A Thought Probe Series on Tomorrow’s Population, Big Data, and Personalized Predictive Analytics: Part 2, Moving Forward

Stephen DeAngelis

May 03, 2013

In Part 1d of this series, I discussed recommendations about how urban areas can begin efforts to make their cities smarter and more efficient. In this post, I discuss why moving forward is more controversial than one might think and how some of the concerns can be addressed. Greg Lindsay asks, “Who will own the brains of smart cities–citizens or corporations?” [“The Battle for Control of Smart Cities,” Fast Company, 16 December 2012] My first reaction is, “Does it matter?” Lindsay believes it does. He writes:

“At stake is an impending massive trove of data, not to mention issues of privacy, services, and inclusion. The battle may be fought in the streets between bands of Jane Jacobs-inspired hacktivists pushing for self-serve governance and a latter-day Robert Moses carving out monopolies for IBM or Cisco instead of the Triborough Bridge Authority. Without a delicate balance between the scale of big companies and the DIY spirit of ‘gov 2.0′ champions, the urban poor could be the biggest losers. Achieving that balance falls to smarter cities’ mayors, who must keep the tech heavyweights in check and ‘frame an agenda of openness, transparency and inclusiveness.'”

Those are not just his conclusions, but conclusions of a Rockefeller Foundation-sponsored study entitled “The Future of Cities, Information, and Inclusion” that was published by the Institute for the Future. Lindsay reports that authors of the study conclude, “Without this catalyst for cooperation, we may repeat the devastating urban conflicts of the 20th century that pitted central planners like Robert Moses against community activists like Jane Jacobs.” Lindsay continues:

“Befitting the Foundation’s focus on the world’s poorest and what it calls ‘smart globalization,’ the report’s emphasis is on smartening up cities in the developing world–cities that lack both data about their swelling populations and the tools needed to make sense of it. The roster of expert contributors comprises a who’s who of ubiquitous computing and gov 2.0 types, including MIT Senseable City Lab director Carlo Ratti, Everyware author Adam Greenfield, the Santa Fe Institute’s Nathan Eagle, Intel Labs Director Genevieve Bell, Microsoft Research’s Jonathan Donner, and San Francisco CIO Chris Vein. Together, they highlight five ‘technologies that matter’ for cities in 2020: mobile broadband; smart personal devices, whether they’re dirt-cheap phones or tablets; government-sponsored cloud computing (modeled on the U.K.’s national ‘G-cloud‘ initiative); open-source public databases to promote grassroots innovation, and ‘public interfaces.’ Instead of Internet cafés, imagine an outdoor LED screen and hacked Kinect box allowing literally anyone to access the Net using only gestures.”

I admit the list of participants is impressive and their concerns certainly deserve consideration. The fact of the matter is, however, that not all data that could benefit smart cities is publicly owned or available. The World Economic Forum has declared data to be a new asset class, like gold or oil, and organizations that own that data are counting on benefiting from it. Does that somehow make them evil or uncompassionate? Of course not. The current global economic morass also demonstrates that reliance on public programs can result in national debts that inevitably hurt the poor more than the rich. The only way to move forward is to embrace public/private partnerships that benefit both sectors.

In first segment of this series, I noted that even when governments are offered programs created by civic-minded activists that have an obvious benefit for their citizens, politicians have often been hesitant to implement them. It’s hard to imagine that something as important as smart city initiatives should be placed solely in the hands of government or ceded to unstructured populist movements. Both structure and broad-based support are required. Everyone seems to agree that the sine qua non for good smart city initiatives is the availability of data (BIG data). But you can’t raise the subject of big data without also raising privacy concerns. Anthony Townsend, director of technology development at IFTF and the report’s lead author, told Lindsay, that “those tensions come up in every discussion, whether it’s privacy versus the public good, collecting data versus parsing it, and guaranteeing access to all citizens versus carving out virtual gated communities and corporate enclaves.” Townsend pointed out how the same data could be used to promote good initiatives or could be used to obstruct initiatives. “There are ways,” he told Lindsay, “all of these can play out as either dystopia or utopia.”

Lindsay states that the report “is the highest-profile critique to date of the bright green rhetoric from companies like IBM, Siemens or Cisco, which have seized the chance to pad their top lines with government sales while corporate IT customers stockpile mountains of cash.” Lindsay obviously has strong feelings on this subject. He could have written something like this: “The report is critique of smart city initiatives from companies, like IBM, Siemens, or Cisco, that see an opportunity to grow their businesses while helping cities become more efficient and effective.” But that sentence wouldn’t have raised your hackles nor have presented large corporations in a negative light — an impression that Lindsay obviously wants to impart. Lindsay continues with a discussion of arguments presented in the report:

“Global technology companies are offering ‘smart city in a box’ solutions. Governments are responding to their pitch: a smarter, cleaner, safer city. But there is no guarantee that technology solutions developed in one city can be transplanted elsewhere. As firms compete to corner the government market, cities will benefit from innovation. But if one company comes out on top, cities could see infrastructure end up in the control of a monopoly whose interests are not aligned with the city or its residents.”

Those concerns are certainly valid, but they are also addressable. They certainly shouldn’t be used as arguments to prevent smart city initiatives from moving forward. Lindsay admits that cities need global technology companies to help them achieve more efficient operations; but, he writes: “Government officials just need to avoid being sold a bill of goods.” Of course, they should. Townsend, too, admits that grassroots efforts aren’t “scalable or sustainable yet, and that’s what these corporate campaigns bring to the table.” Smart city initiatives need to get all stakeholders involved.

Usman Haque, founder of Pachube.com, agrees that we need to move forward with smart cities initiatives but he believes that the current offerings of global technology companies haven’t gone far enough. “For almost a decade, corporate giants like IBM and Cisco have been banging the smart city drum and,” he writes, “frankly, the beat is getting a little boring. We’ve long been promised great things: more energy efficient power grids, an end to traffic jams and even rubbish bins that let you know when they’re full.” [“Surely there’s a smarter approach to smart cities?Wired, 17 April 2012] He continues:

“The truth is, all of these ‘smart city” initiatives actually only reflect the most basic functionalities of the Internet of Things (IoT). The true potential for smart cities is so much greater, so much more interesting, and so much more important.”

I couldn’t agree more. With the world becoming more urbanized every day, pursuing smart city initiatives is important. Haque agrees with Lindsay that it also represents big bucks, which is why “every major IT company is looking for its slice of the smart city pie.” He lists a few of those corporate initiatives, like IBM’s Smarter Planet and Cisco’s Smart+Connected Communities. He writes, “Despite the subtle differences in these approaches, in both IBM and Cisco’s eyes, smart cities predict the convergence of smart information and communication technologies to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of urban systems and services.” Haque doesn’t quibble about the goals of smart city initiatives, but, like Lindsay, he rejects one-size-fit-all approaches. He believes such initiatives approach “the evolution of smart cities from fundamentally the wrong direction. “Their strategies focus on the city as a single entity, rather than the people — citizens — that bring it to life.”

I agree with Haque that cities are too complex to be seen as a homogeneous entity. An approach to smart city planning that uses something like Enterra Solutions’ Sense, Think/Learn, Act™ technology and advanced analytics could differentiate the needs of individual neighborhoods. Haque states, “Any adequate model for the smart city must focus on the smartness of its citizens and encourage the processes that make cities important: those that sustain very different — sometimes conflicting — activities.” The very complexity of cities requires that technology be used, but used more effectively. Haque continues:

“Cities are, by definition, engines of diversity so focusing solely on streamlining utilities, transport, construction and unseen government processes can be massively counter-productive, in much the same way that the 1960s idealistic fondness for social-housing tower block economic efficiency was found, ultimately, to be socially and culturally unsustainable. We, citizens, create and recreate our cities with every step we take, every conversation we have, every nod to a neighbour, every space we inhabit, every structure we erect, every transaction we make. A smart city should help us increase these serendipitous connections. It should actively and consciously enable us to contribute to data-making (rather than being mere consumers of it), and encourage us to make far better use of data that’s already around us.”

That is very well argued. In first segment of this series, I referred to Dr. Boyd Cohen’s Smart City Wheel. At the hub of the wheel, you find smart people, smart government, smart economy, smart environment, smart mobility, and smart living. I believe that Cohen’s Wheel, and its associated indicators, take into account the concerns and recommendations expressed by Lindsay and Haque. Haque believes it all starts with (and will move forward because of) smart people. He writes:

“The ‘smartness’ of smart cities will not be driven by orders coming from the unseen central government computers of science fiction, dictating the population’s actions from afar. Rather, smart cities will be smart because their citizens have found new ways to craft, interlink and make sense of their own data. Smart cities cannot be defined by one application, or central organising body, that sets pre-programmed limits. They will be defined by individual citizens, who are anxious to collaborate with each other — to create devices and applications that solve specific local problems. Smart cities will be places that foster creativity, where citizens are generators of ideas, services and solutions, rather than subservient and passive recipients of them.”

Haque says that we should abandon the dream of ubiquitous sensors and extraordinary networks because for most of the world such initiatives will be unaffordable for a long, long time. “Even if [cities] could find funding for the sensor hardware and installation costs, the on-going maintenance would be enormous,” he writes. “The sheer volume of accessible data being transmitted would force huge investment in data centres and other IT infrastructure.” So what should we concentrate on? He says that companies like IBM and Cisco should concentrate on developing “a flexible system that can dynamically adjust to changes, one that responds to unpredictable phenomena in a way that is not planned, and that harnesses the creative capacity of inhabitants.” Rather than a one-size-fits-all solution, “citizens should be able to adjust and rewire the smart city as needed to solve problems and overcome obstacles in their own lives.”

Haque agrees that both “corporations and governments … have a major role to play in the smart city.” But his belief is that they should make “data openly available for coders to build upon.” Frankly, that’s not likely to happen for a lot of data. Proprietary data remains too valuable an asset. I do, however, agree with his suggestion that corporations and governments should “make it easy for citizens themselves to create and contribute their own data.” Haque concludes:

“The entry of pervasive computing into the city cannot be seen as a ‘one-stop-shop’ that will solve all of our problems from pollution to traffic management. Despite the best intentions of Cisco and IBM, connecting systems and bridging data will not by itself solve tough issues. At best, such systems will likely just provide greater visibility of urban problems. However, empowering citizens to find and build their own solutions dynamically may yet allow the full potential of smart cities to be realised.”

I agree with Haque that all stakeholders must be engaged and stay engaged. That means that they must see tangible benefits from the initiatives that are implemented; especially if we expect them to continue to create and contribute their own data.