Massive Small Smart Cities

Blog 2 from the IEEE International Conference on Smart Cities, Guadalajara, Mexico.

Make me a city. This is becoming a more regular request. Examples are Masdar City in Abu Dhabi, Songdo in South Korea and Zenciti in Mexico. Specifically, these are being tagged as Smart Cities. The grandios approach to their conception is hard to stomach, when existing cities have taken centuries, if not millennia to form their culture, personality and reputation; but what is effectively the ultimate challenge for designers within the built environment is understandably hard to turn down.

Previous attempts to build cities from scratch demonstrate how fragile and risky they can be. Take a look at the “desert cities” in Egypt such as Al-Shuruq and New Cairo which have vacancy rates of up to 80% according to this article, China’s so called “ghost cities” like the downright strange English town replica, Thames Town, and the Spanish town of Ciudad Valdeluz.

Huai-Chun Hsu - originally posted to Flickr as IMG_4371
Huai-Chun Hsu – originally posted to Flickr as IMG_4371

You could also add to this the struggle of the $18bn Masdar city to attract companies to relocate there despite the huge investment into the project. Co.EXIST say that “a representative remains cautious, asking for patience–a surprising statement in a state which makes a claim on all street corners to be the fastest and first–and finally admits that it is–politically–unthinkable to abandon such a project.”

Even existing cities, built on a wealth of experiences and guidance have slumped. Detroit and it’s reliance upon the automobile industry is the obvious example but even the northern manufacturing-focussed cities in the UK such as Hull, and even New York came perilously close to imploding after the decline of the textile industry.

Therefore, it is interesting to hear a recurring theme arising from this conference on Smart Cities: that a smart city is not a goal, but a process. To paraphrase Roberto Sarocco, the President of EIT Italy, “You can’t build/make a smart city, a smart city is a process, constantly providing the framework in which innovations can be implemented on a constantly morphing basis”.

So what is this framework? Put simply, the framework is the ability for a huge number of players to create data, and for a single player to assimilate data from a wide range of sources. This player may be anything from a lamp post or a car to a person.

Then along come the innovators. Kirk Sheba, a director of research at Intel, gave a presentation, not on the all encompassing control of Intel over a city, but discrete projects within their Living Labs  whereby they are plucking out useful data from the built environment and looking to see how this can overcome an identified problem, such as the efficiency of Hyde Park’s maintenance or the effectiveness of catalytic paints on increasing air quality.

The majority of work at this conference is related to relatively small projects with potentially really useful outcomes when used in specific circumstances. If implemented together, our cities have a better chance of becoming Smart Cities, with a higher resilience to change. This incremental approach to creating smart cities is the best shot at creating resilient, effective and trusted cities as opposed to the sweeping approach of vanity projects. The big challenge in the world of Smart Cities is the balancing of incremental growth with accelerating urbanisation and increasing global populations.


International Conference on Smart Cities

I timed my travel plans to the International Conference on Smart Cities in Guadalajara, Mexico to perfectly coincide with the landing of hurricane Patricia. However, having overcome a cancelled flight and a days delay, I arrived in a city that is currently planning it’s own ‘smart city’ development. However, as I am finding out, the definition of a smart city is not a done deal.

Huawei have just delivered a presentation that is demonstrating Huawei’s massive reach into the area of monitoring every single aspect of a city, in a 24-style bomb plot foiling action video which, with a different soundtrack, could just as easily be a video demonstrating their ability to implement the ultimate Big Brother society. It was framed however, with the line “smart safe city”.

Conversely, another group of delegates here are representing the town of Tequila that wishes to become a smart town with the aim of increasing tourism and industry. Another group are here pitching their idea of Zenciti, a completely new 500 acre city development based solely around the IT industry, but although they have identified areas (such as the environment and ‘living’) that they wish to be ‘smart’, there is no clear method about what this word actually entails!

What is consistent throughout this conference so far is the theme of using Big Data and the Internet of Things to overcome identified problems and current deficiencies; whether it be using an embedded system app to monitor micro-climates with the purpose of reducing air pollution, or creating an IoT based water management system for a campus.

Being an IEEE conference, a lot of the work here is boarding on computer science and, as a mechanical engineer, I won’t try to suggest that I fully understand some of the in-depth presentations, but it was refreshing to see, nestled among a number of high-tech talks, a tutorial focussed on the civic engagement of people within smart city projects. You can have all the apps and smart systems you like, but if you do not have the trust and engagement of the people that are using, or being affected by them, it is much less likely that they’re going to work! In this tutorial, run by Frieda Edgette from Novos Consulting, one of the take-home messages was that, even if your smart concept is completely online, you shouldn’t assume that you can ignore offline aspects. Constant feedback, reinforced messages and opportunities for in-person engagement facilitates understanding and trust.

For example, one presentation focussed on the use of electric vehicles within a Smart City to shift peak electricity loads by only allowing charging at night time.  My question was about the impact of this system on the expectations of everyday life, and the reply was that the consumer would be required to choose between risking having an uncharged vehicle during an emergency night journey and having lower energy bills. The project presented was interesting but I believe that ignoring human aspects of smart concepts can undermine the advanced research that is being carried out.

The conference has demonstrated the scale and complexity of a ‘smart city’ and all the complicated stuff that goes on under the bonnet. However, it’s clear that there is some tension between a company like Huawei, IBM or Cisco having complete control over a city, and uncoordinated smart offerings that are able to engage with their stakeholders more effectively.

Urban Pointillism

I’m not going to lie, I’m pretty proud of the title of this post, but sadly I can’t take the full credit.

Kelvin Campbell, aka The Smart Urbanist, is a world leading figure in urban design. In his latest book, Massive Small (also see here), he relates effective planning to the pointillism style of Monet, as opposed to the sweeping strokes of Pollock. In pointillism, each individual tiny splodge of colour contributes to the bigger picture; each has it’s own colour and it’s own purpose. By relating that to the design and planning of cities, what Kelvin is advocating is the shift from a sweeping masterplan by a single private company, to an approach where rules are loose enough to enable numerous smaller developments that fit within the bigger picture; a thousand designers as opposed to a single private organisation. After all, if the pieces within a masterplan depend upon each other, and one fails, then the entire plan is affected. If a single splodge on a Monet turns out to be the wrong colour, then it can be touched up without having a noticeable impact on the big picture!

Ok enough with the analogy, you get the point (illism). A city isn’t a problem to be solved, it is an opportunity to enable the skilled and passionate people within that city to make a positive change to the places that they live. Who’s more likely to go the extra mile for a project? Someone who is going to reap the benefits, or someone who does the job and moves on?

Massive Small was a book that called out to me because the title is a message I have seen before within Engineers Without Borders UK. Having spent the last 6 years volunteering within this organisation, Massive Small change has been the closest thing we’ve had to a tagline. EWB-UK is an international development charity. By carrying out large numbers of small projects where we engage with local stakeholders and enable them to make relatively small changes to the infrastructure in their local area, you build skill sets needed to maintain it and build more. It’s an approach that sits very well with me, and I have seen it work.

Back to cities, and it breaks my heart to say that pointillism alone cannot be used as an analogy for urban development. Afterall, although a painting may conjure up emotion within someone, it’s not got to give you shelter, security, energy and wellbeing. Urban development needs to consider and embrace local businesses, organisations and groups that provide social value to a place. The allotments that allow people to get outdoors and sell their produce to the local restaurant, or the local cafe that runs great vibrant markets and events that give us an excuse to meet up with friends. Maybe it’s the local accountancy firm that provides investment into the area they are passionate about, or maybe it’s the individual socialites that arrange community activities and events. The smaller the chunklet of a task, the smaller the developer can be, and the larger part local knowledge can play to maintain and improve the area.

This is why Kelvin Campbell says that “only a public sector body can deliver a project of this scale by becoming the development ‘parceller'”. This is a brilliant vision but I think many of you will be skeptical that in a time of austerity (and within a privatisation hungry government), a slightly less financially efficient method in the short term will never be pushed through, even if the long term financial and social benefits are far superior.

Therefore we need to find a way to enable private companies to embrace the characteristics and features of the smaller areas within their bigger scope. The desire is there. It’s common knowledge that stakeholder engagement is important to the success of projects. One of Arup’s “Thought” posts says planning should be more democratic, and is why they have developed the Collaborative Maps tool, where people can write comments on a map. By embracing social media, the internet and digital platforms, Arup are trying to broaden their engagement with wider stakeholders. Similarly, allows people to report local problems.

But what about the more subtle aspects that thriving communities thrive upon: the social aspects, pride and the impact made by great local organisations. Surely it’s easier to enhance something that already exists than scratch it off and hope to create an environment where it can rebuild? That’s where Mapify comes in. I met the brains behind Mapify in their converted depot building in Clapton, London. They stumbled across the idea through personal experiences with urban development, which is the best way an idea can form!

Mapify is a tool that allows the mapping of social capital and social impact. By putting a social changemaker onto a map, and identifying the web beneficiaries they effect. It’s a simple concept but the data is difficult to gather. I loved Mapify. In a time where we’re unlikely to see a significant shift towards public sector developments, imagine impacts that a tool like Mapify could do in the hands of a private company seeking ways to be more democratic in their development process!

I hope that you’ve enjoyed reading this post. If you have any opinions on this, please do comment!

As a finishing note: Look at the incredible picture of New York by Sergey Seminov. That’s the closest visualisation of urban pointillism that I’ve seen. Urban pointillism however, is not just about how things look.

Why urban development?

Urban development is not a new term, granted. The presence of cities has always called for some sort of structured development with Roman towns like Caistor below:

Ancient rome

However, over the past 5 or 10 years, there has been an increasing recognition by some of the bigger engineering consultancies that urban development is where they should be focussing some of their resources. Even the mainstream media have started raising cities to the forefront, such as The Guardian’s ‘cities’ section.

The reasons for a consultancy focussing on cities are numerous but here are a few:

1. Urbanisation is happening worldwide

Urbanisation, or the movement of people from rural to urban areas is widespread. Recently we tipped the scales and for the first time more people now live in urban areas than rural areas. I took data from World Bank and mapped it to show the average rate of urbanisation in every country as a percentage increase of urban population proportion over 5 years, from 2008-2013.

Average percentage increase in proportion of urban population 2008-2013
Average percentage increase in proportion of urban population 2008-2013

As you can see, very few countries are not urbanising (there is the odd white one because not all data was available).

The reasons for this are many. As the Coursera MOOC called The Age of Sustainable Development, run by Columbia University, describes; the transition from agriculture to manufacturing and service industries leads to a migration from working the land to working within urban developments. Edward Glaeser writes in The Triumph of the City that cities provide opportunities and jobs, which attracts people (both poor and wealthy) to them, and then become epicentres of innovation. Furthermore, it is only the wealthy that tend to move from cities to rural parts, because it is more expensive to live in rural areas whilst maintaining the quality of life experienced in a city.

According to

2. Population growth

As with the above map, I have mapped the average rate of population growth from World Bank over the same time period (2008-2013) in the same countries.

Average population growth 2008-2013
Average population growth 2008-2013

You can see that the countries within which the population is increasing most rapidly roughly correlates to those countries in which the percentage urban population is also increasing. This means that the actual population within these cities is increasing at an even faster rate, and therefore the size and importance of these cities is rocketing. The reasons for population growth again are numerous, including lack of access to family planning and fertility preferences.

3. Future economic powerhouses

Two acronyms: BRIC and MINT.

These were coined by economist and retiring chairman of Goldman Sachs, Jim O’Neil. In this podcast, Jim says how in 2001, he had predicted Brazil, Russia, India and China to be the next economic powerhouses. He then coined Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Turkey as the economic giants of the future. The chart below shows the predicted rise in GDP of the MINTs:

A countries ability to convert their urbanisation and population growth into capital will result in them climbing these rankings. At the moment, the MINT countries do this most effectively, but the desire for countries to turn their cities into well running machines drives the demand for increasingly large scale development projects by multinational engineering consultancies.

Personally, I find it fascinating. Every city in every country is completely different. It’s not just about building buildings. It’s about creating communities, creating sustainable jobs and balancing inequality; it’s about crime, corruption and governance; social mobility, healthcare and energy; about international and internal markets and a multiple other aspects I will have forgotten to write down! Each is dependent upon and influences another, which creates a need for large multidisciplinary organisations to approach one problem from multiple, synchronised angles.

I can think of very few areas that have such a wide scope and I look forward to being involved within this field, in some form, in the future!



Cities and their Negative Externalities

I’ve been reading “Triumph of the City” by Edward Glaeser recently and so far (I’m about half way through) it’s a fascinating read and I’d recommend it to anyone interested in the reality of city development. As an engineer, I like to think that a well designed city will lead to a well performing city but in reality cities develop through a number of driving forces and this book looks at everything from the role of business to the corrupt mayors that hinder progress.

Negative externality was a new term to me: it’s taken from the field of economics and is a “cost suffered by a third party as a result of an economic transaction” according to Glaeser applies this concept to congestion within cities

“because each driver typically considers only his own private costs and benefits. Drivers don’t usually take into account the fact that their driving slows everyone else down.”

It seems obvious really but it is quite a strange situation; both the city and the car driver want the same end goal of moving through the city efficiently, but the driver chooses a method which would cause a standstill if everyone did the same.

The great thing about cities is that they provide huge amounts of opportunity within a small geographical area. Therefore, the greater the “density of opportunity” the less room there is for roads. Glaeser suggests that the obvious solution is to increase the cost of driving in cities by introducing a road fee; resulting in more people taking public transport and reducing traffic. It should be noted that this will only work if there is a remotely functional and effective public transport system in place; in big cities without one, traffic congestion can literally bring the city to a standstill.

This example is interesting but for me, it opened up the fascinating world of these negative externalities in other areas of cities, where one person’s actions in pursuit of their own interests and costs result in negative consequences for a third party. Often there is no clear solution, but I wanted to look into how some have been addressed in existing cities.

Recycling: throwing recyclable stuff into the regular bin because it is not worth your time to sort it out.

This is a personal pet hate and my housemate does this ALL the time. However, reframing this in such terminology as a negative externality adds some objectivity. For him, there is no negative consequence in combining all of our rubbish together, and if you were to place a value on his time, then there is an, albeit small, financial justification to his actions. In trying to increase rates of recycling there are two obvious choices in light of this negative externality: increasing the perceived importance of the task, or placing a financial incentive on it.

Ideally, we would want everyone to make their own decisions that meet both their own goals and the needs of the wider population and therefore increasing the perceived importance of the task is more favourable but requires the aligning of my mate’s views with that of the world itself. This is most likely to be achieved by education, but I can tell you that my lecturing about environmental impacts does diddly squat; it’s easier to learn good habits than unlearn bad habits.

Alternatively, there is the option that can be implemented quickly: the association of recycling to a financial cost, as San Francisco has done. San Fran has the highest recycling rates in the world and in part this is due to a carrot and stick approach. The carrot is that your recycling bill can be reduced if you can downgrade to a smaller general rubbish bin due to the amount of recycling you do. The stick is that you get hit with a $500 if you don’t recycle.

A slightly more skewed approach is taken in Toronto, where you pay a deposit on glass bottles which is returned to you when you recycle them at the local bottle bank. The knock on effect is that there is a surge of homeless people scavenging for bottles to earn a little money, despite weakly enforced laws against it in the city. This practice splits opinion but it does convert a negative externality into a potentially double positive one where both the environment and homeless people benefit.

As it turns out, pretty much all of the negative externalities associated with the way we live within cities have the environment (and therefore everyone) as the third party that is being detrimentally affected and explains why it is so hard to curb our impact upon it. Applying this to the construction sector within a capitalist structure, it is unfortunately unrealistic to expect profits to be freely sacrificed in order to align itself with the goals of schemes grander than itself. Somehow, financial costs need to be applied to impacts on the environment in order to influence decisions within the design process. Increasingly, these are being realised in the following forms:

  • As outlined by David Clark in his book “What Colour is Your Building” , government incentives (such as tax relief, feed in tariffs and low interest green loans), brand image value, and significant running cost savings can build the financial attraction of low impact design of buildings.
  • The Smart Grid (Grid 3.0) is set to offer financial incentives to buildings to change their energy demand on request, enabling the national grid to operate more efficiently.
  • The Green Deal here in the UK has attempted to sway the domestic market to make environmentally beneficial changes to their houses. The lack of success of this scheme is an interesting one though because it shows that sometimes financial benefits alone are not enough to remove this negative externality.

So in summary, negative externalities exist all over the built environment. Most bad things are not done on purpose, but are merely a by-product of self-interest and a lack of awareness. The challenges arising from this are large but not unsurmountable, we just have to play the game, influence decisions and defend the defenceless.

Sheffield Green Commission Hearing 4

The 4th Sheffield Green Commission Hearing had an extremely qualified panel consisting of Gary Topp, David Rudlin and Eddie Murphy from the Bristol Green Capital Partnership, URBED and Mott Macdonald respectively.

The hearings have the purpose of having these expert witnesses present before the Sheffield Green Commission in order to influence the future direction of future city growth. Although some of the discussion was obviously based around Sheffield, the proposals were developed upon decades of work within numerous cities by the speakers, spreading across the world.

Here, I’m going to summarise a few of the most potent quotes and themes that I feel stood out for me within the context of cities as a whole, and furthermore with a focus on Sheffield.

1. It’s not all about industry

Eddie’s talk had some focus upon education. Mott Macdonald have done the design of 13 out of 27 primary schools in Sheffield and Eddie’s well founded perspective is that change is instigated within primary schools. If you lose a child in primary school, they could become a problem to society, but if they stay and engage, they become a solution to society.

David responded to a tricky question about the effect of public cuts on our city’s growth by saying that a city’s growth is often attributed to industrial growth, but that the long term trends in industry cannot be predicted. Therefore, for long term growth, a city needs to attract bright people. These bright people then innovate.

2. Cities are not the Olympics

Gary’s experience with Bristol, having been selected to be the European Green Capital 2015, was that people often asked exactly what they were planning to achieve within this year. However, he made it clear that Bristol’s evolution has been happening since 2007 and you cannot achieve sustainable change within a single year.

Eddie’s talk showed a process through which Mott MacDonald approach a city consultancy task: Clear vision -> Strong Leadership -> Long term plan -> learn from others -> clear vision. Within this process it was emphasized that long term change does not happen in 4 years.

Eddie further mentioned this in the question session where he addressed the need for long term policies to be in place throughout different governments over decades rather than just one 5 year tenure.

3. Integration is vital

David’s talk did focus upon Sheffield itself and identified the fundamental need to have economic planning and spacial planning happening with the same theatre. Growth is not necessarily caused by economic growth, by city growth causes multiple economic benefits such as increased catchment spend, workforce attractiveness and council tax.

Gary’s talk very much looked at how providing a platform for a cluster of “green” organisations with a forward thinking leadership and government enabled Bristol to progress on it’s sustainability agenda. Gary said how government alone cannot reposition a city, an opinion echoed by Eddie on the subject of domestic energy reduction; even when a government throws money at a scheme such as the Green Deal, behaviour inhibits action.

What about Sheffield?

David spoke the most about Sheffield, including his thoughts that the tram network should be extended, and suggested (but did not confirm) that he thinks Attercliffe has a big potential to be remodelled to become a lively and sustainable urban neighbourhood.

Eddie, although not focussing on Sheffield too much, suggested that the largely low skilled workforce needs to evolve in order for the city to develop. There are links between education and sustainability, and Sheffield currently does not manage to keep it’s bright and skilled people as much as it should be able to do.

Gary, with experience in other cities, addressed Sheffield the least but suggested that growth should not be to the detriment of innovation in Sheffield (linking with Eddie and David’s views)

All in all, a fascinating insight into some experienced minds, and good to see so many keen people in the audience like myself.


Secret Hydraulic Past of London

The feature image of this article is something that you might step upon when waling through London.

Before electricity, London used to be powered by water. I couldn’t really believe the bloke who told me this, but it turns out it’s true. Maybe it’s common knowledge, but not to me, so I thought I’d fill you in on the interesting basics.

In the mid 19th century, London had the most extensive power network in the world. It wasn’t electricity, it wasn’t gas. It was pressurised water. There were over 200 miles of hydraulic pipes, each in the ballpark of 7cm diameter. The network map is shown below:


London wasn’t the only city with a network like this: Among others, Hull, Liverpool, Geneva and Sydney all had similar concepts, but London’s was the biggest by a good margin. If you have ever been to Geneva, then you’ll recognise the Jet D’Eau, which was actually originally a pressure release valve for when the demand dropped within its power network, meaning that some pressure had to be relieved in a big jet of water.

Initially supplying large machines such as cranes and dock gates, in its prime, the London Hydraulic Company supplied power to thousands of machines across both sides of the Thames.  The 48 bar pressure was maintained by steam engines based in the five power stations throughout the city. The flagship was the Wapping Hydraulic Power Station, and in the 1930’s more than 33 million gallons of water were the blood lines of London’s offices, department stores and event theatres; the rotating stages of the Palladium and Colisium were powered by Thames water.

But, unlike a lot of the subterranean legacy London infrastructure, the pipes below London have been bought up and once again put to work as readymade channels to lay fibre-optic cables by Mercury Communications which then later merged to form Cable and Wireless. It’s quite an elegant way to link a historic power network with modern networks that power our communications.

If you’re interested in finding out more, then check out these websites:

*feature image was accessed here: