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:

The six steps to a Smarter City; and the philosophical imperative for taking them (updated)

(Photo of digital lights in “The Place” in Beijing by Trey Ratcliff)

(This article originally appeared in September 2012 as “Five steps to a Smarter City: and the philosophical imperative for taking them“. Because it contains an overall framework for approaching Smart City transformations, I’ll keep it updated to reflect the latest content on this blog, and ongoing developments in the industry. It can also be accessed through the page link “Six steps to a Smarter City” in the navigation bar above). 

As I remarked last week, in the past months some interesting announcements have been made concerning emerging frameworks and protocols for Smarter Cities – such as the “City Protocol” collaboration which will be formally launched at the Smart City Expo this week in Barcelona.

There are now a wide variety of established and emerging repositories of experience and practise relevant to Smart Cities in such domains as sustainability, technology, community engagement and economic development. Some are open collaborations; some are research programmes; and some are published position papers from consultancies and service providers. It therefore seems an opportune time to update the article “Five steps to a Smarter City” I wrote in September, to include a sixth step: “Structure your approach to a Smart City by drawing on the available resources of expertise“:

  1. Define what a “Smarter City” means to you
  2. Convene a stakeholder group to create a specific Smarter City vision
  3. Structure your approach to a Smart City by drawing on the available resources of expertise
  4. Populate a roadmap that can deliver the vision
  5. Put the financing in place
  6. Thinking beyond the future: how to make “Smarter” a self-sustaining process … and a philosophical imperative for doing so

1. Define what a “Smarter City” means to you

Many urbanists and cities have grappled with how to define what a “Smart City”, a “Smarter City” or a “Future City” might be. It’s important for cities to agree to use an appropriate definition because it sets the scope and focus for what will be a complex collective journey of transformation.

In his article “The Top 10 Smart Cities On The Planet“, Boyd Cohen of Fast Company defined a Smart City as follows:

“Smart cities use information and communication technologies (ICT) to be more intelligent and efficient in the use of resources, resulting in cost and energy savings, improved service delivery and quality of life, and reduced environmental footprint–all supporting innovation and the low-carbon economy.”

This definition shares a useful distinction that was made to me by the Technology Strategy Board‘s Head of Sustainability, Richard Miller: a “Smart City” is one that transforms itself into a “Future City” by using technology. In IBM we use the phrase “Smarter City” to describe a city that is making progress on that path.

As is frequently quoted, more than half of the world’s population now lives in urban areas; and in the UK where I live, that’s true of more than 90% of us. So its not surprising that so many people have strong views on what Smart, Smarter and Future Cities should be.

Personally I think that a useful and holistic definition of a “Future City” needs to include the following concepts:

  • A Future City is in a position to make a success of the present: for example, it is economically active in high-value industry sectors and able to provide the workforce and infrastructure that companies in those sectors need.
  • A Future City is on course for a successful future: with an education system that provides the skills that will be needed by future industries as technology evolves.
  • A Future City creates sustainable, equitably distributed growth: where education and employment opportunities are widely available to all citizens and communities, and with a focus on delivering social and environmental outcomes as well as economic growth.
  • A Future City operates as efficiently & intelligently as possible: so that resources such as energy, transportation systems and water are used optimally, providing a low-cost, low-carbon basis for economic and social growth, and an attractive, healthy environment in which to live and work.
  • A Future City enables citizens, communities, entrepreneurs & businesses to do their best; because making infrastructures Smarter is an engineering challenge; but making cities Smarter is a societal challenge; and those best placed to understand how societies can change are those who can innovate within them.

If those objectives provide – an admittedly very generic – view of what a “Future City” is, then a “Smarter City” is one that uses technology to accomplish them.

Creating a more specific vision is a task for each city to undertake for itself, taking into account its unique character, strengths and challenges. This process usually entails a collaborative act of creativity by city stakeholders.

(The members of Birmingham’s Smart City Commission)

2. Convene a stakeholder group to create a specific Smarter City vision

For a city to agree a shared “Smarter City” vision involves bringing an unusual set of stakeholders together in a single forum: political leaders, community leaders, major employers, transport and utility providers, entrepreneurs and SMEs, universities and faith groups, for example. The task for these stakeholders is to agree a vision that is compelling, inclusive; and specific enough to drive the creation of a roadmap of individual projects and initiatives to move the city forward.

This is a process that I’m proud to be taking part in in Birmingham through the City’s Smart City Commission. I discussed how such processes can work, and some of the challenges and activities involved, back in July in an article entitled “How Smarter Cities Get Started“.

3. Structure your approach to a Smart City by drawing on the available resources of expertise

Any holistic approach to a Smarter City needs to recognise the immensely complex context that a city represents: a rich “system of systems” comprising the physical environment, economy, transport and utility systems, communities, education and many other services, systems and human activities.

In “The new architecture of Smart Cities” I laid out a framework  for thinking about that context; in particular highlighting the need to focus on the “soft infrastructure” of conversations, trust, relationships and engagement between people, communities, enterprises and institutions that is fundamental to establishing a consensual view of the future of a city.

In that article  I also asserted that whilst in Smarter Cities we are often concerned with the application of technology to city systems, the context in which we do so – i.e. our understanding of the city as a whole – is the same context as that in which other urban professionals operate: architects, town planners and policy-makers, for example. An implication is that when looking for expertise to inform an approach to “Smarter Cities”, we should look broadly across the field of urbanism, and not restrict ourselves to that material which pertains specifically to the application of technology to cities.

So whilst  “City Protocol” seems to be the strongest emerging initiative to determine frameworks and standards for approaching Smarter Cities – and certainly should be considered by any city starting on that path – there are other resources that can be drawn on.

UN-HABITAT, the United Nations agency for human settlements, recently published its “State of the World’s Cities 2012/2013” report. UNHABITAT promote socially and environmentally sustainable towns and cities, and their reports and statistics on urbanisation are frequently cited as authoritative. Their 2012/2013 report includes extensive consultation with cities around the world, and proposes a number of new mechanisms intended to assist decision-makers. It focuses extensively on South America, Africa, Asia and the Middle East; but also considers a number of European and North American examples.

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

The World Bank’s Urban Development page contains a number of reports covering many aspects of urbanisation relevant to Smarter Cities, such as “Transforming Cities with Transit”, “Urban Risk Assessments: Towards a Common Approach” and a forthcoming report in December to promote “sustainable urban development through cross-sector integration by focusing on the careful coordination of transit and land development”. At the Bank’s “Rethinking Cities” symposium in Barcelona in October, they also announced that they would be publishing a book of the same title containing a set of viewpoints on similar themes.

The Academy of Urbanism, a UK-based not-for-profit association of several hundred urbanists including policy-makers, architects, planners and academics, publishes the “Friebrug Charter for Sustainable Urbanism” in collaboration with the city of Frieburg, Germany. Frieburg won the Academy’s European City of the Year award in 2010 but its history of recognition as a sustainable city goes back further. The charter contains a number of useful principles and ideas for achieving consensual sustainability that can be applied to Smarter Cities.

A number of current research programmes are seeking to define more technical standards for achieving the interoperability between city systems that underpins many Smarter City ideas. Imperial College in the UK have established the Digital City Exchange initiative; Imperial have a depth of expertise across urban systems such as transport and energy, and are working with a number of academic and industry partners.

The European Union Platform for Intelligent Cities (EPIC) project is similarly researching  architectures and standards for Smart Cities technology infrastructure – my colleagues in IBM and at Birmingham City Universityare amongst the participants. Finally, the “FI-WARE” project, also funded by the European Union, is researching architectures and standards for a “future internet platform”: one of its focusses is the integration of city systems, and particularly how cities can provide technology infrastructures on which SMEs and entrepreneurs can base innovative new city services.

With the UK Technology Strategy Board continuing to invest through it’s “Future Cities” programme (link requires registration) and the EU announcing new investments in Smart Cities recently, research activity in this area will surely grow.

Consultancies, technology and service providers also offer useful views. IBM’s own perspectives and case studies can be found at http://www.ibm.com/smartercities/; Arup have published a number of viewpoints, including “Information Marketplaces: the new economics of cities“; and McKinsey’s recent report “Government designed for new times: a global conversation” contains a number of sections dedicated to technology and Smarter Cities.

Finally, the large number of “Smart Cities” and “Future Cities” communities on the web are good sources of emerging new knowledge, such as UBM’s “Future Cities” site; the Sustainable Cities Collective; and Linked-In discussion Groups such as “Smart Cities and City 2.0“, “Smarter Cities” and “Smart Urbanism“.

4. Populate a roadmap that can deliver the vision

In order to fulfill a vision for a Smarter City, a roadmap of specific projects and initiatives is needed, including both early “quick wins” and longer term strategic programmes.

Those projects and initiatives take many forms; and it can be worthwhile to concentrate initial effort on those that are simplest to execute because they are within the remit of a single organisation; or because they build on cross-organisational initiatives within cities that are already underway.

In my August article “Five roads to a Smarter City” I gave some ideas of what those initiatives might be, and the factors affecting their viability and timing, including:

  1. Top-down, strategic transformations across city systems;
  2. Optimisation of individual infrastructures such as energy, water and transportation;
  3. Applying “Smarter” approaches to “micro-city” environments such as industrial parks, transport hubs, university campuses or leisure complexes;
  4. Exploiting the technology platforms emerging from the cost-driven transformation to shared services in public sector;
  5. Supporting the “Open Data” movement.

A roadmap consisting of several such individual activities within the context of a set of cross-city goals, and co-ordinated by a forum of cross-city stakeholders, can form a powerful programme for making cities Smarter.

5. Put the financing in place

A crucial factor in assessing the viability of those activities, and then executing them, is putting in place the required financing. There are many ways in which that can be done, and I described several of them in two articles in September:

In “Ten ways to pay for a Smarter City (part one)“:

And in “Ten ways to pay for a Smarter City (part two):

I’m a technologist, not a financier or economist; so those articles are not intended to be exhaustive or definitive. But they do suggest a number of practical options that can be explored.

(Meeting with social entrepreneurs in Sunderland who create local innovations in the city)

6. Thinking beyond the future: how to make “Smarter” a self-sustaining process

Once a city has become “Smart”, is that the end of the story?

I don’t think so. The really Smart city is one that has put in place soft and hard infrastructures that can be used in a continuous process of reinvention and creativity.

In the same way that a well designed urban highway should connect rather than divide the city communities it passes through, the new technology platforms put in place to support Smarter City initiatives should be made open to communities and entrepreneurs to constantly innovate in their own local context. I described that process along with some examples of it in “The amazing heart of a Smarter City: the innovation boundary“.

When it works well, the result is the ongoing creation of new products, services or even marketplaces that enable city residents and visitors to make choices every day that reinforce local values and synergies. I described some of the ways in which technology could enable those markets to be designed to encourage transactions that support local outcomes in “From Christmas lights to bio-energy: how technology will change our sense of place“. And the money-flows within those markets can be used as the basis of financing their infrastructure, as I discussed in “Digital Platforms for Smarter City Market-Making“.

(Artist’s impression of a vertical urban farm shared by Curbed SF)

A philosophical imperative

It’s worth at this point reminding ourselves why we’re compelled to make cities Smarter. I’ve often referred to the pressing economic and environmental pressures we’re all aware of as the reasons to act; but they are really only the acute symptoms of an underlying demographic trend and its effect on the behaviour of complex systems within cities.

The world’s population is expected to grow towards 10 billion in 2070; and most of that growth will be within cities. The physicist and biologist Geoffrey West’s work on cities as complex systems showed that larger, denser cities are more successful in creating wealth. That creation of wealth attracts more residents, causing further growth – and further consumption of resources. At some point it’s inevitable that this self-reinforcing growth triggers a crisis.

If this sounds alarmist, consider the level of civic unrest associated with the Eurozone crisis in Greece and Spain; or that in the 2000 strike by the drivers who deliver fuel to petrol stations in the UK, some city supermarkets came within hours of running out of food completely. Or simply look to the frightening global effects of recent grain shortages caused by drought in the US.

Concern over this combination of the cost of resources and uncertainty in their supply has lead to sustainability becoming a critical economic and social issue, not just a long-term environmental one. And it demands changes in the way that cities behave.

As an example of just how far-reaching this thinking has become, consider the supply of food to urban areas. Whilst definitions vary, urban areas are usually defined as continuously built-up areas with a population of at least a few thousand people, living at a density of at least a few hundred people per square kilometer. Actual population densities in large cities are much higher than this, typically a few tens of thousands per square kilometer in developed economies, and sometimes over one hundred thousand per square kilometer in the largest megacities in emerging economies.

In contrast, one square kilometer of intensively farmed land with fertile soil in a good climate can feed approximately 1000 people according to Kate Cooper of the New Optimists forum, which is considering scenarios for Birmingham’s food future in 2050. Those numbers tell us that, then unless some radical new method of growing food appears, cities will never feed themselves, and will continue to rely on importing food from ever larger areas of farmland to support their rising populations.

(Photo by TEDxBrainport of Dr Mark Post explaining how meat can be grown artificially)

As I’ve noted before, such radical new methods are already appearing: artificial meat has been grown in laboratories; and the idea of creating “vertical farms” in skyscrapers is being seriously explored.

But these are surely scientific and engineering challenges; so why do I refer to a philosophical imperative?

I’ve previously referred to artificial meat and vertical farming as examples of “extreme urbanism“. They certainly push the boundaries of our ability to manipulate the natural world. And that’s where the philosophical challenge lies.

Do we regard ourselves as creatures of nature, or as creatures who manipulate nature? To what extent do we want to change the character of the world from which we emerged? As the population of our planet and our cities continues to rise, we will have to confront these questions, and decide how to answer them.

Geoffrey West’s work clearly predicts what will happen if we continue our current course; and I think it is likely that scientists and engineers will rise to the challenge of supporting even larger, denser cities than those we currently have. But personally I don’t think the result will be a world that I will find attractive to live in.

Organisations such as Population Matters campaign carefully and reasonably for an alternative path; an agenda of education, access to opportunity and individual restraint in the size of our families as a means to slow the growth of global population, so that more orthodox solutions can be affective – such as increasing the efficiency of food distribution, reducing food wastage (including our personal food wastage) and changing dietary habits – for instance, to eat less meat.

I don’t claim to know the answer to these challenges, but I’m thankful that they are the subject of urgent research by serious thinkers. The challenge for cities is to understand and incorporate this thinking into their own strategies in ways that are realistic and practical, in order that their Smarter City programmes represent the first steps on the path to a sustainable future.

Zen and the art of messy urbanism

(Children playing in the “Science Garden” outside Birmingham’s Science Museum at Millenium Point; part of the new Eastside City Park, a vast urban space surrounded by education, culture and manufacturing.)

Over the past few months and weeks, some interesting announcements have been made concerning emerging frameworks and protocols for Smarter Cities.

Perhaps the highest profile was the formation of the “City Protocol” collaboration in Barcelona, which will be formally launched at the Smart City Expo later this month. The protocol has been established to identify and capture emerging practises and standards to promote interoperability across city systems and enable progress towards city-level goals to be stimulated, coordinated and measured.

More recently, UN-HABITAT, the United Nations agency for human settlements which promotes socially and environmentally sustainable towns and cities, and a source frequently referred to for statistics concerning the progress of urbanisation, published its “State of the World’s Cities 2012/2013” report, which includes extensive consultation with cities around the world. It proposes a number of new mechanisms which are intended to assist decision makers in cities.

These resources of knowledge and experience will be key to helping cities face the grand challenge of demographics, economics and sustainability that is becoming acute. In a paper published in the respected, peer-reviewed scientific journal Nature, Professors Geoffrey West and Luis Bettencourt described it as “the greatest challenge that the planet has faced since humans became social“; and we have already seen evidence of its urgency. The “Barnett graph of doom“, for example, famously predicted that within 20 years, unless significant changes in public services are made, cities will be unable to afford to provide any services except social care; the UK’s energy regulator Ofgem’s recently warned that the country could experience power shortages in the winter of 2015-2016; and there is concern that this year’s drought in the US will once again cause food shortages across the world.

However, we should not expect that cities will reach a sustainable future state through the process of city leaders and institutions adopting a deterministic framework or method. Such an approach may work when applied to the transformation of organisations and their formal relationships with partners; but cities are more fundamentally complex “systems of systems” incorporating vast numbers of autonomous agents and interrelationships.

The Collective Research Initiatives Trust (CRIT) recently produced a fascinating piece of research, “Being Nicely Messy“, about the evolution of Mumbai’s economy in this context. As a background for the transformative changes taking place, they state that:

“While the population in Mumbai grew by 25% between 1991 and 2010, the number of people traveling by trains during the same years increased by 66% and number of vehicles grew by 181%. At the same time, the number of enterprises in the city increased by 56%. All of this indicates a restructuring of the economy, where the nature of work and movement has changed.”

Rather than focus on the policies and approaches of the city’s institutions, CRIT’s research focussed on the activities of everyday entrepreneurs in Mumbai – average people, finding a way to make their livelihood within the city:

“… new patterns of work emerged as the new entrepreneurs struggled to survive and settle. they occupied varied locations and blurred the distinction between formality and informality; legality and illegality as all of them produced legitimate commodities and services.”

“… the entrepreneurs of Mumbai have innovatively occupied city spaces maximizing their efficiency …”

“… the blurry / messy condition … contributes to the high transactional capacity of the urban form.”

“… mumbai’s urbanism is like a froth with overlapping ecosystems of geographies, legislations, claims, powers, kinships, friendships & information.”

Crucially, CRIT relate this “messy” innovative activity to the ability of individuals within the city to access opportunities to create their own wealth and livelihood within the city and its changing economy:

“… mobility or to mobilize is the ability to navigate the complex urban ecosystem of geographies, legislations, claims, powers, relationships and information to construct one’s path for the future amidst these movements.”

(Photo by lecercle of a girl in Mumbai doing her homework on whatever flat surface she could find. Her use of a stationary tool usually employed for physical mobility to enhance her own social mobility is an example of the very basic capacity we all have to use the resources available to us in innovative ways)

This sort of organic innovation takes place continuously in cities, and increasingly exploits technology resources as well as the capacity of the physical urban environment and its transport systems. For example I wrote recently about the community innovation that’s taking place in Birmingham currently; including “social media surgeries” and “hacking” weekends. There is currently a considerable hope that this adoption of technology by community innovators will enable them to achieve an impact on cities as a whole.

But creating sustainable, scalable new enterprises and city services from these innovations is not straightforward. After analysing the challenges that have caused many such initiatives to achieve only temporary results, O’Reilly Radar wrote recently that cities seeking to sustainably exploit open data and hacktivism need to invest in “sustainability, community, and civic value”; and San Francisco announced a series of measures, including both legislation for open data and the appointment of a “Chief Data Officer” for the city, intended to achieve that. I have previously argued that in addition, cities should analyse the common technology services required to support these innovations in a secure and scalable way, and make them available to communities, innovators and entrpreneurs.

For this to happen, new relationships are required between city institutions, their service delivery and technology partners, communities, entrepreneurs, businesses, social enterprises and all of the other very varied stakeholders in the city ecosystem. I’ve previously described the conversations and creation of trust required to build these relationships as a “soft infrastructure” for cities; and new models of collaborative decision-making and activity such as “constellations” and “articulations” are emerging to describe them.

It’s very important to not be too structured in our thinking about soft infrastructure. There is a temptation to revert to thinking in silos, and assume that city communities can be segmented into areas of separate concern such as neighbourhoods, sectors such as “digital entrepreneurs”, or service user communities such as “commuters”. To do this is to forget where and how innovation and the creation of new value often occurs.

Michael Porter, creator of the famous “five forces” model of business, and his colleagues have written that new value is often created when capabilities – and technologies – are converged across sectors. In 2006,  IBM’s worldwide survey of CEOs in public and private sector carried out with The Economist’s Intelligence Unit identified several different areas of innovation: products and services, markets, operations and business models. In particular, innovations that use new business models to offer products and services that transcend and even disrupt existing market structures have the potential to create the most value.

The CRIT research recognised this need to blur boundaries; and went further to state that imposing formal boundaries inhibits the transactions that create value in the economy and society of cities. Tim Stonor has written and presented extensively on the idea that a city should be a “transaction engine”; and many urbanists have asserted that it is the high density of interactions that cities make possible that have led to the city becoming the predominant form of human habitation.

(Photo by Halans of volunteers collecting food for OzHarvest, who redistribute excess food from restaurants and hotels in Australian cities to charities supporting the vulnerable.)

Human thinking creates boundaries in the world; our minds recognise patterns and we impose those patterns on our perceptions and understanding. But this can inhibit our ability to recognise new possibilities and opportunities. Whilst many useful patterns do seem to be emerging from urban innovation – a re-emergence of bartering and local exchanges, social enterprises and community interest companies, sustainable districts, for example – it’s far too early for us to determine a market segmentation for the application of those models across city systems. Rather than seeking to stimulate innovation within specific sectors, CRIT argue instead for the provision of catalogues of “tools” that can be used by innovators in whatever context is appropriate for them.

The European Bio-Energy Research Institute in Birmingham, for example, is seeking to establish a regional supply chain of SMEs to support its work to develop small-scale, sustainable technology for recovering energy from waste food and sewage; in Mexico City, a new bartering market allows residents to exchange recyclable waste material for food; and in the UK the “Eco-Island” Community Interest Company is establishing a local smart-grid on the Isle of Wight to harness sustainable energy sources to enable the entire island to become self-sufficient in energy. These very different models are converging city systems such as food, waste and energy and disrupting the traditional models for supporting them.

In “The Way of Zen“, Alan Watts comments of Zen art that “the very technique involves the art of artlessness, or what Sabro Hasegawa has called the ‘controlled accident’, so that paintings are formed as naturally as the rocks and grasses which they depict”. Just as the relentless practise of technique can enable artists to have “beautiful accidents” when inspiration strikes; so cities should look to provide more effective tools to innovators for them to exploit in whatever context they can create new value. We should not expect the results always to be neat and tidy; and nor should our approach to encouraging them be.

Ten ways to pay for a Smarter City (part two)

(Photo of the Brixton Pound by Charlie Waterhouse)

As I wrote recently, cities across the world are pursuing Smarter City strategies for common reasons including demographics, economics and the environment; but they start in very different social, financial and organisational positions. So there is a need to consider a variety of mechanisms when looking for the financial means to support those strategies.

Last week I discussed five ways in which cities can finance Smarter initiatives; they included tried-and-tested sources such as research grants, and more exploratory ideas such as sponsorship. In this post I’ll consider five more.

6. Approach ethical investment funds, values-led banks and national lotteries

Whilst the current state of the global economy has focused attention on the monetary aspects of our financial systems, in the context of Smarter Cities it is important to note that amongst the great variety of investment instruments are some which have social and environmental objectives.

I was honoured last week to attend the official opening of Sunderland’s new business support facility for social enterprises, Container City, operated by Sustainable Enterprise Strategies (SES). The centre, fabricated from 37 re-conditioned and adapted shipping containers, provides a new basis from which SES can support the hundreds of social enterprises and traditional businesses that they help to start and operate each year; and who provide services and employment in some of the city’s most disadvantaged areas.

Several of these organisations use emerging technologies in innovative ways to promote social outcomes in the city – such as Play Fitness whose “Race Fitness” product uses gamification to encourage children from deprived communities to engage in fitness and wellbeing; or See Detail who provide employment opportunities in software testing for people on the Autistic spectrum. I’ve argued before that this sort of innovation in communities can be a powerful force for making cities Smarter.

SES are supported by a variety of means, including financial institutions with mutual status, and funding programmes aimed specifically at encouraging social enterprise. The UK’s National Lottery provides one such programme, the “Big Lottery Fund“, which aims to support community groups and projects that improve health, education and the environment.

These sort of schemes operate in many countries, in addition to the ethical investment funds available in international markets. Community Interest Companies are another example of the new forms of organisation that are emerging to take advantage of them. Credit Unions and other forms of mutually owned or locally focussed financial institutions exist across the world; and the Global Alliance for Banking on Values recently issued a report stating that what it calls “sustainable banks” are outperforming their mainstream counterparts.

Such organisations will often demand a financial return in addition to social and environmental outcomes; but well-formed investment proposals for Smarter initiatives should be capable of meeting those objectives.

7. Make procurement Smarter

(Photo of a smart parking meter in San Francisco by Jun Seita)

Cities already spend hundreds of millions to billions of Pounds, Euros and Dollars each year operating city systems; and buying products, materials and services to support them. The scoring criteria in those procurements can be a powerful tool to create smarter cities.

Systems such as utilities, transport and maintenance of the environment are often contracted out to the private sector. If procurement criteria for those contracts are specified using traditional measures for the provision and cost of capability, then suppliers will likely offer traditional solutions and services. However, if procurements specify requirements for outcomes and innovation in line with a Smarter City strategy, then suppliers may offer more creative approaches.

Cities could specifically procure Smarter systems such as smart meters for water and power; or they could specify outcome-based procurement criteria such as lowering congestion or carbon impact in traffic systems; or they could formulate more open criteria to incent innovation and creativity. Jackie Homan of Birmingham Science City recently wrote a great article describing how some of those ideas are being explored in Birmingham and Europe.

8. Use legitimate state aid

A significant component of many Smarter City strategies is to stimulate economic and social growth in the less economically active areas of cities. Such initiatives often run into a “chicken-and-egg” or “bootstrapping” problem: new businesses need infrastructures such as broadband connectivity to start and succeed; but until an area has significant business demand, network providers won’t invest in deploying them.

Birmingham and Sunderland have both addressed this problem recently, winning exemptions from or avoiding conflict with European Union “State Aid” legislation to secure city-wide broadband deployments.

It’s important to make sure that such infrastructures are accessible. In the same way that a new city highway can divide the communities it passes through rather than linking them, it is important that new technology infrastructures are designed in consultation with local businesses and communities in order to provide capabilities they really need, through commercial models that they can afford to use.

Tax increment financing, which allows government bodies to use projected future increases in tax and business rates returns to justify investment in redevelopment, infrastructure, and other community-improvement projects, is another mechanism that can be used in this way. In the UK, the national government is undertaking an important extension of this thinking by agreeing a set of individual “City Deals” with cities such as Leeds and Birmingham, giving them new autonomous powers over local taxation and investment.

(Developers at City Camp Brighton explore ways in which collaboration and web technologies can contribute to the city’s future. Photo by Richard Stubbs)

9. Encourage Open Data and Hacktivism

Communities can bring great passion and resources to bear in finding new ways for their cities to work. In the domain of technology, this is exemplified in the phenomenon of “Hacktivism” in which volunteers lend their time and expertise to create new urban applications.

As I’ve discussed before, when this willingness to contribute is combined with the movement to Open Data and the transformation underway to regional shared services in public sector, powerful forces can be unleashed.

Code for America have championed this agenda in the United States, and this year Code4Europe was launched to promote a similar level of engagement in Europe.

There are limits to what can be achieved for free. But in my view great potential exists, particularly if City authorities can work in partnership with these movements to provide secure, scalable, open technology infrastructures that they can exploit.

However unfamiliar the produce, markets still need physical, infromation and governance infrastructure

10. Create new markets

For a long time I’ve considered that we should conceive of the platforms that support Smarter Cities not just as technology infrastructures, but as marketplaces – i.e. systems of transactions that take place on those new infrastructures. Marketplaces create money-flows; and marketplace operators can extract revenues from those flows which in return create the case for investing in the marketplace infrastructure in the first place. Further; by opening up the marketplace infrastructure to innovative local service providers, unforeseen new Smarter systems can be created.

There are many examples of new markets that use technologies such as social media and analytics to identify parties between which new transactions can be performed; and that then provide the infrastructure and governance to carry out those transactions. Craig’s List and E-Bay are well-known general marketplaces; whilst Freecycle specialises in the free distribution of unwanted items for re-use in communities. Zopa and Prosper apply these ideas to peer-to-peer lending and investment.

Similar markets with specific relevance to city systems are emerging. Streetline offer a Smarter Parking solution which could be viewed as a marketplace in parking spaces; and Carbon Voyage‘s system for sharing taxis can be seen as a marketplace for journeys. I’ve explored other examples of local, marketplace-based business models in food and energy in previous articles on this blog; and discussed some of the local currency and trading systems emerging to support them.

What these examples have in common is that they are independent businesses or social enterprises who are winning backing from investors because they have the potential to generate revenue. As I argued in the case of Open Data and Hacktivism above, if cities can find ways to support such innovative businesses, they’ll find another community that is able to help them achieve a Smarter City transformation.

The buck doesn’t stop here

The ideas for funding Smarter Cities that I’ve discussed over the last two weeks are certainly not exhaustive; and as a technologist rather than an economist or financier I certainly don’t consider them definitive.

But hopefully I’ve provided enough examples in support of them to demonstrate that they are realistic approaches with the potential to be re-used. I certainly expect to see them all play a role in financing the transition to the cities of the future.

Extreme urbanism: live here at your peril

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(Photo by O Palsson)

In “The Triumph of the City“‘ Edward Glaeser argues that efficient cities should be built up around elevators, rather than built out around cars. As a resident of Birmingham, the city where Matthew Boulton and James Watt came together to commercialise the steam engine that powered the first of those elevators (see here and here), I’m predisposed to agree.

Glaeser, along with Richard Florida, Tim Stonor and others argue that cities are vital to our society and economy as they are the places where people congregate to generate and share ideas, and enact Matt Ridley’s memorable idea that value is created when “ideas have sex“. Glaeser even argues that cities emphasise our basic humanity because the defining characteristic of that humanity is our ability and desire to learn from each other.

It’s also clear that our cities need to improve in efficiency. As more and more people live on the planet and as more and more of us live in cities, political, charitable and scientific organisations have pointed out that each of us simply must consume less resources. For examples refer to the United Nations “7 Billion Actions” programme; the lobbying organisation Population Matters; and the recent report published by the UK’s Royal Academy, “People and the Planet“.

But how far do we want to go in using the modern technologies that have succeeded lifts and cars to enable us to live in ever greater numbers at ever greater density?

Some imaginative but frankly scary forms of extreme urbanism are emerging as technologists invent concepts for ever larger and more densely populated cities, and for systems to supply the resources that enable the people who live in them to live and work. I’m saying that as a technologist myself; and as someone who’s passionate about the possibilities technology offers to improve wealth and wellbeing in urban environments – I gave some examples in a previous blog post.

But I don’t personally find it attractive, for example, to consider that the only way we can feed city populations is by growing artificial meat in laboratories, as Dutch and Canadian scientists have suggested. Or that we should farm vertically in skyscrapers, at the same time as building homes and offices for people underground in “earthscrapers“.

To me those ideas are extreme urbanism; and they don’t represent the sort of city I’d like to live in. (I do live in a city, by the way; and whilst I live in a relatively spacious suburb, I nevertheless find it easy to use efficient public transport to get around far more than I use my own car).

There are alternatives to extreme urbanism. One of them is adopting a sensible approach to population growth, as promoted by Population Matters amongst others. Our challenges would be less severe if there were less of us; and many of the most disadvantaged communities and individuals across the world would be better off if they were more able to choose the size of their families and provide equal opportunities to all of their children of either sex.

And there are healthier ideas for applying technology to make cities more efficient. Rather than growing meat in laboratories, why not provide the know-how to encourage people to grow vegetables and keep small animals in city gardens, as Landshare and Growing Birmingham do? And why not use social media intelligently to connect food consumers with local food producers as Big Barn do, making it as easy to buy sustainable, locally produced food as it is to buy globally sourced food from supermarkets?

There are tremendous efficiencies that can be realised in city systems by such “hyperlocal” thinking; and the same ideas could make city life more attractive and nuanced, rather than clinical and engineered.

For a couple of years now I’ve been producing my own air-dried and smoked meats such as salami, bresaola, and chorizo at home in Birmingham. Of course they do not taste the same as the Mediterranean originals; but they taste vastly superior to anything I’ve bought in a supermarket. Rather than think of them as poor alternatives to Spanish and Italian produce, why not consider them regional variations to be explored and valued?

The aforementioned Royal Academy report asserts that as a species inhabiting a planet we find ourselves at a crucial juncture for determining what the size of our population should be, and how we should collaborate to use resources to sustain ourselves. I would argue that our response should be a balanced assessment of the opportunity for technology to enable efficient city ecosystems, in combination with moderation of population growth.

If we get that right, we can all enjoy a more interesting, healthy and efficient life. I would much prefer that outcome to the possibility of descending by default into the extreme dystopias described in novels such as “We” by Yevgeny Zamyatin or films such as Logan’s Run. They describe worlds that are fascinating to experience as works of art; but I’d hate to live in them.

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