11 reasons computers can’t understand or solve our problems without human judgement

Many people are not convinced that the Smart Cities movement will result in the use of technology to make places, communities and cities better. Outside their consumer enjoyment of smartphones, social media and online entertainment - to the degree that they have access to them - they don't believe that technology or the companies that sell it will improve their lives.
The technology industry itself contributes significantly to this lack of trust. Too often we overstate the benefits of technology, or play down its limitations and the challenges involved in using it well.
Most recently, the idea that traditional processes of government should be replaced by "algorithmic regulation" - the assessment of the outcomes of public systems through the measurement of data, and the automatic adjustment of those systems by algorithms in order to achieve better outcomes - has been proposed by Tim O'Reilly and other prominent technologists.
But these ideas - even if they represented a desirable way to run our world, which I don't think they do - overlook well-established scientific and philosophical principles that clearly show that we can never have perfect knowledge about the world, and can't use algorithms to perfectly understand or predict it. 
I've written an article which describes those limitations; and lays out what I think is a more balanced way of understanding the value that data and technology can play in helping us as humans take better decisions about running the world - or simply living our lives - in the full knowledge that nothing is certain.

12 simple technologies for cities that are Smart, open and fair

The objectives of Smart Cities initiatives often include efficiency, resilience, growth and vitality; and these are certainly characteristics that cities desire. But, though it is less frequently stated, a more fundamental objective underlies all of these: fairness. 
I think the Smart Cities movement will only be viewed as a success by the wider world if it contributes to that objective.
In his landmark work, “Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered“, the economist EF Schumacher wrote extensively about how fairness might be achieved through our efforts to encourage the world's development, and asked:
What is that we really require from the scientists and technologists? I should answer:
We need methods and equipment which are:
    • Cheap enough so that they are accessible to virtually everyone;
    • Suitable for small-scale application; and
    • Compatible with man’s need for creativity"
I can’t think of a more powerful set of tools that reflect these characteristics than the digital technologies that have emerged over the past decade, such as social media, smartphones, Cloud computing and Open Data. They provide a digital infrastructure of "appropriate" technologies that are accessible to everyone, but that can connect with the large scale city infrastructures that support millions of urban lives; and they can give citizens, communities and businesses the ability to adapt city infrastructures to their own needs.
I've written an article about 12 such technologies that I think are particularly important; and that fall into the categories of “Infrastructures that matter”; “Technologies for everyone”; and “The keys to the city”. I hope you find it interesting.

What's the risk of investing in a Smarter City?

(Or "how to buy a smarter city that won't go "bump" in the night)
Frost & Sullivan estimate the market for "Smart" solutions that exploit technology to address the challenges facing cities will be $1.5trillion by 2020. But anyone who has tried to secure investment in an initiative to apply smart technology in a city knows that it is not always easy to turn that theoretical market value into actual investment in projects, technology, infrastructure and expertise.

Investors are concerned by three types of risk involved in investing in smart infrastructures compared with traditional infrastructures: construction risk; the impact of operational failures; and confidence in outcomes.

In "What's the risk of investing in a Smarter City?" I've explored those risks and how they're being addressed in order to enable new ways for cities to make investments in technology to create social, economic and environmental improvements.

From field to market to kitchen: smarter food for smarter cities

I’m spending an increasing amount of my time understanding how technology can help us address one of the biggest challenges associated with the rapid urbanisation of the world’s population: how to feed billions of extra citizens. We already use 60% of the world's fresh water to produce food, and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that we will need to produce 70% more food than today by 2050. Those numbers don't add up.
There are many ways that technology can help us to grow, distribute and use food more efficiently. What really excites me, though, is not technology, but the passion for food that I see everywhere: from making food for our own families at home, to producing it in local initiatives such as Loaf, Birmingham's community bakery; and from using technology in programmes that contribute to food security in developing nations to setting food sustainability at the heart of corporate business strategy.
I've written an article on my blog exploring some of the challenges involved in producing sustainable, healthy and tasty food for future cities, and some of the technologies that might help to address them. I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on the subject, and to learn more about similar examples.
Best regards,

No-one wants top-down, technology-driven cities. They'd be dumb, not smart.

I was on a panel discussion last week during Business in the Community's "Responsible Business Week" in which a co-panelist argued in an impassioned speech that we should avoid overly deterministic "top-down" approaches to developing sustainable cities, and should instead encourage "bottom-up" innovation. His points echoed some of the criticisms leveled at parts of the Smart Cities movement by writers such as Adam Greenfield and Richard Sennett.
That's an argument I hear frequently; but I think it's an argument against a proposition that I simply don't think anyone is advocating.
In all of my contacts across the world, in technology, government and urban design, I don't know anyone who thinks it would be "Smart" for cities to be run by technology; who believes that digital data can provide "perfect knowledge" about city systems; or who thinks that cities built and run entirely by deterministic plans driven from the top down would be healthy, vibrant places to live (or indeed are possible at all).
A smart city should create an environment in which technology, infrastructure, policies and culture encourage and support "bottom-up" and localised innovations that make people, communities and businesses more successful. The challenge is that  creating that environment will require a significant degree of top-down leadership and change. So we shouldn't be arguing about whether top-down or bottom-up approaches are the right way to create better cities: we should be debating how to make both of them work effectively together.
I've written an article exploring those arguments on my blog, I'd appreciate hearing your views on them,

Six ways to design humanity and localism into Smart Cities

The Smart Cities movement is sometimes criticised for appearing to focus mainly on the application of technology to large-scale city infrastructures such as smart energy grids and intelligent transportation.
But to focus too much on this aspect of Smart Cities and to overlook the social needs of cities and communities risks forgetting what the full purpose of cities is: to enable a huge number of individual citizens to live not just safe, but rewarding lives with their families.
There are many examples of people, communities and businesses who have used "Smart Cities" ideas and technology to achieve those objectives. Their stories - what they achieved; how the potential of technology was apparent to them; why it was affordable and accessible; and how they acquired the skills to exploit it - tell us how we should design and engineer humanity and localism into Smarter Cities.
I've written an article on my blog describing how I've learned to address those challenges whilst working on IBM's Smarter Cities initiative. I'd appreciate hearing your views on the subject.

What will it take to create Successful Smart Cities in 2014?

In 2012 I spoke with a Director at a financial consultancy who’d performed a survey of European Smart City initiatives. She confirmed something that I suspected at the time: that the great majority of Smart City initiatives up to that point in the mature markets of Europe and North America had been financed by research funding, rather than on a commercial basis.
In 2013, that started to change. Some cities in Europe and North America started to make investments in the underlying technology platforms for Smart Cities from their own operational budgets, on the basis of their ability to deliver cost savings or improvements in outcomes. For example, investments in "Smart Parking" schemes have been made on the basis that they reduce the cost of collecting enforcement revenues whilst reducing congestion and pollution. 
I know of many more cities who are now developing their "Smart City" plans and determining how to put the finance in place to carry them out. But in that context, whilst it's great news that the European Union's Horizon 2020 programme and national equivalents such as the UK's Technology Strategy Board are continuing to invest billions of Euros and Pounds into Smart City research and innovation, what we really need in order to fund the widespread development of Smart Cities are new vehicles for investment in infrastructure.
Recent initiatives in Canada, the UK and further afield are starting to show how we might develop those new financing vehicles, and how cities might use them. But there are significant financial and political challenges to overcome before we will be in a position to use them. 
I've written an article on my blog that explores these issues, and would be interested in your comments, or to hear your experiences of securing financing for Smart Cities.
Cheers, Rick

"Gateway to Opportunity": kicking off a new programme of events to support technology start-ups in Sunderland

IBM, Sunderland City Council and the University of Sunderland are supporting the Sunderland Software City initiative, providing business support services and advice to local companies and technology startups through the recently opened Sunderland Software Centre in Sunderland City Centre.
As part of this partnership, IBM will run a unique programme of collaboration and events, the purpose of which is to provide regional companies with insight into the opportunities for technology solutions in markets such as telecommunications, manufacturing and commerce and providing connections to potential customers, business partners and investors with access to international sales and marketing opportunities.
We're kicking that programme off on the 13th December with "Gateway to Opportunity", including a great line-up of technology entrepreneurs and industry speakers including Chris Mairs, early-stage investor and serial entrepreneur; Iain Gray, CEO of the Technology Strategy Board; Tim Broyd, Professor of Built Environment Foresight at University College London; and Rashik Parmar, President of the IBM Academy of Technology.
The event is free, and will be followed by an informal networking lunch; if you'd like to join us please register at  

Information and choice: nine reasons our future is in the balance

The respected investor Jeremy Grantham claimed recently that economic growth has slowed systemically and permanently in recent years. He states that: “Resource costs have been rising, conservatively, at 7% a year since 2000 … in a world growing at under 4% and [in the] developed world at under 1.5%”
Over the last year I’ve been struck by several similar but more widely applicable sets of data that, taken together, indicate that a similar restructuring is taking place across the world: for example, more information was recorded in the last 2 years than in the entirety of previous human history; and 3D printing and social media are reducing the scale at which it is economically viable to carry out what were previously industrial activities. 
The world has changed; but it is also unequal; Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz wrote recently that the financial machinery of the United States and the UK in particular create considerable inequality in those countries.
Data and technology, appropriately applied, give us an unprecedented ability to achieve our long-term objectives by taking better-informed, more forward-looking decisions every day. They tell us more than we could ever previously have known about the impact of those decisions on our broader society and economy, not just ourselves. 
That's why the "tipping points" I've written about in a recent article on my blog matter to me. They translate my general awareness that I should "do the right thing" into a specific knowledge that at this point in time, my choices in many aspects of daily work and life contribute to powerful forces that will shape the next century that we share on this planet; and that they could help to tip the balance in all of our favour.
The 9 tipping points it identifies are:
  1. The slowing of economic growth
  2. Urbanisation and the industrialisation of food supply 
  3. The frequency and impact of extreme weather conditions
  4. Exponential growth in the world’s most powerful man-made resource, digital information
  5. the disappearing boundary between humans, information and the physical world
  6. The miniaturisation of industry
  7. How we respond to climate change and resource constraints
  8. the end of the average career
  9. Inequality
I hope you enjoy reading it and look forward to your comments,


The sharing economy and the future of movement in smart, human-scale cities

There have been widespread reports recently from Forbes, the Financial Times, the Economist magazine and others on the emergence of a "sharing economy" - businesses that make money by operating online markets that enable peer-to-peer transactions between their customers. 
Examples include Zopa, whose UK customers lend each other over £100 million every year, Air B'n'B who helped 5,000 New Yorkers to collectively earn $632 million in 2012 by renting spare rooms to travellers, and Casserole Club in London who connect people who are willing to cook for a neighbour with people who aren't able to cook for themselves. Some of these schemes have great potential to promote healthy communities and provide employment opportunites.
One of the often over-looked impacts of these business models is the great complexity they create in requirements for transport. Transactions that have previously been mediated by businesses who provide integrated transport services are increasingly carried out between individuals who make their own transport arrangements. 
Many urban designers argue that some transport infrastructures in today's cities, particularly major road and rail networks, impair quality of life and contribute to inequality. The cities of the future will only be better, fairer places to live if we change the way we plan, design and implement the transport services to support the growing sharing economy carefully.
I think the only way to do that is by looking at trends across technology, urban design, public policy, economic development and transport to imagine how we might live, work and socialise in home, in communities and across cities in the future; and to design digital and transport systems together to support us. 
I've written an article describing what I think such cities might look like in my blog; I would be interested to hear your opinions.

A design pattern for a Smarter City: Online Peer-to-Peer and Regional Marketplaces

Over the past year I've been collecting information about Smarter City initiatives that seem to be repeatedly successful in cities and regions around the world, and describing them as "design patterns". The design pattern has a long history of use in both urban design and technology and, while it has its limitations, it seems a useful tool for sharing knowledge between these two domains that come together in Smarter Cities.
I've just posted a description on my blog of new pattern, "Online Peer-to-Peer and Regional Marketplaces". The pattern explores the way communities and businesses have used online marketplaces to share information about the use, availability and impact of goods, services and resources such as water, energy, land, transport and food; and to enable transactions and choices that maximise sustainable, collective value in a locality. Examples include the "Big Barn" business-to-business marketplace for local food; Shutl's marketplace for the delivery of goods bought online; and the recycling network Freecycle.
The design pattern is described here:
The wider collection of design patterns, and the reasons for building it up, are described here:
Patterns work best when they are created collaboratively; I would be delighted to hear from you if you would like to contribute a pattern to my initiative; if you have comments on the patterns that I've described so far; or if there is a similar existing initiative that you think I should be aware of.

Three mistakes we’re still making about Smart Cities

I was asked this week to contribute my view of the present state of the Smart Cities movement to the UK Government’s launch of its Smart Cities Forum. In launching the Forum, David Willetts MP, Minister for Universities and Science, remarked that the Smart Cities movement should judge its success by its ability to improve the quality of life for city residents.
The market for Smart Cities solutions to address that challenge is growing - entrepreneurial businesses are delivering new city services, enabled by technology and backed by venture capital; and city Councils, service providers and transport authorities are investing in Smart infrastructures. 
But I think that we are still making three mistakes that limit the scale at which truly innovative Smart City projects are being deployed: we don't use the right mix of skills to define Smart City initiatives; we ask academic researchers to answer the wrong challenges; and we don't listen to the quiet voices that matter.
I've written an article on my blog addressing those challenges, based on my remarks on the panel discussion at the Smart Cities Forum launch. I'd appreciate hearing your views on them:

A design pattern for a Smarter City: Local Currencies and Alternative Trading Systems

Over the past year I've been collecting information about Smarter City initiatives that seem to be repeatedly successful in cities and regions around the world, and describing them as "design patterns". The design pattern has a long history of use in both urban design and technology and, while it has its limitations, it seems a useful tool for sharing knowledge between these two domains that come together in Smarter Cities.
I've just posted a description on my blog of new pattern, "Local Currencies and Alternative Trading Systems". The pattern explores several systems of trading and exchange that have emerged amongst online communities and in local ecosystems that are exploring new ways to create sustainable regional economic and social improvement. Examples include the Bristol and Brixton pounds; the Droplet SmartPhone payment service; and Switzerland's complementary currency, the Wir.
The design pattern is described here:
The wider collection of design patterns, and the reasons for building it up, are described here:
Patterns work best when they are created collaboratively; I would be delighted to hear from you if you would like to contribute a pattern to my initiative; if you have comments on the patterns that I've described so far; or if there is a similar existing initiative that you think I should be aware of.

Can Smarter Cities improve our quality of life?

Whether or not information and technology can improve our quality of life in cities seems a pretty fundamental question for the Smarter Cities movement to address - there's little point in us expending time and money on the application of technology to city systems unless we can answer it positively. 
A group of scientists, technologists and urban designers discussed that question at the Urban Systems Collaborative meeting in London two weeks ago. As well as identifying examples where information and technology have improved quality of life - for example by alerting volunteer first-aiders to the occurrence of a heart attack and locating the nearest publicly-accessible defibrillator using an open data feed - we also discussed the limitations of information and technology. 
Information is inherently uncertain; and whilst there are circumstances in which we trust our lives to automated systems to respond to it - such as antilock braking systems in cars - there are many situations in which it is more appropriate to make information available to human decision-makers. In those situations it is vital not only to make information available but to ensure that it's limitations are known and understood.
I've written a report of the Urban Systems Collaborative discussion on this topic on my blog. I think it's a crucial subject for "Smarter Cities" to address in order that we use technology to our genuine advantage as our world evolves. I'd welcome your comments on it.

Seven steps to a Smarter City: and the imperative for taking them

A year ago I wrote the article "Five steps to a Smarter City: and the philosophical imperative for taking them” to capture what at the time seemed to be emerging practises with promising potential for creating successful "Smarter City" strategies and programmes. I've updated it twice since then to reflect what I've learned about the main challenges cities face in that process: establishing a cross-city consensus to act; securing funding; and finding the common ground between the institutional and organic natures of city ecosystems.
There are enough examples of cities pursuing the "Smart" agenda now that I'm confident those practises should no-longer be called "emerging": they can be observed in almost every case where progress is being made. 
I've just written a major update to the original article, now covering the following seven steps, and containing links to the material and resources I've found most useful in carrying them out:
  1. Define what a “Smarter City” means to you
  2. Convene a stakeholder group to co-create a specific Smarter City vision; and establish governance and a credible decision-making process
  3. Structure your approach to a Smart City by drawing on the available resources of expertise
  4. Establish the policy framework
  5. Populate a roadmap that can deliver the vision
  6. Put the financing in place
  7. Enable communities and engage with informality: how to make “Smarter” a self-sustaining process
You can read the article on my blog at the link below - I hope you find it interesting; and would love to hear your views on the approach I've suggested:

Gain and responsibility: five business models for sustainable cities

The proposition that technology offers to the sustainability debate is to enable business models that create better social and environmental outcomes. In some cases, those outcomes are the objectives of a business; but more often they are the side effects of business operations whose objectives are to create financial returns. 
The CEOs of  Unilever and Tesco have recently stated intents to evolve their businesses to adopt more sustainable practises, and to be more successful as a result of doing so. Our world as a whole, and the cities in which life is concentrated, will not become socially and environmentally equitable and sustainable unless private businesses adopt such sustainable strategies. 
We need to think creatively about how to balance social and environmental outcomes with the financial imperatives of our existing economic systems. I wrote an article on my blog this week about five approaches that can already be seen that show how that balance can be found in different ways, from big business to social enterprise to technology entrepreneurs.

Smarter City myths and misconceptions

Part of my job is to communicate the ideas behind Smarter Cities, and to support those ideas with examples of the value they create when applied in cities such as Sunderland, Dublin, Birmingham and Rio.
In doing so, I often find myself countering a few common challenges to the concept of a Smarter City that I believe are based on a misconception of how Smarter Cities initiatives are carried in practise out by those involved in them.
Cities are incredibly complicated. Understanding how to apply any intervention to achieve a specific change or outcome in them is extremely difficult. To do so, Smarter Cities initiatives use the skills not just of technologists and businesspeople but social scientists, urban designers, economists, community workers - and, depending on the context, any number of other specialisms. 
However, we are still going through the process of creating a shared understanding of Smarter Cities between all of those disciplines; and of communicating that understanding to the world at large. In the conversations taking place today as we try to do that, it's easy for misconceptions to arise. I've written an article on my blog about five of the most common myths and misconceptions that I encounter, including the one I'm most guilty of myself: assuming that "everybody knows that we need Smarter Cities":
  • Myth / Misconception 1: Everybody knows we need Smarter Cities
  • Myth / Misconception 2: The idea of applying technology in cities is new
  • Myth / Misconception 3: Smarter Cities are inhuman technologies that risk being as damaging in their effects on cities as road traffic
  • Myth / Misconception 4: Masdar and Songdo are the Smartest cities on the planet; OR: Masdar and Songdo are inhuman follies of technology
  • Myth / Misconception 5: Business as usual will deliver the result
I hope you find it interesting,

How to build a Smarter City: 23 design principles for digital urbanism

While cities everywhere are seeking funds for Smarter City initiatives, and often relying on central government or research grants to do so, billions of Pounds, Euros, and Dollars are being spent on relatively conventional development and infrastructure projects that aren’t particularly “smart”.
Why is that?
One reason is that we have yet to turn our experience to date into prescriptive, re-usable guidance. Many examples of “Smarter City” projects have demonstrated that in principle technologies such as social media, information marketplaces and the “internet of things” can support city-level objectives such as wellbeing, social mobility, economic growth and infrastructure resilience. But these individual results do not yet constitute a normalised evidence base to indicate which approaches apply in which situations, and to predict in quantitative terms what the outcomes will be.
As a result, todays planning and procurement practises do not explicitly recognise the value of the Smart City vision, and therefore are not shaping the financial instruments to deliver it. This is not because those practises are at fault; it is because technologists, urbanists, architects, procurement officers, policy-makers and planners need to work together to evolve those practises to take account of the new possibilities available to cities through technology.
I recently put together a set of intentionally provocative candidate “design principles” for a city that is considering how their next planning strategy could reflect the impact of the technology agenda. They will not be universally accepted, and it is not possible yet to provide a mature body of evidence to support them. But by presenting active principles rather than passive observations, my hope is to stimulate a useful debate. I've posted them here:
I hope that you find them interesting and useful and would appreciate your comments and suggestions for improving them,


An address to the United Nations: science, technology and innovation for sustainable cities and peri-urban communities

I was honoured this week to be asked to address the 16th session of the United Nations’ Commission on Science and Technology for Development in Geneva on the topic of “Science, technology and innovation for sustainable cities and peri-urban communities“.
The Commission's interest was not just in the ability of technology to create new forms of efficient city services, but in the business and governance models that make them viable; and in the contexts from which such innovations emerge successfully.
In attending the Commission I had the opportunity to listen to some amazing speakers from around the world; and I'll be writing an article soon about the themes that emerged from those discussions. But in the meantime I've posted the following transcript of my own remarks to my blog. I hope they're of interest to you.

Death, place and life in great digital cities


There are many examples in the Smarter City domain of projects that have exploited technology in order to address issues such as social inequality and economic growth - as Glasgow are now doing through the Future Cities Demonstrator project. But it is not always straightforward to understand how a project that has worked in one place can be adapted to another.
While these initiatives are enabled by technology, many of them are also dependent on changes in the behaviour of individuals and communities. Designing systems that result in changes in behaviour in the context of cities requires deep understanding of people, communities and places.
A corollary is for us to be aware of the unintended impact that new technologies can have - there is a view among some architects and town planners that many of the developments in towns and cities over the last century to cope with growing demand for the great technology of the last century - the motor car - have caused great damage to the human environment. By analogy, how do we understand how the implications of issues such as digital privacy will affect cities as the role of digital technology in them grows?
I'm in the middle of a series of workshops exploring these challenges between technologists, town-planners, place-makers and social scientists; I've just written the first of what I expect to be several articles on my blog based on what I'm learning from them. I'd be interested in any feedback or similar experiences from this community.


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