Urban Intelligences
Jun 9, 2014
6 minutes read
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Photo by Fernando Stankuns

We know our future on Earth is bound to Cities and their development to accommodate our growing population and resource starvation struggles. According to Anna Tibaijuka of UN-HABITAT, urbanization has stabilized in the Americas and Europe with about 75% of the population living in urban areas while Africa and Asia are looking at a jump from 35% to 50% by 2030. I had the chance to work with IBM around 2009 when Big Blue was actively promoting its Smarter Planet program which included Smarter Cities. IBM has a tremendous pool of talent across its various R&D labs and produced astonishing Smarter Cities innovations which included:

  • Great citizen sensing examples including CreekWatch and more recently IBM do Brasil’s Accessible Way
  • Integrated Portland City Model which is reminiscent of the DYNAMO S4 model built by the Cybersyn team for Chile over 40 years ago…
  • The spectacular Intelligent Operation Center for Smarter Cities which is another partial replica of Cybersyn and will be put to the test during the upcoming soccer world cup as Brazilians voice their frustrations; see this article by RogĂ©rio Haesbaert in Portuguese on the big brother perception of the IOC4SC
  • Actionable Business Architecture for Smarter Cities: a powerful framework and tool which leverages IBM’s Component Business Modeling approach and can be used to frame discussions with city executives and stakeholders; see this presentation along with the talk by Prof. Marsal
  • More IBM references in Smarter Cities research projects can be found here

Tricolor Waltz

The association of ICT (e.g. IoT, big data, mobile crowdsourcing) with the idea of a sustainable urban future spawned numerous initiatives and mobilized many organizations. I have captured some of them in Twitter list I labeled urbanintel. I pulled a graph of how these organizations connect among each other and provide a visualization generated with Gephi. The layout is based on ForceAtlas 2 and colored nodes based on their modularity using red, green and blue representing over 90% of the list.

This representation is by no means exhaustive and merely represents my own Twitter selection (filter bubble?) on the topic of urban intelligence. I attempt to keep a balance between ICT vendors, academics, independent consultants, urban planners and public organizations across Europe and other parts of the World. I also should add that I am not an expert in this domain and have a general bias towards bottom-up approaches to urban intelligence.

That said, I wanted to share here my perception of the Smarter City idea about 5 years after the announcements I witnessed while working with IBM and based on the tricolor waltz between vendors such as Siemens, IBM, Philips in red, critics and proponents of a human-centric approach to the urban future in blue and urban intelligence research and education handles in red.

Systems Thinking for Smarter Cities

Cities form a system of systems with intricate dependencies and constitute a source of challenges at so many levels that it attracts some of the brightest brains such as Professor Sandy Pentland of MIT or urban designer and architect Usman Haque.

Haque had quickly picked up on the trend of connected objects and came up with Pachube, a service allowing anybody with a sensor to push data to the cloud and retrieve it for visualization purposes. Pachube hosted a number of interesting urban initiatives including radiation detection in Japan and air quality sensing across many cities based on DIY. These projects revealed some of the messiness behind achieving smartness in cities as he wrote last year in WIRED. In the article, Haque underlines the risk of reductionist approaches urban intelligence which ignore the city’s intricate and hidden linkages. He is a proponent of bottom-up emergence which is invented, manipulated and crafted in contrast to top-down parametrized solutions reminiscent of the vendor approach to smarter cities. Will Pentland’s approach of Social Physics reconcile so-called top-down and bottom-up approaches? Only time will tell but the fact is that several voices have raised some concerns with regards to solution-driven approaches…

As with most things, the challenges faced by Smarter Cities might be related with the definition of the concept. Manu Fernandez of Ciudades a escala humana raised some questions relative to the posture including excessive push of vendors on cities, lack of better efforts in defining a social return on investment providing better visibility of the benefits to the citizens, lack of clarity around the compatibility & interoperability and difficulties in identifying viable financing models.

Breaking Silos

A solutionist approach as highlighted in Haque’s article may have been one reason for the initial tire squealing of the Smart City car raring to go. That said, all initiatives deserve a careful consideration. I mentioned above the work IBM did in Portland together with Forio, a company familiar with systems dynamics and looking at problems in a holistic way. This type of approach had also been elaborated by Krystyna Stave using participatory approaches with Vensim, another very popular modeling software, to break silos and foster holistic approaches to problems such as water, transportation and air quality in California and Nevada.

If the ability to facilitate complex projects across multiple stakeholders around complex topics and preferably beyond a collection of KPIs is essential to advance, are there other approaches than participative modeling to consider? One that comes to my mind is Team Syntegrity which is a protocol devised by Stafford Beer to facilitate communication within a system between the part focused on there-and-then and the part focused on the here-and-now. Beer, a British cyberneticist and father of Cybersyn saw organizations through the lenses of his Viable System Model and recognized the importance of a homeostatic equilibrium between the part in charge of looking ahead for signs of trouble and the part focused on its internal operations. This protocol seems particularly well suited according to practitioners for allowing rapid consensus across multiple parties in the context of complex projects. Jean-Daniel Cusin’s e-deliberation is a concrete support for running team syntegrity sessions.

Top-Down Bottom-Up as a Paradox

But is it enough to provide clever mechanisms for public-private multi-stakeholder facilitation? Isn’t there a more fundamental problem lurking behind the tricolor soup of urban intelligence?

The Economist organized an interesting debate back in December 2013 asking whether Smarter Cities was an empty hype or not. Participants Anthony Townsend and Irving Wladawsky-Berger argued the pros and cons to agree the idea was not hype but diverging on the approach - top-down vs. bottom-up. The proponents of top-down argue that the complexity requires a central design while the bottom-up camp defends IoT and massively decentralized innovation as a better approach to the set of problems. This argument seems recurrent in sustainability matters and looks more and more like a paradox we keep banging our heads against. The world of paradoxes is one where true genius can arise by re-framing our mental models in such a way that the paradox vanishes. Paradoxes are not solved, they are dissolved and the path towards smarter cities and a more sustainable World call for escaping the apparently incompatible top-down bottom-up approaches. We are looking for a novel way to see the World such that both approaches co-exist and are re-framed in a new co-creation paradigm. This goes beyond applying wise methods to breaking silos. We’re looking for a paradigm shift.


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