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.

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.