality.

I would be delighted for those shortcomings to be exposed: I have always found conversations with people who disagree with me in interesting ways to be the most effective way to learn. And there’s still much more that I don’t know about Smarter Cities than I do.

Smart ideas for everyday cities

(Artist’s impression of the new Birmingham City University campus, currently under construction alongside Millennium Point and the new Eastside City Park. Image by Birmingham City University.)

The outcomes that matter to cities and to the people who live and work in them, such as wellbeing, job creation, economic growth, and social mobility, are complex, compound results of the behaviour of a combination of city systems such as education, public safety, transport and the economy.

Because those systems are operated by separate organisations – if they are even “operated” as systems at all – many “Smarter City” discussions are concerned with “breaking down silos” in order to integrate them.

As Fast Company’s 2010 survey of the “Top 20 Smartest Cities on the Planet“, illustrates, many of the earliest and highest profile examples of cities pursuing “Smart” agendas were governed by hierarchical, integrated systems of authority which helped them to address this challenge – often because they were new or expanding cities in rapidly growing economies.

Elsewhere, governance is more complex. Particularly in the UK, services such as utilities and transport are operated by private sector providers contracted to deliver performance and financial measures that cannot easily be changed. It is hard enough to agree common objectives across a city; it can be even harder to agree how to make investments to achieve them by transforming city systems that are subcontracted in this way.

But that is what cities must somehow do. And in recent weeks I have valued some open and frank discussions between city leaders, financiers and developers, policy makers, academics, architects, planners – and even some technologists – that have revealed some simple ideas that are common to those cities that have demonstrated how it can be done.

Start new partnerships

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

(The members of Birmingham’s Smart City Commission)

A programme of initiatives with these characteristics therefore involves the resources and interests of great many organisations within a city; and may lead to the creation of entirely new organisations. Special purpose vehicles such as  the “Eco-Island” Community Interest Company on the Isle of Wight and the Birmingham District Energy Company are two such examples.

New partnerships between these organisations are needed to agree city-wide objectives, and to co-ordinate their activities and investments to achieve them. Depending on local challenges,  opportunities, and relationships those partnerships might include:

  • Local Authorities and other public sector agencies co-operating to operate shared services;
  • Central government bodies involved in negotiations of policy, responsibility and financing such as “City Deals“;
  • Leaders from cities’ business, entrepreneurial and SME communities;
  • Local Universities who may have domain expertise in city systems; and who provide skills into the local economy;
  • Neighbourhood, faith and community associations;
  • Representatives of the third sector – charities, voluntary associations, social enterprises and co-operatives;
  • Industry sector and cultural organisations;
  • Service and technology providers who form partnerships with cities; for example, Amey have a 25-year PFI partnership with Birmingham; IBM operate joint research programmes with cities such as Dublin and Moscow; and Cisco have partnerships with cities such as Songdo in South Korea;
  • Financiers, for example local venture capitalists such as MidVen in the West Midlands, or banks and financial services companies with a strong local presence;
  • … and there are many other possibilities.

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

Such partnerships do not start by adopting the approach of any single member; they start with a genuine discussion to build understanding and consensus.

For example, public and private sector organisations both tend to assume that the other is better placed to accept risk. Private sector organisations make profits and invest them in new products and markets, so surely they can take on risk? Public sector organisations are funded to predictable levels through taxation, so surely they can take on risk?

In reality, the private sector has lost jobs, faced falling profits, and seen many businesses fail in recent years. Meanwhile, public sector is burdened with unprecedented budget cuts and in many cases significant deficits that are threatening their ability to deliver frontline services. Both are therefore risk averse.

A working partnership will only form if such issues are discussed openly so that an equitable consensus is achieved.

(A video describing the partnership between IBM and Dubuque, Iowa, which aims to develop a model for sustainable communities of less than 200,000 people)

Size matters; but not absolutely

Manchester’s New Economy Commission have taken a particular approach that is commensurate to the size of the Greater Manchester area and economy, coordinated by the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities (AGMA). But their approach is not the only one.

Elsewhere, Southampton City Council are creating a “Virtual Local Authority”, together with other authorities around the country, as a vehicle to approach the bond market for a £100 million investment. They believe such a vehicle can create an investment opportunity of similar size to Birmingham’s “Energy Savers” scheme.

“Size” in these terms can mean geographic area; population; economic value or market potential. It is interpreted differently by international investment funds; or by local interests such as property and business owners. And it is balanced against complexity: one reason that some more modestly sized cities such as Sunderland and Peterborough have made so much early progress is their relative political and economic simplicity.

Vision, Transparency and Consistency

Whatever specific form a local partnership takes, it needs to demonstrate certain behaviours and characteristics in order that its initiatives and proposals are attractive to investors. They are straightforward in themselves;  but take time to establish amongst a new group of stakeholders:

  • A clear, agreed and consistent set of goals;
  • A mutual understanding of risk; how it is shared; and how it is managed;
  • An ability to express investment opportunities, including the risks associated with them, to potential investors;
  • A track record of taking transparent, consistent decisions to coordinate projects and investments against their objectives.

This is the model that in many cases will deliver Smarter City projects and programmes in everyday cities: a model of several organisations coordinating multiple investments, rather than individual organisations managing their own budgets.

(Philippe Petit’s remarkable tightrope walk between the towers of the World Trade Centre in 1974 at a height of 417 metres. Image from Carolina Pastrana)

Match risks to the right investors

There are many sources of funding for Smart City initiatives; each has different requirements and capabilities, and is attracted by specific risks and rewards. And with traditional markets such as property stagnant in developed economies, new opportunities for investment are being sought.

However, with a high degree of uncertainty in the prospects for future economic growth, it is harder than ever to assess the likely returns from investment opportunities. And when those opportunities are presented as new forms of partnership, special purpose vehicles or social enterprises, or by public sector authorities adopting revenue-generating models to compensate for dramatic cuts in their traditional funding, that assessment becomes even harder.

There is no simple answer to this challenge; but once again progress to resolving it will begin with conversations that build understanding. Ultimately, investors will be attracted to proposals with well defined and managed risks from organisations exhibiting good governance; and that can demonstrate a track record of making clear decisions to achieve their goals.

Of course, some Smart City projects are highly innovative, and may be too risky for investors accustomed to supporting infrastructure projects such as transportation and property development.  This is particularly the case for schemes that require a change in consumer behaviour – for example, switching from private car ownership to the use of “car clubs” or car-sharing schemes.

These sorts of project may be more suited to technology or service providers who might invest in pilot schemes in order 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.

Similarly, Venture Capital will make investments in new businesses with higher risk profiles – demanding, of course, a commensurately higher level of return. And government backed innovation funds such as the European Union FP7 programme or the UK’s Technology Strategy Board are also available.

All of these organisations, of course, are looking to invest in projects which are initially small scale; but that will eventual develop into a widespread market opportunity. They will therefore be drawn to projects that take place in a stable, supported context from which that opportunity can be developed – in other words, the same level of partnership working, governance, transparency and consistency.

(A successful urban intervention: the “Container City” incubation hub for social enterprises operated by Sustainable Enterprise Strategies (SES) in Sunderland. SES support hundreds of new businesses and social enterprises in Sunderland every year, with a combined turnover of around £25m, and employing thousands of people from the city’s most challenged communities. 82% of the people they help to start a business or a social enterprise were previously unemployed, and after 2 years nearly three quarters are still in business.)

Exploit success to build momentum

Most cities need to stimulate economic growth, and to revitalise economically and socially deprived neighbourhoods.

It may be more effective to achieve those goals through a series of related steps, than through a single initiative, however:

1. Invest to reinforce growth that is already taking place – it may be more straightforward in the first place to use mechanisms such as tax increment financing or private investment to accelerate growth that is already taking place; such as last week’s announcement by David Cameron of additional government and corporate investment in London’s “Tech City” cluster.

2. Retain the financial benefits resulting from growth – Manchester’s New Economy Commission is able to retain the benefits of the growth the stimulate in the form of increased tax returns, in order to reinvest in subsequent initiatives. Their early successes built confidence amongst investors in the viability of their ongoing programme.

3. Recycle funds to stimulate new growth – having built an initial level of confidence, returns from early projects can be reinvested in areas with more significant challenges; where new infrastructures such as broadband connectivity or support services are required to attract new business activity.

Everywhere is different

Whilst the ideas I’ve described in this article do seem to be emerging as common characteristics of successful Smarter City programmes; we are still at a relatively early stage.

In particular, not enough examples exist for us to reliably separate generally viable elements of these approaches from those aspects that are strongly tied to specific local contexts.

Every city of course is different; and in this context has different access to transport systems, and to national and international supply chains and markets; has different demographics and social character; and different economic capacity. Even within a country, the governance of cities and regions varies – in the UK, for example, the relationships between Central, County, District, City and Borough Councils are subtly different everywhere. So each city still needs to find its own path.

But the first step is simple. There is nothing stopping cities from having the conversations that will get them started. And those that have done so are proving that it works.

I’d like to thank the delegates and attendees at many workshops and meetings I’ve attended in recent weeks; the discussions I’ve been lucky enough to participate in as a result have contributed significantly to the views expressed in this article. They include:

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