Guest post by Dr. Rick Robinson, Executive Architect for Smarter Cities, IBM, and Smart Towns 2013 speaker.
Professors Geoffrey West and Louis Bettencourt of Los Alamos Laboratory and the Sante Fe Institute said in their 2010 paper in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Nature that “At the start of the twenty-first century, cities emerged as the source of the greatest challenges that the planet has faced since humans became social.”
Technology offers powerful opportunities to address those challenges, and to support the lives of populations inside and around cities in new and more efficient ways, in both developed and developing markets. But technology will only deliver those benefits if we adapt governance and financial models to achieve broader social, economic and environmental outcomes; and if we use technology in a way that serves the genuine needs of local people, communities and businesses. A city that succeeds in transforming itself in this way is one that we call a Smarter City.
Rio and Dublin: Examples of the Smarter City
The city of Rio de Janeiro offers one example of what is possible when we successfully apply technology in cities. Under the leadership of Mayor Eduardo Paes a single operations centre for the city now coordinates the actions of 30 City services to manage the city safely and efficiently. Information feeds from the city’s road systems, CCTV cameras, public safety services and from an advanced weather forecasting solution that can predict the likelihood of life-threatening landslides are delivered to the centre in realtime, and used to trigger multi-agency responses, as well as alerts to the civilian population through channels such as social media .
In Dublin, Ireland, the “Dublinked” information sharing partnership between the City and surrounding County Councils, the National University of Ireland, businesses and entrepreneurs is now sharing three thousand city datasets; using increasingly sophisticated, realtime tools to draw value from them; identifying new ways for the city’s transport, energy and water systems to work; and enabling the formation of new, information-based businesses. It is putting the power of technology and of city information not only at the disposal of the city authority and its agencies, but also into the hands of communities and innovators.
But Rio is a large city in a rapidly growing Country; and it is preparing for a Football World Cup and Olympic Games within 2 years of each other. Dublin is the capital city of a developed country, with an internationally-recognised university, and which hosts facilities for multi-national technology companies such as IBM. How can cities without those advantages emulate Rio and Dublin’s successes?
How do you make Hendon, Sunderland Smarter?
In Sunderland, we were asked by the City Council: how do you make Hendon Smarter? Hendon in Sunderland’s East End is one of the areas that suffered most from post-industrial decline, and it still has low levels of employment, skills and social mobility.
What we learned is that it is often private sector entrepreneurs and community innovators who have the widest set of ideas about how technology can be used. The large institutions of a city can assist those innovators by acting as an aggregator for their common needs for such resources, making them easier to acquire and use. They can also introduce external partners with research and development capability to those aggregate needs, which for them can represent a new market opportunity worthy of investment.
It’s rare that these connections work directly: government bodies and their large-scale suppliers have very different business models and cultures to small-scale innovators; and often there is little history of interaction, cooperation and trust. The role of “bridging organisations” and networks between individuals is extremely important.
In Sunderland, Sustainable Enterprise Strategies, who provide business support to small businesses and social enterprises in Hendon, provided the bridge between the City Council and IBM; and community innovators, such as Lydia’s House who train vulnerable adults in skills such as furniture-making, and Play Fitness, who engage children from deprived backgrounds in physical exercise and education by using digital technology to connect exercise equipment to computer games. Sunderland Software City, the city’s technology business incubator, plays a similar role within the local community of entrepreneurial technology businesses.
Co-operative eco-systems for Smarter towns and cities
This approach is not specific to Sunderland, the UK or the developed world. Our work in Sunderland was inspired by a previous project in Wuxi, China; and in turn it has informed our approaches in cities as far afield as the United States, the Middle East, Africa and Asia.
In many countries in many geographies, new organisational models are emerging from these co-operative ecosystems. For example:
- Community Interest Companies for managing shared assets such as land, natural resources, or locally-produced food or energy, such as the Eco-Island initiative on the Isle of Wight; or similar models internationally such asWaste Concern in Bangladesh.
- Social Enterprises such as Lydia’s House and Play Fitness, which develop financially sustainable business models, but which are optimised to deliver social, environmental or long-term economic benefits, rather than the maximum short-term financial return.
- New partnerships between public sector agencies; educational institutions; service and technology providers; communities; and individuals – such as the Dubuque 2.0 sustainability partnership in where the city authority, residents and utility providers have agreed to share in the cost of fixing leaks in water supply identified by smart meters.
Often such organisations create innovative business models in the form of marketplaces in industries in which money-flows already exist. The changes to those money-flows created by smarter systems form the basis of the potential for returns upon which a business case for investment can be made.
In cities, we are starting to see these ideas applied to the creation of food distribution schemes; sustainable transport systems that share the use of resources such as cars and vans and perform dynamic matching between networks of independent consumers and providers of transport services; and many other systems that reinforce local trading opportunities and create social and economic growth.
Harnessing technology for collective benefit
A new style of personal leadership can be found in many of the situations in which these ideas are successfully applied: people from a variety of backgrounds who have the ability to build new bridges; to bring together the resources of local communities and national and international institutions; to harness technology at appropriate cost for collective benefit; to step in and out of institutional and community behaviour and adapt to different cultures, conversations and approaches to business; and to create business models that balance financial health and sustainability with social and environmental outcomes.
The more that national and local governments can collaborate with the private sector, bridging organisations and communities to encourage this style of leadership and support and reward these new models of business, the more successfully we’ll put the power of technology into the hands of the people, businesses and communities most able to design, use and operate the new services that will make their cities better.
Large organisations have resources; small organisations have the ability to create valuable innovations in true sympathy with the detail of their local context. Private sector has the expertise to invest in assets that create future value; public sector has the responsibility to govern for the good of all. It is only by working together across all of these boundaries at once that we will really succeed in making cities Smarter in a way that is sustainable and equitably distributed. And that must be the only definition of “Smarter” that makes sense.
This is a Smart Towns edit of an article initially published by Dr. Rick Robinson at The Urban Technologist.
Rick is an Executive Architect at IBM responsible for the development and delivery of Smarter City solutions for IBM’s customers in the UK and Europe. He is a member of the Academy of Urbanism, and a contributor to the World Cities Network, UBM’s Future Cities community - who included Rick in their list of the “Top 20 leaders in urbanization“.
Rick will speak on Day One of Smart Towns 2013, 23 September, to present more of his work on the themes of this article. His Keynote is entitled: You can’t do it all: how smart collaboration between the public, private and citizen willdrive progress.
You can see the full two day Smart Towns agenda here.