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


(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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