Can Smarter City technology measure and improve our quality of life?

(Photo of Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, at night by David Yu)

Can information and technology measure and improve the quality of life in cities?

That seems a pretty fundamental question for the Smarter Cities movement to address. There is little point in us expending time and money on the application of technology to city systems unless we can answer it positively. It’s a question that I had the opportunity to explore with technologists and urbanists from around the world last week at the Urban Systems Collaborative meeting in London, on whose blog this article will also appear.

Before thinking about how we might approach such a challenging and complex issue, I’d like to use two examples to support my belief that we will eventually conclude that “yes, information and technology can improve the quality of life in cities.”

The first example, which came to my attention through Colin Harrison, who heads up the Urban Systems Collaborative, concerns public defibrillator devices – equipment that can be used to give an electric shock to the victim of a heart attack to restart their heart. Defibrillators are positioned in many public buildings and spaces. But who knows where they are and how to use them in the event that someone nearby suffers a heart attack?

To answer those questions, many cities now publish open data lists of the locations of publically-accessible Defibrillators. Consequently, SmartPhone apps now exist that can tell you where the nearest one to you is located. As cities begin to integrate these technologies with databases of qualified first-aiders and formal emergency response systems, it becomes more feasible that when someone suffers a heart attack in a public place, a nearby first-aider might be notified of the incidence and of the location of a nearby defibrillator, and be able to respond valuable minutes before the arrival of emergency services. So in this case, information and technology can increase the chancees of heart attack victims recovering.

(Why Smarter Cities matter: "Lives on the Line" by James Cheshire at UCL's Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis, showing the variation in life expectancy and correlation to child poverty in London. From Cheshire, J. 2012. Lives on the Line: Mapping Life Expectancy Along the London Tube Network. Environment and Planning A. 44 (7). Doi: 10.1068/a45341)

(Why Smarter Cities matter: “Lives on the Line” by James Cheshire at UCL’s Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis, showing the variation in life expectancy across London. From Cheshire, J. 2012. Lives on the Line: Mapping Life Expectancy Along the London Tube Network. Environment and Planning A. 44 (7). Doi: 10.1068/a45341)

In a more strategic scenario, the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis (CASA) at University College London have mapped life expectancy at birth across London. Life expectancy across the city varies from 75 to 96 years, and CASA’s researchers were able to correlate it with a variety of other issues such as child poverty.

Life expectancy varies by 10 or 20 years in many cities in the developed world; analysing its relationship to other economic, demographic, social and spatial information can provide insight into where money should be spent on providing services that address the issues leading to it, and that determine quality of life. The UK Technology Strategy Board cited Glasgow’s focus on this challenge as one of their reasons for investing £24 million in Glasgow’s Future Cities Demonstrator project – life expectancy at birth for male babies in Glasgow varies by 26 years between the poorest and wealthiest areas of the city.

These examples clearly show that in principle urban data and technology can contribute to improving quality of life in cities; but they don’t explain how to do so systematically across the very many aspects of quality of life and city systems, and between the great variety of urban environments and cultures throughout the world. How could we begin to do that?

Deconstructing “quality of life”

We must first think more clearly about what we mean by “quality of life”. There are many needs, values and outcomes that contribute to quality of life and its perception. Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” is a well-researched framework for considering them. We can use this as a tool for considering whether urban data can inform us about, and help us to change, the ability of a city to create quality of life for its inhabitants.

(Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, image by Factoryjoe via Wikimedia Commons)

But whilst Maslow’s hierarchy tells us about the various aspects that comprise the overall quality of life, it only tells us about our relationship with them in a very general sense. Our perception of quality of life, and what creates it for us, is highly variable and depends on (at least) some of the following factors:

  • Individual lifestyle preferences
  • Age
  • Culture and ethnicity
  • Social standing
  • Family status
  • Sexuality
  • Gender
  • … and so on.

Any analysis of the relationship between quality of life, urban data and technology must take this variability into account; either by allowing for it in the analytic approach; or by enabling individuals and communities to customise the use of data to their specific needs and context.

Stress and Adaptability

Two qualities of urban systems and life within them that can help us to understand how urban data of different forms might relate to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and individual perspectives on it are stress and adaptability.

Jurij Paraszczak, IBM’s Director of Research for Smarter Cities, suggested that one way to improve quality of life is to reduce stress. A city with efficient, well integrated services – such as transport; availability of business permits etc. – will likely cause less stress, and offer a higher quality of life, than a city whose services are disjointed and inefficient.

One cause of stress is the need to change. The Physicist Geoffrey West is one of many scientists who has explored the roles of technology and population growth in speeding up city systems; as our world changes more and more quickly, our cities will need to become more agile and adaptable – technologists, town planners and economists all seem to agree on this point.

The architect Kelvin Campbell has explored how urban environments can support adaptability by enabling actors within them to innovate with the resources available to them (streets, buildings, spaces, technology) in response to changes in local and global context – changes in the economy of cultural trends, for example.

Service scientists” analyse the adaptability of systems (such as cities) by considering the “affordances” they offer to actors within them. An “affordance” is a capability within a system that is not exercised until an actor chooses to exercise it in order to create value that is specific to them, and specific to the time, place and context within which they act.

An “affordance” might be the ability to start a temporary business or “pop-up” shop within a disused building by exploiting a temporary exemption from planning controls. Or it might be the ability to access open city data and use it as the basis of new information-based business services. (I explored some ideas from science, technology, economics and urbanism for creating adaptability in cities in an article in March this year).

(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)

Stress and adaptability are linked. The more personal effort that city residents must exert in order to adapt to changing circumstances (i.e. the less that a city offers them useful affordances), then the more stress they will be subjected to.

Stress; rates of change; levels of effort and cost exerted on various activities: these are all things that can be measured.

Urban data and quality of life in the district high street

In order to explore these ideas in more depth, our discussion at the Urban Systems Collaborative meeting explored a specific scenario systematically. We considered a number of candidate scenarios – from a vast city such as New York, with a vibrant economy but affected by issues such as flood risk; through urban parks and property developments down to the scale of an individual building such as a school or hospital.

We chose to start with a scenario in the middle of that scale range that is the subject of particularly intense debate in economics, policy and urban design: a mixed-demographic city district with a retail centre at its heart spatially, socially and economically.

We imagined a district with a population of around 50,000 to 100,000 people within a larger urban area; with an economy including the retail, service and manufacturing sectors. The retail centre is surviving with some new businesses starting; but also with some vacant property; and with a mixture of national chains, independent specialist stores, pawnshops, cafes, payday lenders, pubs and betting shops. We imagined that local housing stock would support many levels of wealth from benefits-dependent individuals and families through to millionaire business owners. A district similar to Kings Heath in Birmingham, where I live, and whose retail economy was recently the subject of an article in the Economist magazine.

We asked ourselves what data might be available in such an environment; and how it might offer insight into the elements of Maslow’s hierarchy.

We began by considering the first level of Maslow’s hierarchy, our physiological needs; and in particular the availability of food. Clearly, food is a basic survival need; but the availability of food of different types – and our individual and cultural propensity to consume them – also contributes to wider issues of health and wellbeing.

(York Road, Kings Heath, in the 2009 Kings Heath Festival. Photo by Nick Lockey)

Information about food provision, consumption and processing can also give insights into economic and social issues. For example, the Economist reported in 2011 that since the 2008 financial crash, some jobs lost in professional service industries such as finance in the UK had been replaced by jobs created in independent artisan industries such as food. Evidence of growth in independent businesses in artisan and craft-related sectors in a city area may therefore indicate the early stages of its recovery from economic shock.

Similarly, when a significant wave of immigration from a new cultural or ethnic group takes place in an area, then it tends to result in the creation of new, independent food businesses catering to preferences that aren’t met by existing providers. So a measure of diversity in food supply can be an indicator of economic and social growth.

So by considering a need that Maslow’s hierarchy places at the most basic level, we were able to identify data that describes an urban area’s ability to support that need – for example, the “Enjoy Kings Heath” website provides information about local food businesses; and furthermore, we identified ways that the same data related to needs throughout the other levels of Maslow’s hierarchy.

We next considered how economic flows within and outside an area can indicate not just local levels of economic activity; but also the area’s trading surplus or deficit. Relevant information in principle exists in the form of the accounts and business reports of businesses. Initiatives such as local currencies and loyalty schemes attempt to maximise local synergies by minimising the flow of money out of local economies; and where they exploit technology platforms such as Droplet’s SmartPhone payments service, which operates in London and Birmingham, the money flows within local economies can be measured.

These money flows have effects that go beyond the simple value of assets and property within an area. Peckham high street in London has unusually high levels of money flow in and out of its economy due to a high degree of import / export businesses; and to local residents transferring money to relatives overseas. This flow of money makes business rents in the area disproportionally high  compared to the value of local assets.

Our debate also touched on environmental quality and transport. Data about environmental quality is increasingly available from sensors that measure water and air quality and the performance of sewage systems. These clearly contribute insights that are relevant to public health. Transport data provides perhaps more subtle insights. It can provide insight into economic activity; productivity (traffic jams waste time); environmental impact; and social mobility.

My colleagues in IBM Research have recently used anonymised data from GPS sensors in SmartPhones to analyse movement patterns in cities such as Abidjan and Istanbul on behalf of their governments and transport authorities; and to compare those movement patterns with public transport services such as bus routes. When such data is used to alter public transport services so that they better match the end-to-end journey requirements of citizens, an enormous range of individual, social, environmental and economic benefits are realised.

(The origins and destinations of end-to-end journeys made in Abidjan, identified from anonymised SmartPhone GPS data)

(The origins and destinations of end-to-end journeys made in Abidjan, identified from anonymised SmartPhone GPS data)

Finally, we considered data sources and aspects of quality of life relating to what Maslow called “self-actualisation”: the ability of people within the urban environment of our scenario to create lifestyles and careers that are individually fulfilling and that reward creative self-expression. Whilst not direct, measurements of the registration of patents, or of the formation and survival of businesses in sectors such as construction, technology, arts and artisan crafts, relate to those values in some way.

In summary, the exercise showed that a great variety of data is available that relates to the ability of an urban environment to provide Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to people within it. To gain a fuller picture, of course, we would need to repeat the exercise with many other urban contexts at every scale from a single building up to the national, international and geographic context within which the city exists. But this seems a positive start.

Recognising the challenge

Of course, it is far from straightforward to convert these basic ideas and observations into usable techniques for deriving insight and value concerning quality of life from urban data.

What about the things that are extremely hard to measure but which are often vital to quality of life – for example the cash economy? Physical cash is notoriously hard to trace and monitor; and arguably it is particularly important to the lives of many individuals and communities who have the most significant quality of life challenges; and to those who are responsible for some of the activities that detract from quality of life – burglary, mugging and the supply of narcotics, for example.

The Urban Systems Collaborative’s debate also touched briefly on the question of whether we can more directly measure the outcomes that people care about – happiness, prosperity, the ability to provide for our families, for example. Antti Poikola has written an article on his blog, “Vital signs for measuring the quality of life in cities“, based on the presentation on that topic by Samir Menon of Tata Consulting Services. Samir identified a number of “happiness indices” that have been proposed by the UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, the European Quality of Life Survey, the OECD’s Better Life Index, and the Social Progress Index created by economist Michael Porter. Those indices generally attempt to correlate a number of different quantitative indicators with qualitative information from surveys into an overall score. Their accuracy and usefulness is the subject of contentious debate.

As an alternative, Michael Mezey of the Royal Society for the Arts recently collected descriptions of attempts to measure happiness more directly by identifying the location of issues or events associated with positive or negative emotions – such as parks and pavements fouled by dog litter or displays of emotion in public. It’s fair to say that the results of these approaches are very subjective and selective so far, but it will be interesting to observe what progress is made.

There is also a need to balance our efforts between creating value from the data that is available to us – which is surely a resource that we should exploit – with making sure that we focus our efforts on addressing our most important challenges, whether or not data relevant to them is easily accessible.

And in practise, a great deal of the data that describes cities is still not very accessible or useful. Most of it exists within IT systems that were designed for a specific purpose – for example, to allow building owners to manage the maintenance of their property. Those systems may not be very good at providing data in a way that is useful for new purposes – for example, identifying whether a door is connected to a pavement by a ramp or by steps, and hence how easy it is for a wheelchair user to enter a building.

(Photo by Closed 24/7 of the Jaguar XF whose designers used “big data” analytics to optimise the emotional response of potential customers and drivers)

Generally speaking, transforming data that is useful for a specific purpose into data that is generally useful takes time, effort and expertise – and costs money. We may desire city data to be tidied up and made more readily accessible; just as we may desire a disused factory to be converted into useful premises for shops and small businesses. But securing the investment required to do so is often difficult – this is why open city data is a “brownfield regeneration” challenge for the information age.

We don’t yet have a general model for addressing that challenge, because the socio-economic model for urban data has not been defined. Who owns it? What does it cost to create? What uses of it are acceptable? When is it proper to profit from data?

Whilst in principle the data available to us, and our ability to derive insight and knowledge from it, will continue to grow, our ability to benefit from it in practise will be determined by these crucial ethical, legal and economic issues.

There are also more technical challenges. As any mathematician or scientist in a numerate discipline knows, data, information and analysis models have significant limitations.

Any measurement has an inherent uncertainty. Location information derived from Smartphones is usually accurate to within a few meters when GPS services are available, for example; but only to within a few hundred meters when derived by triangulation between mobile transmission masts. That level of inaccuracy is tolerable if you want to know which city you are in; but not if you need to know where the nearest defibrilator is.

These limitations arise both from the practical limitations of measurement technology; and from fundamental scientific principles that determine the performance of measurement techniques.

We live in a “warm” world – roughly 300 degrees Celsius above what scientists call “absolute zero“, the coldest temperature possible. Warmth is created by heat energy; that energy makes the atoms from which we and our world are made “jiggle about” – to move randomly. When we touch a hot object and feel pain it is because this movement is too violent to bear – it’s like being pricked by billions of tiny pins. This random movement creates “noise” in every physical system, like the static we hear in analogue radio stations or on poor quality telephone lines.

And if we attempt to measure the movements of the individual atoms that make up that noise, we enter the strange world of quantum mechanics in which Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle states that the act of measuring such small objects changes them in unpredictable ways. It’s hardly a precise analogy, but imagine trying to measure how hard the surface of a jelly is by hitting it with a hammer. You’d get an idea of the jelly’s hardness by doing so, but after the act of “measurement” you wouldn’t be left with the same jelly. And before the measurement you wouldn’t be able to predict the shape of the jelly afterwards.

(A graph from my PhD thesis showing experimental data plotted against the predictions of an analytic. Notice that whilst the theoretical prediction (the smooth line) is a good guide to the experimental data, that each actual data point lies above or below the line, not on it. In addition, each data point has a vertical bar expressing the level of uncertainty involved in its measurement. In most circumstances, data is uncertain and theory is only a rough guide to reality.)

Even if our measurements were perfect, our ability to understand what they are telling us is not. We draw insight into the behaviour of a real system by comparing measurements of it to a theoretical model of its behaviour. Weather forecasters predict the weather by comparing real data about temperature, air pressure, humidity and rainfall to sophisticated models of weather systems; but, as the famous British preoccupation with talking about the weather illustrates, their predictions are frequently inaccurate. Quite simply this is because the weather system of our world is more complicated than the models that weather forecasters are able to describe using mathematics; and process using today’s computers.

This may all seem very academic; and indeed it is – these are subjects that I studied for my PhD in Physics. But all scientists, mathematicians and engineers understand them; and whether our work involves city systems, motor cars, televisions, information technology, medicine or human behaviour, when we work with data, information and analysis technology we are very much aware and respectful of their limitations.

Most real systems are more complicated than the theoretical models that we are able to construct and analyse. That is especially true of any system that includes the behaviour of people – in other words, the vast majority of city systems. Despite the best efforts of psychology, social science and artificial intelligence we still do not have an analytic model of human behaviour.

For open data and Smarter Cities to succeed, we need to openly recognise these challenges. Data and technology can add immense value to city systems – for instance, IBM’s “Deep Thunder” technology creates impressively accurate short-term and short-range predictions of weather-related events such as flash-flooding that have the potential to save lives. But those predictions, and any other result of data-based analysis, have limitations; and are associated with caveats and constraints.

It is only by considering the capabilities and limitations of such techniques together that we can make good decisions about how to use them – for example, whether to trust our lives to the automated analytics and control systems involved in anti-lock braking systems, as the vast majority of us do every time we travel by road; or whether to use data and technology only to provide input into a human process of consideration and decision-making – as takes place in Rio when city agency staff consider Deep Thunder’s predictions alongside other data and use their own experience and that of their colleagues in determining how to respond.

In current discussions of the role of technology in the future of cities, we risk creating a divide between “soft” disciplines that deal with qualitative, subjective matters – social science and the arts for example; and “hard” disciplines that deal with data and technology – such as science, engineering, mathematics.

In the most polarised debates, opinion from “soft” disciplines is that “Smart cities” is a technology-driven approach that does not take human needs and nature into account, and does not recognise the variability and uncertainty inherent in city systems; and opinion from “hard” disciplines is that operational, design and policy decisions in cities are taken without due consideration of data that can be used to inform them and predict their outcomes. As Stephan Shakespeare wrote in the “Shakespeare Review of Public Sector Information“, “To paraphrase the great retailer Sir Terry Leahy, to run an enterprise without data is like driving by night with no headlights. And yet that is what government often does.”

There is no reason why these positions cannot be reconciled. In some domains “soft” and “hard” disciplines regularly collaborate. For example, the interior and auditory design of the Jaguar XF car, first manufactured in 2008, was designed by re-creating the driving experience in a simulator at the University of Warwick, and analysing the emotional response of test subjects using physiological sensors and data. Such techniques are now routinely used in product design. And many individuals have a breadth of knowledge that extends far beyond their core profession into a variety of areas of science and the arts.

But achieving reconciliation between all of the stakeholders involved in the vastly complex domain of cities – including the people who live in them, not just the academics, professionals and politicians who study, design, engineer and govern them – will not happen by default. It will only happen if we have an open and constructive debate about the capabilities and the limitations of data, information and technology; and if we are then able to communicate them in a way that expresses to everyone why Smarter City systems will improve their quality of life.

(“Which way to go?” by Peter Roome)

What’s next?
It’s astonishing and encouraging that we could use a model of individual consciousness to navigate the availability and value of data in the massively collective context of an urban scenario. To continue developing an understanding of the ability of information and technology to contribute to quality of life within cities, we need to expand that approach to explore the other dimensions we identified that affect perceptions of quality of life: culture, age and family status, for example; and within both larger and smaller scales of city context than the “district” scenario that we started with.

And we need to compare that approach to existing research work such as the Liveable Cities research collaboration between UK Universities that is establishing an evidence-based technique for assessing wellbeing; or the IBM Research initiative “SCRIBE” which seeks to define the meaning of and relationships between the many types of data that describe cities.

As a next step, the Urban Systems Collaborative attendees suggested that it would be useful to consider how people in different circumstances in cities use data, information and technology to take decisions:  for example, city leaders, businesspeople, parents, hostel residents, commuters, hospital patients and so forth across the incredible variety of roles that we play in cities. You can find out more about how the Collaborative is taking this agenda forward on their website.

But this is not a debate that belongs only within the academic community or with technologists and scientists. Information and technology are changing the cities, society and economy that we live in and depend on. But that information results from data that in large part is created by all of our actions and activities as individuals, as we carry out our lives in cities, interacting with systems that from a technology perspective are increasingly instrumented, interconnected and intelligent. We are the ultimate stakeholders in the information economy, and we should seek to establish an equitable consensus for how our data is used; and that consensus should include an understanding and acceptance between all parties of both the capabilities and limitations of information and technology.

I’ve written before about the importance of telling stories that illustrate ways in which technology and information can change lives and communities for the better. The Community Lovers’ Guide to Birmingham is a great example of doing this. As cities such as Birmingham, Dublin and Chicago demonstrate what can be achieved by following a Smarter City agenda, I’m hoping that those involved can tell stories that will help other cities across the world to pursue these ideas themselves.

(This article summarises a discussion I chaired this week to explore the relationship between urban data, technology and quality of life at the Urban Systems Collaborative’s London workshop, organised by my ex-colleague, Colin Harrison, previously an IBM Distinguished Engineer responsible for much of our Smarter Cities strategy; and my current colleague, Jurij Paraszczak, Director of Industry Solutions and Smarter Cities for IBM ResearchI’m grateful for the contributions of all of the attendees who took part. The article also appears on the Urban Systems Collaborative’s blog).

How to build a Smarter City: 23 design principles for digital urbanism

(Bradford’s City Park, winner of the Academy of Urbanism’s “Great Place” award for 2013. The park is a public space that has been reclaimed for city life from traffic, and which evolves from a daytime public square into an evening water-feature. The fountains and lighting can adapt to and follow individual or crowd movements. Photo by Chloe Blanchfield. )

At the same time that cities everywhere are seeking funds for Smarter City initiatives, and often relying on central government or research grants to do so, I know of literally billions of Pounds, Euros, and Dollars that are being spent on relatively conventional development and infrastructure projects that aren’t particularly “smart”.

Why is that?

One reason is that we have yet to turn our experience to date into prescriptive, re-usable guidance. Many examples of “Smarter City” projects have demonstrated that in principle technologies such as social media, information marketplaces and the “internet of things” can support city-level objectives such as wellbeing, social mobility, economic growth and infrastructure resilience. But these individual results do not yet constitute a normalised evidence base to indicate which approaches apply in which situations, and to predict in quantitative terms what the outcomes will be.

And whilst a handful of cities such as Portland and Dublin have implemented information platforms on which sophisticated research can be carried out to predict the effect that technology and other interventions will have on a specific city, elsewhere we are in the early stages of considering the strategic role that technology should play in the overall design, planning and governance of cities.

We have been in this position before. In her seminal 1961 work “The Death and Life of Great American Cities“, Jane Jacobs wrote of the extant planning regime that in her opinion was impeding, or even destroying, the growth of healthy, urban cities in favour of a misguided faith in the suburban “Garden City” vision and its derivatives:

“Private investment shapes cities, but social ideas (and laws) shape private investment. First comes the image of what we want, then the machinery is adapted to turn out that image. The financial machinery has been adjusted to create anti-city images because, and only because, we as a society thought this would be good for us. If and when we think that lively, diversified city, capable of continual, close- grained improvement and change, is desirable, then we will adjust the financial machinery to get that.”

(The White Horse Tavern in Greenwich Village, New York. The rich urban life of the area was described by one of the Taverns’ many famous patrons, the urbanist Jane Jacobs. Photo by Steve Minor).

Similarly, today’s planning and procurement practises do not explicitly recognise the value of the Smart City vision, and therefore are not shaping the financial instruments to deliver it.

This is not because those practises are at fault; it is because technologists, urbanists, architects, procurement officers, policy-makers and planners need to work together to evolve those practises to take account of the new possibilities available to cities through technology.

I was recently asked by a city that I work closely with to contribute suggestions for how their next planning strategy could reflect the impact of the technology agenda. Drawing on experiences and conversations with cities, Universities, government bodies and professional organisations over the last year, including the “Digital Urbanism” workshop help at the Academy of Urbanism Congress 2013 in Bradford, UK on 16th May, I put together a set of intentionally provocative candidate “design principles” for them to consider.

I’ve reproduced those principles in this article. They will not be universally accepted, and it is not possible yet to provide a mature body of evidence to support them. Whilst some will seem obvious, some may be controversial – or simply naive. Many will change or be discarded in time; some will be found to be misguided or unworkable. Because the outcomes we are seeking are often qualitative – “vibrant communities”, for example – and because research into city systems and the work of standards bodies is still ongoing, many of them are aspirational and subjective. But by presenting active principles rather than passive observations, my hope is to stimulate a useful debate.

A final caveat: my profession is technology, not the architecture of buildings and structures, urban design or town-planning. I therefore lack the depth of background in urban thinking that will be shared by many of those who I hope to engage in this debate; and as a consequence, some of this material may duplicate well-established thinking; be unsophisticated in content or expression; or just plain wrong. I hope that you will forgive and accept the attempts of a passionate newcomer to contribute thinking from a new domain into one that is well established; and help me to improve on this first attempt.

Candidate Design Principles for Digital Urbanism

(Tina Saaby, Copenhagen's City Architect, addressing the Academy of Urbanism Congress in Bradford)

(Tina Saaby, Copenhagen’s City Architect, addressing the Academy of Urbanism Congress in Bradford)

The importance of “place” in town planning and urban design has come to encapsulate experience from a variety of domains about what makes urban environments successful from the perspective of the people, businesses and communities who use them. It was summarised by Copenhagen’s City Architect, Tina Saaby, in her address to the Academy of Urbanism Congress 2013 as “Consider urban life before urban space; consider urban space before buildings”.

In identifying “urban life” as the starting point, I think Tina was reminding us to begin always by considering the needs and behaviour of individual people, and then their interactions with each other. This was the basis of Jane Jacobs’ understanding of cities and systems such as their economies and governments; and more recently it has been used by Professor Geoffrey West of the Sante Fe Institute to perform detailed, quantitative analyses of the performance of city systems.

It’s equally important to use urban life and “place” as our starting points when guiding the application of technology in city systems, and so by analogy, a candidate principle for the digital agenda in cities could be:

Principle 1: Consider urban life before urban place; consider urban place before technology.

Recent scientific work has shown that the rate of change is increasing in modern society – and specifically in cities as they grow. For example, Geoffrey West’s work shows that larger cities create more wealth, more efficiently, than smaller cities. In doing so, they attract residents, grow bigger still, and accelerate wealth creation further. This self-reinforcing process results in an ever-increasing demand for resources. It powered the growth of cities in the developed world through the Industrial Revolution; it is powering the growth of cities in emerging markets today; and it is driving the overall growth in global population. Professor Ian Robertson of Trinity College Dublin has even shown that as cities get bigger, people in them walk faster.

So in the many cities which are growing both organically and by continuing to attract immigration, two further candidate principles could be:

Principle 2: Demonstrate sustainability, scalability and resilience over an extended timeframe.

Principle 3: Demonstrate flexibility over an extended timeframe.

Physical Infrastructures and Construction

A difficulty in most existing buildings is to adapt them to support new technology infrastructures – to update wiring, or to add cabling for new network technologies, for example. Any specific prediction concerning our needs for such infrastructures in the future will likely be wrong; but it is certain that those needs will be different from today; and so:

Principle 4: New or renovated buildings should be built to contain sufficient space for current and anticipated future needs for technology infrastructure such as broadband cables; and of materials and structures that do not impede wireless networks. Spaces for the support of fixed cabling and other infrastructures should be easily accessible in order to facilitate future changes in use.

Furthermore, broader trends that are influenced by technology – such as mobile working, collaborative working spaces, pop-up shops and the demise of some traditional retail enterprises – are evidence that the rate of change in the uses to which we want to put buildings and urban spaces is increasing. This leads to another candidate principle:

Principle 5: New or renovated buildings should be constructed so as to be as functionally flexible as possible, especially in respect to their access, infrastructure and the configuration of interior space; in order to facilitate future changes in use.

Connectivity and Information Accessibility

Sources as respected as McKinsey and Imperial College have asserted that we are entering an age in which economic value will be created through the use of the digital information that is increasingly ubiquitous not just in our online activities but in the systems that operate physical services such as transport, utilities and buildings.

A fundamental requirement to participate in the information economy is to be connected to digital networks, leading to candidate design principle six:

Principle 6: Any development should ensure wired and wireless connectivity is available throughout it, to the highest standards of current bandwidth, and with the capacity to expand to any foreseeable growth in that standard.

(An analysis based on GPS data from mobile phones of end-to-end journeys undertaken by users of Abidjan’s bus services. By comparing existing bus routes to end-to-end journey requirements, the analysis identified four new bus routes and led to changes in many others. As a result, 22 routes now show increased ridership, and city-wide journey times have decreased by 10%.)

Organisations of all types and sizes are competing for the new markets and opportunities that digital information creates – that is simply the natural consequence of the emergence of a new resource in a competitive economy. Much of that information results from data created by the actions and activities of all of us as individuals; so we are the ultimate stakeholders in the information economy, and should seek to establish an equitable consensus for how our data is used.

However, in most cases converting the data that is created by our actions into useful information with a business value requires either a computing infrastructure to process the data or human expertise to assess it. Both of those have a cost associated with them that must be borne by some individual or organisation.

Those forces of the information economy may only ever be resolved in specific contexts rather than in universal principle. But any new development or supporting technology system that adds to the cost of allowing data associated with it to be openly exploited in principle adds a potential impediment to future economic and social productivity. So, even if the means to bear the costs associated with providing useful information are not agreed initially:

Principle 7: Any new development should demonstrate that all reasonable steps have been taken to ensure that information from its technology systems can be made openly available without additional expenditure. Whether or not information is actually available will be dependent on commercial and legal agreement, but it should not be additionally subject to unreasonable expenditure. And where there is no compelling commercial or legal reason to keep data closed, it should actually be made open.

A central tenet of the Smarter Cities movement is to create value by integrating systems. The integration of technology systems is made simpler and less expensive when those systems conform to standards for the format, meaning, encoding and interchange of data. However, standards for interoperability for Smarter City systems are in the early stages of development, including contributions from initiatives such as the British Standards Institute’s Smarter Cities Strategy, the City Protocol Society, and IBM’s SCRIBE Research project into city information models. Candidate principle eight therefore states that:

Principle 8: The information systems of any new development should conform to the best available current standards for interoperability between IT systems in general; and for interoperability in the built environment, physical infrastructures and Smarter Cities specifically.

There is much debate as to whether, beyond basic network connectivity, higher-level digital services should form part of a national or civic infrastructure to support businesses and communities in creating growth through digital technologies. The EU “Future Internet” project FI-WARE and Imperial College’s “Digital Cities Exchange” research programme are both investigating the specific digital services that could be provided as enabling infrastructure to support this growth; and the British Standards Institute is exploring related standards to encourage growth amongst SMEs.

A further candidate principle expresses the potential importance of this research to the economic competitiveness of cities in the information economy:

Principle 9: New developments should demonstrate that they have considered the commercial viability of providing the digital civic infrastructure services recommended by credible research sources.

Sustainable Consumerism

(Graphic of energy use in Amsterdam from "Smart City Amsterdam" by Daan Velthauzs)

(Graphic of energy use in Amsterdam from “Smart City Amsterdam” by Daan Velthauzs)

The price of energy is expected to rise in the long term until new energy sources are scalably commercialised; and the UK specifically is expected to experience power shortfalls by 2015. Many urban areas are already short of power, limited simply by the capacity of existing delivery subsystems.

Overall it is clear that it is economically and environmentally sensible to reduce our use of energy. One way to do so is to make better use of the information from city systems and buildings that describe energy usage. Property developers in Amsterdam used such information to lower the cost of energy infrastructure for new developments by collaborating to create an investment case for smart grid infrastructure.

Candidate principle ten is therefore:

Principle 10: Any data concerning a new development that could be used to reduce energy consumption within that development, or in related areas of a city, should be made open.

As consumer awareness of energy costs and sustainability has increased, developers of residential communities that have provided state-of-the-art technologies for sustainable living have reported strong demand, leading to a further candidate principle:

Principle 11: Property development proposals should indicate how they will attract business and residential tenants through providing up-to-date sustainable infrastructures for heat and power such as CHP, smart metering, local energy grids and solar energy.

Urban Communities

Developments carried out according to plans developed in collaboration with existing residents have provided some of the most interesting examples of successful placemaking. Social media, virtual reality and other digital technologies offer the opportunity to enable richer, more widespread consultations and explorations of planned developments by the communities that they will effect. Candidate principles twelve and thirteen express the possibility for these technologies to contribute to placemaking and successful urban developments:

Principle 12: Consultations on plans for new developments should fully exploit the capabilities of social media, virtual worlds and other technologies to ensure that communities affected by them are given the widest, most immersive opportunity possible to contribute to their design.

Principle 13: Management companies, local authorities and developers should have a genuinely engaging presence in social media so that they are approachable informally.

(Photograph by Meshed Media of Birmingham’s Social Media Cafe, where individuals from every part of the city who have connected online meet face-to-face to discuss their shared interest in social media.)

City communities are not passive observers to the Smarter City phenomenon. They may be crowd-sourcing mapping information for OpenStreetMap; running or participating in hacking events such as the Government Open Hackday in Birmingham last year; or they may be creating new social enterprises or regional technology startups, such as the many city currencies and trading schemes that are appearing.

But access to and familiarity with social media is far from ubiquitous; the potential for new communities to adopt and benefit from such technology is enormous, and need not be expensive. Informal programmes to spread awareness and provide education, such as the social media surgeries started by Podnosh in Birmingham, can have a powerful effect helping communities to exploit social technology to uncover hidden synergies and connections.

Principle 14: Local authorities should support awareness and enablement programmes for social media and related technologies, particularly “grass roots” initiatives within local communities.

Local food initiatives – in which local food processing is more important than local food growing in cities with limited open space but plentiful manufacturing space – have the potential to strengthen community ties; provide employment opportunities; promote healthier diets; and reduce the carbon impact of food supply systems. They can be supported by measures such as the provision of generous gardens, allotments or public space in the physical environment; and by the use of technology to enable online food markets or related distribution systems.

Such initiatives are generally operated by private sector organisations – often small-scale entrepreneurial or social enterprises; but their formation may be facilitated by local authorities or developers during the course of development or regeneration programmes. Candidate principle fifteen is therefore:

Principle 15: Urban development and regeneration programmes should support the formation, activity and success of local food initiatives by cooperating with local community and business support programmes to support the infrastructures they need to succeed and grow.

Demographic and economic trends indicate that we are living longer and needing to support ourselves later in life. A variety of technologies can provide or contribute to that support:

Principle 16: Residential accommodation should incorporate space for environmental monitoring, interactive portals, and connectivity to enable remote support, telehealth systems and homeworking.

Economic Development and Vitality

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

In his address to the Academy of Urbanism Congress, economist Michael Ward, Chair of the Centre for Local Economic Strategies, asserted that:

“The key task facing civic leaders in the 21st Century is this: how, in a period of profound and continuing economic changes, will our citizens earn a living and prosper?”

For cities to provide jobs, they need successful businesses; and technology will have a dramatic effect on what it means to be a successful business in the 21st Century.

Over the last two decades, the internet, mobile phone and social media have redefined the boundaries of the communications, technology, media, publishing and technology industries. The companies that thrived through those changes were those who best understood how to use technology to merge capabilities from across those industries into new business models. In the coming decade as digitisation extends to industries such as manufacturing through technologies such as 3D printing and smart materials, more and more industry sectors will be redefined by similar levels of disruption and convergence.

So how are the economies of our cities placed to be successful in that world of change?

Many have the mix of technology, creative and industrial capabilities to be successful in future economies in principle; but in practise those capabilities are in separate geographical locations, between which it is difficult for serendipitous interactions to create new innovations – I discussed these issues in the context of Birmingham, my home city, in an article a few weeks ago.

Spatial modelling techniques can predict the impact of planned developments on these characteristics of the cities surrounding them – i.e. whether they will improve or worsen connectivity between value-creating districts in different economic sectors. Candidate principles seventeen and eighteen express how these techniques could be used:

Principle 17: New developments should demonstrate through the use of the latest urban modelling techniques that they will increase connectivity – particularly by walking and cycling – between important value-creating districts and economic priority zones that are adjacent or near to them.

Principle 18: Developments should offer the opportunity of serendipitous interaction and innovation between stakeholders from different occupations.

The nature of work, business and employment in many industries is changing, driven by technology. Whilst these changes may not take place at the same speed in all businesses, in all industries, in all places; it will become increasingly important over time that cities and districts provide the facilities that future enterprises will require:

Principle 19: Developments should provide, or should be adaptable to provide, facilities to enable the location and success of future ways of working including remote and mobile working, “fab labs” (3d printing facilities), “pop-up”  establishments and collaborative working spaces.

Governance

Most urban spaces and developments do not succeed immediately; time is required for them to attract and adapt to the uses that they will eventually successfully support. That condition of success will be more rapidly achieved or new developments, and will be sustained for longer, if it is possible to easily adapt them. Such adaptability is particularly important given the speed of change and innovation that digital technology can enable, leading to candidate principle twenty:

Principle 20: Planning, usage and other policies governing the use of urban space and structures should facilitate innovation and changes of use, including temporary changes of use.

Privacy and Public Safety

Privacy and security are perhaps the greatest current challenges of the digital age; but that is simply a reflection of their importance in all aspects of our lives. Jane Jacobs’ description of urban systems in terms of human and community behaviour was based on those concepts, and is still regarded as the basis of our understanding of cities.

But new technologies are changing the relationship between physical and digital environments with the consequence that a failure in privacy or security digital systems could affect community vitality or public safety in cities. So candidate principle twenty-one is:

Principle 21: Any information system in a city development should provide a clear policy for the use of personal information. Any use of that information should be with the consent of the individual.

Transport

(Packages from Amazon delivered to Google’s San Francisco office. Photo by moppet65535)

There is a truth about social media, information marketplaces and related “Smarter City” technologies that is far too rarely explored, but that has serious implications. It is that rather than removing the need to travel and transport things, these technologies can dramatically increase our requirements to do so. Candidate principle twenty-two expresses the need for transport plans to take account of this potential:

Principle 22: Transport plans supporting new developments should demonstrate that they have not only provided for traditional transport demand, but also that which might be created by online business models and other social technologies.

Extensions

This article is an early attempt to express candidate design principles for Smarter Cities; and I have not attempted to systematically address all of the potential domains of city systems where technology may have a role to play. Such an exercise would undoubtably yield further candidate principles. In addition, many other efforts are underway to encode emerging knowledge about the successful use of technology in city systems through organisations such as the City Protocol Society and the British Standards Institute or research programmes such as Imperial College’s Digital Cities Exchange. And so a final candidate principle encourages continuous awareness of the progress of such initiatives:

Principle 23: New developments should demonstrate that their design takes account of the latest best and emerging practises and patterns from Smarter Cities, smart urbanism, digital urbanism and placemaking.

Conclusion

When I first began to extract candidate design principles from my workshop and meeting notes, I doubted whether I would identify more than a handful; I was certainly not expecting to identify more than twenty. I think that it is encouraging to observe that there is so much that can be stated positively about the potential of technology to create value in cities.

My sense, though, is that an overarching set of five to ten principles would be much more useful in defining an approach to Smarter Cities that could be broadly adopted. In order to identify what those principles should be, I will need to more clearly define their audience and purpose. Such an exercise will probably form the basis of a subsequent article for this blog.

But in the meantime, I hope that I have offered food for thought; and I look forward to hearing your views.

My thanks to those who have commented on the principles I shared on twitter ahead of posting this: Leo HollisTony SmithWe Make GoodIan OwenOsvaldoFred Bartels and Frederico Muñoz.

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