Homing Mechanisms: Orienting the Smart Citizen in the Smart City

smart watch

HannahK: Slight change of tone and theme for this post, but bear with us. Ben has graciously allowed me to dominate this week’s post.

BK: Well, I had to mow the lawn and fix a bookshelf.  And the last match of Newcastle’s season was on.

HK: Toon, Toon, Black and White Army! Ahem. The last few weeks have been crunch time for the submission of my primary research thesis for my MScR, and I’m still blinking computer-screen light and endless bibliography tweaking from my eyes. So, I thought I’d outline the stuff I’ve been working on.

My thesis has been considering how to balance out the discourse between the injection of ‘Smart’ technologies into civic culture and citizens receiving or engaging with these technologies. The overall intention was to create a scalable interaction model that can be used to describe engagement effectively, and optimise ‘Smart Citizens’ in the ‘Smart City’.

I’m sure you’ll be devastated to know that I’m not going to bore you with my 30 page dissertation. But, I’ll give you the bare bones and be interested in hearing thoughts and responses!

As we’ve described previously, it’s easy to interpret smart endeavours in city planning as either pretty but unnecessary ribbon on already functioning urban culture, or to use them as a conceptual safety net used to spread civic reach as wide and as possible, often resulting in a ‘catch all’ that only catches some.

The introduction of new technologies into the market, a city or to a home doesn’t necessarily mean these technologies will be used to greatest effect, or even adopted at all. This goes for multiple innovative endeavours: new app tools or websites, slick ‘Smart Fridges’, city lighting etc.

Users, particularly if they are used to being passively or affirmatively involved in digital engagement (another blog for another time), may see digital developments as invasive or unnecessary, finding it difficult to marry benefits to the effort of adoption into routine.

Further, and more importantly from a long-term perspective, the reliance on flashy, new technologies to drum up more smart city hype often requires, at minimum, consistent access to the internet, a computer or smartphone in order to engage with the tools being developed. Anyone below that minimum threshold to access, for example, with low digital literacy or a single shared house computer with slow connection, could conceivably and consistently fall off the edge of the ‘smart’ infrastructure, and be inhibited from re-engagement.

Then, particularly from the standpoint of governmental investment in urban technologies and the systems that hold them accountable to the citizens they are trying very hard to support, I believed it would be useful to develop an interaction ontology which describes optimised, active engagement with new technologies or information. The model I believe can be replicable to various interaction instances, and it outlines how users orient themselves around the tools and processes of engaging with their environment.

This schema might not only be used to describe where engagement can be scaled up and out, co-evolving smart citizen and smart city, but also where it might fall away, outlining where users could fall out of patterns of active engagement in ‘Smart’ technologies and civic interaction. I’ve so far called it a ‘homing’ mechanism.

This mechanism is an ontology describing basic instincts around complex and multiple psychological processes. However, it is an ontology that can be used to evaluate and design new ‘smart’ enterprises. It can be described in three parameters of space, one of time: recognition, access, withdrawal, and routine.

Recognition: The user must be able to recognise and observe the thresholds to accessing new technologies: what are they, why they should access them, how to engage with them. A citizen used to receiving council bills in the post might not understand, for example, why they should engage with an online hub to make transactions easier. Users must also recognise the incentives to access – why should they engage in the first place? We must not only make engagement instances recognisable, but ensure city responses to instances of engagement are clear, comprehensible and, predominantly, affirmative.

Access: This is also quite easy to wrap our brains around superficially, but access is a deep and intensely problematic issue in civic engagement. If access is recognisable, is it still accessible? What facilitates and hinders access – can users without internet access these services? Are they clear enough for the visually impaired, non-native language speakers, or digitally challenged, for example? How is this technology bolstering access incrementally and developing it over time? Methodologies of digital access should iterate, involving increasingly diverse sets of users in the processes of engagement.

Withdrawal: This may seem counterintuitive to theories of engagement, but it is vital that a user engaging with new methods, tools or digital technologies be able to refer them back to the processes they already inhabit, and orient the new against the expected. To be able to ‘withdraw’ from access, and thus control the processes of access, we change the culture of digital technologies to enact a more even discourse between users and their digital environments. The ability to withdraw, recalibrate and choose to engage is a vital affirmative action on the part of the city.

Furthermore, as citizens become more and more engaged with the smart city, those technologies should enact sensations of safety, withdrawal and consistency within the patterns of the city. Again, how does this technology relate to previous methodologies of engagement, what mechanisms does it use to facilitate withdrawal, why might a user choose access over withdrawal, when might a user want to withdraw, and where to – who is able and unable to comprehend their ability to withdraw and thus control their own processes of engagement?

Routine: Routine is the habitual processes of urban living and engagement into which the above mechanisms must be inserted in order to be effective. Designing a technology must not only fulfil a design purpose but a strategic one, and be able to consider who is accessing a technology, when access might be improved, and where? Where is that elusive gap in the routine where technology can support and improve the processes of sustainable engagement in a smart city’s infrastructure.

Using these ‘homing’ instincts to describe interaction and digital engagement should help us develop a consistent approach to integrating smart technologies and  facilitate citizen comprehension of and participation in in digital civic culture. Hopefully, with the aim of sustainably co-evolving the ‘smart citizen’ and the ‘smart city.

BK: For me, all that spins off lots of thinking, but that will have to wait until the next blog!  Please comment, it would be great to develop this as a discourse.homing mechanism


Who is a Smart City?


Ben K: Sorry folks for the gap. Things have been a little ‘interesting’ – as in the curse ‘may you live in interesting times’.  

Hannah K: We both had to take a moment to get our houses in order, but now we can kick off once more in a slightly different dimension.

BK: We’ve looked at the definition of Smart, and of Cities. So, in theory at least, we have made a case that ‘Smart’ is about enabling the gathering of data from the physical, virtual and cultural localities in a manner that enables decisions to be made in all three spheres. This process is supposed to enhance the overall ability of citizens to be happy, healthy and economically independent.

HK: Cities are any sufficiently dense area – real or virtual – in which there are a high frequency and variety of encounters to trade, innovate and enrich experience. We’ve also noted that this value can be extended into smaller networks and communities geographically dispersed from the ‘city’. Otherwise known as the countryside.

BK: Yup. So we’ve mainly been working on theory. But, now I think we should explore the rest of questions.

HK: Which questions in particular?

BK: All of them.

HK: Is the answer ‘42’? I know you listened the the original Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

BK: Oi, cheek.  Though yes, I am that old.  No, what I mean is more from the basis of the Zachman Framework.

HK: The schema for describing an enterprise?

BK: Yup. It’s not a method for getting things done (Togaf ADM is better for that in IT geekspeak) it is an ontology, so we can fit things into a structure.  The questions are Why, What, Who, Where, When and How. You may have noticed that is sort of the way the titles are going.

HK: And you, you sneaky whatsit, got in the half of these already. We’ve done a why, a what, a where already.

BK: Don’t blame me – they are the six primitives.

HK: You mean like our family?

BK: Hah.  Hah.   This framework can be used to link system ontology and evolution. The ‘Why’ has to apply at every level – from why should ‘society’ do it (which I think we answered) also needs to be why should specific organisations get involved – why would, say a medium scale business owner invest?  Or choose to change their business model to map better into the ‘smart’ approaches.

HK: So we need to outline the returns ‘Smart’ investment. You tend to find a lot of the language around integrating ‘Smart’ into a ‘City’ is emotive, almost euphemistic, but for city stakeholders to actually invest we need to show benefits to every participant.

BK: A bit cynical eh?  

HK: I’m all for a healthy dose of pragmatism.

BK: I think when people ask ‘why’, the answer is too frequently ‘because’, but nothing more.  The ‘clever’ people act as if it’s obvious. The sales people claim a beautiful future. Those who ‘believe’ sometimes chase ‘smart city ideas’ rather like a dog chasing a squirrel (yep, occasionally guilty…)  In a working Smart City, we have to assume that if there isn’t a benefit to to any given participant, they won’t participate. If this is a major player (e.g. businesses, unions) that’s one thing – if it’s a type of citizen (technically disadvantaged or otherwise excluded) then the result could be isolation and socio-economic cut off from the city – which is not good for the morals, ethics, or sustainability of a Smart city.

HK: Let’s start with the case for business and enterprises, a major stakeholder sector. Why would a business choose to alter their behaviour in order to fit within the constraints of a ‘smart’ city?  How can we make it advantageous to comply with the behaviour we need from businesses? Goodness of their hearts?

BK: Good one.  Not sure ‘heart’ is in the shareholder structure, and it doesn’t show on the balance sheet. What I’m thinking is about incentives. All taxation regimes create an incentive structure, for instance. In Smart Cities there have been lots of discussions about dynamic pricing; and there are many markets (industrial power, for one) where an ability to shift production from high-price times to low-price times can keep generation within baseload – which reduces the use of ‘high price’ electricity (usually fast-start fossil fuel burners)

HK: So businesses can stand to benefit from the information economy a smart city can produce. Something as simple as detection and comprehension of energy spikes in a city grid, data acquired and distributed by Origami Energy, can generate simple and long term savings for businesses.

BK: Yes – and Engie (declaration of interest – who pay my salary)  already does the same across wide-scale green generation, including with area combined heat and power (CHP). Energy peak management, storage and distribution is already big business at grid scales. What we are talking is enabling that to be tuned to district level (CHP), or even house and appliance level.

HK: And the same scalable approach could be used for basic city data, where effectively combined data matrices, such as where footfall at certain times of day translates into purchase spikes for certain areas, can be put to use by local enterprises, with the heavy lifting – the processing – coming from local government. Of course, this leads to anonymisation and permissions problems, and how to trade that information ‘fairly’ to prevent the already information rich, and therefore information powerful, become ever more so.

BK:  The problem with the ‘who’ here is who chooses?  In simple terms, I believe the obvious thing is to shift the locus of control from the big (the corporations) to the small (the individual, family and local organisations). At first glance, this will look inefficient – like a street market, rather than a hypermarket.  But we already know that information systems can enable an efficient market with millions of individual trades – alibaba, ebay, gumtree. The trick here is who operates that market – all players can benefit from easy, scale access to information.  Who is incented to keep that access rich, varied and localised?  

HK: Well, local government has an accountability structure?

BK: Maybe. But, if there is a complex varied trading system, I think it could work by setting up a variety of levels based on it being the smallest (not the biggest) viable unit of control.  From the individual (for personal data) through family, village, chamber of commerce, town, region.   This will not be sustainable unless the small can veto the large by withdrawal of consent to the data access.That approach can keep things rich and varied for a long time because the large players constantly have to pay attention to the needs of the small to retain their consent to operate. It also means that small traders can compete in the same information field as the huge.

HK: Small is beautiful powered by large scale trading of information – enabling the rapid assembly of scale, efficient datasets even though the sources are small and varied. I like it.

Where is a Smart City? (Part Two)



In which Ben and Hannah continue trying to nail down smart city boundaries – and how they interact at different levels

HK: In the last section of this chat- Where is a Smart City (Part One) – we started with how we might consistently define the boundaries of a city.  We saw this as a functional practice (a dense network of economic and cultural encounters) rather than a physical boundary of urban/suburban/rural. This is partly because cities occupy virtual and ‘real’ spaces, and communities in residence as well as communities in transit.

BK: Yep. And we finished with the question of how to define boundaries within a city, and how they interact:

‘If a city is a dense trading network, and should be adaptive to the behaviour and needs of its inhabitants – how do we define boundaries in a way that covers ethnographic, social, demographic and built differences, particularly if the inhabitants disagree about where the boundaries should be?’

HK:  And how can we consider these boundaries on complex, multiple levels without being divisive? So – how do we get a city to work together at every relevant scale – including beyond the physical, now we have a virtual capability?

BK: I think yes – annoyingly, better phrased than my version – which means that the viewpoint of a city as one big physical entity is (and has always been) inadequate. Reference the idea of London as a collection of villages, constantly part of the property.  Nothing new, well trodden ground – but important

HK: So, to the rub: what different does it make to ‘Smart’?

BK: It’s already clear that digital and urban spaces allow communities to exist as ‘threads’ which are not always apparent. Whether it’s positive – groups of friends keeping together on social media, the ability to maintain much larger contacts through things like LinkedIn, or dangerous as evidenced by the use of web to support radicalisation and extreme points of view by bypassing filters such as editorial and societal standards. An individual thread can pass through all these loops to create multiple communities and perspectives.

HK:  It’s increasingly difficult to distinguish between safe spaces and echo chambers, communities and conspiracies.

BK: Or simply the excessive use of un-curated social media as a way to push certain personalities and their politics.

HK: But if you are considering such things, what about the way these ‘threads’, as you call them, integrate into multiplicit, productive communities? With processes like micro-loans with Kiva or Kickstarter, diverse individuals can align without even communicating to fund a cause or enterprise. Or, through unique experiences, contribute effectively to conversations involving access or discrimination. Or, aligning both through projects like Better Reykjavik where “threads” weave to effectively prioritise local government action.

BK: From that perspective, yes – how do we encourage and harness the reach of such capability with the ability to support the richer environment as those threads intertwine.

HK: This is where ‘boundaries’ come in – how can we see clearly areas of engagement or interaction, such as pathways to work or places of residence, in a way that can perceive the individual as a centre of an intersection of identities, boundaries, ‘threads’ – causes and effects – while also being able to compensate for or respond to broad scope issues, such as vehicle collisions or ‘Green’ energy. A rich tapestry, rather than an ill-fitting flat rug. How can we create a cross-section of these nodes, map and process them effectively, creating the Smart City as MVP?

BK: There is a major implication of this:  if we chase the physical and open data and ‘intelligent city management’ to the exclusion of supporting the individual narratives, then we have lost a lot. It’s harder to centre a society around individuals, their interactions and their lives than it is to centre it around big civic services, buildings, governments and so on – but those big institutions take on a life of their own and drive a structure in which the institutions chase their own survival at the expense of the individual.  

HK:  Looking at it from the perspective of “city as a service” to the citizen, this has big implications on the way we treat the people. A smart city would enrich the paths we take and respond to them effectively. So, Edinburgh is trialling sensors in the bins to detect if they are full, meaning the services provided by the city can empty them as and when needed, rather than spending time and public money on lengthy emptying routes. Or, in Glasgow, the city lighting has different responses to different areas: the Riverside Walkway focuses on sensations of safety by brightening lights for passage, while on Gordon Street more focus is on real time data on sound and air quality, as the area is busier.

BK:  And again – trying to nudge people into a variety of pathways isn’t completely new – in Venice, they often give multiple routes to the same destination.

HK: So back to the question – ‘where’ is a smart city? The ‘Smart’ capability isn’t in the city control rooms or just in the infrastructure – if we treat ‘smart’ as an end point in itself then we’re misplacing and wasting investment..

BK: The smart is at the interface between the city (and its services) and the citizens. The city is the whole set of interactions those citizens can take in a day, including both those that are local and remote.  So a smart city is not an infrastructure system – it’s a set of calls and responses. The ‘boundaries’ we spoke about earlier are the arenas and datasets in which this intelligent interface should manifest, between individual, physical and virtual worlds.

Case Study: Traffic Lights and Smartphone Sights

Ground Level Traffic Lights
Ground level traffic lights, taken from Dezeen.com

In which Hannah and Ben discuss the merits of reflecting user behaviours rather than resisting them

HK: At least three towns that I’ve heard of in the last year – in Australia, Germany and The Netherlands – have embedded traffic lights at pavement level to warn Smartphone users that they are passing onto a road.

Of course, I found this on the internet…  so groups are either praising it as a great idea, or they’re vehemently arguing that solutions like this are just spending a lot of money to help ‘bad behaviour’. There is a tendency to throw moralities at new technologies, whether they are inherently harmful or not, but it’s true that smartphone users don’t always have their sights set upwards, at street signs and corners, or road edges.

BK: One of the funnier sights is seeing a smartphone user walk straight into a bus shelter or lamppost.  Except when it was me!

HK: What a divvy. [Trans: ‘Idiot’ in Geordie dialect]. Though a lot of people I’ve met (including me sometimes) don’t know the names of streets they pass through daily because they’re using lines on their phone map and GPS to guide them. One article, describing the initiative in the Netherlands, calls them ‘smartphone zombies’, which comes across as inherently pejorative. But why shouldn’t cities reflect that actual habits of their citizens?

BK: Well, I guess that you could work that two ways – to what extent should the cities adapt to the habits of the citizen, versus to what extent should the city shape the habits of the citizen.  In this particular area – the very existence of kerbs and traffic lights shape the habits of citizens, in order to separate pedestrian and wheeled traffic. The ‘woonerf’ areas in the Netherlands, shared space in the UK or shared zones in Australia and New Zealand form a contrast. Isn’t this traffic light discussion another version of experimenting with adapt to, vs attempt to shape (aka nudge) vs attempt to control? I put three options in deliberately – as if you have two in, then you are limited to “either or” – a dualist approach which limits our thinking.  About as stable as a two-legged stool.

HK: Back to the subject please.

BK: Ah well. Anyhow whilst there are all sorts of positive outcomes of adapting to citizen habits, even with a bit of nudge: we have to take secondary consequences into consideration. For instance, the £1M cost to the NHS of falls because of the new ‘healthier/low pollution’ trams in Edinburgh; the public health benefits around encouraging more physical activity, vs ‘keeping people safe’ with kids walking to school.

HK: Then again, floor level traffic lights might reduce car/pedestrian collisions, safe police and medical services time and money. Inserting safety measures into residents’ lines of sight does seem pretty standard practice, like making sure stop signs can be seen from car level, or traffic lights at side-window level for the front car in a queue. – a habit in France, but not in the UK. Attempts to change the pattern to cope with ‘smartphone zombies’ could, I suppose, use other means,like more intense ‘crossing’ sounds, for example.

BK: But these could be could be startling and harmful to anyone else in the area. Light change seems fairly innocuous. Though – consider the partially sighted!  Road markings, and traffic lights, should be visible in all contingencies.

HK: And implementation for embedded lights is quite dear. There must be better options than digging them into the road. For example, there’s a huge trend right now into upscaling city lighting systems with new nodes, effective sensors [which should be next week’s blog] – why not attach a projection of floor level lighting?

BK: A colleague of mine – Steve Smith at Northumberland – pointed this one out – if you project from existing street furniture, then you don’t have to dig into the road surfaces; you can project from a point so it’s much easier to maintain; and the effect works (though admittedly not as effectively) even if the surface is covered with mud, water or snow.

But that’s just the practical. We have to consider all citizens – from the harried parent with children in hand, the hearing or sighting impaired, through to the inattentive mobile phone user. If we were being really sophisticated, we could consider combining sensors with warnings – so if someone stepped across a line into a dangerous junction, then not only would the lights under their feet flash, but a warning sound could go off.  

HK: So it’s passive and quiet – until needed, though I’d imagine that software like that isn’t cheap. But we’ve established that our cities aren’t full of zombies, with strategists as the brains:

BK: Well, sometimes around the Bigg Market in Newcastle on a Saturday morning?

HK: I’ll give you that. But civic action is most effective at keeping its citizens happy and healthy if it responds effectively to all behaviours, and their dangers.

BK: Seriously, a major mistake – at least in my opinion – is to think of a city, or indeed, any sufficiently complex system, as a machine that can be designed in which each cog behaves. It isn’t.  It’s an active mix of behaviours, interactions and decisions. This is an evolution of behaviour problem, not an engineering problem.

Setting up an environment in which that independence of decisions is understood and respected, but people are firmly guided away from behaviour which damages others (in this case, speeding, jumping red lights and jaywalking without care) requires us to consider each decision maker and shape the communal environment such that we strike a balance we can all live with.  

HK: So the advantage of ‘Smart’ in this case is that we can adapt that environment more accurately to a greater variety of behaviours?

BK: Yup.  So we can support a richer, more diverse environment.  Which loops neatly back to our second blog – ‘Why bother with Smart’’!


Where is a Smart City? (Part One)


In which Hannah and Ben discuss where we can find a smart city, and whether it can be defined by physical location.

HK: On the first blog, ‘What is a Smart City?’, Gary asked

‘‘How might a Smart City be defined around the globe?’’

There are a couple of discussions I’d like to have over ‘Where is a Smart City?’ Is it digital, or physical? What are the integral elements of a ‘Smart’ environment, and who has it? What does a city space mean for migrant or minority populations? (We’ll cover these in later blogs)

Who knew ‘where’ was such a loaded question!

BK: The definition of ‘Smart City’ is heavily dependent on how we talk about a ‘City’ – I had thought that was moderately well understood – but, thinking about it, whilst a lot of people do live in city centres, it isn’t by any means the only pattern.

HK: And ‘City’ has become a pretty relative term. Does it include where people commute from, suburban to urban? Does it include the resources used by a city, or its tourists, and their origins?

Being a country-bumpkin myself, I’m resistant to an urban-centric approach to global development: megacities can be a huge drain of youth and resource to relatively small spatial areas. ‘Smart’ investment is best focused on people, money and skills capable of moving around not only efficiently but effectively – these aren’t necessarily place-bound resources.

However, the sheer number of connections, digital and physical, in close urban environments makes them a crucible primed for the injection of innovative technologies. There are a huge number of problems of safety and efficiency to solve just by the sheer frequency of their occurrence. And a city-state like Singapore is a living lab: living space is dense, it’s politically pretty stable, the island is covered by a well integrated mesh network both physical and digital.  Smart solutions can be tried and tested through tightly woven populations and scaled upwards and outwards quickly and adapted to specific microcultures and needs. But, what works for Singapore might not work for urban models insulated by isolated rural populations, as in parts of Australia, Ecuador, India, and the US.

BK: Hmm, I’d like to pick up on those terms: scale up and scale out:

Scale up in this case is to test in a known environment and expand within that environment.  This is in one sense the ‘easy’ version. House not big enough? Build another floor on top. Computer processor not fast enough? Buy a faster processor. This tends to hit limits – the foundation of the house isn’t strong enough; the silicon simply can’t go faster even with water cooling.

Scale out is to test in one environment then propagate between environments whilst maintaining some level of co-ordination and control. Farmhouse not big enough? Grow to a hamlet, village, town, city. Computer not fast enough? Spread and divide the load across multiple computers.  The big advantage of scale-out is that if done well it can go much, much further than scale-up. The challenge is that it needs some system to distribute load – roads, power, water for a town; complex intelligent load allocation for large ‘cloud’ systems.

Scale-out to allow smart development across multiple environments requires a considerable degree of smart!

HK: Perhaps, but scale up builds on what you already have, scale out adapts through the environment. Smart Cities work on both trajectories – which is why the term is used pretty broadly to describe cities around the world investing in any degree of ‘Smart’, based on their current needs and resources. Small, rural, huge, high-tech city arenas are making use of the technology they already have, like streetlights and public transport, and building on it, then adapting metadata and learning outcomes to different environments and expanding those in response. This is because these cities face precise and localised problems, like gun violence, isolated communities, disrupted transport, poor water supply or heavy pollution.

BK: You’re saying ‘Smart’, then, isn’t a pinnacle to reach or a line to cross, because even the definition of a ‘city’ is malleable, let alone the definition of ‘smart’. It’s a scalable, continuing process.

HK: Exactly. And the next great thing about ‘Smart’ endeavours, of course, is global scale-out: different cities with variant cultures can still stand to benefit from solutions put to use by various ‘Smart’ solutions. Solutions that work in one arena might work effectively in another in a different part of the world: smart solutions to gun violence, such as gunshot detection and police response in New York, might be useful in Rio de Janeiro. The ‘Where’ of a Smart city, then, is also the pragmatic sharing of working solutions. The scale-up and scale-out models demonstrate the importance of ‘smart cities’ being situated at both specifically local and potentially international scales of development.

BK: Then again, this flexing of inter-city and international boundaries raises the issues of digitally outsourced economies: microjobbing apps, popularised by companies such as Uber, move a lot of economic flow out of cities – the money ‘jumps’ from payer to uber to provider, which removes (disintermediates) the middle local economic tier – the taxi companies and bus companies – in favour of a remote technology company.  Conversely, crowdfunding programs such as Indiegogo and Kiva allow loans to be made and monitored outside an individual’s immediate and potentially financially restricted network, giving them access to resources around the world.

Through different models, we can consider the perspective of ‘where is a city’ differently, from urban density to digital transactions. So in this case there is a ‘boundary’ problem – and that is interesting in all sorts of ways. Including whether a smart city’s needs actually correlate to physical boundaries at all… (To be continued)

Why bother with Smart?


BK:  In the first blog, we discussed what a smart city was, but this triggers another discussion: why bother with Smart? Cities are, clearly, a pretty successful pattern already; is the ‘smart’ aspect something that we need, and if so, why?

One of my friends (Yes, Hannah I have at least one) did ask me this: what is the use of “Smart”? This might be a perspective hinging on the distance of age, good or bad. This friend said he used to be enamoured of ‘toys’ – more and better all the time.  As he gets older his views have mellowed somewhat: he thinks more along the lines of what is really needed – what makes a good way to live.  The concepts such as ‘Slow food’ and ‘Hygge’ might come in here.

HK: Good god, don’t ‘hygge’ at me. Though, people love hygge. Maybe they’ll come to the blog looking for ‘hygge’. Anyone will tell you that I can be a bit old fashioned myself: fires, whisky, books, and a phone that takes 1000 years to turn on. I’m never happier than ‘hygging’ it out.

BK: Please don’t bring puns into this.

HK: Sorry. There’s certainly something to be said for the nostalgia movement in tech at the moment: Pokémon Go, the Nokia 3310 renewal: retro is still hanging on to a la mode.

However, I’d suggest that a Smart City isn’t about using tech as a pretty ribbon; it isn’t always very glamorous. The amount of people I’ve said ‘Smart City’ to and they say ‘Oh, yeah, I read something about a talking fridge.’

The Internet of Things is a big buzzword for marketers, but statistics are showing that though Smart entertainment systems, already luxury items, are being picked up easily by the market, but or ‘Green’ or ‘Connected Home’ technologies, like talking fridges, aren’t received with quite so much enthusiasm.  The initial down-payments are huge, and the benefits are a long time coming. A low income family might want to spend extra savings on something that brings their whole family joy or escape, rather than a fridge that tells them when their milk is low.

BK:I completely concede that point .  <ok I might have brought it up just to concede it, but then, I’m annoying that way>.  And given our fridge is at least 15 years old (and still chugging along) the turnover rate is rather lower than the average digital fashion item.  We have to understand both threads – the thread of ‘onward ever onward’ and the counterflow of ‘living life well with less’ – largely because most of the world’s population do, inevitably, have less.

HK: In a way, but also the short and long term benefits of entertainment items are more apparent to the consumer. Smart technologies come across as fashionable, rather than useful. Smart strategy must focus on not both immediate benefits, like reduction in energy consumption, and change to the culture of interaction between people and the place they live. Which is why ‘Smart Cities’ are less about the bonny ribbon, but more the structural integrity of the parcel – the box and the duct tape. Or another way of looking at it, the wedge that jams into the gap between where we are and where we might want to be.  Why aren’t people lingering in city centers? Who is unable to access the disabled parking they need, and how can we help? How to monitor traffic flow, and make it more efficient and reduce pollution? How do we react efficiently to problems raised by citizens like potholes or theft? Sometimes that technology is snazzy, with ticket kiosks, apps, smart streetlights. Sometimes it’s less so, using infrastructures in place, like buses or public bins, and developing a culture of efficiency, anticipating needs and facilitating the inherent action of a city.

BK: That’s a good discussion – what are the different angles of ‘Smart’?  It shouldn’t be just about visible technology or ‘massive compute power’, but a useful underlay.  I believe <warning – somewhat ethically oriented comment coming up> that it would be optimal if a city could be felt by its citizens to serve all its citizens. So no matter who you are, from what background, it becomes possible to find a way in which to live what feels like a decent life.

HK: Live ‘Well’ and Prosper.

BK: Hah. But yes, you could swap places with anybody in the city and make a good life from there regardless of identity. <somewhat ethical comment over>.  

HK:  Wow, well, I think the baseline service of a city (minimum viable product, perhaps?) is the one to which all citizens have sufficient levels of access. A high income citizen might be able to whizz around in a Lamborghini (I’m looking at you, madman who almost crushed my bike), but a low income citizen, or citizen with a disability or impairment for example, need access to appropriate publicly funded transport, or space for movement in the city centres. A Smart City should be able to preempt or at least react efficiently to the needs of its extremely varied groups of citizens, and help them access good work, education, medical help, or the shops they need. Then the cycle continues at optimum; detection, response, adaptation, access.

BK: There is a major environmental point – let’s assume that people want to live what they regard as a decent life.  What’s a decent life? Maybe, roughly speaking, it is to be financially independent as an individual or a family group, and able to continue in that vein in an environment such as ‘lively central london’, suburban LA, or a decent flat or apartment in Edinburgh. These could be regarded as ‘aspirational’ for many, but seen as impossible to many more. However, there are a lot of people in the world, and its resources are not infinite – we cannot sustain that kind of privileged lifestyle for everybody at the current level of environmental load.  We therefore have three choices (open to challenge!):

Ration accessibility to this kind of lifestyle. This rationing might be through economics (we have the power and will keep out those that don’t) or other means. In this case, some will have, and some will have not, and this will be a continuing source of tension.

HK: This hasn’t worked so far. A huge number of people don’t have access to basic needs, such as safety and shelter, let alone access to work opportunities and sufficient healthcare. And half the world’s wealth is owned by eight men. It’s a hard pass from me.

BK: Change the lifestyle to a point at which it can be sustained. My kids always got one answer if they started the ‘no fair’ angle: no, fair would be to have median life opportunities for the whole planet – which is way, way, way below our rather privileged position. I’m not sure that this option would be popular with the people currently in a position of advantage.

In addition, If we don’t change our current processes of consumption, and globally we expect the western consumer lifestyle as an aspirational ideal, it is unsustainable. That would lead to a Malthusian solution. Not nice.

HK: OK…Let’s turn down the melodrama a touch. Also, because that brings you right back to option one.

BK: Third option: Increase the efficiency of our living styles such that it is possible to sustain the population continuously over time, and live a decent life. Happy, healthy, and economically independent.

HK: And that’s what it’s all about.

BK: We’re not doing the hokey cokey.

HK: True, but we are trying to act in unison. At the moment, all three of these options are occurring – not always by active choice.  Economics is an effective way of rationing accessibility to limited resources. In the US and UK, the ‘austerity measures’ and reduction in aid programmes is reducing the lifestyle of a fair proportion of the global population.

BK: Famine, reduction in opportunity, and structural inequality, as some examples, are cutting off significant proportions of global populations from the access afforded to the privileged few. But technology and intelligence can work to minimise the risks we’re taking- we are increasing the efficiency of our living styles. There is an argument about ‘GDP per unit energy’: things that support city activity are becoming environmentally cheaper (e.g. LED lighting, electric cars). If we can use our resources intelligently, and make things work better with less effort, then our headroom increases.

HK: Hence duct tape, not pretty ribbon. The ‘why’ of a smart city is to accelerate that third option as fast as possible: use ‘smart’ technology’ to increase efficiency in local and global arenas, paying particular attention to the specific needs of different peoples and processes, and their priorities. Then sharing that information around. The last option is the only one which works for everyone in the long term. 

What is a Smart City?

BK: Seeing as how this blog is supposed to be about Smart Cities, I thought we could start with the basics: what is a Smart City?  

HK: A small and easy problem then…

BK: Hey, got to start somewhere.  I’d start with a statement – a city is somewhere which acts to concentrate economic activity. People migrate to a city because it is easier to find jobs, make connections, and so establish a community and a career.  To me, a Smart city makes all these things work better (i.e. with fewer barriers to entry, more positive outcomes and fewer downsides) by the deft application of intelligence – oh, and maybe even use of technology.  The technology is only one tool in the box to make a city a good place in which to live, work and play.

HK: So the question is not really, ‘What is a Smart City’? (Maybe we should change the title), but why a city at all? We agree that a city is a place which facilitates connection and participation. Ideally, if we’re going to get fiscal, a city is a place which facilitates innovation and economic output. Despite new technologies making it possible to connect with other individuals over huge distances, people are still moving en masse to civic centers: London, San Francisco, Singapore. For me, the place of a smart city is to enhance the connection and innovation that are characteristic of a successful metropolis.

BK: Yes – it would appear that a city is, at least in an evolutionary sense,  a ‘successful’ way of going on. Success here is not necessarily moral or ethical – it just means that it is a pattern that keeps on re-appearing, and seems to last. The moral and ethical sides form a whole additional area of debate – which would be fascinating and could consume a considerable amount of space, and malt whisky (HK: ok, you’re on..).  But here, at least, we not making moral judgements about what constitutes ‘good’ and ‘bad’, but exploring what happens ‘if’… assuming people are people, not machines or saints. Hence ‘if this goes on’…

HK: So, current ‘Physical Cities’ work because of the density of the connections made within that civic environment, how its network allows citizens to communicate and innovate.

Now, we can develop (or support) a technological overlay that can also make connections without the constraints of geographical distance and location. As well as this, we can establish a technological overlay which catalyses the potential of the very specific local environment of the city.

BK: A ‘Smart City’ is therefore both physical and digital, local and virtual – a new hybrid beasty. We can conceive of a ‘city in function’ which adapts to or goes beyond physical location.

HK: Aye, theorists like Benjamin R Barber talk about ‘Glocality’ – where a city acts as a node within a global network, but I propose the word ‘vlocality’ is equally important: how we understand the interaction between the digital and physical urban networks. (Though this leads to a whole new chat about buzzwords).

BK: Buzzwords indeed….  You mean I’m going to have to read up about it. Darn.

HK: “Darn”?

BK: Anyway, that would mean a ‘smart city’ is an environment that does have a physical space in which people work, live and play. But, that physical space is enhanced, using technology, to make that work as well as we can, allowing more value to be created for any given level of resource use.  And whilst we do start with a city being a bounded area, it does not need to be limited to that  – a smart city could be a dispersed across many locations…

HK: Oh good, another question: where is a Smart City? [link to follow]. And, of course, if city networks evolve naturally, why do we bother with Smart? [link to follow].