Tagurban

Smart Cities: The next frontier for IoT

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Note: This text was written and planned for publication in September 2015. While it wasn’t published at the time and some bits and pieces seem a little dated by now, I felt there’s still enough relevance here to publish it now. Enjoy!

As the Internet of Things (IoT) expands into more and more parts of our lives, one big focal point for IoT is the smart city. Since the majority of the population lives in cities and we cannot opt out of our urban environments, this makes it the next frontier for IoT, digital rights and innovation.

Understanding the connected city

What makes a smart city? What’s the smartest city in the world? The connected city is a surprisingly hard-to-define construct: There is a very small number of “pure play” smart cities – planned cities built from scratch – that everyone would agree are smart, like Abu Dhabi’s Masdar City. But do they count as real cities if they have no history and hardly a population? There are smart city services, like real-time public transport data: How many of these does it take to make a city officially “smart”? How does the population factor into it?

I believe that the current focus on the city-level might counter-intuively get in the way of our thinking. So let’s step away from the implementation level of a city wide integrated sensor network with a connected city data dashboard. I’m increasingly convinced that the trick is to tackle the understanding of connected cities from two sides:

  1. Zoom in to a more granular level where instead of looking at the city-level we can focus on individual projects, initiatives and programs that work with city data of any sort. This more open approach means we can count and analyze a wider range of projects from real-time public transport to networks of DIY air quality sensors or open source smart meters. Based on this we could rank cities based on their smartness, or maybe smart-readiness. Some not-yet-public research I’ve been involved in shows promising results: Imagine a large catalog of smart city(ish) projects that can be sliced and diced based on region, scale, funding sources, or impact.

  2. Then zoom out to the systemic level that doesn’t just consider the physical manifestation of the city, but it’s governance, administration, and citizenry. A large part of what makes a city smart isn’t its infrastructure (the strong focus on the technology angle is misleading), it’s the social impact of how we make that infrastructure work for its citizens. This means we need to look at how to prepare local governments and administrations, an area where NGOs like Code for America have been doing great work, and it means making sure that citizens know how to participate. After all, the overarching goal of a connected city should be to empower its citizens – so smart citizens are the true key to a smart city.

Smart cities need citizen-centric design

The way we discuss connected cities today is heavily framed through the lens of efficiency based on gathering data. This is no coincidence: The main drivers of the debate today are technology vendors who have been selling solutions for the industrial context like smart factories and connected logistics chain. It is only natural that the same vendors would try to solve urban challenges through large-scale implementations of their sensors, networks and infrastructure: If you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

However, for the context of a heavily urbanized society this model might not be the best. Smart cities researcher and critic Adam Greenfield goes even further, calling the efficiency-focused model of the connected city “the least interesting and the most problematic” given that rich urban live depends on serendipity as much as efficient delivery of services. Algorithms should augment, not replace political processes like resource allocation.

Maybe even more importantly, history has shown that complex, massively integrated computational systems are fraught with issues. If we turn a city into a giant centralized computer, we might create infrastructure that is brittle rather than resilient: “Smart cities are almost guaranteed to be chock full of bugs, from smart toilets and faucets that won’t operate to public screens sporting Microsoft’s ominous Blue Screen of Death”, fears smart city advocate Anthony Townsend.

These doomsday scenarios are easily avoided, though, if we focus on how to put humans in the center. The open data/open government and civic tech movements advocate for urban services that are citizen-centric and focus on real-world needs. This allows to build resilient cities. In their academic and policy research, Susan Crawford and Stephen Goldsmith speak of the responsive city: A city that focuses on its citizens needs and molds itself based on changing needs through technology and data. In other words, the city is a platform for its stakeholders – citizens and businesses alike.

Shaping the connected city

As Lawrence Lessig famously stated, code is law. The code we run our smart city on governs urban life. So it’s crucial to ensure that this code isn’t just fit for prime time in the sense of quality control, but also that we make the right choice for how and what kind of code is implemented in the first place. This is less of a technical than a policy question, and governments around the world are thinking hard about it.

Recently I co-authored a report on connected cities my colleague and ethics professor Dr. Christoph Bieber for the German government. The question: How to think smart cities with a strong focus on the citizens’ perspective. We found we have great historic precedence to inform solutions for the challenges ahead: The key to unlocking connected cities are the design principles – the protocols – that helped build the internet in its early days: Openness, decentralized architecture, bottom-up innovation, and Postel’s law (the so-called robustness principle).

In other words, we can build the city as a platform that is decentralized, open source, and hackable; That empowers citizens and enables private enterprises to innovate; And that is especially responsive and resilient through inclusivity, diversity, peer-review, and human-centric design.

Urban innovation and research labs & programs

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[Work in progress!] Starting a list of urban innovation labs & programs, research programs in that field and the like.

What will be included in this list? At the outset the programs, initiatives and labs that support smart city development and urban innovation but are not pilot smart city projects with their own infrastructure; that support and enable the development and/or provide guidance/policy, but don’t run the technical platforms. One-time events aren’t currently included, but rather ongoing hubs/labs/programs.

Pointers welcome!

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Thoughts on the smart city

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Over the last few months, I once more had the chance to work on smart city-related topics. (I say once more because it’s been a while since I did a deep dive into the field back with Cognitive Cities Conference in 2011. Ever since I’ve been following the field closely, but not actively contributed much.)

So recently I’ve had several occasions to work on smart city-related things. It’s been exciting to me that these engagements came through different vectors – in one case it was related to prior work in and around politics & e-governance and has a policy angle, in one case the approach was from an #iot angle and focused on connectivity in a wider sense. There might be more, and with a stronger overlap, as the circles in this particular Venn diagram increasingly move closer together.

I hope (and think) that large chunks of these recent projects will be made accessible publicly at some point. For now, it’ll have to stay a bit on the vague end I’m afraid. Once things get published, you’ll find out through the usual channels.

Long story short: I’ve been thinking about smart cities a fair bit. And two major questions have been popping up over and over again.

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CoCities Salon Amsterdam: Thanks!

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De Verdiepening #cocities The Verdieping, Amsterdam

So last night we had our first Cognitive Cities Salon – in Amsterdam. What a great time I had! A big thank you to our kind host Juha van ‘t Zelfde (non-fiction), who did all the heavy lifting, and to our fantastic speakers:

James Burke, Co-founder of VURB Katalin Galayas, Policy Advisor to the City of Amsterdam Kars Alfrink, ‘Chief Agent’ of Hubbub Edwin Gardner, VOLUME Magazine

Kars at #CoCities Kars Alfrink, Hubbub

Cognitive Cities at Convention Camp, Radio Trackback

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As the preparation for Cognitive Cities Conference are picking up steam, we’ve been invited to talk about smart/cognitive cities on several occasions.

A few days ago, my co-conspirator Igor Schwarzmann gave a presentation at Convention Camp about how our perception and perspectives change when a city gets “smart”. Mainly, we highlighted some interesting projects in the field and discussed them with the audience. You’ll find the slides (mostly links to videos) at the bottom of this post.

Following up on our talk, Radio Trackback interviewed me about smart and cognitive cities. (Links to some of the projects I mentioned: Urban Defender Game, MIT Trash Tracking, Walkshop in Barcelona, Homesense, Lost London, Chromaroma, Cognitive Cities). The interview is in German, starting at around 6:26.

(Some Rights Reserved: Radio Trackback is released under a Creative Commons nc-by-nd license)

Shout out! Edial Dekker was also featured talking about YourneighboursCity Crawlers Berlin project (around 14:35).

And these are the slides of our presentation:

Cognitive Cities Conference: New Date!

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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.

Announcing the Cognitive Cities Conference

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Taken with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II.

Update: New date for Cognitive Cities Conference is 26/27 February 2011 (details).

A few friends and I are planning a conference this fall. Please allow me to cross-post from the Cognitive Cities blog:

Our future will be played out in cities. The projections tell us that our planet will resemble some very familiar fictional fantasies: 75% of the global population will be living by 2050 in cities or mega cities. Between slums and mass poverty on one hand and eco-sustainable living on the other hand, there will be both tough problems to solve and exciting visions to realize. We are at a point in time where the paths are set for the future of cities. The Cognitive Cities Conference wants to pick up the vibrant global conversation about the future of cities and bring it to Germany. By bringing bright minds with different perspectives together, it is our ambition to enable not only an in-depth exchange about the current state of affairs, but also to foster new projects. We believe that collaboration and diversity lead to the best results. We see the Cognitive Cities Conference as a platform for exchange and mutual inspiration and invite urban planners, designers, technology geeks, environmental experts, public officials, urban gardening enthusiasts and cultural influencers to be part of the conversation. We can only make our cities more liveable if we work together to improve them. The format of the conference will be a combination of lightning talks and workshop style sessions. Participants will share ideas, thoughts and challenges based on their diverse backgrounds, thus presenting different perspectives and approaches to the challenges we share. We are planning a one track only event, with the option for break-out sessions at any time. Where and when? Cognitive Cities Conference 02./03. October 2010 Coworking Cologne Who is Cognitive Cities for? We believe that diversity is essential for mutual inspiration. Cognitive Cities is aimed at designers, architects, futurists, urban planners, web geeks, activists, urban dwellers, you name it. If you are interested in the future of your city, you are most welcome. Who is behind Cognitive Cities Conference? Axel Quack, Igor Schwarzmann, Johannes Kleske, Markus Reuter, Martin Spindler, Peter Bihr, Welf Kirschner. Powered by CognitiveCities.com. Cognitive Cities is organized on a non-profit basis. We will provide more details and a dedicated link soon.

Until we have a site up, please refer to the original post.

For us, the idea behind Cognitive Cities isn’t just focused on urban planning.

That’s very important, as I’d like to stress that we hope to touch on other fields that are just as relevant to living in a city: think smart homes, smart grids, smart meters. Think augmented reality, Spime, sensors, cell phones, geo-tagging. Think open data. Think transportation, car sharing, intelligent trip planning. (Jetpacks, anyone?) Think reclaiming your city bottom-up. Think street art and locative art. Think green living and rooftop gardens and urban gardening. All of these, and many more, will influence our lives in the city. And all of them should be represented at our conference.

Also, I’d like to briefly put this in context: I know this all is, so far, pretty vague. We’ll get more concrete soon. Until then, we’ll be getting in touch with a first batch of potential speakers and sponsors to cover basic costs and, hopefully, some travel grants for speakers or guests who couldn’t come otherwise. We got to this event via atoms&bits, so there’s a connection here too. Props and thanks to Martin Spindler for getting the ball rolling and getting me on board! Also, thanks to Axel for enabling us to use Coworking Cologne as our conference location. As always, having a location for an event always is a huge load off of our shoulders.

So while we’re setting up the basic infrastructure to organize an event, please feel free to get in touch. For the time being, the best way is to either leave a comment on the original post or here, or to drop any of us organizers a line directly. We’re all pretty easy to reach. (In my case, the contact form or Twitter.) Update: Email us at info@cognitivecities.com.

Thanks for the patience, and for spreading the word. We’re all really looking forward to this.

Update: Official hashtag is #cocities.

Image: Taken with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II., a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from yakobusan’s photostream