Observations from presenting at the Nobel Cause Symposium



I’ve just returned from spending three days with some of the smartest minds in the world on climate change at the Nobel Symposium in Hong Kong.

I presented about visions for cities, and how energy saving in street lighting is a very tangible way to cut carbon emissions through dealing with a small group of decision makers.

There’s very few scientists that dispute the data about the challenge of climate change, and the evidence is very strong.  However after listening to speakers present data and show compelling graphs, it occurred to me that challenge is no longer data, it’s how you form the narrative.

This is a common problem with many experts, who have difficulty creating a story that resonates with enough people to start a social movement.

No story, no movement.  No movement, no change.


(More details about the symposuium are here: Programme — Nobel Cause Symposium, and here. The photo is of six Nobel Prize winners signing a memorandum imploring decision makers to take stronger action to combat climate change.)

Global drivers of change – the opportunity for cities

From the excellent Futures Group in the Singapore Government comes this short video entitled The Age of Turbulence.  It covers off four drivers of change that the team has identified, and the first of these is most relevant for The Sensing City initiative for Christchurch.

To give more context, it references the fact that over the coming decades there will be a huge demand for the development of new Tier 2/3 cities, and that many of these will be financed privately. This in turn will require the development of new technologies, processes and techniques for managing the complexity of cities.  If you’re pushed for time, watch the first few minutes:

Sensing City – a look at sensor technology

One of the most common questions asked about the Sensing City concept is the availability of commercial sensor technology. There are a range of technologies around that can be used, and the most mature offering in this area appears to be from a Spanish company called Libelium.  It has developed a series of sensors that can be used in a range of different environments, and has just released an new series of sensors that make the Sensing City concept significantly more achievable.  This short video explains them in detail:

For more information check out web site of Libelium.

Sensing City – senior Govt official view

Last night I talked on the phone with a very senior official about how Governments use data.  He was fine to talk on the phone but asked that his name not be blogged for a few weeks.  Given the sensitivity of the conversation here’s the highlights.

He thinks that the Sensing City is “the way of the future,” and was a unique concept globally. His view is that that the whole area is in it’s infancy but will explode in the next two to three years. The aim of such initiatives is to use data to be proactive about how cities function.

He sees data as the new currency of the city.

In a previous role he was heavily involved in promoting the release of data in civic organisations.  As such he recommends that each local government department has a data officer who spends their time reviewing data and understanding the implications. The aim of this investment is to reduce the cost of running a city by enabling things like proactive maintenance (e.g. when will a water pipe need maintenance based on actual road traffic, as opposed to waiting for the pipe to rupture and closing the road to fix it).

He thought that there were four main reasons why a city should invest in initiatives like the Sensing City:

  1. for economic growth
  2. to create jobs
  3. to allow for effective local government
  4. increased safety (both for emergency services, and in emergencies)

In December I’ll update this to add his name and position.

Sensing City – IBM, Code for America and Toyota in SF

In San Francisco I had one afternoon to meet a range of people who were in town for Meeting of the Minds.  It was a bit rushed and therefore brief meetings, but here’s the highlights:

I met with Colin Harrison who is the inventor of the IBM Smart Cities technical architecture. It was a brief meeting to introduce the concept of the Sensing City. In this regard he sees the opportunity for Christchurch as being able to make sense of the data.

He also made an interesting point that when IBM started the Smart Cities initiative, people assumed that cities wanted efficiencies in their cities.  Actually it turned out that they really wanted differentiation on a global scale and some way of attracting smart talent to create economic development.

My next meeting was with Jennifer Pahlka, the founder of Code for America. Their mission is to help:

“…governments work better for everyone with the people and the power of the web. […] we’re building a network of cities, citizens, community groups, and startups, all equally committed to reimagining government for the 21st century.”

This is interesting for the Sensing City project as COA is all about data driven decision making, and how people can use data to create better Government.  What I found interesting is that the organisation is essentially trying to open the hoses on pools of public data (such as public transit information) whereas with the Sensing City we’re potentially creating a tsunami of data for a city to work with.

One of the more interesting pieces of the conversation was around how to involve artists in the project (linking to the discussion with David at The Guggenheim) and Jennifer recommended talking to GAFFTA about this.  The blurb for the organisation is wonderful and states that it:

brings together the best creative coders, data artists, designers, and makers to create experiments that build social consciousness through digital culture. GAFFTA is the nation’s leading organization dedicated to furthering the use and advancement of creative technology for social good and artistic advancement. In this capacity, we maintain relationships with the world’s top academic researchers, innovative corporations, visionary artists, and civic leaders. By continually engaging and connecting this diverse community with challenges and opportunities, we extract forward-thinking technological solutions with proven capacity to create positive change.

In a Christchurch context it’s like the creatives from Burning Man sat down with the Gap Filler team for a hackathon.  I’ll be talking to GAFFTA more about the Sensing City over the coming weeks.

The final meeting of the day was with the wonderful Bill Reinert,  who is not well known (like Elon Musk/Tesla) but should be. Bill is the guy who works on the long term advanced technology projects for Toyota USA, and is essentially responsible for creating the Prius. We’ve previously talked about the implications of a Sensing City for transportation, and this conversation continued.  Bill thought that is was likely that a carpet of sensors across a city could dramatically advance the adoption of autonomous cars (driverless cars).  While he could not see immediately how Toyota could capitalise on the Sensing City, we did discuss some  research that the company is working on in Japan, and how it might find a home in Christchurch.  That part of the conversation is commercially sensitive so I’m not going to mention it here, but it could be promising for the city.

Sensing City – IDC meeting in SF

Ruthbea Yesner Clarke is a research director responsible for managing the IDC global Smart Cities Strategies program.  IDC is one of the largest technology research companies in the world.  I met her prior to the Meeting of the Minds conference in San Francisco  (which I could not attend as I had to be back in time to talk about the Sensing City at IceFest).

She believes that right now there are no smart cities, just smart projects.  One of the more forward thinking examples is Boston, where it has an office of New Urban Mechanics.  However this consists of a handful of people  but has received press coverage in the BBC, The Atlantic, Wired,  and the Harvard Business Review to name a few.  The coverage is for a smartphone app called Street Bump that automatically notifies city officials when your car drives over a pothole.

Ruthbea thought that one of the most significant issues with a concept like The Sensing City was how to get different vendors working together in a new model of cooperation/competition.   She believes that companies like IBM, Cisco and Schneider are in it for the long term, and that the IBM project in Rio was a good example of how to create an ecosystem approach to smart cities.

One of her recommendations was to opt for a digital masterplan as a way of formulating the plan for how the Sensing City could be made real.

Sensing City – MIT Media Lab

In Boston I met with Joe Paradiso of the MIT Media Lab. Joe thinks that the concept of the Sensing City is “intriguing.”  He sees that it’s a given that this concept will make it’s way into the fabric of cities in the future, but at the moment most of the data is locked down and proprietary.  For the concept to work well it must be the opposite.

In addition he noted that for the concept to work well, the data from the city must be of use to the people that live in the city.

The new MIT Media Lab building is layered with sensors, and the data from these is visualised here (note – plugin required).  This uses a game engine to create the graphics that allow you to fly through the building and interact with the data. You can get a better idea of that in this short video.

This video is fascinating as it hints at the potential of what you could do if you had similar visualisations of an entire city.

However Joe deals mainly with smart buildings, and recommended talking with his colleague Kent Larson who deals with the city side of the Media Labs work.  I’ll be following up with Kent to get his thoughts.

While at the Media Lab I also met with Wei Pan, who updated me on the MIT City Science Initiative. The background for this states:

We are seeking strategic partners from industry and government to develop targeted research projects and living lab deployments around the themes of urban design, mobility-on-demand, energy, big data, responsive technologies, and integrated live-work environments. Our mission is to develop urban strategies that can result in:

  • 100x Reduction in CO2 emissions
  • 10x Reduction in traffic congestion
  • 5x Improvement in livability
  • 2x Improvement in creativity

This feels like there’s a place for Christchurch in this somewhere…

Sensing City – New York meetings

In New York I’ve had four shorter meetings, and here’s the highlights:

The first was Arup, where I discussed the concept with Ashok Raiji. We had a great discussion about the concept, what worked with Songdo in Korea and some of the challenges that project faced. Ashok made some introductions into a range of large organisations that he thought would be very interested in the concept, and discussing the potential to be part of a living lab.

The next stop was BIG – the Bjarke Ingels Group.  Bjarke is great, and to get an idea of his thinking check out his very entertaining TED Talk. I met with with Iben Falconer, the Business Development Manager for the group. I was interested in bouncing the Sensing City off an architecture firm, and seeing where the conversation went.  One of the interesting threads developed around feedback loops in buildings, and how sensors in structures could be useful in showing just how sustainable a building is.

Next I met  Naureen Kabir at the New Cities Foundation. They’ve been hugely supportive of the Sensing City concept, and have made many useful introductions.  I updated Naureen on how meetings on the trip had gone and the reaction of various organisations.  One of the more interesting discussion points was the role of lamp posts in a sensor city, and the Vancouver V Pole was mentioned:

…slim utility poles connected to underground, optical wiring that would provide neighbourhoods with a menu of services. Beyond WiFi, mobile wireless and electric vehicle charging, they would offer LED street lighting, process parking transactions and act as an electronic neighbourhood bulletin board.

Last but not least I had a great chat to David van der Leer, the Curator of the BMW Guggenheim Lab and Mary Ellen Carroll, an artist in New York. I was particularly interested in their thoughts on how artists might use the data from a Sensing City. They were excited by the idea, and thought it was totally unique. This was encouraging as I think that while at one end of the spectrum the data can be used for ‘conventional’ purposes, at the other end it would be great to invite artists and musicians to create extraordinary things based on real time city data.  David was also very interested to hear about Gap Filler, the Ministry of Awesome and the Student Volunteer Army, and wanted to know where Christchurch was telling that story.

Sensing City – Cisco London

In London I met with John Baekelmans, the CTO for the Smart Connected Communities initiative and JP Vasseur (who is a Cisco Fellow).

The conversation was primarily focussed on the potential of Christchurch to become a living lab, and how this might work in practice. Both John and JP were enthusiastic about the idea, but cautioned that in order for it to eventuate they’d need to see serious commitment both in governance and finances.

We discussed a model for how the IT infrastructure might work, and the capability of the Cisco Field Area Network Routers (FAN). The company also has associated APIs that work with the FAN hardware.  It was encouraging to hear them emphasise both the need for an ecosystem (as opposed to a one-vendor closed system) and the need for the data to be open.

Without these two foundations there is little point in the Sensing City, as it would simply be a revenue generator for a commercial organisation, rather than a platform for innovation.