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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But for who?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Design Pattern: City-Centre Enterprise Incubation

Summary of the pattern:

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

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

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

City systems, communities and infrastructures affected:

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

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

Commercial operating model:

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

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

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

Soft infrastructures, hard infrastructures and assets required:

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

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

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

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

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

Driving forces:

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

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

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

Benefits:

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

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

Implications and risks:

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

Alternatives and variations:

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

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

Examples and stories:

Examples of collaborative working spaces include:

Sources of information:

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Martin’s words:

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

(quoted from the Refactoring homepage).

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

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

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

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

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

(Image by TurkleTom)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finally, the same challenges appear in economic development.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Photo of me wearing the Emotiv headset)

(Photo of me wearing the Emotiv headset)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Photo of 3D printer by Media Lab Prado)

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

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

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

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

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

The attraction of opposites part 1: little and big

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

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

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

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

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

The same concepts apply to technology infrastructures.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The attraction of opposites part 2: producer and consumer

(Photo of 3D-printed objects by Shapeways)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Collaborative governance; and better stories for Smarter Cities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DDespommier

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do we need a Pattern Language for Smarter Cities?

(Photo of the Athens Olympic Sports Complex from Space by the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center)

The UK Department of Business, Innovation and Skills held a workshop recently to determine how to create guidance for cities considering their approach to Smarter Cities.

A robust part of the debate centred on the challenge of providing “delivery guidance” for cities embarking on Smarter Cities initiatives: whilst there are many visions for smart and future cities; and many examples of projects that have been carried out; there is little prescriptive guidance to assist cities in defining and delivering their own strategy (although I’ve provided my own humble contribution in “Six steps to a smarter city” on this blog; an article which organises a broad set of resources into an admittedly very high level framework).

In setting out a transformative smarter city vision and then taking the steps to achieve it, a great deal of change is involved. Large, formal organisations tend to approach change with prescriptive , process-driven techniques – for all that the objective of change might be defined disruptively by individual insight and leadership or through the application of techniques such as “design thinking“; the execution of the changes required to achieve that objective is usually driven by a controlled process with well defined roles, scope, milestones, risks and performance indicators.

My own employer, IBM, is a vast organisation with over 400,000 employees; a similar number of people to the population of a city of modest size. It was the subject of one of the most famous transformations in corporate history when Lou Gerstner saved it from near-failure in the 1990s. The transformation was achieved by brilliant personal leadership; trial and error; and a variety of techniques and ideas from different sources – there was no “off-the-shelf” process to follow at this scale of organisational change.

But transforming a city is not the same thing as changing an organisation, however big. A city is a complex system of systems, and we have comparatively little knowledge about how to drive change in such an environment. Arguably,we should not even think about “driving change” in city ecosystems, but rather consider how to influence the speed and direction of the changes that will emerge from them anyway.

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

(In this light, it’s interesting to observe that in order to steer the ongoing growth of IBM following the transformation led by Lou Gerstner, his successor as CEO, Sam Palmisano, took the organic approach of seeking to inspire a consistent evolution of business behaviour across all 400,000 individual IBMers by co-creating and adopting a common and explicit set of “values”).

(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)

In “Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back“, Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy, give a fascinating description of the incredible impact such approaches can achieve through the example of the response to the earthquake near Port-au-Prince in Haiti on January 10, 2010 that was led by Patrick Meier, the Ushahidi information crowd-sourcing platform and the Tufts Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Massachusetts. Meier catalysed an incredible multi-national response to the earthquake that included the resources of organisations such as Thomson Reuters, Digicel (the largest mobile phone company in Haiti), and MedicMobile; and just as importantly hundreds of individuals literally spread across the world, with nothing more in common than a desire to do what they could to contribute:

“I told people, ‘We’re going to let this be emergent,’” Meier explained. “There are so many things that need to happen every single hour and so many things that need to keep evolving in such a short amount of time. I have to just let it flourish and deal with what happens when it starts getting inefficient.” The open nature of the platform – both the code that powers Ushahidi and the collaborative nature of the mapping – meant that people could easily be recruited to perform discrete, useful tasks with a minimum of formal authority.”

(Patrick Meier, quoted in “Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back“, p179, by Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy)

In my own work, I’ve tried to follow a similar course, inspired first by the Knight Foundation’s report on the Information Needs of Communities. The Knight Foundation counsel a process of engagement and understanding between institutions and communities, in order to identify the specific information and resources that can be most usefully made available by city institutions to individual citizens, businesses and social organisations. As I described in “The Amazing Heart of a Smarter City: the Innovation Boundary“, the resulting portfolio provides a toolkit customised to the needs of a city, and that can be used to shape a collective case for investment in the development of that city.

The idea of a toolkit recognises both that no one approach, philosophy or framework is applicable to every city, or to every context within a single city; and that an idea that works in one place might work in many others.

For example, in the UK, the regions around the cities of Birmingham and Manchester are of similar size in terms of population and economic activity; but they are very different in the structure of their political administrations and economies. The approach that one of these cities adopts as its Smarter City strategy will not necessarily transfer to the other.

In contrast, however, specific ideas concerning economic development and the attraction of talented young people that I’ve found useful in Sunderland in the UK have been inspired by past experience in Wuxi, China and New York State; and in turn have informed initiatives in Spain, Singapore and Nairobi; in other words they have transcended contexts of vastly different size, culture and economics.

A tool that emerged from town planning in the 1970s and that was then adopted across the information technology industry in the 1980s and 1990s might just provide the approach we need to harness this information. And it’s perhaps not surprising that a tool with such provenance should become relevant at at time when the architects of information technology systems, buildings and cities are finding that they are working within a common context.

That tool is the “Design Pattern”.

A Pattern Language for Smarter Cities

(A pattern language for social software features, image by Amber Case)

The town planner Christopher Alexander invented “design patterns” in the 1970s. He addressed the challenge that many problems in planning were (and are) too large and complex for one person to consider them in their entirety at one time; and that it is hence necessary to break them down into sub-problems.

The difficulty is that it is not at all straightforward to break a problem into sub-problems that can be solved effectively in isolation from each other.

Consider city transport systems: in many cases, road management, bus operations and the rail network are the responsibility of different organisations. It “makes sense” to break up transport systems in this way because each is different; and so different organisations are better at running them effectively.

But from the perspective of the users of transport systems, it doesn’t make sense to do this. Bus and rail timetables don’t work together; cars, buses, freight vehicles, bicycles and pedestrians have conflicting requirements of road space; and the overall system does not behave as though it is designed to serve travellers consistently.

In “Notes on the Synthesis of Form” in 1969, Alexander described a mathematical technique that could be used to manage the complexity of large problems and to break them down into sub-problems in a way that accommodated interdependencies between them. As a result, those sub-problems could be solved separately from each other, then integrated to form an overall solution.

This process of decomposition, solution and integration is fundamental to process-driven approaches to the design and delivery of complex solutions. It is not possible, for example, to assign responsibilities to individuals and teams without going through it. Many projects that fail do so because the  problem that they are addressing is not decomposed effectively so that individual teams find that they have overlapping areas of responsibility and therefore experience duplication and conflict.

However, in developing his technique for decomposing problems, Alexander concluded that it was overly complex, rigid and impractical; and he recommended that it should never be used. Instead, he suggested that it was more useful to focus not on how we deal with problems; but on how we re-use successful solutions.

By identifying and characterising the components of solutions that have been proven to work, we enable them to be reused elsewhere. Christopher Alexander’s particular insight was to recognise that to do so successfully, it is vitally important to precisely describe the context in which a solution is applicable. He called the resulting description of reusable solutions a “design pattern”; and a collection of such descriptions, a “pattern language“.

Design patterns and pattern languages offer a useful combination of formal and informal approaches. They are formal in that each pattern is described in a consistent way, using a structured framework of characteristics. And they are informal in that the description isn’t constrained to that framework of characteristics; and because design patterns do not assert that they should be used: they are simply there to be used by anyone who chooses to do so.

Christopher Alexander’s patterns for town planning and architecture can be found in his books, or online at the “Pattern Language” community; in information technology, Martin Fowler’s “Enterprise Application Architecture Patterns” provide a similar example.

To my knowledge, no-one is yet curating a similar set of Smarter Cities patterns; I believe that there would be great value in doing so; and that in order to do so skills and expertise across domains such as planning, architecture, technology, social science and many others would be required.

In the final part of this article, I’d like to suggest some examples of Smarter City initiatives and ideas that I think can be usefully described as patterns; and to give one example of such a description. Please do share your views on whether this approach is useful by commenting on this blog, or through one of the Linked-In discussion groups where I’ve posted links to this article.

Design Patterns for Smarter Cities

Here are just a few of the ideas I’ve seen applied successfully in more than one place, either as part of a Smarter City strategy, or simply as valuable initiatives in their own right. It is certainly not an exhaustive list – a quick survey of Linked-In discussion Groups such as “Smart Cities and City 2.0“, “Smarter Cities” and “Smart Urbanism” will reveal many other examples that could be described in this way.

  • Information Partnerships – collaborations between city institutions, communities, service providers and research institutions to share and exploit city data in a socially and financially sustainable system. (I’ve provided a more detailed description of this example below).
  • Incubation Clouds – the use of Cloud Computing platforms and hybrid public/private commercial models to enable co-operative investment in technology capabilities that can lower the barriers to successful innovations in city services. Examples: Sunderland’s “City Cloud” and the Wuxi iPark.
  • Community Energy Initiatives – the formation of local energy companies to exploit “smart grid” technology, local energy generation (such as solar panels, wind power, wave power, geo-thermal power and bio-energy) and collaborative energy consumption to reduce carbon emissions and reliance on external energy sources. Examples: Eco-island and Birmingham Energy Savers.
  • Social Enterprises – a collective term for models of business that audit themselves against social and environmental outcomes, as well as financial sustainability and returns. Examples: co-operatives, credit unions and organisations using “triple-bottom-line” accounting.

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

In order to describe these concepts more completely as re-usable patterns; and in a way that allows them to be compared, selected in comparison to each other, or used together; it is important that they are described consistently, and in a way that accurately identifies the context in which they are applicable.

To do so requires that we describe the same aspects of each pattern; and that we describe each aspect using a common language. For example:

  • The city systems, communities and infrastructures affected; using a framework such as the “The new architecture of Smart Cities” that I described last year, shown in the diagram above.
  • The commercial operating model that makes the pattern financially sustainable.
  • The driving forces that make the pattern applicable, such as traffic congestion; persistent localised economic inactivity; the availability of local energy sources; or the need to reduce public sector spending.
  • The benefits of using the pattern; including financial, social, environmental and long-term economic benefits.
  • The implications and risks of implementing the pattern – such as the risk that consumers will not chose to change their behaviour to adopt more sustainable modes of transport; or the increasing long-term costs of healthcare implied by initiatives that raise life-expectancy by creating a healthier environment.
  • The alternatives and variations that describe how the pattern can be adapted to particular local contexts.
  • Examples of where the pattern has been applied; what was involved in making it work; and the outcomes that were achieved as a result.
  • Sources of information that provide further explanation, examples of use and guidance for implementation.

I’ll finish this article by given an example of a Smarter City pattern described in that way – the “City Information Partnership”.

(Coders at work exploiting city information at the Birmingham “Smart Hack”, photographed by Sebastian Lenton)

An Example Pattern: City Information Partnership

(Note: the following description is not intended to be written in the fluent style that I usually hope to achieve in my blog articles; instead, it is meant to illustrate the value in bringing together a set of concisely expressed ideas in a structured format).

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

City systems, communities and infrastructures affected:

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

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

Commercial operating model:

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

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

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

Soft infrastructures, hard infrastructures and assets required:

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

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

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

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

Driving forces:

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

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

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

(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)

Benefits:

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

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

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

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

Implications and risks:

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

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

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

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

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

Alternatives and variations:

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

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

Examples:

Sources of information:

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

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

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

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

What next?

It has been an interesting exercise for me to write this article. Many of the ideas and examples that I have included will not be new to regular readers of this blog. But in describing the idea of an “Information Partnership” as a formal design pattern I have brought them together in a particularly focussed and organised manner. There are many, many more ideas and examples of initiatives within the Smarter Cities domain that could be described in this way; and I personally believe that it would be valuable to do so.

But my opinion on that subject is less valuable than yours. I would really appreciate your thoughts on whether the “Smarter City Design Patterns” I’ve suggested and explored in this article would be a valuable contribution to our collective knowledge.

I look forward to hearing from you.

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

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(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.

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(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).

Smart ideas for everyday cities

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

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

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

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

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

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

Start new partnerships

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

(The members of Birmingham’s Smart City Commission)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Size matters; but not absolutely

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

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

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

Vision, Transparency and Consistency

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

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

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

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

Match risks to the right investors

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

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

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

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

These sorts of project may be more suited to technology or service providers who might invest in pilot schemes in order to develop or prove new offerings which, if successful, can generate follow-on sales elsewhere. The “First of a Kind” programme in IBM’s Research division is one example or a formal programme that is operated for this purpose.

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

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

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

Exploit success to build momentum

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

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

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

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

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

Everywhere is different

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

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

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

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

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

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