The Bespoke Smart City

Anthony Townsend invites a select group of smart city designers, engineers and thinkers to collaboratively shape a solution to a defining challenge facing smart city developers around the world. Anthony, with FutureEverything’s Drew Hemment, has designed this special session on Friday 22 March at the FutureEverything Summit.

How can we build a bespoke city – tuned to the needs of its citizens, buzzing with civic invention – in a global market of generic, off-the-shelf parts? How can cities best produce their own smart solutions at a local level, and also tap into and feed the rich international trade in urban technology?

The 21st century will be shaped by the intersection of two historic trends – global urbanization and the rise of ubiquitous computing. A handful of self-styled “smart cities” from Songdo in South Korea’s to Masdar in Abu Dhabi aspire to be cookie-cutter models for a mass-produced urban future. But is there a place for one-size-fits-all designs for the city of the future? Why can’t the technology that makes the Web an intuitive and interactive, yet deeply personalized and social realm, be grafted onto the physical world in a similar fashion?

Making the most of the opportunity that ubiquitous computing poses to address the problems of both rising and declining cities requires a renewed focus on what social media scholar Clay Shirky has called “situated software” – the apps, hacks, maps and gadgets that citizen-inventors are building all over the world to respond to the unique challenges and resources found in their own backyards, alleyways and public squares. Instead of installing a shrink-wrapped piece of software, truly smart cities are being built largely from the bottom up, by the people who live in them. They are all civic laboratories, testbeds for finding what works.

The challenge then, is creating the conditions for innovation to flourish. In the coming decade each city must strive to be as good a civic laboratory as it can be. It must provide a physical and social support system for hackers and entrepreneurs to experiment within. Contests like FutureEverything’s open data innovation challenge, funding for local developers to craft apps for local needs, and networking events like the FutureEverything Summit are critical. Open data and read/write government information systems like Open311 create opportunities for both conceptual exploration and commercial experiments.

Building local innovation capacity isn’t enough. Civic laboratories will need to spawn a few smart-city genes that can spread and thrive globally, to fuel a rich international trade in urban technology. Groups like Code for America and Living Labs Global provide access to a fast-growing pool of resources, so that cities don’t have to invent from scratch a tool for every project. But more mechanisms for sharing will be needed, and they will need to evolve beyond sharing case studies and anecdotes, to cross-fertilizing actual data, models, software, hardware designs, and business models. They must provide cities with incentives to share, and designers with advice on how to build systems that can not only solve local problems, but be also reused elsewhere.

The key will be to balance what you build, what you import as-is, and what you tailor from a borrowed template. The risk of too many bespoke inventions is a quirky local fork that reduces your ability to borrow from others. The risk of too much borrowing is generic design. But there is a big economic opportunity for cities that encourage sharing – the best way to share is to incubate businesses that can export their innovations.

How will cities pay for local innovation? One possible model is the set-aside. Many cities already mandate that a small fraction (as little as one percent) of the construction budget for public buildings be spent on public art. Jay Nath, San Francisco’s director of innovation, proposes the same for smart city designs, imagining that “a new playground could experiment with intelligent lighting that operates based on time and motion.” Such a policy would create new markets for local smart-city tech start-ups, and underwrite the development of a cadre of young smart city designers.

But even as we celebrate the virtues of local designs, there’s still a place for cut and paste technology. There is a growing risk that cities that lack the capacity to design their own smart solutions could fall behind in a world of bespoke solutions. But in the rush to make the best designs and solutions available to all, we don’t wipe out the local flavors that made them so relevant and effective in the first place.

Anthony Townsend, 20 February 2013

Taking part in The Bespoke Smart City debate are Anthony Townsend (Institute for the Future), Léan Doody (Arup Smart Cities Lead), Duncan Wilson (Intel), Catherine Mulligan (Urban Prototyping), Sascha Haselmayer (CEO, and Dave Carter (Head of MDDA – Manchester City Council)

It will be held on Friday 22 March as part of the FutureEverything Summit of Ideas and Digital Invention. The two day conference explores three themes: Future Cities, The Data Society and Creative Code. Also featuring a series of keynote talks and special events proposing the vision of the Smart City is flawed and that the route to vibrant and successful future cities lies instead in Smart Citizens. See blog post by FutureEverything’s Drew Hemment.

FutureEverything presents this special debate in advance of the publication of Anthony Townsend’s new book Smart Cities:Big Data, Civic Hackers and the Quest for a New Utopia.

Published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License

Photo: Futuresonic 2004. All rights reserved Jody Zellan 2004. 

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