Reclaiming the “Smart” agenda for fair human outcomes enabled by technology

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(Lucie & Simon’s “Silent World“, a series of photographs of cities from which almost all trace of people has been removed.)

Over the last 5 years, I’ve often used this blog to explore definitions of what a “Smart City” is. The theme that’s dominated my thinking is the need to synthesise human, urban and technology perspectives on cities and our experience of them.

The challenge with attempting such a broad synthesis within a succinct definition is that you end up with a very high-level, conceptual definition – one that might be intellectually true, but that does a very poor job of explaining to the wider world what a Smart City is, and why it’s important.

We need a simple, concise definition of Smart Cities that ordinary people can identify with. To create it, we need to reclaim the “Smart” concept from technologies such as analytics, the Internet of Things and Big Data, and return to it’s original meaning – using the increasingly ubiquitous and accessible communications technology enabled by the internet to give people more control over their own lives, businesses and communities.

I’ve written many articles on this blog about the futile and unsophisticated argument that rages on about whether Smart Cities should be created by “top-down” or “bottom-up” approaches: clearly, anything “Smart” is a subtle harmonisation of both.

In this article, I’d like to tackle an equally unconstructive argument that dominates Smart Cities debates: are Smart Cities defined by the role of technology, or by the desire to create a better future?

It’s clear to me that anything that’s really “Smart” must combine both of those ideas.

In isolation, technology is amoral, inevitable and often banal; but on the other hand a “better future” without a means to achieve it is merely an aspiration, not a practical concept. Why is it “Smart” to want a better future and better cities today in a way that wanting them 10, 20, 50 or 100 years ago wasn’t?

Surely we can agree that focussing our use of a powerful and potentially ubiquitously accessible new technology – one that’s already transforming our world – on making the world a better place, rather than just on making money, is an idea worthy of the “Smart” label?

In making this suggestion, I’m doing nothing more than returning to the origin of the term “Smart” in debates in social science about the “smart communities” that would emerge from our new ability to communicate freely and widely with each other following the emergence of the Internet.

Smart communities are enabled by ubiquitous access to empowering technology

In his 2011 book “Civilization“, Niall Fergusson comments that news of the Indian Mutiny in 1857 took 46 days to reach London, travelling in effect at 3.8 miles an hour – the speed of a brisk walk. By contrast, in January 2009 when US Airways flight 1549 crash landed in the Hudson river, Jim Hanrahan’s message on Twitter communicated the news to the entire world four minutes later; it reached Perth, Australia at more than 170,000 miles an hour.

(In the 1960s, the mobile phone-like “communicators” used in Star Trek were beyond our capability to manufacture; but they were used purely for talking. Similarly, while William Gibson’s 1980s vision of “cyberspace” was predictive and ambitious in its descriptions of virtual environments and data visualisations, the people who inhabited it interacted with each other almost as if normal space has simply been replaced by virtual space: there was no sense of the immense power of social media to enable new connections.)

Social media is the tool that around a quarter of the world’s population now simply uses to stay in touch with friends and family at this incredible speed. Along with mobile devicese-commerce technology and analytics, social media has made it dramatically easier for individuals, communities and small businesses anywhere around the world with the potential to transact with each other to make contact and interact without needing the enormous supply chains and sales and marketing channels that previously made such activity the prerogative of large, multi-national corporations.

It was in a workshop with social scientists at the University of Durham that I first became aware that “Smart” concepts originated in social science in the 1990s and pre-date the famous early large-scale technology infrastructure projects in cities like Masdar and Songdo. The term was coined to describe the potential for new forms of governance, citizen engagement, collective intelligence and stakeholder collaboration enabled by Internet communication technologies. The hope was that new forms of exchange and contract between people and organisations would create a better chance of realising the underlying outcomes we really want – health, happiness and fulfilment:

“The notion of smart community refers to the locus in which such networked intelligence is embedded. A smart community is defined as a geographical area ranging in size from a neighbourhood to a multi-county region within which citizens, organizations and governing institutions deploy and embrace NICT [“New Information and Communication Technologies”] to transform their region in significant and fundamental ways (Eger 1997). In an information age, smart communities are intended to promote job growth, economic development and improve quality of life within the community.”

(Amanda Coe, Gilles Paquet and Jeffrey Roy, “E-Governance and Smart Communities: A Social Learning Challenge“,  Social Science Computer Review, Spring 2001)

But technology’s not Smart unless it’s used to create human value

It’s no surprise that technology companies such as Cisco, Siemens and my former employer IBM came to similar realisations about the transformative potential of digital technology in addressing societal as well as business challenges as technology spread from the back office into the everyday world, leading, for example, to the launch of IBM’s “Smarter Planet” initiative in 2008, a pre-cursor to their “Smarter Cities” programme.

Let’s pause at this point to say: that’s a tremendously exciting idea. A technology company – Apple – recently recorded the largest corporate profit in the history of business. Microsoft’s founder Bill Gates was just recognised as the richest person on the planet. Technology companies make enormous profits, and they feed significant portions of those profits back into research and development. Shouldn’t it be wonderful that some of those resources are invested into exploring how to make cities, communities and people more successful?

(The Dubuque water and energy portal, showing an individual household insight into it's conservation performance; but also a ranking comparing their performance to their near neighbours)

(The Dubuque water and energy portal, showing an individual household insight into it’s conservation performance; but also a ranking comparing their performance to their near neighbours)

IBM, for example, has invested millions of dollars of effort in implementing Smarter Cities projects in cities such as Dubuque through the IBM Research “First of a Kind” programme; and has helped over a hundred cities worldwide develop new initiatives and strategies through the charitable “Smarter Cities Challenge” – advising Kyoto on how to become a more “walkable” city, for instance.

So what’s the problem?

Large technology corporations are often criticised in debates on this topic for their size, profitability and “top-down” approaches – and the local authorities who work with them are often criticised too. In my experience, that criticism is based on an incomplete understanding of the people involved, and how the projects are carried out; and I think it misses the point.

The real question we should be asking is more subtle and important: what happens to the social elements of an idea once it becomes apparent to businesses both large and small that they can make money by selling the technologies that enable it?

I know very well the scientists, engineers and creatives at many of the companies, social enterprises and government bodies – of any size – who are engaged in Smart Cities initiatives. They are almost universally extremely bright, well intentioned and humane, and fully capable of talking with passion about the social and environmental value of their work. “Top-down” is at best a gross simplification of the projects that they carry out, and at worst a gross misrepresentation. Their views dominated the early years of the Smart Cities market as it developed.

But as the market has matured and grown, the focus has switched from research, exploration and development to the marketing and selling of well-defined product and service offerings. Amidst the need to promote those offerings to potential customers, and to differentiate them against competitors, it’s easy for the subtle intertwining of social, economic, environmental and technology ideas to be drowned out.

That’s what led to the unfortunate statement that armed Professor Adam Greenfield with the ammunition he needed to criticise the Smart Cities movement. A technology company that I won’t name made an over-reaching and mis-guided assertion that Smart Cities would create “autonomous, intelligently functioning IT systems that will have perfect knowledge of users’ habits” – blissfully ignoring the fact that such perfection is scientifically and philosophically impossible, not to mention inhuman and undesirable.

As a scientist-turned-technologist-turned-wannabe-urbanist working in this field, and as someone who’s been repeatedly inspired by the people, communities, social scientists, social innovators, urban designers and economists I’ve met over the past 5 years, I started writing this blog to explore and present a more balanced, humane vision of a Smart City.

Zen and the art of Smart Cities: opposites should create beautiful fusions, not arguments

Great books change our lives, and one of many that has changed mine is “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” by Robert M. Pirsig. Pirsig explores the relationship between what he called “romantic” perspectives of life, which focus on emotional meaning and value “quality”, and “rational” perspectives, which focus on the reasons our world behaves in the way that it does and value “truth”. He argues that early Greek philosophers didn’t distinguish between “quality” and “truth”, and that by considering them together we can learn to value things that are simultaneously well-intentioned and well-formed.

This thinking is echoed in Alan Watts’ “The Way of Zen“, in which he comments on the purpose of the relentless practise of technique that is part of the Zen approach to art that:

“The very technique involves the art of artlessness, or what Sabro Hasegawa has called the ‘controlled accident’, so that paintings are formed as naturally as the rocks and grasses which they depict”

(Alan Watts, “The Way of Zen“)

In other words, by working tirelessly to perfect their technique – i.e. their use of tools – artists enable themselves to have “beautiful accidents” when inspiration strikes.

(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.)

Modern technologies from social media to Smartphones to Cloud computing and Open Source software are both incredibly powerful and, compared to any previous generation of technology, incredibly cheap.

If we work hard to ensure that they can be used to access and manipulate the technologies that will inevitably be used to make the operations of city infrastructures and public services more efficient, then they have incredible potential to be a tool for people everywhere to shape the world around them to their own advantage; and for us to collectively create a world that is fairer, healthier and more resilient.

But unless we re-claim the word “Smart” to describe those outcomes, the market will drive our energy and resources in the direction of narrower financial interests.

The financial case for investment in Smart technologies is straightforward: as the costs of smartphones, sensors, analytics, and cloud computing infrastructure reduce rapidly, market dynamics will drive their aggressive adoption to make construction, infrastructure and city services more efficient, and hence make their providers more competitive.

But those market dynamics do not guarantee that we will get everything we want for the future of our cities: efficiency and resilience are not the same as health, happiness and opportunity for every citizen.

So how can we adapt that investment drive to create the outcomes that we want?

Can responsible business create a better world?

Some corporate behaviours promote these outcomes, driven by the voting and buying powers of citizens and consumers. Working for Amey, for example, my customers are usually government organisations who serve an electorate; or private sector companies who are regulated by government bodies. In both cases, there is a direct chain of influence leading from individual citizen needs and perceptions through to the way we operate and deliver our services. If we don’t engage with, respect and meet those needs and expectations, we will not be successful. I can observe that influence at work driving an ethic of service, care and responsibility throughout our business at Amey, and it’s been an inspiration to me since joining the company.

UniLever have taken a similar approach, using consumer desires for sustainable products to link corporate performance to sustainable business practices; and Jared Diamond wrote extensively about successful examples of socially and environmentally sustainable resource extraction businesses, such as Chevron’s sustainable operations in the Kutubu oilfield in Papua New Guinea, in his book “Collapse“. Business models such as social enterprise and the sharing economy also offer great potential to link business success to positive social and environmental outcomes.

But ultimately our investment markets are still strongly focused on financial performance, and reward the businesses that make the most money with the investment that enables them to grow. This is why many social enterprises do not scale-up; and why many of the rapidly growing “sharing economy” businesses currently making the headlines have nothing at all to do with sharing value and resources, but are better understood as a new type of profit-seeking transaction broker.

Responsible business models are a choice made by individual business leaders, and they depend for their successful operation on the daily choices and actions of their employees. They are not a market imperative. For as long as that is the case, we cannot rely on them to improve our world.

Policy, legislation and regulation

I’ve quoted from Jane Jacobs on many occasions on this blog that “private investment shapes cities, but social ideas (and laws) shape private investment”.

It’s a source of huge frustration to me that so much of the activity in the Smart Cities community ignores that so obviously fundamental principle, and focuses instead on the capabilities of technology or on projects funded by research grants.

The recent article reporting a TechUK Smart Cities conference titled “Milton Keynes touted as model city for public sector IoT use” is a good example. Milton Keynes have many Smart City projects underway that are technologically very interesting, but every one of them is funded by a significant grant of funds from a central government department, a research or innovation funding body, or a technology company. Not a single project has been paid for by a sustainable, re-usable business case. Other cities can aspire to emulate Milton Keynes all they want, but they won’t win research and innovation funding to re-deploy solutions that have already been proven.

Research and innovation grants provide the funding that proves for the first time that a new idea is viable. They do not pay for that idea to be enacted across the world.

(Shaleen Meelu and Robert Smith with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall at the opening of the Harborne Food School. The School is a Community Interest Company that promotes healthy, sustainable approaches to food through courses offered to local people and organisations)

(Shaleen Meelu and Robert Smith with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall at the opening of the Harborne Food School. The School is a Community Interest Company that promotes healthy, sustainable approaches to food through courses offered to local people and organisations)

Policy, legislation and regulation are far more effective tools for enabling widespread change, and are what we should be focussing our energy and attention on.

The Social Value Act requires that public authorities, who spend nearly £200 billion every year on private sector goods and services, procure those services in a way that creates social value – for example, by requiring that national or international service providers engage local small businesses in their supply chains.

In an age in which private companies are investing heavily in the use of digital technology because it provides them with by far the most powerful tool to increase their success, surely local authorities should fulfil their Social Value Act obligations by using procurement criteria to ensure that those companies employ that same tool to create social and environmental improvements in the places and communities in which they operate?

Similary, the British Property Federation estimates that £14 billion is invested in the development of new property in the UK each year. If planning and development frameworks oblige that property developers describe and quantify the social value that will be created by their developments, and how they will use technology do so – as I’ve promoted on this blog for some time now, and as the British Standards Institute have recently recommended – then this enormous level of private sector investment can contribute to investing in technology for public benefit; just as those same frameworks already require investment in public space around commercial buildings.

The London Olympic Legacy Development Corporation have been following this strategy in support of the Greater London Authority’s Smart London Plan. As a result, they are securing private sector investment in deploying technology not only to redevelop the Olympic park using smart infrastructure; but also to ensure that that investment benefits the existing communities and business economies in neighbouring areas.

A Smart manifesto for human outcomes enabled by technology

These business models, policy measures and procurement approaches are bold, difficult measures to enact. They are not as sexy as Smartphones, analytics and self-driving cars. But they are much more important if what we want to achieve are positive human outcomes, not just financially successful technology companies and a continuous stream of research projects.

What will make it more likely that businesses, local governments and national governments adopt them?

Citizen understanding. Consumer understanding. A definition of smart people, places, communities, businesses and governments that makes sense to everyone who votes, works, stands for election, runs for business or buys things. In other words, everyone.

If that definition doesn’t include the objective of making the world a healthier, happier, fairer, more sustainable place for everyone, then it’s not worth the effort. If it doesn’t include harnessing modern technology, then it misses the point that human ingenuity has recently given us a phenomenal new toolkit that make possible things that we’d never previously dreamt of.

I think it should go something like this:

“Smart people, places, communities, businesses and governments work together to use the modern technologies that are changing our world to make it fairer and more sustainable in the process, giving everyone a better chance of a longer, healthier, happier and more fulfilling life.”

I’m not sure that’s a perfect definition; but I think it’s a good start, and I hope that it combines the right realisation that we do have unprecendted tools at our disposal with the right sentiment that what really matters is how we use them.

(I’d like to thank John Murray of Scottish Enterprise for a useful discussion that inspired me to write this article)

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