A few thoughts on smart cities today


A recent UK survey shows that large parts of the (UK) public are sceptic over smart cities. Concretely, the 2.300 participant survey indicates that “two thirds of the public are unconvinced of the case for spending public money on smart city technology, and they are worried about the implications for their personal data”.

Smart cities are complex and tricky to discuss

Surveys about large-scale technological and administrational projects (read: infrastructure) tend to be oversimplified. Smart cities as a topic are by any standard complex and tricky to discuss. Still, these results seem plausible to me. Well thought out, too, to be honest.

I’m deeply interested in the role emerging technologies can play in improving people’s lives. That’s why I co-founded ThingsCon and ran The Good Home with Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino, and it’s what I try to focus on with my work here at my company The Waving Cat in every strategy, policy, or transformation project I’m hired for. And I believe technology is essential in tackling a large range of issues our society faces.

Yet, the smart city space in particular seems to be in an awkward phase: Huge potential, but few really great implementations. If done right, smart cities hold the promise of citizen empowerment galore; often we see solutions looking for problems instead.

And maybe most importantly, just under the surface of many smart city arguments we see a real danger of unhealthy power imbalances and power dynamics being reinforced in a bad way rather than upended.

Under the surface of many smart city arguments we see a real danger of unhealthy power imbalances

Last year, Prof. Dr. Christoph Bieber and I were kindly asked to contribute some research and policy recommendations for a larger report for the German federal government around the role of cities and urbanization in the 21st century. The report is called “Humanity on the move: The transformative power of cities” (Der Umzug der Menschheit: Die transformative Kraft der Städte) and published through WBGU, the German Advisory Council for Global Change. Some background, an English-language executive summary and links to all the full (mostly DE) documents are available in this blog post.

Also in 2016, Nominet R&D hired Designswarm to map out the smart city landscapes. (I contributed a little bit of research to the project through Designswarm.)

From that work, through lots of reading and conversations with people in the smart city space, all the way back to Cognitive Cities Conference (which I co-organized back in 2011) there are a few themes that regularly and frequently come up and don’t seem to be going away:

  • Smart city projects are often based on a false premise that an algorithm, given enough and the right kinds of data, could neutrally and perfectly balance the competing needs in an urban society. (It could never, because an algorithm is not biased and it can only act on measurable input, and many legitimate actions, intents, needs, etc. are immaterial and not measurable).
  • The strongest proponents of smart city projects are companies with a background in technology, process optimization, networking, logistics. Think big networking technology and global supply chain management. Why is this relevant? Because in their world, their background, their company culture and thinking efficiency is at the very heart of things. In the context of a sensor-equipped, self-adjusting, smart production pipeline or global cargo tracking system there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. But transferring the same approaches to urban public space creates more problems than it solves. The strength of cities is (usually) not efficiency but other characteristics like opportunity, inclusion, serendipity. The current top crop of smart city vendors is (in terms of culture, thinking, offering) not well-equipped to serve and improve citizens by fostering these characteristics.
  • In large-scale smart city projects we see a tendency towards a centralized top-down approach rather than the much more needed focus on bottom-up innovation and citizen empowerment, of which we generally see a lack. Smart city technologies can only unfold their real potential (ie. anything beyond mere efficiency gains) if they empower communities to creatively solve their challenges, if they are open source (and hence can be audited), and decentralized (and hence more resilient).
  • Smart cities and the underlying assumption of unbiased, data-driven management inherently lacks accountability and oversight. (Did someone just say dashboard?) Smart city projects are often provided as a technological turnkey solution to the city administration. Proprietary code means lackluster audits and potentially biased algorithms and data handling, centralization means centralized points of failure rather than resilience.
  • And overall, smart cities are (not always, but often) very pure expressions of market liberal approaches. I don’t say this to make a philosophical argument but rather a very concrete point about the day-to-day of citizens. Smart cities tend to be built in a way that’s very transactional: On demand you can rent a car, switch on the street lights, control that public screen. It’s all very pay-as-you-go. This is great to finance infrastructure through Private-Public Partnerships. However, the flip side of that coin is that those who cannot pay for a transaction do not get to participate in public space. The function of these transactional public (or formerly public) spaces and infrastructures is off limits to the most vulnerable parts of society.

So how to do it better? Put citizens first.

So how to do it better? Put citizens first. Involve citizens decision making around the technologies that they may or may not see impacting their lives. And follow some simple, straightforward guidelines. The de-facto principles that governed and shaped the open web of the early days can serve as an inspiration: decentralization, open source, openness, and a focus on bottom-up innovation.

Nike+ First Impressions


So I got around to testing out the Nike+ Fuelband for a few days. Instead of a full on review, some quick, off the cuff impressions, thoughts & notes as long as they’re fresh:

The Fuelband is smooth, feels nicely heavy and well made. The rubbery surface is comfortable to wear, if maybe a bit too clunky, especially if you work on a computer a lot.

The display lights up only if you press a button, so usually you just walk around with a black wristband. The display is a set of LEDs and can show time, steps, calories as well as Nike’s own “currency”, the so-called “Fuel”. Below the display you see a status bar that starts with a single red dot and grows with your activity, going from yellow to green until you reach your daily goal. It’s fairly subtle and works intuitively. Having a watch on the wrist was a pleasant change as I usually don’t wear watches much.

Taking this for a spin. #fuelband Starting out, the Fuelband shows just a red marker: Go get a move on!

The battery lasts for a few days before you have to recharge via USB. Data upload works through USB, too, so it’s simple but not terribly elegant.

To set your goals, you enter your desired activity levels through an app on your desktop or iPhone (I use Android, so no mobile app for me). The default “normal” active day is set so low that I reached it even though only starting my test at 4pm the first day. Ramping it up to “active” days helps a bit, so you actually have to at least walk a bit during the day to meet the goals. I assume if you commute by car and work at a desk all day, it might be a challenge. If you’re somewhat active anyway it feels like you have to set the goals somewhat inflationary. Or maybe I just happened to have a particularly active week.

Over time, you can gather a number of stats, accessible through the Fuel app. Examples for the kind of stats you get, besides some graphs to indicate the overall development, would be Best Month, Best Wednesday, Average Activity etc. It’s intuitive, but doesn’t go very deep it seems.

I expect this will change if the API ever really opens up and more developers can play around with it. If you could use alternative interfaces like the Pebble for example that might become more interesting. As it stands, it feels a bit… how do I phrase it… American? I know this doesn’t quite capture it, but it’s this very Nike-ish tonality that I always personally find a bit off-turning. Then again, it’s their product and it’s a fitness product, so I guess that’s alright.

Right now it’s still in the novelty phase, and several people actually approached me at a restaurant to ask about it.

So in short: It’s a smooth, well produced gadget. Having tested it for about a week, it feels like the novelty and effect are wearing off already. I caught myself not even putting it on anymore after 4-5 days. The API might change that once it’s there, if it’s ever going to really open up.

Galapagos Tech


The other day I talked to my friend Ryo who lives in Japan and uses an iPhone. In this he’s not alone – iPhones are, in Japan as much as anywhere else, a cool gadget to have. Yet, here using this particular product has some different implications than elsewhere: In Tokyo, Japanese smartphones have many features and functions that their equivalents abroad don’t have. They serve as metro pass, to buy things at vending machines (which you also can do with the metro pass), replace credit cards. In other words, they’re the key to pretty much every transaction you have in any given day. In order to use an iPhone, my friend had to start carrying a wallet again, which he hadn’t done for a long time before.

Japan is full of these technologies: By themselves, or rather in their particular environment, they’re quite advanced. They’re a bit like a glimpse into the near future, but on some odd tangent, or parallel track. Yet, take them out of this ecosystem and they stop to work, as they’re not compatible with the hardware and software stack anywhere else.

The term used for this phenomenon in Japan: Galapagos Tech. It only exists in this particular, singular context and nowhere else.

I love the expression; hadn’t heard about it before. It’s quite a powerful notion. And as my Japanese friend put it: We (Japan) are good at invention cool stuff, but we’re bad at marketing and exporting it abroad. There’s something here, but more importantly this may serve as a reminder of the importance of interoperability and standards in technology. You don’t want to be the subject of study, but little use. You don’t want to force your users to carry a wallet again, or anything they had rather discard.

Cognitive Cities Conference: New Date!


A few weeks ago, we announced to run a conference on the future of cities & technology, Cognitive Cities Conference. (I blogged it here, too.)

We just moved Cognitive Cities to a new date: 26/27 February 2011.

My co-organizers and I explained our reasons for pushing CoCities on the Cognitive Cities blog, but let me sum it up very quickly here, too.

Most importantly, the move is a good thing. As only a very few of you know by know, there are some changes coming up in my professional life – of the best sorts, but I can’t really talk about them just now. These changes – and some other things – happen to coincide with the original dates of the conference. All of this takes up quite a few cycles and quite a bit of energy: Just the kind of cycles and energy you need to run a great event on the side while still doing your day job.

The team talked this over, and we came to the conclusion that we’d rather postpone the event than just winging it. We really want to get Cognitive Cities right, and we have high hopes and aspirations for this. And since we’re planning to have some really kick-ass people present there, we owe them the best possible event, too.

Moving CoCities to spring will give us just the time we need to get it right. The date seems right – just around the beginning of the conference season, well before SXSW and – most importantly – with a few months between now and then. (If you are aware of any other relevant event going on at the same time, please let me know!)

Also, if you are working on any kick-ass relevant project that you think might fit the profile, send us a brief note about it. Should you prefer email over online forms, feel free to email us at info@cognitivecities.com.

We will continue with the planning just like we did before, i.e. talk to speakers and sponsors, scout for the best projects and tweak the conference format further. To make it the best conference we’ve organized yet. Really looking forward to seeing Cognitive Cities take shape over the next few months.