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What is a city, and how does it get smarter?

The journey to smarter cities and communities — and moreover those enthusing and providing insights, and visions — has gained momentum in recent years, as a recent BBC article highlights.

A few points I’d like to highlight here from my experiences over the last five years exploring this territory. Firstly, the critical issue is how to move beyond visions and prototypes, to scaling and adoption. A second point is that the whole notion of smart cities should also be reappraised. Thirdly, the connections economy will fuel a transformation across communities, industries, and social interactions. We are looking at a dynamic concept, to which bounded definitions; be those physical, digital, organisational, or technological, seem increasingly inadequate in explaining.

In the UK, the great cities of the north, in international measures of size, happiness, innovation, sustainability, or growth, to pick a few, barely feature, as a comprehensive review of global city indices by Greg Clark in 2011 illustrated. However, reality for anyone who knows these great cities seems to contradict this. My appraisal of this dichotomy draws me to assert that when political boundaries define the city — cities as historically, culturally and economically significant to the global economy as Leeds, Manchester and Newcastle, to pick from three UK regions — don’t get sufficiently recognised for their significance to the UK’s economy, but more specifically to the wider region.

In an increasingly interconnected society, I make a bid here to reappraise how urban, suburban and rural communities should be looked at, to that of a complex and intensely inter-related system. The politically defined city insufficiently describes an emerging digitally connected city, and a multi-centred urbanised region.

Recently, several groups in the smart cities debate have been exploring the complexity of the city. We have also been discussing with groups like the World Bank, Metropolis, and other city associations and in the UK with the British Standards Institute (BSI). BSI hosted along with the UK Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) a workshop earlier this month on frameworks.

Other commentators and thinkers are exploring this. Rick Robinson from IBM recently cited Christopher Alexander’s 1970’s Pattern Language perspectives, and applying this to cities. Chris Alexander’s work has been a pillar of my team’s cities exploration on smart cities. In my view he stands along with Paul Baran, Carlota Perez and Bill Mitchell from which the whole debate stands on the shoulders of.

The paper I wrote with my colleague Gordon Falconer last year set out one direction for research that we continue to pursue; a Smart City Framework. References to several complementary perspectives are made there, and in this summary blog post from last year. The City Protocol Society is one such group we are engage with, and are taking positive steps in this direction. The Smart City Framework we propose describes a potential process that will help key stakeholders and city/community participants:

  1. understand how cities operate,
  2. define city objectives and stakeholder roles, and
  3. explore the role of ICT within physical city assets.

Back to the UK, the government’s Future Cities Catapult initiative is taking strides to developing a smart city exemplar with the city of Glasgow, and engaging many other cities. More expansive to the wider economy is the parallel Connected Digital Economy Catapult. To me, and to paraphrase one of the city leaders at the recent BSI event, smart cities are not about Public Sector reform alone — how to reuse envelopes — rather it’s about a new way of engaging, delivering, and participating. There are many excellent examples of this, which we reference some of in a recent paper on participative communities.

There is a clear need for a better dialogue, a learning cities approach, such as that advocated, amongst many others, by my colleagues at the Academy of Urbanism (AoU), and Tim Campbell in Beyond Smart Cities. How can a country, community and I emphasise, an integrated regional ecosystem, step beyond political boundaries, to release the power of enterprise and entrepreneurship. In short, we need to rethink our definitions, develop resilient communities, and those that are developing new models for public and individual entrepreneurship.

When we start to talk about the Internet of Everything (IoE), the potentials for people, data and things to combine into overlapping processes, are infinite. Cisco is developing a number of exemplar projects with cities, and in various industries from smart energy networks to connected vehicles. Cisco Internet Business Solutions Group (IBSG) estimates the size of this economy is $14.4trillion ‘value at stake’ for global business. This is a massive opportunity for the global economy, and one that can only be truly accessible if we tap into the utility of citizens, businesses, and moreover the intrinsic desire of the many to engage. The sheer scope of concepts such as Big Data, and Internet of Things are just too massive for any top down approach to achieve.

To reference Eric Raymond’s influential perspective on open source software, do we want The Cathedral or The Bazaar? I believe this analogy extends to the scope of the smart cities debate. For me, it is clear that there are so many applications, processes and as well as communities and latent human connections to be realised for it not to be so. The risks of crowding out too high, that openness in all its facets, from data to citizen interactions, and spatial heterogeneity, has to be the default path. Encouragingly, this is increasingly advocated by governments, businesses and advocacy groups like the Open Knowledge Foundation (OKFN) and the Open Data Institute.

Shane Mitchell

About the Author : Shane MitchellShane Mitchell leads urban programme strategy at Cisco’s strategic global consultancy arm of Cisco. With two decades of experience in global, and start up enterprises in the networking and service provider markets, for the last five years focusing on public service innovation and city development strategies. Shane advises organizations on: open data, internet of things, sensing platforms, and how technology can enable the social life of communities. Shane is based in the UK and is also involved with several local community initiatives.View all posts by Shane Mitchell

  1. Fred Bartels
    Fred BartelsFebruary 27,13

    … and cities are? You never get around to saying. Curious.

  2. Shane
    ShaneMarch 1,13

    Hi Fred,

    I’m merely raising the need to reappraise how urban, suburban and rural communities should be looked at as an interdependent system. Each community wil have it’s own dynamics. Hope that makes sense.

    Thanks for reading, Shane

    • Fred Bartels
      Fred BartelsMarch 1,13

      Hi Shane,

      Thanks for the response. I’d love to see you seriously address the question “What are cities?” My sense is that many folks in the SmartCities movement haven’t really thought through this question. They tend to give answers like cities are systems of systems, which is true, but so vague as to be essentially meaningless. Saskia Sassen at least goes one step further and says cities are living systems. It would be great to get your thoughts on this question. After all, if we don’t really understand what cities are, how can we effectively make them better?

      http://blog.ted.com/2013/02/26/can-a-city-be-too-technological-saskia-sassen-at-ted2013/

  3. Gordon Feller
    Gordon FellerMarch 2,13

    The emergence of high-speed information and communications networks has certainly driven momentous changes in all areas of society and economy and government.

    Shane’s blog post offered up some great insights on a few of the less-visible changes now showing up in cities.

    Clearly, an ‘open-knowledge’ and ‘open-innovations’ approach to this is much better suited to the big challenge ahead of us: to harness all of the many and varied solutions being developed — from the ground up — by innovators based inside any of the key city actors (in public sector, in private sector, in the third sector/independent sector).

    This will not be easy — but it’s do-able.

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