The porous city
This is not a thought piece, it’s a call to action.
We have failed to create smart cities. We have failed to create truly scalable and sustainable mechanisms to enable our cities and countries to benefit from the internet age. We are not addressing the challenges we face, from housing to healthcare, from taxation to climate change, in line with the pace of change.
We’ve built incomprehensibly complex systems and infrastructure, to the point that no one understands them, and therefore the ability to affect change is throttled. I don’t just mean physical or technical systems, but also political, legal and social constructs.
From a range of perspectives, we have created the wrong incentives, been caught up in technology utopianism and sales jargon. We have missed the point of urban design and its role in the creation of social inclusion in both our physical and digital realms, and this is actively damaging to our free-market economy, our environment and our society (both in damaging existing culture and in preventing evolution to new systems).
The issues we can see and feel in our physical spaces: runaway property prices, housing developments and city-as-airport designs — that undermine the principles of an inclusive culture — are echoed in our digital space, except there they are not visible to many, and certainly not understood in terms of infrastructure or in a frame of reference that would suggest you are building our pervasive societal structure upon.
We are in an unprecedented age: an Anthropocene that affects our ecosystem as a whole, and in which the digital and physical blur. Where the definition of an asset, whether physical or digital, may be only rendered in the digital domain as a transaction. There are now more mobile phone contracts on Earth than there are people. More sensors than phones. More X than Y.
Whether ‘big data’, the ‘internet of things’, ‘blockchains’, ‘augmented reality’, ‘artificial intelligence’ — the words so noticeably missing are ‘people’, ‘society’ and even, given where the money comes from, ‘business’.
We have seen decades of technology-first, technology-will-save-us unicorns, about to tip over once more. We see the enthusiasm and investment at the beginning of the hype-cycle not followed through (either conceptually or with deep investment) in the longer tail. As our attention spans have shortened, so has our ability to commit to the difficult challenges of systemic change, at a time when we need this more than ever. We have drowned our sense of urgency.
There are, of course, exceptions. But they are that: exceptions.
Having worked online for over twenty years, I am tired of explaining what has changed, and what will change. There seems to be a sense that incremental change is ok. Meanwhile, our global population has doubled in my lifetime, and there are more people online today than existed on the planet when I was born. And, we have hit peak everything (from antibiotics to chickens). Looking forward, I expect the combination of digital technologies, data, and artificial intelligence to make huge swathes of blue and white-collar workers redundant (from truck drivers to accountants to lawyers).
Yet, the one thing we know (apart from change being only constant) is that we are a deeply creative species. We constantly invent new things, new jobs, new economies, and always at new scales.
To bring out the best in people, and give them agency over the process of creative destruction that they are now in we need to do two things. Firstly we need to accept, really accept, that everyone is connected and that we cannot control this fact, however hard we might. Secondly, we need to embrace a transition to an open culture.
What do I mean by open culture?
With one lens I mean open innovation. I mean that there are no parts of our economy that are not wholly dependent on the internet in some way. If you look at the web itself, it has evolved remarkably quickly from a context where it echoed our built environment into something else: a ‘website’ was something you built and put all your own things into and it all existed in a place where you had complete control. Today, there is no way to tell what a website is: the front page of a news service may be made up of feeds from a dozen other places, in random locations around the world, with content that any one of the 3.6B people in the world may have added. There is no ‘website’. There is a porous collection of content. This is a modal shift that has happened and we must build upon it to address other challenges.
In businesses we see continuous ‘innovation programmes’ that try and build in-house teams to bring the world ‘inside’ and build their new thing, which they will store in their silo of IP. Except a lot of what they are trying to box up and contain is a set of fluid knowledge from an unknowable number of connected sources. This represents closed innovation.
From a culture of closed — our default since the inception of the industrial revolution — the rules are such that we instruct people, by default, to collate, store and protect everything in our chosen constructed framing of company. This is entirely at odds with the way that the system from which the innovation was gathered worked and, only rarely does it feed back into that system.
Open innovation is porous.
With another lens, I mean open society.
As more than half the world’s population lives in cities (or more correctly, cities and urban environments), we are developing new social responses to enable people to interact with each other, and with their environment. I have long believed that the invention of the internet, and the web, are social responses to globalisation: tools that provide the only way to maintain a sense of community. Aligned with a Dunbar number of your choosing — when the population density of your train exceeds your psychological capacity to feel engaged as a social group, how do you respond? You see it every day. Heads down. Faces illuminated. Connecting — digitally — to a human network that provides a sense of place.
But it’s not just the social network. It’s the rise and rise of ‘civic tech’, as people start to understand the power of using information, connecting people, helping people recapture a sense of agency, or community and purpose in our population-dense world.
Governments and leaders around the world are struggling to understand this shift. There are many investments, many initiatives, many programmes. We know it’s important. Yet, in my view, we are failing. We haven’t yet truly accepted that addressing the pace of change requires us to change our default.
We need to design for open.
This does not mean making everything open — far from it — but we must design, provide the architectures for, embrace and lead with an open agenda.
I hear, daily, that this is a challenge. I also hear, daily, that people are trying to change. From global health companies to housing, from the financial markets to retail, from local governments to the World Bank, people are pushing for greater partnerships, for systemic impact from their investments, for solutions to epidemics, to helping refugees and mass migration, to addressing climate change. It feels like there are tentative steps toward solving problems together.
If we design for open, ‘together’ can involve everyone. Whether it’s a teenager in <US example of medical research paper opened up by Aaron Schwartz that led to cure> or the human genome project, whether it’s the <transport API example of 1,800 developers making things> or <open banking>, this is a systems-change.
A huge challenge is that countries and national governments can’t move at speed: their own institutional challenges are huge. There is momentum, and it is powerful, necessary and we can help it directly and indirectly.
Companies cannot create systemic change in isolation. There are millions of partnerships that are wonderful, but limited in scope and impact, and not connected to broader impact. There are NGOs who struggle, with limited funding, to create impact. And, to address issues at the scale I have touched upon requires the connection of industries and systems that currently have no incentive to connect.
And individuals, and groups, simply cannot influence at the scale and pace required.
All options are complex. We need to find a unit of complexity that has boundaries, yet contains all the issues, that can be brought together. We need not spin up a new organisation that will take a top-down, systems-level approach to ‘design’ a solution. We need to enable everyone to engage in solving the problems that matter to them. We need a system that we can use as an exemplar for open design.
I believe cities, and their communities, are one such system.
One of the challenges with cities is that they simply don’t have the information or control that everyone thinks they do. Companies have some. Citizens have some. The State has some. If we help them design for open, we can give people permission to innovate without asking. We can provide the tools for businesses or startups, to governments and their agencies to explore their own solutions or partnerships without having to constantly reinvent new programmes.
If you’ve ever run a time-limited impact initiative and watched what happens at the end of the funding, you’ll know what I mean. A sustainable, malleable, living solution requires continuous engagement. An open design lets people, administrations and businesses build products and services that embrace users, create supply chains and ensure that there is an economic model to keep them going. If not, the product or service can adapt or die, but the underlying raw materials must be available.
In my view, one critical material is data. Data about everything and everyone. Data that is closed, shared and open. We need to work out ways to create open standards that enable our data to be treated as infrastructure. Opening access to data, as infrastructure, will have as profound an impact on our society as providing electricity.
And this is my call to action is: let’s unlock our city data infrastructure. Let’s create open city standards that address the user needs, business needs, policies, training, tools, processes and techniques that cement the underlying assets for our digital economy (as, rest assured, our economy is already digital, as much as we are all data now).
Let’s do this in collaboration with the administration, the local businesses, civic bodies, and citizens, to ensure that our process is porous, and our outcomes are open and usable, creates open innovation, and that unlocks knowledge for everyone.
A selection (partial) of references and sources that may be interesting:
Connecting Bristol | Creative. Smart. Green. Connected.
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