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.

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)

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].