What’s the risk of investing in a Smarter City?

(The two towers of the Bosco Verticale in Milan will be home to more than 10,000 plants that create shade and improve air quality. But to what degree do such characteristics make buildings more attractive to potential tenants than traditional structures, creating the potential to create financial returns to reward more widespread investment in this approach? Photo by Marco Trovo)

(Or “how to buy a Smarter City that won’t go bump in the night”)

There are good reasons why the current condition and future outlook of the world’s cities have been the subject of great debate in recent years. Their population will double from 3 billion to 6 billion by 2050; and while those in the developing world are growing at such a rate that they are challenging our ability to construct resilient, efficient infrastructure, those in developed countries often have significant levels of inequality and areas of persistent poverty and social immobility.

Many people involved in the debate are convinced that new approaches are needed to transport, food supply, economic development, water and energy management, social and healthcare, public safety and all of the other services and infrastructures that support cities.

As a consequence, analysts such as Frost & Sullivan have estimated that the market for “Smart City” solutions that exploit technology to address these issues will be $1.5trillion by 2020.

But anyone who has tried to secure investment in an initiative to apply “smart” technology in a city knows that it is not always easy to turn that theoretical market value into actual investment in projects, technology, infrastructure and expertise.

It’s not difficult to see why this is the case. Most investments are made in order to generate a financial return, but profit is not the objective of “Smart Cities” initiatives: they are intended to create economic, environmental or social outcomes. So some mechanism – an investment vehicle, a government regulation or a business model – is needed to create an incentive to invest in achieving those outcomes.

Institutions, Business, Infrastructure and Investment

Citizens expect national and local governments to use their tax revenues to deliver these objectives, of course. But they are also very concerned that the taxes they pay are spent wisely on programmes with transparent, predictable, deliverable outcomes, as the current controversy over the UK’s proposed “HS2” high speed train network and previous controversies over the effectiveness of public sector IT programmes show.

Nevertheless, the past year has seen a growing trend for cities in Europe and North America to invest in Smart Cities technologies from their own operational budgets, on the basis of their ability to deliver cost savings or improvements in outcomes.

For example, some cities are replacing traditional parking management and enforcement services with “smart parking” schemes that are reducing congestion and pollution whilst paying for themselves through increased enforcement revenues. Others are investing their allocation of central government infrastructure funds in Smart solutions – such as Cambridge, Ontario’s use of the Canadian government’s Gas Tax Fund to invest in a sensor network and analytics infrastructure to manage the city’s physical assets intelligently.

The providers of Smart Cities solutions are investing too, by implementing their services on Cloud computing platforms so that cities can pay incrementally for their use of them, rather than investing up-front in their deployment. Minneapolis, Minnesota and Montpelier, France, recently announced that they are using IBM’s Cloud-based solutions for smarter water, transport and emergency management in this way. And entrepreneurial businesses, backed by Venture Capital investment, are also investing in the development of new solutions.

However, we have not yet tapped the largest potential investment streams: property and large-scale infrastructure. The British Property Federation, for example, estimates that £14 billion is invested in the development of new property in the UK each year. For the main part, these investment streams are not currently investing  in “Smart City” solutions.

To understand why that is the case – and how we might change it – we need to understand the difference in three types of risk involved in investing in smart infrastructures compared with traditional infrastructures: construction risk; the impact of operational failures; and confidence in outcomes.

(A cyclist’s protest in 2012 about the disruption caused in Edinburgh by the overrunning construction of the city’s new tram system. Photo by Andy A)

Construction Risk

At a discussion in March of the financing of future city initiatives held within the Lord Mayor of the City of London’s “Tommorrow’s Cities” programme, Daniel Wong, Head of Infrastructure and Real Estate for Macquarie Capital Europe, said that only a “tiny fraction” – a few percent – of the investable resources of the pension and sovereign wealth funds often referred to as the “wall of money” seeking profitable long-term investment opportunities in infrastructure were available to invest in infrastructure projects that carry “construction risk” – the risk of financial loss or cost overruns during construction.

For conventional infrastructure, construction risk is relatively well understood. At the Tomorrow’s Cities event, Jason Robinson, Bechtel’s General Manager for Urban Development, said that the construction sector was well able to manage that risk on behalf of investors. There are exceptions – such as the delays, cost increases and reduction in scale of Edinburgh’s new tram system – but they are rare.

So are we similarly well placed to manage the additional “construction risk” created when we add new technology to infrastructure projects?

Unfortunately, research carried out in 2013 by the Standish Group on behalf of Computerworld suggests not. Standish Group used data describing 3,555 IT projects between 2003 and 2012 that had labour costs of at least $10 million, and found that only 6.4% were wholly successful. 52% were delivered, but cost more than expected, took longer than expected, or failed to deliver everything that was expected of them. The rest – 41.4% – either failed completely or had to be stopped and re-started from scratch. Anecdotally, we are familiar with the press coverage of high profile examples of IT projects that do not succeed.

We should not be surprised that it is so challenging to deliver IT projects. They are almost always driven by requirements that represent an aspiration to change the way that an organisation or system works: such requirements are inevitably uncertain and often change as projects proceed. In today’s interconnected world, many IT projects involve the integration of several existing IT systems operated by different organisations: most of those systems will not have been designed to support integration. And because technology changes so quickly, many projects use technologies that are new to the teams delivering them. All of these things will usually be true for the technology solutions required for Smart City projects.

By analogy, then, an IT project often feels like an exercise in building an ambitiously new style of building, using new materials whose weight, strength and stiffness isn’t wholly certain, and standing on a mixture of sand, gravel and wetland. It is not surprising that only 6.4% deliver everything they intend to, on time and on budget – though it is also disappointing that as many as 41.4% fail so completely.

However, the real insight is that the characteristics of uncertainty, risk, timescales and governance for IT projects are very different from construction and infrastructure projects. All of these issues can be managed; but they are managed in very different ways. Consequently, it will take time and experience for the cultures of IT and construction to reconcile their approaches to risk and project management, and consequently to present a confident joint approach to investors.

The implementation of Smart Cities IT solutions on Cloud Computing platforms  by their providers mitigates this risk to an extent by “pre-fabricating” these components of smart infrastructure. But there is still risk associated with the integration of these solutions with physical infrastructure and engineering systems. As we gain further experience of carrying out that integration, IT vendors, investors, construction companies and their customers will collectively increase their confidence in managing this risk, unlocking investment at greater scale.

(The unfortunate consequence of a driver who put more trust in their satellite navigation and GPS technology than its designers expected. Photo by Salmon Assessors)

Operational Risk

We are all familiar with IT systems failing.

Our laptops, notebooks and tablets crash, and we lose work as a consequence. Our television set-top boxes reboot themselves midway through recording programmes. Websites become unresponsive or lose data from our shopping carts.

But when failures occur in IT systems that monitor and control physical systems such as cars, trains and traffic lights, the consequences could be severe: damage to property, injury; and death. Organisations that invest in and operate infrastructure are conscious of these risks, and balance them against the potential benefits of new technologies when deciding whether to use them.

The real-world risks of technology failure are already becoming more severe as all of us adopt consumer technologies such as smartphones and social media into every aspect of our lives (as the driver who followed his satellite navigation system off the roads of Paris onto the pavement, and then all the way down the steps into the Paris Metro, discovered).

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

Google’s careful exploration of self-driving cars in partnership with driver licensing organisations is an example of that process working well; the discovery of a suspected 3D-printing gun factory in Manchester last year is an example of it working poorly.

These issues are already affecting the technologies involved in Smart Cities solutions. An Argentinian researcher recently demonstrated that traffic sensors used around the world could be hacked into and caused to create misleading information. At the time of installation it was assumed that there would never be a motivation to hack into them and so they were configured with insufficient security. We will have to ensure that future deployments are much more secure.

Conversely, we routinely trust automated technology in many aspects of our lives – the automatic pilots that land the planes we fly in, and the anit-lock braking systems that slow and stop our cars far more effectively than we are able to ourselves.

If we are to build the same level of trust and confidence in Smart City solutions, we need to be open and honest about their risks as well as their benefits; and clear how we are addressing them.

(Cars from the car club “car2go” ready to hire in Vancouver. Despite succeeding in many cities around the world, the business recently withdrew from the UK after failing to attract sufficient customers to two pilot deployments in London and Birmingham. The UK’s cultural attraction of private car ownership has proved too strong at present for a shared ownership business model to succeed. Photo by Stephen Rees).

Outcomes Risk

Smart infrastructures such as Stockholm’s road-use charging scheme and London’s congestion charge were constructed in the knowledge that they would be financially sustainable, and with the belief that they would create economic and environmental benefits. Subsequent studies have shown that they did achieve those benefits, but data to predict them confidently in advance did not exist because they were amongst the first of their kind in the world.

The benefits of “Smart” schemes such as road-use charging and smart metering cannot be calculated deterministically in advance because they depend on citizens changing their behaviour – deciding to ride a bus rather than to drive a car; or deciding to use dishwashers and washing machines overnight rather than during the day.

There are many examples of Smart Cities projects that have successfully used technology to encourage behaviour change. In a smart water meter project in Dubuque, for example, households were given information that told them whether their domestic appliances were being used efficiently, and alerted to any leaks in their supply of water. To a certain extent, households acted on this information to improve the efficiency of their water usage. But a control group who were also given a “green points” score telling them how their water conservation compared to that of their near neighbours were found to be twice as likely to take action to improve their efficiency.

However, these techniques are notoriously difficult to apply successfully. A recycling scheme that adopted a similar approach found instead that it lowered recycling rates across the community: households who learned that they were putting more effort into recycling than their neighbours asked themselves “if my neighbours aren’t contributing to this initiative, then why should I?”

The financial vehicles that enable investment in infrastructure and property are either government-backed instruments that reward economic and social outcomes such as reductions in carbon footprint or the creation of jobs ; or market-based instruments  based on the creation of direct financial returns.

So are we able to predict those outcomes confidently enough to enable investment in Smart Cities solutions?

I put that question to the debating panel at the Tomorrow’s Cities meeting. In particular, I asked whether investors would be willing to purchase bonds in smart metering infrastructures with a rate of return dependent on the success of those infrastructures in encouraging consumers to  reduce their use of water and energy.

The response was a clear “no”. The application of those technologies and their effectiveness in reducing the use of water and electricity by families and businesses is too uncertain for such investment vehicles to be used.

Smart Cities solutions are not straightforward engineering solutions such as electric vehicles whose cost, efficiency and environmental impacts can be calculated in a deterministic way. They are complex socio-technical systems whose outcomes are emergent and uncertain.

Our ability to predict their performance and impact will certainly improve as more are deployed and analysed, and as University researchers, politicians, journalists and the public assess them. As that happens, investors will be more willing to fund them; or, with government support, to create new financial vehicles that reward investment in initiatives that use smart technology to create social, environmental and economic improvements – just as the World Bank’s Green Bonds, launched in 2008, support environmental schemes today.

(Recycling bins in Curitiba, Brazil. As Mayor of Curitaba Jaime Lerner started one of the world’s earliest and most effective city recycling programmes by harnessing the enthusiasm of children to influence the behaviour of their parents. Lerner’s many initiatives to transform Curitaba have the characteristic of entrepreneurial leadership. Photo by Ana Elisa Ribeiro)

Evidence and Leadership

The evidence base need to support new investment vehicles is already being created. In Canada, for example, a collaboration between Canadian insurers and cities has developed a set of tools to create a common understanding of the financial risk created by the effects of climate change on the resilience of city infrastructures.

More internationally, the “Little Rock Accord” between the Madrid Club of former national Presidents and Prime Ministers and the P80 group of pension funds agreed to create a task force to increase the degree to which pension and sovereign wealth funds invest in the deployment of technology to address climate change issues, shortages in resources such as energy, water and food, and sustainable, resilient growth. My colleague the economist Mary Keeling has been working for IBM’s Institute for Business Value to more clearly analyse and express the benefits of Smart approaches – in water management and transportation, for example. And Peter Head’s Ecological Sequestration Trust and Robert Bishop’s International Centre for Earth Simulation are both pooling international data and expertise to create models that explore how more sustainable cities and societies might work.

But the Smart City programmes which courageously drive the field forward will not always be those that demand a complete and detailed cost/benefit analysis in advance. Writing in “The Plundered Planet”, the economist Paul Collier asserts that any proposed infrastructure of reasonable novelty and significant scale is effectively so unique – especially when considered in its geographic, political, social and economic context – that an accurate cost/benefit case simply cannot be constructed.

Instead, initiatives such as London’s congestion charge and bicycle hire scheme, Sunderland’s City Cloud and Bogota’s bikeways and parks were created by courageous leaders with a passionate belief that they could make their cities better. As more of those leaders come to trust technology and the people who deliver it, their passion will be another force behind the adoption of technology in city systems and infrastructure.

What’s the risk of not investing in a Smarter City?

For at least the last 50 years, we have been observing that life is speeding up and becoming more complicated. In his 1964 work “Notes on the Synthesis of Form“, the town planner Christopher Alexander wrote:

“At the same time that the problems increase in quantity, complexity and difficulty, they also change faster than ever before. New materials are developed all the time, social patterns alter quickly, the culture itself is changing faster than it has ever changed before … To match the growing complexity of problems, there is a growing body of information and specialist experience … [but] not only is the quantity of information itself beyond the reach of single designers, but the various specialists who retail it are narrow and unfamiliar with the form-makers’ peculiar problems.”

(Alexander’s 1977 work “A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction” is one of the most widely read books on urban design; it was also an enormous influence on the development of the computer software industry).

The physicist Geoffrey West has shown that this process is alive and well in cities today. As the world’s cities grow, life in them speeds up, and they create ideas and wealth more rapidly, leading to further growth. West has observed that, in a world with constrained resources, this process will lead to a catastrophic failure when demand for fresh water, food and energy outstrips supply – unless we change that process, and change the way that we consume resources in order to create rewarding lives for ourselves.

There are two sides to that challenge: changing what we value; and changing how we create what we value from the resources around us.


(“Makers” at the Old Print Works in Balsall Heath, Birmingham, sharing the tools, skills, contacts and ideas that create successful small businesses in local communities)

The Transition movement, started by Rob Hopkins in Totnes in 2006, is tackling both parts of that challenge. “Transition Towns” are communities who have decided to act collectively to transition to a way of life which is less resource-intensive, and to value the characteristics of such lifestyles in their own right – where possible trading regionally, recycling and re-using materials and producing and consuming food locally.

The movement does not advocate isolation from the global industrial economy, but it does advocate that local, alternative products and services in some cases can be more sustainable than mass-produced commodities; that the process of producing them can be its own reward; and that acting at community level is for many people the most effective way to contribute to sustainability. From local currencies, to food-trading networks to community energy schemes, many “Smart” initiatives have emerged from the transition movement.

We will need the ideas and philosophy of Transition to create sustainable cities and communities – and without them we will fail. But those ideas alone will not create a sustainable world. With current technologies, for example, one hectare of highly fertile, intensively farmed land can feed 10 people. Birmingham, my home city, has an area of 60,000 hectares of relatively infertile land, most of which is not available for farming at all; and a population of around 1 million. Those numbers don’t add up to food self-sufficiency. And Birmingham is a very low-density city – between one-half and one-tenth as dense as the growing megacities of Asia and South America.

Cities depend on vast infrastructures and supply-chains, and they create complex networks of transactions supported by transportation and communications. Community initiatives will adapt these infrastructures to create local value in more sustainable, resilient ways, and by doing so will reduce demand. But they will not affect the underlying efficiency of the systems themselves. And I do not personally believe that in a world of 7 billion people in which resources and opportunity are distributed extremely unevenly that community initiatives alone will reduce demand significantly enough to achieve sustainability.

We cannot simply scale these systems up as the world’s population grows to 9 billion by 2050, we need to change the way they work. That means changing the technology they use, or changing the way they use technology. We need to make them smarter.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The attraction of opposites, part 1: producer and consumer


(Photograph of 3D printers by Rob Boudon)

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

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

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

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

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

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

The attraction of opposites, part 2: little and big

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Co-operative Governance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A challenge for 2013: better stories for Smarter Cities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“).

No-one is going to pay cities to become Smarter

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

It’s been a busy week for cities in the UK; and we should draw important insights from its events.

On Monday, the Technology Strategy Board (TSB); Department of Business, Innovation and Skills; and the British Standards Institution were the sponsors of a meeting in London to establish a UK “Future Cities Network”. One of their objectives was to build a consensus from the UK to contribute to the City Protocol initiative launched at the Smart City Expo in Barcelona this month.

Wednesday and Thursday saw the society of IT managers in local government (SOCITM) hold its annual conference in Birmingham. This community includes the technology leaders of the UK’s city authorities; many of them are driving the transformation to shared public services in their regions; and exploring the opportunities this transformation provides to improve service quality and outcomes, as well as reducing costs.

Finally, it’s been a week of mixed news for Future Cities: the Technology Strategy Board shortlisted 4 UK cities as the finalists in their competition to host a £25 million “Future Cities Demonstrator” project.

This is clearly fantastic news for the cities concerned – London, Glasgow, Peterborough and Bristol – and they should be congratulated for their achievement. But it also means that 22 other cities who submitted proposals to the TSB have learned over the past two days that they will not benefit from this investment.

Whilst the TSB’s competition – and their progress in setting up the related “Future Cities Catapult Centre” – have been great catalysts to encourage cities in the UK to shape their thinking about the future, the decisions this week throw the real challenge they face into sharp focus:

No-one is going to pay cities to become Smarter.

The TSB investment of £25 million is astonishingly generous; but it will nevertheless be only a small contribution to the city that receives it; and the role of innovation stimulus organisations such as the TSB and the European Union’s FP7 programme is only to fund the first, exploratory initiatives; not to support their widespread adoption by cities everywhere.

The UK government’s “City Deals” are a great innovation that will give cities more autonomy over taxation and spending. But in reality they will not provide significant sums of new money; especially when compared to the scale of the financial challenge city authorities face. As the Local Government Association commented in their report “Funding outlook for councils from 2010/11 to 2019/20“:

“… councils will not be able to deliver the existing service offer by the end of this decade. Fundamental change is needed to one or both of … the way local services are funded and organised [or the] statutory and citizen expectations of what councils will provide.”

(A station on London’s Underground railway under construction in 1861, from the Science and Society Picture Library)

Some of these changes will be achieved through public sector transformation. The London Borough of Newham, for example, were recognised at the SOCITM Awards Dinner this week for their achievements in reducing costs and improving service quality through implementation of a successful transformation to online channels for many services.

This is a remarkable achievement for an authority serving one of London’s least affluent boroughs, demanding careful and innovative thinking about the provision of digital services to communities and citizens who may not have access to broadband connectivity or traditional computers. Newham have concentrated on the delivery of services through mobile telephones – which are much more widely owned than PCs and laptops – and  in contexts where a friend or family member assists the ultimate service user.

But local authority transformations of this sort won’t create intelligent transport solutions; or trigger a transformation to renewable energy sources; or improve the resilience of food supply to city populations.

In the UK, many of those services are supported by physical infrastructures that were first constructed in the Victorian era, more than a century ago. Through pride and vision – and the determination to out-do each other – the industrialists, engineers and philanthropists who created those infrastructures dramatically over-engineered them. We are now using them to support many times the population that existed when they were designed and built.

As competition for resources such as food, energy and water intensifies, driven by both a growing global population and by rapid improvements in living standards in emerging economies, these infrastructures will increasingly struggle to support us at the cost, and with the level of resilience, that we have become accustomed to. And whilst they are now often owned and operated by private sector organisations, or by public-private partnerships, the private sector is in no better position to address the challenges faced by cities than the public sector.

In the recent recession and the current slow recovery from it, many companies have failed, lost business, and reduced their workforce. And as the Guardian reported this week, whilst many business leaders take sustainability seriously and attempt to build it into their business models, the financial markets do not recognise those objectives in share prices; and do not offer investment vehicles that support them.

So if government and the financial markets can’t or won’t pay cities to become smarter, how are we going to re-engineer city infrastructures to be more intelligent and sustainable?

In my view, the key is to look at four ways in which money is already spent; and to harness that spending power to achieve the outcomes that cities need.

1. Encourage Venture Capital Investment

(Photo of the “Container City” incubation hub for social enterprises operated by Sustainable Enterprise Strategies in Sunderland)

The current economic climate has not stopped investors and venture capitalists from investing in exciting new businesses. Some of the businesses they are investing in are using technology to offer innovative services in cities. For example, Shutl and Carbon Voyage both use recently emerged technologies to match capacity and demand across networks of transport suppliers.

The systems that these businesses operate have the potential to catalyse local economic trading opportunities – and in so doing, safeguard or create jobs; to lower the carbon footprint of travel and distribution within cities; and to offer new and valuable services to city residents, workers and visitors.

Several cities, including Dublin and Sunderland, are engaged in an ongoing conversation with their local community of technology, business and social entrepreneurs to encourage and support them in developing new, sustainable business models of this sort that promote the social, environmental and economic objectives of the city.

These investments are not on the scale of the tens or hundreds of millions of pounds that would be required to completely overhaul city infrastructures; but they are complemented by the revenues the businesses earn. In this way, consumer, retail and business spending can be harnessed to contribute to the evolution of Smarter Cities.

2. Build Markets, not Infrastructure

Transport is an example of a city system that is not usually considered a marketplace; that’s one of the reasons why the entrepreneurial businesses that I mentioned in the previous section, which effectively create new markets for transport capacity, are so innovative.

But some city systems  already operate as marketplaces; such as energy in the UK, where consumers are free to switch between providers relatively easily. The fact that city infrastructures are already market-like to a degree is combining with trends in engineering to create exciting new developments.

As both international and national policies to encourage sustainable energy generation and use take effect; and as some fossil fuels become scarcer or more expensive, new power generation capacity is increasingly based on renewable energy sources such as wind, hydro-electric, tidal, geo-thermal and biological sources.

A challenge associated with some of those energy sources is that their generating capacity is small compared to their cost and physical impact. Wind farms, for example, take up vastly more space than gas- and coal-powered energy generation facilities, and produce only a fraction of their output.

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

However, for other power sources, a reduction in scale could be an advantage. The European Bioenergy Research Institute (EBRI) at Aston University in Birmingham, for example, exploit technologies that can recover energy from sewage and food waste. Those technologies can already be implemented on a small-enough scale that the city of Birmingham is setting up a local power distribution company to exploit a bio-energy power generation plant that EBRI will operate at Aston University. And the New Optimists, a community of scientists and industry leaders in Birmingham are considering on Birmingham’s behalf the possibility that such generation technology could eventually operate in city neighbourhoods and communities, or even within individual residences.

For all of these reasons, there is considerable interest at present in the formation of new, localised marketplaces in power generation and consumption. Ecoisland, a community initiative on the Isle of Wight, is perhaps at the forefront of this movement. Their objective is to make the Isle of Wight self-sufficient in energy; because their approach to meeting that objective is to form a new market, they are winning considerable investment from the financial markets due to the profit-making potential of that market.

3. Procure Infrastructure Smartly

City Authorities and property developers spend substantial sums of money on city infrastructures and related services. But the requirements and scoring systems of those procurements are often very traditional, and create no incentive for the providers of infrastructure services to offer innovative solutions.

Some flagship projects – such as Stockholm’s congestion-charging scheme and the smart metering programme in Dubuque, for example – have shown the tremendous potential of “Smarter” solutions. But their effectiveness is to some degree specific to their local context; relatively high levels of taxation are acceptable in Scandinavian society, for example, in return for high quality public service outcomes. Such levels of taxation are not so acceptable elsewhere.

There is tremendous scope for more creative and innovative approaches to procurement of city services to encourage service providers to offer “Smarter” solutions; Birmingham Science City’s Jackie Homan describred some of those possibilities very eloquently recently. The more urgently city authorities adopt those approaches, the sooner they are likely to benefit from the innovation that their infrastructure partners have the potential to provide.

(The Olympic flame at Vancouver’s Winter Olympics photographed by Evan Leeson)

4. Work With Ethical Investors

Finally, notwithstanding the challenges described in the Guardian article that I linked to above, some financial institutions do offer support for “Smart” and sustainable initiatives.

Vancouver’s “Change Everything” online community, for example, was an early pioneer in exploiting the power of social media to support social and environmental initiatives; it was created by Vancouver’s Credit Union, Vancity, a financial institution with social objectives.

Similarly, Sustainable Enterprise Strategies, who provide crucial support and incubation services to businesses and social enterprises in the most challenged communities in Sunderland, are supported by the UK’s Co-Operative Bank; and IBM and Citi-Group have collaborated to create a financing solution for city’s to invest in Streetline’s “Smart Parking” solution, which has reduced both traffic congestion and environmental pollution in cities such as San Francisco.

These are just some of the ways in which financial institutions have already been engaged to support Smarter Cities initiatives. They can surely be persuaded to do so more extensively by proposals that may have social or environmental objectives, but that are also well-formed from a financial perspective.

“The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed”

All of the initiatives that I’ve described in this article are are already under way. As the science fiction author William Gibson memorably said – in what is now the last century – “the future is already here; it’s just not evenly distributed”.

We should not wait for new, large-scale sources of Smarter City funding to appear before we start to transform our cities – we cannot afford to; and it’s simply not going to happen. What we must do is look at the progress that is already being made by cities, entrepreneurs and communities across the world, and follow their example.

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.

Can cities break Geoffrey West’s laws of urban scaling?

(Photo of Kowloon by Frank Müller)

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I recently read Geoffrey West’s fascinating paper on urban scaling laws, “Growth, innovation, scaling and the pace of life in cities“.

The paper applies to cities techniques that I recall from my Doctoral studies in the Physics and Engineering of Superconducting Devices for studying the emergent properties of self-organising complex systems.

Cities, being composed of 100,000s or millions of human beings with free-will who interact with each other, are clearly examples of such complex systems; and their emergent properties of interest include economic output, levels of crime, and expenditure on maintaining and expanding physical infrastructures.

It’s a less intimidating read than it might sound, and draws fascinating conclusions about the relationship between the size of city populations; their ability to create wealth through innovation; sustainability; and what many of us experience as the increasing speed of modern life.

I’m going to summarise the conclusions the paper draws about the characteristics and behaviour of cities; and then I’d like to challenge us to change them.

Professor West’s paper (which is also summarised in his excellent TED talk) uses empirical techniques to present fascinating insights into how cities have performed in our experience so far; but as I’ve argued before, such conclusions drawn from historic data do not rule out the possibility of cities achieving different levels of performance in the future by undertaking transformations.

That potential to transform city performance is vitally important in the light of West’s most fundamental finding: that the largest, densest cities currently create the most wealth most efficiently. History shows that the most successful models spread, and in this case that could lead us towards the higher end of predictions for the future growth of world population in a society dominated by larger and larger megacities supported by the systems I’ve described in the past as “extreme urbanism“.

I personally don’t find that an appealing vision for our future so I’m keen to pursue alternatives. (Note that Professor West is not advocating limitless city growth either; he’s simply analysing and reporting insights from the available data about cities, and doing it in an innovative and important way. I am absolutely not criticising his work; quite the oppostite – I’m inspired by it).

So here’s an unfairly brief summary of his findings:

  • Quantitative measures of the creative performance of cities (such as wealth creation or the number of patents and inventions generated by city populations) – grow faster and faster the more that city size increases.
  • Quantitative measures of the cost of city infrastructures grow more slowly as city size increases, because bigger cities can exploit economies of scale to grow more cheaply than smaller cities.

West found that these trends were incredibly consistent across cities of very different sizes. To explain the consistency, he drew an analogy with biology: for almost all animals, characteristics such as metabolic rate and life expectancy vary in a very predictable way according to the size of the animal.

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

The reason for this is that the performance of the thermodynamic, cardio-vascular and metabolic systems that support most animals in the same way are affected by size. For example, geometry determines that the surface area of small animals is larger compared to their body mass than that of large animals. So smaller animals lose heat through their skin more rapidly than larger animals. They therefore need faster metabolic systems that convert food to replacement heat more rapidly to keep them warm. This puts more pressure on their cardio-vascular systems and in particular their heart muscles, which beat more quickly and wear out sooner. So mice don’t live as long as elephants.

Further, more complex mechanisms are also involved, but they don’t contradict the idea that the emergent properties of biological systems are determined by the relationship between the scale of those systems and the performance of the processes that support them.

Professor West hypothesised that city systems such as transportation and utilities, as well as characteristics of the way that humans interact with each other, would similarly provide the underlying reasons for the urban scaling laws he observed.

Those systems are exactly what we need to affect if we are to change the relationship between city size and performance in the future. Whilst the cardio-vascular systems of animals are not something that animals can change, we absolutely can change the way that city systems behave – in the same way that as human beings we’ve extended our life expectancy through ingenuity in medicine and improvements in standards of living. This is precisely the idea behind Smarter cities.

(A graph from my own PhD thesis showing real experimental data plotted against a theoretical prediction similar to a scaling law. Notice that whilst the theoretical prediction (the smooth line) is a good guide to the experimental data, that each actual data point lies above or below the line, not on it. In most circumstances, theory is only a rough guide to reality.)

The potential to do this is already apparent in West’s paper. In the graphs it presents that plot the performance of individual cities against the predictions of urban scaling laws, the performance of every city varies slightly from the law. Some cities outperform, and some underperform. That’s exactly what we should expect when comparing real data to an analysis of this sort. Whilst the importance of these variations in the context of West’s work is hotly contested, both in biology and in cities, personally I think they are crucial.

In my view, such variations suggest that the best way to interpret the urban scaling laws that Professor West discovered is as a challenge: they set the bar that cities should try to beat.

Cities everywhere are already exploring innovative, sustainable ways to create improvements in the performance of their social, economic and environmental systems. Examples include:

(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.)

In all of those cases, cities have used technology effectively to disrupt and transform the behaviour of urban systems. They have all lifted at least some elements of performance above the bar set by urban scaling laws. There are many more examples in cities across the world. In fact, this process has been taking place continuously for as long as cities have existed – see, for example, the recent Centre for Cities report on the development and performance of cities in the UK throughout the 20th Century.

That report contains a specific challenge for Birmingham, my home city. It shows that in the first part of the 20th Century, Birmingham outperformed many UK cities and became prosperous and successful because of the diversity of its industries – famously expressed as the “city of a thousand trades”. In the latter part of the Century, however, as Birmingham became more dependent on an automotive industry that subsequently declined, the city lost a lot of ground. Birmingham is undertaking some exciting regenerative initiatives at present – such as the City Deal that increases it’s financial independence from Central Government; the launch of a Green Commission; and investments in ultra-fast broadband infrastructure. They are vitally important in order for the city to re-create a more vibrant, diverse, innovative and successful economy.

As cities everywhere emulate successful innovations, though, they will of course reset the bar of expected performance. Cities that wish to consistently outperform others will need to constantly generate new innovations.

This is where I’ll bring in another idea from physics – the concept of a phase change. A phase change occurs when a system passes a tipping point and suddenly switches from one type of behaviour to another. This is what happens when the temperature of water in a kettle rises from 98 to 99 to 100 degrees Centigrade and water – which is heavy and stays in the bottom of the kettle – changes to steam – which is light and rises out of the kettle’s spout. The “phase change” in this example is the transformation of a volume of water from a liquid to a gas through the process of boiling.

So the big question is: as we change the way that city systems behave, will we eventually encounter a phase change that breaks West’s fundamental finding that the largest cities create the most value most efficiently? For example, will we find new technologies for communication and collaboration that enable networks of people spread across thousands of miles of countryside or ocean to be as efficiently creative as the dense networks of people living in megacities?

I certainly hope so; because unless we can break the link between the size and the success of cities, I worry that the trend towards larger and larger cities and increasing global population will continue and eventually reach levels that will be difficult or impossible to maintain. West apparently agrees; in an interview with the New York Times, which provides an excellent review of his work, he stated that “The only thing that stops the superlinear equations is when we run out of something we need. And so the growth slows down. If nothing else changes, the system will eventually start to collapse.”

But I’m an optimist; so I look forward to the amazing innovations we’re all going to create that will break the laws of urban scaling and offer us a more attractive and sustainable future. It’s incredibly important that we find them.

(I’d like to think Dr. Pam Waddell, the Director of Birmingham Science City, for her helpful comments during my preparation of this post).

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