Over the past two weeks I’ve found myself reflecting some more on the whole smart city/intelligent city space prompted largely by the Wearable Futures event curated by @cassierobinson. Cassie kindly asked me to chair the session on Wearable Cities and I was joined on the panel by Tomaz Diez, Tom Armitage, Dominic Wilcox and Jonathan Chippindale CEO of Holition.
When I worked for the GLA as Director of Digital Projects for the Mayor I was always struck by the dissonance in the smart city space between the aspirations of the major players such as Cisco, IBM and others and the realities of most cities. I’ve seen more versions of the city as platform diagram than I’d care to mention (other versions includes cylinders) but all built on the rather dubious proposition that you could erect a linear (usually proprietary) platform into a city and hey presto job done.
But cities are messy, like people are messy, and are formed like a jigsaw with so many different players - private and public, utility companies, local authorities, transport authorities, data aggregators - all of whom form part of that jigsaw and until they work in harmony will never be greater than the sum of their parts. You will never reach the point of city as platform but you might have some success if you approached the city as mesh where you begin developing open standards and inter-operable systems piece by piece that might eventually join up to increase effectiveness.
We the people are the city afterall which is why it was so heartening to listen to the panel talk in such a human centred way about wearable cities. Tom was explicit in his brilliant talk about the rhetoric of the smart cities movement (which is largely under-pinned by exploitation and privatisation) and the more human approach which he exampled in the brilliant Hello Lampost experiment. In summary his was a vision of a city and its infrastructure as an opportunity for play and connections. I first came across Tom’s work in City Hall when I was a follower of the brilliant @TowerBridge (one of the first examples I found of IoT that really made sense) which was created by Tom but is now managed by the City of London Corporation. The story of how that came to be is instructive of corporate vs human approaches in the cityscape. The original account tweeted as the bridge creating this great sense of connection and fun between followers and iconic city infrastructure but was taken over by the City of London Corporation PR team without so much as a word to Tom. It became then a Marketing/Comms account and well, lets just say, the emotional connection was lost completely. I don’t want a bridge broadcasting at me any more than I want a comms and marketing team broadcasting at me.
Dominic shared his work on No Place Like Home (GPS Shoes) and some general whimsy and creative thinking about how we could interact differently in the city both in the social sense and using his theoritical proposition for a fingerprint activated, no waiting pedestrian crossing (his drawings are lovely too).
Tomaz spoke about his work for FabLab Barcelona (he’s also advisor to Barcelona City Council) which concentrates on the city and the wisdom of the crowd as exemplified by the beta of SmartCitizenMe which encourages a participatory citizen approach to the collection of data for the benefit of all. It’s an open source project with the code available on GitHub
And finally we heard from Jonathan about the work they are doing in Holition as a digital agency they are pushing the edges of augmented reality in the retail space (think Minority Report) we saw examples of the Unqlo Magic Mirrors where you can select a piece of clothing in one colour and then digitally change the colours without physically changing anything and they’ve applied similar technologies with cosmetics. Jonathan spoke about the sense of fun that customers experience through these technologies and the importance of engagement in the retail space (going back to the point about emotional vs marketing/branding approaches) check out his talk from InfoTech which shows these examples.
I made the point to the audience in the subsequent Q&A that having worked in both local and regional government none of the panel even vaguely resembled the kind of people tasked with making decisions about place such as Directors of Environment or Directors of Planning. Unfortunately too often those professionals completely forget the elements of play and imagination that should be a part of our cities and that become possible with the advent of new technology and imaginative design.
One of my greatest regrets from my time in City Hall was that I was unable to convince Transport for London to really engage with the wonderful @tobybarnes in any meaningful way around his brilliantly conceived game Chromaroma. Chromaroma is best described as an urban social game that used your Oyster card journeys as a currency for play. You could join teams, capture stations and earn rewards (potentially around positive behaviour change like walking the last part of your journey). It was wonderful and way before its time but trying to engage Transport for London staff on game playing as a mechanism for increasing customer satisfaction and reducing the tedium of our daily commute was just a step too far.
I have an old friend who was a former Chief Executive in a London Borough who once summed up the problem of those tasked with running local government. “Too many accountants not enough poets". Our cities need empathy and humanity as their starting point and we need creatives like Tom, Dominic, Jonathan and Tomaz to be given the reins. And I’ll make one plea if they do - give that @tobybarnes a call and get Chromaroma back for London.