The future of open urbanism

(I’m a guest blogger on UBM’s Future Cities community; this article was published there last week. It builds on themes I first explored here in the article “Open urbanism: why the information economy will lead to sustainable cities“).

(Delegates browsing the exhibition space in Fira Barcelona at the World Bank’s Urban Research and Knowledge Symposium “Rethinking Cities”)

The rapid evolution of sensors, analytics, and automation technologies and their application to city systems such as transport, energy, and utilities offer a glimpse of the future.

These systems will support city populations more efficiently and sustainably. In South Bend, Ind., for example, an analytic system helps to predict and prevent wastewater overflows, avoiding the need to invest in hundreds of millions of dollars for upgrades for the system’s physical capacity.

However, the real power of these intelligent infrastructures is in their ability to influence our choices.

Stockholm’s road-use charging system, for example, influences the behaviour of travelers considering driving into the city and has reduced congestion and improved environmental quality.

At the World Bank’s “Rethinking Cities” Symposium in Barcelona in October, I took part in a panel discussion on whether this approach of including “externalities” (such as social and environmental costs) in prices would encourage widespread adoption of sustainable behaviours. The panel concluded that, whilst pricing is a useful tool, it’s not the only one and not sufficient on its own.

(The remainder of this article, which explores the opportunity for technology to encourage sustainable choices, can be found on UBM’s Future Cities site, as “The Future of Open Urbanism“).

Open urbanism: why the information economy will lead to sustainable cities

(Delegates browsing the exhibition space in Fira Barcelona at the World Bank’s Urban Research and Knowledge Symposium “Rethinking Cities”)

On Monday this week I attended the World Bank’s “Rethinking Cities” Symposium in Barcelona.  I was asked to give presentations to the Symposium on the contributions technology could make to two challenges: improving social and physical mobility in cities; and the encouragement of change to more sustainable behaviours by including “externalities” (such as social and environmental costs) in the prices of goods and services.

(In her speech ahead of the Rio +20 Summit, Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, said that one of the challenges for achieving a sustainable, equitably distributed return to growth following the recent economic challenges was that these externalities are not currently included in prices).

These two topics are clearly linked. The lack of access that some city communities have to economic and personal opportunity is in part a social consequence of the way that systems such as education, transport and  planning operate.

As human beings, however altruistic we are capable of being, each day we take tens or hundreds of decisions which, in the moment, are consciously or subconsciously based on selfish motivations. We drive cars to work because it’s quicker and more pleasant than using public transport; or because it’s quicker, easier and safer than cycling, for example. The accumulation of all of these decisions by all of us defines the behaviour of the cities we inhabit.

In principle we might all be better off – proximity allowing – if we cycled or walked to our places of work, or to school with our children. It would be safer because there would be less traffic; both the exercise and the reduction in pollution would improve our health; and we would probably talk to our neighbours more in the process. One of the reasons we don’t currently choose cycling or walking for these journeys is that we are too busy working to afford the time involved in doing so. Crudely speaking, we are in competition with each other to earn enough money to survive comfortably and to afford the lifestyles we aspire to.

(The Copenhagen Wheel bike photographed by Sujil Shah. The wheel stores energy under braking and uses it to power an electric motor when required and shares information with a smartphone app.)

Game Theory” – the mathematical analysis of human decision-making in groups – has something interesting to say on this subject. To oversimplify a complex and subtle field, Game Theory predicts that if we suspect each other of behaving selfishly, then we will behave selfishly too; but that when we observe others behaving in the common interest, then we are likely to behave in the same way.

So if we all knew that all of us were going to spend a little less time at work in order to walk with our children to school and then cycle to work, then we could do so, safe in the knowledge that individually we wouldn’t lose out, couldn’t we?

Obviously, that’s a ridiculous suggestion.

Except … in his plenary talk at the World Bank Symposium, Harvard Professor of Economics Edward Glaeser – author of “Triumph of the City” – at one point commented that part of the shift towards a more sustainable global economy might be for those of us who live in developed economies to forgo some monetary wealth in favour of living in more attractive cities.

So just maybe the suggestion wasn’t completely crazy, after all.

In Monday’s discussions at the Symposium we explored how sustainable choices could be made available in a way that appeals to the motivations of individuals and communities. We examined several ways to create positive and negative incentives through pricing; but also examples of simply “removing the barriers” to making such choices.

For example, if information was made available on demand to make it easier to plan a complete door-to-door journey using sustainable forms of transport such as cycling, buses, trains and shared car journeys, would people make less individual journeys in private cars?

Services are already emerging to provide this information, such as Moovel (a commercial offering) and Open Trip Planner (a free service using crowdsourced data). They are just two examples of the ways in which the availability of information is making our cities more open and transparent. At the moment, both services are too new for us to make an assessment of their impact; but it will be fascinating to observe their progress.

(The Portland, Oregon implementation of Open Trip Planner)

The lesson of Game Theory is that this transparency – which I think of as “Open Urbanism” in this context – is what is required to enable and encourage all of us to make the sustainable choices that in their collective impact could make a real difference to the way that cities work.

I’d like to explore four aspects of Open Urbanism a little further to support that idea: Open Thinking; Open Data; Open Systems and Open Markets.

Open Thinking

The simplest expression of Open Urbanism is through engagement and education. In the afternoon plenary debate at the Rethinking Cities symposium, the inspirational Jaime Lerner spoke of a city recycling programme that has been operating successfully for many years; and that involves citizens taking the time to separate recyclable waste in return for no direct individual benefit whatsoever. So how were they persuaded to spend their time in this way?

It simply began by teaching children why sorting and recycling waste was important, and how to do it. Those children taught and persuaded their parents to adopt the behaviour; and in time they taught their own children. In this way, recycling became a cultural habit. Jaime later referred to the general concept of “urban acupuncture” – finding a handful of people who have the ability to change, and understanding what it takes to encourage them to change – a bit like planting a tiny needle in exactly the right place in the city.

Open Data

The information available about cities, businesses, current events and every other aspect of life is increasing dramatically; through the Open Data movement; through crowdsourced information; through the spread of news and opinion via social media; and through the myriad new communication forms that are appearing and spreading every day. The availability of this information, and the awareness that it creates amongst us all of how our cities and our world behave, creates a powerful force for change.

For example, a UK schoolgirl recently provoked a national debate concerning the standard of school meals simply by blogging about the meals that were offered to her each day at school, and in particular commenting on their health implications.  And my colleagues in IBM along with our partners Royal Haskoning and Green Ventures have helped the city of Peterborough to understand, combine, visualise and draw insight from information concerning the environment, the economy, transport and social challenges in order to better inform planning and decision making.

Open Systems

The next stage is to develop models from this data that can simulate and predict how the many systems within cities interact; and the outcomes that result from those interactions. IBM’s recent “Smarter Cities Challenge” in my home city of Birmingham studied detailed maps of the systems in the city and their inputs and outputs, and helped Birmingham City Council understand how to developed those maps into a tool to predict the outcomes of proposed policy changes. In the city of Portland, Oregon – as shown in the video below – a similar interactive tool has already been produced.

(A video describing the “systems dynamics” project carried out by IBM in Portland, Oregon to model the interactions between city systems)

As data is made available from city systems in realtime, these models can be used not just to explore potential changes in policy; but to predict the dynamic behaviour of cities and create intelligent, pro-active – and even pre-emptive – responses. We can collect and access data now from an astonishing variety of sources: there are 30 billion RFID tags embedded into our world, across entire ecosystems of activity; we have 1 billion mobile phones with cameras able to capture and share images and events; and everything from  domestic appliances to vehicles to buildings is increasingly able to monitor its location, condition and performance and communicate that information to the outside world.

These sources can tell us which parking spaces are occupied, and which are free, for example. Streetline are using this information in San Francisco to create a market for parking spaces that reduces traffic congestion in the city. In South Bend, Indiana, an analytic system helps to predict and prevent wastewater overflows by more intelligently managing the city’s water infrastructure based on realtime information from sensors monitoring it. The city estimates that they have avoided the need to invest in hundreds of millions of dollars of upgrades to the physical capacity of the infrastructure as a result.

If such information is made openly available to innovators in city economies and communites, surprising new systems can be created. At a recent “hackathon” in Birmingham, an “app” was created that connects catering services with excess food to food distribution charities who can use it.

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

That same information can create an appeal to our sense of community and place. The city of Dubuque in Iowa provides citizens and businesses with smart meters that measure and analyse their water use. They can detect when domestic appliances are used on inefficient settings, or when there is a leak in the water supply.

pilot project in Dubuque found that people were twice as likely to act on this information when they were not only provided with insight into their own water usage; but also provided with a  score that ranked their water conversation performance compared to that of their neighbours.

Open Markets

To return to the initial subject of this article, interesting new technology-enabled systems such as local currencies are emerging that could embed information from open city systems into the pricing systems of new markets within cities – and thereby quantify the cost of “externalities” in those markets. For instance, the Brixton and Bristol Pounds are local currencies intended to reinforce local economic synergies; and in Birmingham Droplet are now making their first payments through their local SmartPhone Payment system which similarly operates between local merchants.

We are on the cusp of incredibly exciting possibilities. Local currencies and trading systems could enable marketplaces in locally-generated power; or in localised manufacturing using technologies such as 3D printing. They could exploit distribution systems such as the one that Amazon make available to their marketplace traders; and underground waste and recycling systems that take waste and recyclables direct from the home to the appropriate recycling and disposal centres.

I can only image the city systems that might result if these capabilities and sources of information were made openly available to innovators within city communities. They could create solutions that are Smarter than we can imagine. Personally I’m convinced that this “Open Urbanism” is an essential part of the journey towards the sustainable city of the future.

Five roads to a Smarter City

(Photo of Daikoku junction by Ykanazawa1999

Recently, I discussed the ways in which cities are formulating  “Smarter City” visions and the programmes to deliver them. Such cross-city approaches are clearly what’s required in order to have a transformative effect across an entire city.

However, whilst some cities have undergone dramatic changes in this way – or have been built as “Smarter” cities in the first place as in the case of the famous Masdar project in Abu Dhabi – most cities are making progress one step at a time.

Four patterns have emerged in how they are doing so. Each pattern is potentially replicable by other cities; and each represents a proven approach that can be used as part of a wider cross-city plan.

I’ll start at the beginning, though, and describe why cross-city transformations can be hard to envision and deliver. Understanding why that can be the case will give us insight into which simpler, smaller-scale approaches can succeed more easily.

What’s so hard about a Smarter City?

Cities are complex ecosystems of people and organisations which need to work together to create and deliver Smarter City visions. Bringing them together to act in that way is difficult and time-consuming.

(Photo of Beijing by Trey Ratcliff)

Even where a city community has the time and willingness to do that, the fragmented nature of city systems makes it hard to agree a joint approach. Particularly in Europe and the UK, budgets and responsibilities are split between agenices; and services such as utilities and transport are contracted out and subject to performance measures that cannot easily be changed. Agreeing the objectives and priorities for a Smarter City vision in this context is hard enough; agreeing the financing mechanisms to fund programmes to deliver them is even more difficult.

Some of the cities that have made the most progress so far in Smarter City transformations have done so in part because they do not face these challenges – either because they are new-build cities like Masdar, or because they have more hierarchical systems of governance, such as Guangzhou in China. In other cases, critical challenges or unusual opportunities provide the impetus to act – for example in Rio, where an incredible cross-city operations centre has been implemented in preparation for the 2014 World cup and 2016 Olympics.

Elsewhere, cities must spend time and effort building a consensus. San Francisco, Dublin and Sunderland are amongst those who began that process some time ago; and many others are on the way.

But city-wide transformations are not the only approach to changing the way that cities work – they are just one of the five roads to a Smarter City. Four other approaches have been shown to work; and in many cases they are more straightforward as they are contained within individual domains of a city; or exploit changes that are taking place anyway.

Smarter infrastructure

Many cities in the UK and Europe are supported by transport and utility systems whose physical infrastructure is decades old. As urban populations rise and the pace of living increases, these systems are under increasing pressure. “Smarter” concepts and technologies can improve their efficiency and resilience whilst minimising the need to upgrade and expand them physically.

(Photo of a leaking tap by Vinoth Chandar. A project in Dubuque, Iowa showed that a community scheme involving smart meters and shared finances had a significant effect improving the repair of water leaks.)

In South Bend, Indiana, for example, an analytic system helps to predict and prevent wastewater overflows by more intelligently managing the existing infrastructure. The city estimates that they have avoided the need to invest in hundreds of millions of dollars of upgrades to the physical capacity of the infrastructure as a result. In Stockholm, a road-use charging system has significantly reduced congestion and improved environmental quality. In both cases, the systems have direct financial benefits that can be used to justify their cost.

These are just two examples of initiatives that offer a simplified approach to Smarter Cities; they deliver city-wide benefits but their implementation is within the sphere of a single organisation’s responsibility and finances.

Smarter micro-cities 

Environments such as sports stadiums, University campuses, business parks, ports and airports, shopping malls or retirement communities are cities in microcosm. Within them, operational authority and budgetary control across systems such as safety, transportation and communication usually reside with a single organisation. This can make it more straightforward to invest in a technology platform to provide insight into how those systems are operating together – as the Miami Dolphins have done in their Sun Life Stadium.

Other examples of such Smarter “micro-Cities” include the iPark industrial estate in Wuxi, China where a Cloud computing platform provides shared support services to small businesses; and the Louvre museum in Paris where “Intelligent Building” technology controls the performance of the environmental systems that protect the museum’s visitors and exhibits.

(Photo of the Louvre exhibition “‘The Golden Antiquity. Innovations and resistance in the 18th century” from the IBM press release for the Louvre project)

Improving the operation of such “micro-cities” can have a significant impact on the  cities and regions in which they are located – they are often major contributors to the economy and environment.

Shared Public Services

Across the world demographic and financial pressures are causing transformative change in public sector. City and regional leaders have said that their organisations are facing unprecedented challenges. In the UK it is estimated that nearly 900,000 public sector jobs will be lost over 5 years – approximately 3% of national employment.

In order to reduce costs whilst minimising impact to frontline services, many public sector agencies are making arrangements to share the delivery of common administrative services with each other, such as human resources, procurement, finance and customer relationship management.

Often these arrangements are being made locally between organisations that know and trust each other because they have a long history of working together. Sharing services means sharing business applications, IT platforms, and data; as town and village councils did in the Municipal Shared Services Cloud project.

As a result shared IT platforms with co-located information and applications are now deployed in many cities and regions. Smarter City systems depend on access to such information. Sunderland City Council are very aware of this; their CEO and CIO have both spoken about the opportunity for the City Cloud they are deploying to provide information to support public and private-sector innovation. Such platforms are an important enabler for the last trend I’d like to discuss: open data.

Open Data

(A visualisation created by Daniel X O Neil of data from Chicago’s open data portal showing the activities of paid political lobbyists and their customers in the city)

The open data movement lobbies for information from public systems to be made openly available and transparent, in order that citizens and entrepreneurial businesses can find new ways to use it.

In cities such as Chicago (pictured on the left) and Dublin, open data platforms have resulted in the creation of “Apps” that provide useful information and services to citizens; and in the formation of startup companies with new, data-based business models.

There are many challenges and costs involved in providing good quality, usable open data to city communities; but the shared service platforms I’ve described can help to overcome them, and provide the infrastructure for the market-based innovations in city systems that can lead to sustainable economic growth.

Let’s build Smarter Cities … together

All of these approaches can succeed as independent Smarter City initiatives, or as contributions to an overall city-wide plan. The last two in particular seem to be widely applicable. Demographics and economics are driving an inevitable transformation to shared services in public sector; and the open data movement and the phenomenon of “civic hacking” demonstrate the willingness and capability of communities to use technology to create innovations in city systems.

As a result, technology vendors, local authorities and city communities have an exciting opportunity to collaborate. The former have the ability to deliver the robust, scalable, secure infrastructures required to provide and protect information about cities and individual citizens; the latter have the ability to use those platforms to create local innovations in business and service delivery.

At the 3rd EU Summit on Future Internet in Helsinki earlier this year, Juanjo Hierro, Chief Architect for the FI-WARE “future internet platform” project and Chief Technologist for Telefonica,  addressed this topic and identified the specific challenges that civic hackers face that could be addressed by such city information infrastructures; he included real-time access to information from physical city infrastructures; tools for analysing “big data“; and access to technologies to ensure privacy and trust.

Cities such as Sunderland, Birmingham, Dublin, Chicago and San Francisco are amongst those investing in such platforms, and in programmes to engage with communities to stimulate innovation in city systems. Working together, they are taking impressive steps towards making cities smarter.

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