Tag Archives: smart cities

The open map of unused public buildings, the unMonastery call for residencies, the wi-fi hotspots app: score three for bottom-up smart cities

Here’s three stories from my native country, Italy.

As with all cities, in Bologna the downsizing of the City’s staff and other, more contingent factors, have left a legacy of buildings that the city owns, but does not know how to use – nor, knowing it, would it have the manpower and money to do so). Recently the city produced a georeferenced list of such properties and released it in open format on the city’s open data website. This allows and encourages anyone to download the data, visualize them on a city map and dream up ways to use them better. The city has also activated a dedicate email address to collect suggestions that might come from citizens, business or other entities.

Another Italian city, Matera, has launched an international call for hackers and social innovators. The call makes a radical proposition: become “innovators-in-residence” for a period ranging from one to four months, living in town and interacting with the local community to cook up low- and no-cost hacks for a better city. Anyone can apply, with no limitations on qualifications, nationality or age. The resident hackers will live and work in the unMonastery, a new kind of living and working space that takes inspiration from 10th century monastic life. According to its founder Ben Vickers, the unMonastery’s goal is to “embed expert knowledge into a local community”.

In the very same week, online magazine CheFuturo launched a free map that gives its users access to 24,000 open hotspots scattered across the country. Thousands of citizen helped to build its dataset, simply by using a dedicated hashtag on Twitter and Facebook; validation, dataset cleanup and app development were contributed by the Chefuturo group, at no cost to the taxpayer. The dataset will be maintained by Wikitalia, a NGO for open government (disclaimer: I am a member of its board).

These three Italian stories developed indipendently one from the other. They happened in different places; are trying to solve different problems; their initiators (Bologna’s digital agenda alderman, Matteo Lepore; the director of the Matera 2019 committee, Paolo Verri; and CheFuturo’s editor-in-chief Riccardo Luna) did not coordinate. Yet, they share a common approach, a similar idea of how you get things done. More than that: they share a vision of how to live together in our cities. This: when faced with the most difficult challenges, the best card to play is the citizenry’s collective intelligence. Consequently, it is essential to give citizens information and power of initiative, so that such collective intelligence can be mobilized.

These are small-scale initiatives that – wisely – seek to squeeze tangible results from few or no resources. And yet, they contain a seed for the reversal of a thousands of years old idea of what it means “to govern”. From the hereditary bureaucracy of ancient Egypt’s scribes to the top-down “scientific” collectivization of farming in Stalin’s Soviet Union; and through Plato’s philosopher-kings ruled Republic and Imperial China’s invention of a meritocratica civil service, the art of governing has almost always been rooted in the idea that the governed are unable to make wise decisions. This tradition imagines good government as a far-sighted decision, made in the common interest by a carefully selected élite. Instead, Lepore and Verri decentralize: they don’t try to find solutions to their respective problems; they don’t even try to identify a priori people or organizations that could suggest such solutions (“let’s open up a forum with local business and the university”). They simply inform and enable citizens. Not just their own, either, but those of the whole planet. Why not? The Internet makes this last choice obvious and free. It is very possible for a Materan to come up with a good idea for one of the unused spaces in Bologna, or for a Ghanaian to suggest a useful and realistic project for Matera. It would be senseless to exclude potentially valuable input from the get go. On the other side of this game, you find citizens like Luna, who are able to turn generic aspirations (“we need channels to stay connected while mobile”) into specific actions (“let’s map open wi-fi hotspots! Once we aggregate them, we’ll have made visible a nationwide network that’s already there, only no one knows it”) – and to do so without waiting for anyone’s permission.

A few months ago, I asked myself what we mean by “smart” in smart cities. My answer was that there are two alternative answers. One considers that the smarts of a city is concentrated in its universities and in the R&D labs of its large, hi-tech companies, and gives citizens the role of consumers of the various gadgets that these invent. The other, on the contrary, maintains that the smarts of a city is distributed among all citizens, and works to create spaces for everyone’s creativity to find outlets. The first approach to smart cities produces electric cars, in response to questions like “how can we reduce emissions from cars in the city?”; the second one produces bicycle cooperatives and urban farming, in response to questions like “do we really need cars to get around?”. It seems clear to me that the initiatives of Bologna, Matera and CheFuturo subscribe to this second approach.

From what I have heard, Lepore, Verri and Luna have all read and thought through my post. But whether they did or not is irrelevant: the spirit of radical decentralization in the choices they made is great news for those that, like me, believe that any city’s best tool is promoting the creativity of its citizens. Just as countless smart cities-themed conferences discuss sensors, the Internet of things and large-scale investments to program, thousands of smart citizens get together, experiment, fail, make progress, often collaborating with their institutions. The ones have money and large organizations; the others have many people, and networks to connect them. It will be interesting, in the end, to see which side will have been the smarter.

The road to the unMonastery: three low-cost moves towards becoming a smart community

photo: @nikoncolucci ©
The Ise-jingū Shinto temple, in Japan, has functioned without interruptions for thirteen centuries. Yet, when the temple’s monks applied for World Heritage status to UNESCO, the United Nations’ cultural agency, UNESCO refused to grant it. Reason: Ise-jingū is made of timber, a non-durable material. Every twenty years or so, monks dismantle and rebuild it, using timber from the same forest as the original temple. From their point of view, the temple is, in fact, 1,300 years old – built with renewable materials. UNESCO’s guidelines, however, had a different perspective: what makes a World Heritage site is the durability of artifacts, not of processes.

Clay Shirky related this story in 2008, and used it to illustrate a powerful insight. Let me quote him in full:

Wikipedia is a Shinto shrine; it exists not as an edifice but as an act of love. Like the Ise Shrine, Wikipedia exists because enough people love it and, more important, love one another in its context. This does not mean that people constructing it always agree, but loving someone doesn’t preclude arguing with them.

Shirky is right. Wikipedia, as all online communities, is a social process. If their participants lose their motivation to stay involved, these communities disintegrate almost instantly.

I have been mulling over this argument in the context of the smart cities debate. Here’s what I figured out: it applies not only to online communities, but also to offline ones like cities. A city is not its streets, its buildings, its physical infrastructure. A city is all this, plus the local knowledge needed to maintain, adapt, evolve, improve its infrastructure. Of these two elements, local knowledge is the most fundamental. If it is preserved, a city destroyed by an earthquake or a great fire can be rebuilt, and preserve its identity; but if local knowledge were to disappear, time and lack of care will bring down the buildings, disrupt logistics and communication, disperse the population. A city – any city – is mostly software. This software’s modules live in the brain of its citizens, so ultimately we – its inhabitants – are the city. UNESCO reached a similar conclusion, and ended up accepting to list Ise-jingū as a World Heritage site.

Inspired by these considerations, for the last few months I have been attempting to collaborate with a city, Matera, that I have a special relationship to and is running to be European City of Culture in 2019. An application for ECOC involves a formal procedure: I imagine it would be possible to enact it as a bureaucratic process, ticking boxes as you go along. Matera, however, has a more interesting approach: using the application as an excuse to think about the city’s medium- and long-term strategy, regardless of whether it gets to be ECOC. In the terms of my metaphor, the application is a way to upgrade Matera’s software.

The city enlisted a pool of respected professional experts, but no expert, however brilliant, can ever outperform the combined effort of 600,000 citizens in the region (and of the many people that, like me, are not originally from there but care about Matera and its territory). The more the citizen’s wealth of information, skill and passion is mobilized, the more creative, smart, sustainable the future steps of the city will be. Among many initiatives to profile its bid, the city is taking three steps in this direction. They are small, low-cost initiatives, but I think they might make a difference.

The first one is an open online community tasked with enriching the work to prepare the application itself. In its early stages, it is now scouting the terrain; it encourages the local people who have interesting experiences or insights that could help craft the application to share them (example, Italian). The idea is to turn a spotlight onto the many interesting, creative things that always and everywhere, people are doing without their democratic institutions knowing about them. In a second phase, the professional experts will produce proposals (for example, about the application’s concept) and discuss them with citizens online, trying to improve them. The community website’s social contract (Italian) is one of constructive collaboration: we have a job to do, and we all commit to a discussion of the highest level we can achieve. For rants, narcissism or cheap cynicism go play with Facebook. The website has not been publicly presented, but it is already up and being used – which is nice in itself, it’s best to do things first, cut ribbons later, if there is time.

The second move is an open data policy. The release of public sector data in open format is a hot topic across Italy, and can count on a small but committed civil sector of the civil society that promotes it with a passion. Releasing high-quality data means investing in the citizenry’s collective intelligence, that needs sound information to produce equally sound contributions to public decisions. In January, a small group of civic hackers gave Matera a gift: they spent a day doing reconnaissance on the state of the city’s data infrastructure. It led to drafting a roadmap towards the release of a first batch of datasets already in 2013. Along this path, city and civil society walk together.

The third move is the most radical: deploy in Matera the first unMonastery. Driven by a mostly Northern European founding group and led by 27-year-old Londoner Ben Vickers, unMonastery draws inspiration from 10th century’s monastic life to encourage radical forms of collaboration and innovation: a sort of lay, off-grid mendicant order striving for a society that can better withstand present and future systemic crises. The social phenomena behind this project are the rise of hacker culture and the deepening of the crisis in Europe. Taken together, these two trends mean more and more young, educated, connected and generous young people. Of these, many aspire to a deep societal fix, and do not think they can bring it about by joining the public service, nor by working for the private sector. They don’t buy into the “gonna change the world” Silicon Valley rhetoric; for them, innovating means tackling the fundamental problems of expanding individual freedom, establishing a fair social deal, crafting an environmentally sustainable society – not inventing gadgets. Their walks of life seem unsettling, even dangerous to most of us (Ben paid his education by obtaining and selling magic items in an online game, then working for one of the first data mining companies); they are technologically savvy, idealistic and almost always poor. UnMonastery offers them a deal similar of that of the monasteries of old: lodging, board and time to think and realize their ideas, relatively free from the need to make money. Matera adds to the mix something unMonasterians find irresistible: an interface to a local community that wants to evolve and has some meaty problems to deal with.

The gamble behind this collaborations is that, living side by side, hackers and Materans discover and explore new paths to make the city more beautiful, livable, sustainable and low cost. Can we invent (partly) decentralized solutions to urban hygiene and urban waste collection problems? What can we learn from the ancient tecnhology of rainwater captation and reuse, in use in Matera as late as the 1800s? How do we solve the problem, of moving people and stuff in the Sassi, where there are far more stairways than roads, without choking the city in private cars?

Corporates, so far have not solved these problems (in some cases they actually contributed to create them – exhibit A being the automotive industry). They can’t afford to: companies have a duty to make a profit, and this means innovating only in ways that lead to generating revenue in short and predictable times. Citizens and their unMonasterian guests are not constrained in the same way. They can afford to explore any solution, even wildly visionary ones, and simply discard them if turns out they don’t work. Net result: many more attempts, many more failures, but by the law of large numbers, more successes as well. Should somebody stumble upon a solution that can morph into a new company, well, why not? Sviluppo Basilicata‘s business incubator is literally across the courtyard from the future unMonastery – they’ll be happy to help.

It’s too soon to draw any conclusion, but Matera seems to have the attitude of a smart city , in my favorite sense of the term: it tries to decentralize knowledge and decisions, creates space for new projects and promotes everyone’s creativity. This was clear in the unMonastery launch event, a beautiful meeting between the city and the foreign hackers (Ben wrote about “Matera’s gift to the unMonastery”). Even the criticism to the project points to a healthy, constructive relationships.

The road is long, and all of these moves could very well fail: but we are off to a good start. A prosperous voyage to Matera and “her” unMonasterians!

If you would like to become an unMonasterian, read this.

What we mean by “smart” in “smart cities”

There’s lots of talk about smart cities. There are two reasons for such attention.

The first one is structural: cities are our future as a species. Already, for the first time in history, over half of the world population lives in cities. Every week, 1.3 million people relocate from rural areaas to the cities of planet Earth. It’s plain common sense that we apply our best smarts to our dominant habitat. The second one is contingent: there’s money up for grabs if you hack smart cities. In Italy, the government is throwing over 600 million euro at research-and-deploy projects to “solve problems at the urban and metropolitan scale” in spaces like safety, aging, technologies for welfare, domotics, smart grids etc.

Interference between the two causes the expression “smart cities” to be interpreted in different ways. Simplifying a bit, there are two main interpretations. The dominant one (also the first one to be proposed) is associated with some large tech corporates: IBM and Cisco were the prime movers, but Google is in there too with projects like Latitude. The idea is to use networked sensors to increase the density of the flow of information that cities generate; and then move on to use this information to adapt our behavior and redesign the places we live in. “Redesign”, in this case, is an ambitious project; it aims to deploy new infrastructure (example: curbside recharging stations for electric cars), in their turns connected to more sensors. The most important sensors would live on our smartphones, that feed a non-stop stream of information about our surroundings onto large datasets. Technology and interdependence are the lynchpin of this vision. Its symbol is MIT’s Copenhagen Wheel.

The second interpretation is associated to hacker culture and the social innovation world. The idea here is to redesign cities to make them more comfortable, simple, sustainable – financially sustainable too. Sometimes this will imply introducing advanced technology (examples: microsolar and LED street lighting); others it will drive low tech solutions (examples: bicycles and urban farming). Social relationships, community building and awareness of the natural environment’s fragility are the lynchpin of this vision. Its symbol is the hackerspace. I will call cities evolving according to these two different interpretations “type 1 and -2 smart cities” respectively.

Type 1 smart cities have advanced technologies, cool design, researchers of proven excellence. Each component, taken individually, is definitely smart. And then a funny thing happens: once you piece them together you get a whole that does not look smart to me. Not at all. Take, for example, electric cars. They are silent, and don’t spew out greenhouse gases. But:

  • the electricity that powers them has to be produced somehow. In a world in which hydro is at capacity, nuclear is politically dead and solar not developed (yet?), installing additional capacity means burning fossil fuels. Cars’ emission, then, are not eliminated, just moved where you can’t see them. A shift to electric cars would increase or decrease total emissions depending on the existing power stations and the grid: fossil fuels power stations typically convert to electricity only about 50% of the energy harvested from combustion (the rest becomes heat); another 5% are lost along transport. So, of 100 KW embedded in fuel, only 45 are actually available to recharge that new, shiny electric car.
  • they require a costly infrastructure of recharging stations
  • electric cars are still cars. They embody the idea of associating to each human being a tin box of four meters by one and a half by one, that gets driven on average one hour a day and spends the remaining twenty-three squatting precious urban space. As such, they don’t solve mobility problems. They might even make them worse, since they are allowed into restricted entry areas.
  • they are a nonpermissive technology. You are not allowed to hack them, you are not allowed to charge them any way other than connecting them to the power grid. You are allowed to choose what color you want them, and how to pay for them. They relegate us to a passive role – the same we have with respect to internal combustion cars.

Now let’s look at another approach to mobility, not as innovative on first sight: congestion charges – schemes whereby drivers are charged some money to enter a city center. I had the privilege of witnessing the launch of a congestion charge scheme in Milan, Area C. Its results are impressive: 34% reduction in vehicles accessing the area (49% of high emission vehicles); 5% increase in commercial speed of public transport; 23% reduction of driving accidents (24% on injuries); 15 to 23% reductions acroo the spectrum of the main pollutants (source – Italian).

But the real advantage of Area C is that it creates space rather than occupying it. In perspective, it makes the central streets in Milan available to be a platform for social interaction, play, trade, food consumption, lifestyle innovation. Since fast and heavy (hence dangerous) vehicles are not reclaiming most of their surfaces anymore, people can attempt to do new, interesting things with city streets. They can and do explore other ways to move about – bicycles, rollerskates, running. Talented hobbyists and crafty mechanics can create new ecosystems of urban light mobility: in countries that have already undergone this transition you can see this in the sheer variety of bicycles – bicycles with trailers, or bicycles with loading surfaces for small freight. You can see children walking to school in safety, a big taboo in Italy (roads are perceived to be so dangerous that only nonconformist parents let their children walk to school: many schools go as far as to forbid it).

So, what do we mean by smart in smart city? The two approaches I tried to cover here are not clearly outlined in the current debate. And yet, it seems to me they are not only different, but mutually incompatible. Type 1 smart cities are centralized: all smarts are concentrated in the technologists in corporate and university labs, and the role of citizens is to consume their various gadgets. Type 2 ones are full of networks to purchase locally produced food, urban farming, sewing cafés, hackerspaces, fablabs. Type 1s invest huge amount of money on ultrafast mobile networks. Type 2s conjure, as from thin air, wifi city networks that ride on the back of routers already installed in cafés, public libraries and our own homes (this happened in a matter of hours during the earthquake in spring 2012). Students in Type 1 smart cities go to school with tablets. Those of Type 2s use creative commons syllabi – and probably can mix and match the lecturing of their local teachers with that of the Khan Academy or similar experiences. Smart cities of Type 1 concentrates production (agriculture, manufacturing, finance) to large companies, organized to take advantage of increasing returns to scale. Those of Type 2 distributes it, at least in part, across many small entities: permaculturists, makers, community lending agencies.

By now you will have figured out that I find decentralization much smarter an more modern. But there is a problem: almost anything that is smarter in that sense reduces GDP. If public transport works better, more people use them: traffic decreases, but so does the consumption of fuel and vehicles. If people engage more in sports and outdoor activities GDP goes down via the reduction in health care costs (health care is a gigantic business). Area C in Milan, by reducing driving accidents, is a scourge on GDP (fewer medical treatments, less rehab, less car repairs). Type 1 smart cities have no such problem: the Copenhagen Wheel costs 600 dollars and needs an onboard iPhone to work. In fact, the Guardian ended up wondering how smart it is to put over a thousand euro worth of sophisticated circuitry on a bicycle – an eminently stealable contraption.

Corporates love centralization. And so they should, because it gives them a pivotal role and lots of headroom to monetize what they do (when everything is centralized, people in the periphery have to buy everything from the center). I have no doubt that they will be the protagonists of the government’s smart cities call for projects. And still, I have a hunch that in the last few months the voices of the supporters of decentralized solutions started to be heard somewhat. Such voices come, as usual, from that most decentralized of places: the Internet.

What fascinates me in the discussion on smart cities is that it twists our arm into asking really relevant questions. What does GDP really measure? What is really this thing called growth that we are trying to drive? How do we want live with each other in our cities? Whatever the outcome (or the lack of one), I do hope we will take the time and effort to go deep into the debate. It’s not every day that we get to make collective decisions of such broad scope, forcing us to ask ourselves what we really want, how we really expect to live together. To fully rise to this challenge, I hope that the prime sensors of the new smart cities are deployed to listen to citizens (and by that I mean individuals, not just stakeholders); and that their prime enabling technologies are safe, detoxyfied, rational argument-oriented environments – located both online and offline – in which we can talk stuff through, and make, together, the relevant decisions. Even those of us who like centralized systems will surely agree that making collective decisions on our common future should stay decentralized. You see, we even have a name for decentralized public decision making: we call it democracy.