Friday 2 December 2011

What IQ gives a city Mensa membership?

I'm fascinated by cities. I lived in Plymouth for 3.5 years and in London (not Essex) for about 5 or so. I loved them both in different ways, though comparing Plymouth to London feels vaguely ridiculous.

Anyway, discussions of definitions of city should be left for another day. I want to think about what makes a city smart. This post was prompted by catching an update on how London cabbies are using social media to update each other and how the network has grown from the 2 cabbies who hatched the plan, to the 400 they currently have registered. As an aside here, this led me via the Twitter account to the website for tweetalondoncab which makes my eyes want an eye bath quick smart but lets not cast aspersions where strengths evidently do not sit. I've got more chance of voluntarily wearing mascara than passing the knowledge.

Park that thought for a moment (ha ha ha, *donk*) and move instead to the the Victorian sewerage tunnels underneath London.  A ready made duct system, which combined with the underground subterranean rivers beneath London, covers hundreds of miles hidden away beneath feet, little thought of, but much relied upon.

Then there's the obvious. The tube. Or rather, the tube and its little brother, the post office railway, the combination of which cover approximately 270 miles of track and are the object of obsession ranging from being able to name the location of every station on the network to photographing every 'ghost' station.

So how is this relevant? From Traffic Wardens to bus drivers, cabbies to sewerage, to me what makes a city smart is not how many networks of varying descriptions a city actually has, but how those are used. Perhaps back in the days of the Industrial Revolution having an asset such as sewers was a sign of a forward thinking city but these days our assessment of a city fit for purpose revolve more around its ability to host an Olympics and how many wi-fi access points it contains.

But these are distractions. In the same way we are all learning to hijack each others networks, to essentially buy our way into the value other peoples networks contain, in which we value the networks people bring to their jobs, we should value a city on its ability to utilise the existing networks within a city.

Take for example, the Highways Agency traffic cameras used to inform networks where traffic incidents were without needing to be on the scene or rely on someone being at the scene taking the initiative to inform someone. What a waste to only have authorised eyes accessing such information - why not distribute not only the access but also the responsibility for monitoring issues on such cameras out to the local people who have to pass by those places monitored by the cameras each morning on their way to work.

Intelligent cities enable dual or even triple use, and they distribute responsibility to the masses.

Then there are those cabbies. Cabbies get everywhere and they get paid to go everywhere more to the point, though if Londoners are to be believed they go everywhere that is North and nowhere that is South (and my personal experience after being evicted from La Scala at 4am and attempting to get to Dulwich bear this out). What do those cabbies see in the process of their journeys across the metropolis? Do they see the patterns above ground that those who traverse the same paths day to day can only see? Do they see the errors in those patterns, the missing person from the always standing there who wasn't supposed to be on holiday this week? Or the phase change, even, in the traffic lights around gyratories which perhaps wasn't planned?

Intelligent cities take advantage of the familiar and predictable and enable error reports to be made instantly and easily.

Sewers. An unfortunate necessity in the ever more clean and surgically detached digital 21st century. We don't like to think about them, we don't like to talk about them. But what could they tell us if we sent nodules down there with sonar capabilities which bounces and bounced and mapped the landscape above them, between the tunnels and the streets, so that engineers would not need to consult ridiculous amounts of land registries and wait for the data to arrive - instead they could communicate this to those who require it, the utility companies, who would never again accidentally slice through, perhaps, the cable that they did not know was there.

Intelligent cities look upwards from beneath as well as downwards from above.

Crime. Cities are crime hot spots - so many people and so much to steal. So many tourist too busy gazing open mouthed to notice the brushing too close and the hasty getaway. Above all cities now, layers of connectivity in the form of 3G, or of free wireless, or as Google has shown, open routers, all keys to the door of location. Reporting crime, or even accident often starts with 'where are you?' for how else will assistance reach you and how many of us are 100% confident that we could fire back an answer immediately, if at all? So no system to hit a button on a mobile and triangulated instantly, transmit that data to the nearest ambulance control centre, to be recorded, linked and assistance despatched while the controller on the other end of the phone deals with the weird intimacy of preventing death before assistance arrives.

Intelligence cities see the invisible networks and hijack those too, in order to be more efficient.

The potential for expanding the IQ of a city does not require any physical expansion. We do not need more houses, greater history, more majors nor faster connectivity in order for our cities more intelligent. Instead we simply need to consume our surroundings differently, look at them differently, understand them to be different and know that if a network is only serving one group of people it is a missed opportunity, a potential calamity, a missed cost saving exercise.

Thinking differently isn't just small. It's huge. My only question is, who is going to step up and take the lead?


  1. Can't have intelligent cities until we have ubiquitous connectivity. Gets us back to the same old story. We have patches of smartness. With connectivity, with people. They all need joining up. Until connectivity is easy and boring it won't happen. I think it was Brian Condon once said that, in 2004 at a colloquium. (the forerunner to unconferences). Bring on the fibre, that's the secret. Join up all the people. Lets have a digitalbritian with a network of people.
    Can't answer your question hun, most politicians just get instructions on dead trees and haven't time to look at stuff in real life.
    Yes Minister.

  2. :O) One day, the right people will be at the top of the trees.