The new architecture of Smart Cities
I've been preparing this week for the next stage of work on Birmingham's Smart City Commission; our task on the Commission is to develop a strategic vision for Birmingham as a Smart City and a roadmap for achieving it.
In doing so I've been considering an interesting and important question:
What makes a city a "Smart City" as opposed to a city where some "smart things" happen?
Three obvious criteria for answering that question stand out:
1. Smart Cities are led from the top – they have a strong and visionary leader championing the Smart agenda across the city. The Mayors of Rio and Barcelona are famously showing such leadership; and in the UK, so too are, amongst others, Dave Smith, CEO of Sunderland City Council, and Sir Albert Bore, Birmingham's elected Council Leader, and a founder of the Eurocities movement.
2. Smart Cities have a stakeholder forum – they have drawn together a community of city stakeholders across the city. Those stakeholders have not only created a compelling vision for a Smart City; they have committed to taking an ongoing role coordinating a programme to deliver it. This is the challenge we have been given in Birmingham's Smart City Commission; and I've previously written about how such a responsibility could be carried out.
3. Smart Cities invest in technology infrastructure – they are deploying the required information and communication technology (ICT) platforms across the city; and doing so in such a way as to support the integration of information and activity across city systems. (There are, of course, many other infrastructures that are important to the future of cities; but in "Smart Cities" we are particularly concerned with the role of technology, as I argued in a recent article on this blog).
It's also important, though, to consider what is different about the structure and organisation of city systems in a Smart City. How does a city such as Birmingham decide which technology infrastructures are required? Which organisations will make use of them, and how? How can they be designed and delivered so that they effectively serve individuals, communities and businesses in the city? What other structures and processes are required to achieve this progress in a Smart City?
Designing Smart Cities
In order to design the infrastructures and systems of Smart Cities well, we need to design them in context – that is, with an understanding of the environment in which they will exist, and the other elements of that environment with which they will interact.
The figure below – "Components of a Smart City Architecture" – is one way of describing the context for Smart City systems and infrastructures. It contains six layers which I'll discuss further below: "Goals"; "People"; "Ecosystem"; "Soft Infrastructures"; "City Systems" and "Hard Infrastructures".
(I'm very aware that this diagram is not a particularly good visual representation of a Smart City, by the way. It doesn't emphasise the centricity of people, for example, and it is not aesthetically pleasing. I'm simply using it as a conceptual map at this stage. I welcome any suggestions for re-casting and improving it!)
Goals, People and Ecosystem:
Every Smart City initiative is based on a set of goals; often they focus on sustainability, inclusivity and the creation of social and economic growth. Boyd Cohen, who writes frequently on the subject of Smart Cities for Fast Company, is preparing an article surveying and analysing the goals that cities have expressed in their Smart initiatives – I recommend looking out for it.
Ultimately, such goals will only be achieved through a Smart City strategy if that strategy results in changes to city systems and infrastructures that make a difference to individuals within the city – whether they are residents, workers or visitors. The art of user-centric, or citizen-centric, service design is a rich subject in its own right, and I don't intend to address it directly here. However, I am very much concerned with the wider context within which that design takes place, and in particular the role that communities play.
I do not believe that a Smart City strategy that concerns itself only with citizens, city systems and hard infrastructures will result in citizen-centric design; it is only be co-creating soft infrastructures with city communities that such an approach can be systematically encouraged across a city.
In "How Smarter Cities Get Started" I wrote some time ago about the importance of engaging city communities in identifying the goals of Smart City initiatives and setting out the strategy to achieve them. I've also written previously about the importance of designing Smart City infrastructures so that they enable innovation within city communities.
Communities are living, breathing manifestations of city life, of course, not structures to be engineered. They are vital elements of the city's ecosystem: they provide support; they are expressions of social life; they represent shared interests and capabilities; and they can play a role communicating between city institutions and individual citizens. They include families and social networks; neighbourhood, cultural and faith groups; charities and the voluntary sector; public sector organisations such as Schools and Universities, in addition to local government; and private sector organisations such as service providers, retailers and employers.
The challenge for the architects and designers of Smart Cities is to create infrastructures and services that can become part of the fabric and life of this ecosystem of communities and people. To do so effectively is to engage in a process of co-creative dialogue with them.
Soft Infrastructures: In the process of understanding how communities and individuals might interact with and experience a Smart City, elements of "soft infrastructure" are created – in the first place, conversations and trust. If the process of conversations is continued and takes place broadly, then that process and the city's communities can become part of a Smart City's soft infrastructure.
A variety of soft infrastructures play a vital role in the Smart City agenda, from the stakeholder forum that creates and carries out a Smart City strategy; to the "hackdays" and competitions that make Open Data initiatives successful; to neighbourhood planning dialogues such as that conducted in Vancouver as part of the "Carbon Talks" programme. They also include the organisations and interest groups who support city communities – such as Sustainable Enterprise Strategies in Sunderland who provide support to small businesses and social enterprises in the city's most deprived communities or the Social Media Cafe in Birmingham which brings together citizens from all walks of life who are interested in creating community value online.
Some soft infrastructural elements are more formal. For example, governance processes for measuring both overall progress and the performance of individual city systems against Smart City objectives; frameworks for procurement criteria that encourage and enable individual buying decisions across the city to contribute towards Smart City goals; and standards and principles for integration and interoperability across city systems. All of these are elements of a Smart City architecture that any Smart City strategy should seek to put in place.
City systems: Whilst individual city systems are not my focus in this article, they are clearly significant elements of the Smart City context. In a previous article I discussed how the optimisation of such systems as energy, water and transportation can contribute significantly to Smarter City objectives.
More importantly, these systems literally provide life support for cities – they feed, transport, educate and provide healthcare for citizens as well as supporting communities and businesses. So we must treat them with real respect.
A key element of any design process is taking into account those factors that act as constraints on the designer. Existing city systems are a rich source of constraints for Smart City design: their physical infrastructures may be decades old and expensive or impossible to extend; and their operation is often contracted to service providers and subject to strict performance criteria. These constraints – unless they can be changed – play a major role in shaping a Smart City strategy.
Hard Infrastructures: The field of Smart Cities originated in the possibilities that new technology platforms offer to transform city systems. Those platforms include networks such as 4G and broadband; communication tools such as telephony, social media and video conferencing; computational resources such as Cloud Computing; information repositories to support Open Data or Urban Observatories; and analytic and modelling tools that can provide deep insight into the behaviour of city systems.
These technology platforms are not exempt from the principles I've described in this article: to be effective, they need to be designed in context. By engaging with city ecosystems and the organizations, communities and individuals in them to properly understand their needs, challenges and opportunities, technology platforms can be designed to support them.
I've made an analogy before between technology platforms and urban highways. It's much harder to design an urban highway in a way that supports and enables the communities it passes through, than it is to simply design one that allows traffic to get from one place to another – and that in overlooking those communities, runs the risk of physically cutting them apart.
Technology platforms rarely have such directly adverse effects – though when badly mis-applied, they can do. However, it is certainly possible to design them poorly, so that they do not deliver value, or are simply left unused. These outcomes are most likely when the design process is insular; by contrast, the process of co-creating the design of a Smart City technology infrastructure with the communities of a city can even result in the creation of a portfolio of technology-enabled city services with the potential to generate revenue. Those future revenues in return support the case for making an investment in the platform in the first place.
And some common patterns are emerging in the technology capabilities that can provide value in city communities. I've referred to these before as the "innovation boundary" of a city. They include the basic connectivity that provides access to information systems; digital marketplace platforms that can support new business models; and local currencies that reinforce regional economic synergies.
These technology capabilities operate within the physical context of a city: its buildings, spaces, and the networks that support transport and utilities. The Demos report on the "Tech City" cluster of technology start-up businesses in London offers an interesting commentary on the needs of a community of entrepreneurs – needs that span those domains. They include: access to technology, the ability to attract venture capital investment, office space from which to run their businesses; and proximity to the food, retail, accommodation and entertainment facilities that make the area attractive to the talented professionals they need to hire.
In a recent conversation, Tim Stonor, Managing Director of Space Syntax, offered this commentary on a presentation given by UN Habitat Director General Joan Clos at the "Urban Planning for City Leaders" conference last week:
"The place to start is with the street network. Without this you can't lay pipes, or run trams. It's the foundations of urbanism and, without foundations, you're building on sand. Yes, we can have subways that cut across/beneath the street network, and data packets that travel through the airwaves over the tops of buildings, but if these aren't serving human interactions in effectively laid out street networks, then they are to little avail."
Tim's point on human interactions, I think, brings us nicely back full circle to thinking again about people and the relationships between them. Tim's further comments on the presentation can be found on Storify.
A New Architecture?
At some point in the process of writing this article, I realised I had strayed onto provocative ground – this, perhaps, is why it's taken me longer than usual to write.
As you can see, my job title contains the word "architect". Strictly, I'm an Information Technology Architect, or "IT Architect" – I've spent my career "architecting" IT solutions such as e-commerce sites, mobile web apps, analytics systems and so on. Most recently I've been working in that capacity with Sunderland on their City Cloud.
I'm very aware that a strong view exists amongst Architects who create buildings and plan cities that IT professionals shouldn't be describing ourselves in this way. Indeed, some (although I'd say a minority) of my colleagues agree, and call themselves designers or engineers instead.
Personally, I feel comfortable referring to my work as "architecture". Many "IT solutions" – or more broadly, "IT-enabled business solutions" – are complex socio-technical systems. They are complex in an engineering sense, often extremely so; but they incorporate financial, social, operational, psychological and artistic components too; and they are designed in the context of the human, social, business, political and physical environments in which they will be used.
So when we are designing a technology solution in a Smart City context – or indeed in any physical context – we are concerned with physical space; with transport networks; with city systems; and with human interactions. All of these are related to the more obvious concerns of information technology such as user interfaces, software applications, data stores, network infrastructure, data centres, laptops and workstations, wi-fi routers and mobile connectivity.
It seems to me that whilst the responsibilities and skills of "IT Architects" and Architects are not the same, they are applied within the same context, and cannot be separated from each other in that context. So in Smart Cities we should not treat "architecture" and "IT architecture" as separable activities.
In "Notes on the Synthesis of Form", a work which laid the groundwork for his invention of the "design patterns" now widely adopted by IT professionals, the town planner Christopher Alexander remarked of architecture:
At the same time that problems increase in quantity, complexity and difficulty, they also change faster than before. New materials are developed all the time, social patterns alter quickly, the culture itself is changing faster than it has ever changed before."
- Christopher Alexander, Notes on the Synthesis of Form, Harvard University Press, 1964
What else are the technologies incorporated in Smart City solutions but these "new materials" from which Architects can construct cities and buildings?
At the very least, it is inarguably the case that technologies such as the internet, social media and smartphones are intimately related to the changes taking place in our culture and social patterns.
I've blogged many times about the emerging technologies that are making ever more sophisticated and intimate connections between the IT world and the physical world – in particular, in the article "Four avatars of the metropolis: technologies that will change our cities". The new proximity of those two worlds is what has led to the "Smart Cities" movement; in a way it's simply another example of the disruptions of industries such as publishing and music that we've seen caused by the internet. And if these two worlds are merging, then perhaps our professions need at least to work more closely together.
Already we're seeing evidence of the need to do so: many city leaders and urbanists I've spoken to have described the problems caused by the separation of economic and spatial strategies in cities; or of the need for a better evidence-base for planning and decision making – such as the one that IBM's Smarter Cities Challenge team in Birmingham are helping the City Council to create. In response, we are starting to see technology experts taking part in some city and regional master-planning exercises.
Over the last few years this convergence of technology concerns with the many disciplines within urbanism has given me the opportunity to work with individuals from professions I would never previously have interacted with. It has been an honour and a pleasure to do so.
In a similar vein, I have quite deliberately posted links to this article in communities with wide and varied membership, and that I hope will include people who will disagree with me – perhaps strongly – and be kind enough to share their thoughts.
I'd like to thank the following people for their contributions in various discussions that have shaped this article:
- Boyd Cohen, Founder of the Smart Cities Hub
- Tim Stonor, Managing Director of Space Syntax
- Raj Mack, Head of Digital Birmingham
- Phil Extance, Pro Vice Chancellor for Business Partnerships and Knowledge Transfer at Aston University
- Allan Mayo, Head of the Service Policy Unit at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills