Cities As Platforms

Gerard Grech is CEO of Tech City UK, a nonprofit organization focused on accelerating the growth of UK digital businesses. This piece is reblogged from TechCrunch.com: 

Cities As Platforms – To evolve, cities must be viewed as platforms, with populations encouraged to utilize technology to creatively disrupt and redefine core functionalities. Every digitally enabled citizen living in a city is a hub of real-time data. When analyzed in isolation, there’s no actionable intelligence. But when you view the data we produce on a macro scale, the possibilities for radical inventiveness are endless.

Read the full piece here.

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City / University Dialogue for Urban Living in 21st Century

This afternoon at the ISCN conference in Hong Kong there is a focus on the way in which universities and cities can form effective, collaborative alliances to contribute towards meeting the challenge of urban living in the 21st Century. It’s a response to the World Economic Forum Global Risks 2015 report which flags up climate change, urbanisation and growing population and aspirations within them.

Without doubt urbanisation is the perfect platform to encourage inter-disciplinary collaboration within universities. Those UK universities who have identified this as an opportunity to promote this through an emphasis on urbanisation are creating think tanks, centres of excellence and institutes to address them.


Hong Kong – a city blessed with top universities and some significant urban challenges. 

K.S.Wong, the Secretary for Environment, Hong Kong, spoke at the conference as a graduate of Hong Kong University and has led the policy development of green building standards building on his training as an architect.

Despite the obvious urbanisation of Hong Kong, the island remains green, but liveability and its eco footprint is central to its planning. Policies around green spaces, sprawl, natural assets, connectivity and isolation are in place to preserve these attributes. By maintaining high levels of density it is clearly possible to protect natural assets but also achieve impressive performance in energy intensity.

To that end, HK is:

  • developing a green neighbourhood on the site of the former city airport and using a district cooling system;
  • It’s also committing all public buildings to meet green building standards;
  • Developing a waste to energy plant from sewage sludge to power the islands needs;
  • Developing an exemplar zero carbon building.

The climate in Hong Kong presents a significant challenge with high temperatures and humidity driving demand for cooling and dehumidification systems to maintain comfort in buildings. Sharing the knowledge and learning from Hong Kong with the developing world is central to its mission.

Again, air quality remains a high priority and by law low sulphur fuels will be required to address this problem. Shipping remains an important contributor to poor air quality in Hong Kong.

Air, waste and energy are central to its strategy, with a strategy of tackling the causes at source and, encouragingly, the focus isn’t just on the hardware but also on the software – working to promote behaviour change through social marketing.

There is a clear expectation from KS Wong that the University of Hong Kong has the opportunity to out perform the HK average in terms of waste, energy and air quality. The Air Quality Health Index is the first in Asia to adopt this approach to share health data to those vulnerable to air pollutant. Similar schemes exist in the UK.

Following the keynote from KS Wong it was great to hear from Mayor Park Won Soon from Seouol via video. As a renowned proponent of sustainability and has committed to its principles in the development of Seoul. He explicitly made the point that cities and universities must work together to achieve their collective goals both in terms of infrastructure and the development of its communities. Seoul has worked with many universities in South Korea to further these aims.

Fostering synergies between universities and cities is key to addressing climate change, urbanisation, water stress and working together to identify solutions for cities. Seoul recognises energy is a key issue and is taking a strategic approach to reduce dependency on nuclear through moves to reduce demand for electricity through efficiency drive and localised renewable investment. This has also created a surge in the growth for more sustainable energy services such as LED lighting creating wealth and employment. In Seoul, universities and hospitals are amongst the most energy intensive buildings in South Korea. The Government has invested in the universities themselves with a $40m to demonstrate leadership and to drive down consumption.

Throughout his address there was continued emphasis on the opportunity to stimulate and engage young people with innovative approaches to tackling urban challenges with an emphasis on civic responsibility. Again, financial incentives from the government have catalysed this engagement.

Civic engagement has been supported through a series of Town Hall meetings – inviting opinion and input to macro issues like energy. An association for 35 universities have combined to promote and develop green campuses. An energy cooperative has been formed to provide finance and reinvestment in renewable energy generation projects across Seoul.

Following those two plenary speeches a panel of experts presented and discussed the role of universities and cities in the 21st century.

Healthy high density cities is becoming an increasingly important factor for fast growing cities and a new research centre has been formed at HKU to address this very specific challenge between engineering and architecture and health professionals.

Aalto University is consolidating after the merger of 5 universities giving the opportunity to create an integrated campus/science park to work closer with business and industry. The design of the new campus is designed to positively encourage collaboration to support the strategic aim of integrated academic activities.


Aalto is working with Tangjin University in furthering its relationship with Asia.

The University aims at energy self-sufficiency by 2030 through energy generation on site and changing consumer behaviour. They are developing the most powerful geothermal system in the world with a 7km geothermal well to produce 10% of the city’s energy needs.

Sandy Burgoyne, Director Future Cities Collaborative, from The University of Sydney, spoke about how the research underway to inspire city leaders to develop sustainable cities. Policy, practice and people are at the heart of the programme and engage Mayors in developing their own understanding of sustainability. The model builds on the Mayors Institute in the USA and encourages Mayors to bring challenges forward and to work collaboratively with universities to solve these challenges. The programme is working at city scale – eg Paramatta and looking to identify solutions that are right for that city.

The universities involved in these kind of programmes can bring thought leadership, collaboration across government, industry, commerce and academia to show what is possible. The model works well for ‘real time’ responses to challenges at scale. 

The Chief Excecutive of MTR Corporation in Hong Kong, Lincoln Leong, gave an overview of the way in which the MTR system in HK has transformed the island. In an impressive and enthusiastic presentation he showed how Metro systems play an important role in urbanisation across the world.

In HK there are 221km of track, 5.4m passengers and provides almost half of all public transport journeys.

As a result of success in HK over the past 40 years they are now expanding into Australia, mainland China and Sweden. By providing this infrastructure can transform cities, connecting communities and creating opportunities to enhance communities – retail, business and industry.

The 3km extension of the network to the west of HK at the end of 2014 connected Hong Kong University into the whole island enabling greater access from east to west. Significant investment in lifts and escalators to service stations gave additional benefits to all communities to assist movement around the hilly terrain of the island.

Further expansion of the MTR is planned in HK to provide greater connectivity.

Edward Ng, Chinese University of Hong Kong, espoused the virtues of the intellectual contribution of the university to policy development in Hong Kong. As an example, the assessment of urban heat islands has helped shape thinking on energy and urban planning.

The opportunity to deliver sustainable energy solutions and reduce demand through improved behaviours. By installing values of sustainability into university education and encouraging sustainable values such that ‘convenience’ is recognised as costly.

Each speaker throughout their short sessions and in the discussion session supported the concept of universities and cities working much more effectively together at all scales – at the city scale, at the district/campus scale, at the organisational scale and with individuals and their communities.

So why doesn’t it happen more often? I suspect it is largely because the one to one relationships between leaders of both cities and universities haven’t invested enough in building an effective relationship on which to build this approach.

It’s good then that universities and cities are beginning to rebuild those relationships. Let’s not pretend it’s altruistic and philanthropic. Much of it in the UK, at least, is borne out of a restructured public sector that no longer has the intellectual capacity to develop and design policy in an era of ever increasing complexity and risk. Evidence, data and informed policy will maintain sustainable urban living.


How to protect fast-growing cities from failing

Some insightful points made about the rapid urbanisation of our planet in this great Ted Talk by Robert Muggah.

In his talk “How to protect fast-growing cities from failing” he explains how its the speed at which cities grow that is important. Those with a longer period of gestation which mature more slowly are less likely to experience the traumas of rapid growth. He cites cities in the south hemisphere as being vulnerable in the coming decades.

Liverpool’s Commission on Environmental Sustainability Reports

I have written about three cities in England setting up ‘commissions’ to review their aspirations, plans and resources to ensure they are sustainable in previous blogs. In January 2015 I wrote about those three commissions and their ‘one’ outcome. “Faced with depleting local authority resources and in times of change – both in terms of political leadership, centralisation vs devolution, economic challenge and environmental change – can ‘commissions’ such as those set up in Birmingham, Sheffield and Liverpool help shape the future strategic direction of a city’s commitment to environmental sustainability?” 

The key question I asked in that blog was What should be the role of the Council? in those cities. My conclusion was that a strong city council leader will attempt to deliver against all three in both the short, medium and longer term. Perhaps the only chance they have of doing that is in partnership with other public, private and their sector partners with a healthy challenge from academia.

So, it’s encouraging, as Liverpool’s Commission led by Professor Nigel Weatherill, Vice Chancellor and Chief Executive of Liverpool John Moores University, reported its findings yesterday and made a very clear statement of intent that the Mayor would lead this agenda and facilitate integrated cross-boundary and cross-agency working to bring this to fruition.

I was invited to give evidence to the Commission last year and I am delighted that some of the observations I made have been endorsed and incorporated into the recommendations of the report. In particular, I was pleased to see that the Commission recognises the City of Liverpool is not an island – it has to work collaboratively with its neighbouring authorities and its economic area. The role of the LEP and any city region is crucial to this. It clearly recognises that economic wellbeing is underpinned by an approach that supports and understands the wider sustainability agenda.

Whilst you might expect transport, energy and waste to feature it was pleasing to see emphasis placed on the role of the City’s universities and of education, engagement and behavioural change. These areas are out of the comfort zone of most local authorities, so it is pleasing to see these recommendations published. Of course, we look forward to seeing how cash-constrained local authorities might respond to this challenge.

Finally, it was particularly pleasing to see the link made between a smarter, digital city and one that was sustainable. Almost all of the Core Cities are building links between these two strategic objectives. Notably Bristol, Birmingham and Manchester. I trust Leeds, Sheffield, Newcastle will follow suit.

The recommendations are set out below and the full report is available.

1. Environmental issues cut across political boundaries and timescales
1.1 The Mayor should seek a commitment from our local political leaders for a single unified vision for an environmentally sustainable City Region.
1.2 The Mayor should appoint a Director of Environmental Sustainability to report directly to him with resources and authority to be effective.
1.3 The Mayor should work with his counterparts across the North of England and propose a Northern Commission on Environmental Sustainability. The terms of reference should mirror those set for this Commission.

2. Maximise economic benefits from renewable resources
2.1 An integrated sustainable energy strategy must be initiated by the Mayor.
2.2 The Mayor should establish a team to explore options for a Liverpool municipal or city-wide community energy company.
3. An integrated transport system for the future
3.1 A strategy to deliver an integrated, innovative and sustainable transport system must be developed and implemented. This strategy must meet the demands of a growing population in a modern, dynamic and
economically thriving city and address:
• Improved airport, port and city connectivity for vehicles and citizens
• Integrated smart ticketing across all modes of transport
• Easier personal accessibility to some railway stations
• Park and ride facilities
3.2 The Mayor should call on the Combined Authority and Merseytravel to
immediately begin the process to take back control of the bus network.

3.3 The Mayor must take action to ensure Liverpool’s roads are safe for
cyclists with protected cycle lanes and other solutions to increase the
safety of cycling.

4. Education and engagement drives behavioural change
4.1 The Mayor must work in a visible way with community leaders to communicate the vision, debate the issues and task leaders to raise awareness of environmental sustainability within the fabric of the city.

4.2 The Mayor should bring together educational leaders and task them with raising the awareness and understanding of the importance of environmental sustainability and the inevitable changes that are required
in our society.
4.3 The Mayor must task the universities and colleges to develop a joint International Research Centre for Environmentally Sustainable Cities.
4.4 The Mayor should work with health and educational professionals to help raise the profile of the importance of the environment and sustainability to personal wellbeing.
4.5 The Mayor must create a digital vision for Liverpool that can become the platform for social media and other forms to communicate, engage and help deliver a smart, green city.
5. Quality of place matters
5.1 The City Council should adopt a ‘Meanwhile Use’ strategy for plots of available land across the city.
5.2 The Mayor must ensure that local people are involved in the review of Liverpool’s green spaces.
5.3 The Mayor should bring forward a green corridor strategy and as an exemplar should take action to pedestrianise areas within the Knowledge Quarter and monitor impact.
6. Redefine waste as a resource
6.1 The Mayor should request a full review of waste collection to improve recycling rates and improve cleanliness all at a reduced cost.
6.2 The Mayor should call for an integrated waste strategy that transcends political boundaries and recognises waste as a valuable resource to be developed as a matter of great urgency.

7. Securing our future
7.1 The Mayor should request an integrated appraisal of the whole of the infrastructure in Liverpool with consideration given to factors inherent in an historic city.
7.2 The Mayor should work collaboratively with the Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) and sector leaders to explore innovative inward investment opportunities to support business growth and economic prosperity.
8. The Liverpool of the future
8.1 The Mayor should invite local organisations to continue the discussion and keep the debate alive and should instigate an annual event to benchmark and monitor progress as Liverpool navigates its way towards
environmental sustainability.

Apple Pie is 2nd Favourite in the USA or Big data is better data (TED.com)

If you’re sick of the term ‘big data’ then take a look at the excellent Ted Talk performed by Kenneth Cukier.

His talk, “Big data is better data” makes it easy to understand the potential big data can have for all of us in understanding patterns of behaviour we’re simply not smart enough to recognise. By being able to better interrogate big data through asking better questions, we can see why Americans’ actually prefer many other types of pie – they just eat more apple pie.

Smart Cities : The 2nd Electrification : Definitions and Standards

Just how smart are our cities now and how fast are they becoming smarter? A short discussion led by The Economist suggests there are parallels with the way in which cities took advantage of electrification to change their scale, their topography and their form.

It’s a very worthwhile sub-6 minute discussion that promotes a view that smart cities need to have both ‘top down’ approaches to build the data platforms and a thriving ‘bottom up’ community to exploit those rich data veins that are full of opportunity.

Academics like Ricky Burdett of the London School of Economics (LSE) see integrated systems for collecting, processing and acting on data as offering a “second electrification” to the world’s metropolises. The power cables that penetrated cities in the late 19th century transformed their shape (there are no tall buildings without lifts), their transit systems, their nightlife, their sewerage (cities need a lot of pumps). Ubiquitous data services might have impacts as wide-ranging: they could make cities more liveable, more efficient, more sustainable, perhaps more democratic. In an era of mass urbanisation—the United Nations expects the number of city dwellers to reach 6.3 billion by 2050, as many people as there were on the planet ten years ago—that could matter a lot.

The use of data in cities pits top-down against bottom-up in a similar way. One side stresses the need for citywide planning and control, the other advocates just providing access to data that lets citizens make their own decisions. “The technology giants building smart cities are mostly paying attention to technology, not people…ignoring the creative process of harnessing technology at the grass roots,” writes Anthony Townsend of New York University in his forthcoming book, “Smart Cities: Big data, civic hackers, and the quest for a new Utopia”. But the two sides need not necessarily be opposed.

But, irrespective of how you get there – what ratio is delivered by state-driven, public sector centric and how much is from communities of data miners and entrepreneurs – doesn’t change the outcome we’re looking for.  We all want our cities to become better functioning, more efficient, with integration between related and key systems such as modes of transport or energy, healthcare, education. The Future Cities Catapult video is a decent stab at explaining what it could be.

As the concept, narrative and description around Future Cities and Smart Cities develops, it’s worth noting that there is a BSI Consultation on Smart City Framework live now. The PAS 181, Smart city framework – Guidance for decision-makers in smart cities and communities is a sponsored, fast-track, consensus-building informal standard that is produced by the UK national standards body, BSI Standards Limited. The development of PAS 181 has been sponsored by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

To download, review and comment on the draft, please go to http://drafts.bsigroup.com/Home/Details/51672 and register for free online (new users) and log in.

The closing date for consultation is 20 September 2013.