I consult on the continuum between future thinking, strategy and innovation to introduce opportunities to organisations to create advantage. For current thinking check out the IdeaPort blog on this site.
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.
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:
for economic growth
to create jobs
to allow for effective local government
increased safety (both for emergency services, and in emergencies)
In December I’ll update this to add his name and position.
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 Harrisonwho 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.
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).
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
It takes existing data feeds (such as tube times, busses and weather) and amalgamates them into one web page. The programming for the board took one person about six weeks. On top of the dash board is an open API which allows other people to take the data and use it for other purposes. For example, someone else in the team took the feed, mixed in Google Earth, threw in a projector and a Kinect camera to produce errr….a pigeon’s eye flyover of London showing live sensor data in the relevant places. It looks like this:
UPDATE: a video of the project has just been posted:
The idea is that you assume the identity of a pigeon (via the Kinect camera) and soar over London. It’s an oddly compelling way of showing data that gets away from the usual eye-candy visualisations. This may sound odd but this is the sort of creative chaos that you want to encourage, where both the ‘official’ uses of the data and the unexpected uses are equally as easy to create.
At the end of the day the success of the Sensing City concept will be measured by the involvement of multinationals, and the involvement of small two person startups that devise applications the larger organisations would not create. In other words, a foundation for innovation.
In the same vein the group also developed the London Data Table (shown below), using a projector to show feeds on a table cut to form the shape of the city. It’s another clever way of showing data without needing a degree in graphic design to show meaning across large data sets.
The research group is a multidisciplinary group that combines visualisation, programming and analysis.
Andy was enthusiastic about involving smaller organisations in the concept for the Sensing City as it would create more innovation. To illustrate he mentioned the Egg project on Kickstarter – essentially it’s an air quality sensor that anyone can buy, deploy and have the data uploaded.
The conversation was fascinating, and Andy mentioned that one thing that really interests him is the potential to have some sort of predictive warning ability via sensors. To elaborate, a series of events in one area could be an indicator of something about to happen in another area.
As to the potential for the Sensing City, Andy said that “everyone is interested in using the city as a lab – the opportunities are immense.” To add, he also thought that if Christchurch could turn the idea into reality, it would be a “unique chance to harvest the world’s best minds on this.”
In London I met with Volker Buscher at Arup. It’s a great company that’s owned by employees and covers a huge range of expertise about the built environment. For want of a better title Volker is one of the smart city people in the organisation and has a massive range of experience with cities around the world.
He emphasised that the need for the soft infrastructure of the Sensing City was as important as the technology. After all there’s no point in having the sensors without the ability to analyse the data and turn it into useful information.
One of the more interesting precedents for this was San Francisco, where former CTO Chris Vein had a team of 200 people that released 150 datasets to the public, private individuals and organizations. This then allowed them to build dozens of applications on top of them, including ones that let people see crime trends, plot routes on public transportation, and find places to recycle household items. Chris reported directly to the Mayor – although I think this is a governance model that is not so applicable to New Zealand. Nevertheless it’s an interesting and relevant case study. Chris Vein now works for the White House.
Volker also emphasised the value of having a Digital Masterplan that would become the guide for how the technology would be deployed and used in a Sensing City. He’s developed these for a couple of other cities and taken up to six months in the process.
In London I met with Elaine Trimble of Siemens. She works with the (relatively new) global cities team based at The Crystal. It opened a couple of weeks ago and is “the world’s first center dedicated to improving our knowledge of urban sustainability.” If nothing else it demonstrates the seriousness with which some companies are devoting resources into understanding some of the issues facing urban development.
Siemens has divisions that specialise in rail, smart grids, lighting and also building technologies. With respect to the Sensing City is struck me that the building technologies division might be the most interesting application as building management systems measure a range of variables that give a picture of how a building is used.
Elaine is another ex-Arup person just starting a new role, and as such we didn’t touch on too many specifics about how Siemens might become involved, but we’re staying in touch to see if there’s any opportunities.