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.