In London I met with Usman Haque.  His company was founded as Pachube, but has since been bought and the name changed to Cosm.  While still heavily involved with the growth of his company, he also now has an Urban Projects Division that works on special projects with cities around the world.

His product is an API that sits between sensors and a data store.  It also sits between users and the data store.  It has the ability to control who uses which data from which sensors, how long the data can be accessed for, by who, from which IP addresses etc

One of the biggest customers is called Current Cost ( )  -  it makes sensors that monitors energy use in private homes and has sold over one million energy monitors.  The devices come ready for Cosm out of the box.  One of the lessons he’s learnt from this scale of involvement is that a big thing to watch out for is resilience – how do sensors deal with failure management?

Usman is a big believer in the bottom up approach in sensing cities, as opposed to that advocated by various vendors. He’s especially interested in how citizens get involved in measuring their own environments, and how they react to that information.  This is illustrated in the case of IAAC in Spain ( ) which is an initiative for supporting the building/networking of citizen sensors.

Usman has written about his concerns with the current smart cities thinking in this Wired article :

We, citizens, create and recreate our cities with every step we take, every conversation we have, every nod to a neighbour, every space we inhabit, every structure we erect, every transaction we make. A smart city should help us increase these serendipitous connections. It should actively and consciously enable us to contribute to data-making (rather than being mere consumers of it), and encourage us to make far better use of data that’s already around us.

Usman goes on to say:

Children could learn which side of the park to play on. People could decide to walk different routes to work. They could measure the specific impact of their own cars. They could learn more about the real-time impact of attempts to improve their local air quality, for example by planting greenery around or inside their homes. They could easily experiment with and share strategies with each other. None of this is possible if they’re merely passive consumers of someone else’s data.

[...] empowering citizens to find and build their own solutions dynamically may yet allow the full potential of smart cities to be realised.

Usman was very interested in the project, and made some very kind offers about how Cosm could help with the Sensing City.  He also mentioned the work of Chris Osgood and Nigel Jacob in Boston in “participatory urbanism”(that’s them in the photo below), and I’m hoping to meet them in Boston on Monday.

In London I met with Duncan Wilson at Intel. He’s heading up the newly created Collaborative Research Institute for Sustainable Connected Cities  – a partnership with two universities. It’s covered in some detail by this BBC article. The aim of the initiative is to understand how technology can be used as a tool to create better cities.

Given that we met on his second day in his new role, we had a great chat about where the lab, and Intel, might be able to contribute to the Sensing City concept.  One of the interesting things he pointed out was the the Global Analyser project  which is using data from 2000 accelerometers to monitor movement at a construction site in San Francisco.  Measuring movement in the ground has direct application to the challenge facing Christchurch, and I’m hoping to meet the team responsible in San Francisco on Tuesday…


Today I sat down with two research groups in Singapore.  One was the Singapore outpost of the MIT Sensable Cities Lab (part of the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology) and the other was the ETH Zurich Future Cities Lab (part of the Singapore ETH Centre for Global Environmental Sustainability)

The first meeting was with the MIT Sensable Cities Lab, headed locally by Oliver Senn.

The group focusses on transportation, and currently takes existing data sources and combining them to extract meaning.  Usually this involves visualisations. They can take feeds from taxi companies, busses, trains and the airport.  However none of this data is open source, and it’s usually covered by confidentiality agreements (one of the key principles of the Sensing City is that the data must be open source and available for anyone to access.)

This was an interesting approach, and one that has implications for Christchurch – there’s no need to wait for sensors to go live in the rebuilt infrastructure, as it’s already possible to start pulling together a range of data that already exists in Christchurch (for examples bus routes, arrivals etc)

The team also sounded a cautionary note around the quality of sensors that are deployed, and there’s little point using sensors that cannot give accurate (and therefore useful) data.

With regards to the appeal of the concept, and the uniqueness of the Sensing City, the researchers were enthusiastic about the concept and couldn’t think of anything comparable anywhere else in the world.  When I asked what they thought of the idea, one replied that if Christchurch did become the Sensing City, it’s likely that I’d see him in Christchurch in the next couple of years.

My second meeting was with the ETH Zurich Future Cities Lab.


They are a much bigger lab than MIT with over 100 people involved in research.  They don’t so much focus on one area but focus across the whole range of issues facing cities, and look at the city as a complex system.  As such they’re doing wonderful work on energy systems, traffic flow and footfall.  I was most interested in the sensor work they’re doing, although this was quite nascent.

I’m supposed to be boarding my next flight as I type this, so excuse the brevity, but the most interesting points that caught my attention included:

  • a ten story building wired with sensors can produce 40GB of data a week
  • too many sensors can degrade the overall accuracy of a deployment
  • would energy harvesting (from wifi/3G in order to power the sensors) affect bandwidth allocations?

And now to run to my flight to London….


The Context

In 2010/11 a series of earthquakes struck the city of Christchurch in New Zealand. From this tragedy a unique opportunity has been presented.  The city now has the chance to become a global living laboratory that addresses some critical issues facing cities around the world. 

Around the world increasing numbers of people are moving to cities.  However at the same time cities have numerous challenges concerning traffic flows, resource usage and managing complex interdependencies. As a result one of the great problems of our time is how cities can be adapted for life in the 21st century.

There are generally two approaches to the challenge: the first is to retrofit cities with technologies and infrastructure. However such approaches can only tinker around the edges because retrofitting infrastructure across an entire city is fiendishly difficult.

The second approach is to create entirely new cities from scratch. This approach has been tried with Masdar in the UAE and Songdo in South Korea.  These cities are based on a philosophy of “build it and they will come” where city builders create ‘artificial’ conditions in the hope of attracting people.  Despite this problematic philosophy the development of these new cities attracts significant investment from very large corporations like Cisco and GE. This is because there’s a real lack of locations where they can implement their latest ideas, products and services in working environments.  Picking up on this unmet need one development called CITE has even gone so far as to purposely start to build a city with no people simply to act as a massive test environment.

Christchurch on the other hand has 400,000 people just waiting to use the city centre once more.

There is not a single city in the world where the Mayor could mandate that the CBD be vacated while the infrastructure was upgraded. What’s more, Christchurch is the goldilocks city: it’s just the right size for experimentation but big enough to prove solutions at scale.

Christchurch could become the only city in the world where every building, every street and every path was embedded with sensors that monitored environmental conditions. This would include the measurement of everything from CO2 through to footfall, traffic flow, water use and everything in between.  Right now the world is lacking a city-scale test bed where there is an existing population ready to use a newly created city.

For the first time in history people would be able to see how a city actually worked based on real time data, rather than from retrospective hunches.

In addition this would position the city as a hotbed of new thinking that could lead the world and become an engine of economic activity for New Zealand that attracts talent, creates unique exportable intellectual property and is a magnet for significant international corporate investment.

So what’s happening?

Infratil is funding a feasibility study into the Sensing City concept, and I’m going to complete this by the end of October.  To date I’ve been speaking to a range of organisations/individuals and companies around the world about the concept and getting some very positive feedback.

As I type this I’m in Singapore on the first leg of a round-the-world trip.  The rest of my itinerary takes me to London, New York, Boston and San Francisco. At each leg of the trip I’ll be blogging the highlights of the feedback from the meetings.  I’ll also answer questions about the concept as they arise, and then on the 11th of October I’ll be talking about the concept at IceFest in Christchurch.

This is a fascinating view of macro scale changes from a very unlikely source – an ex-senior official in the CIA Clandestine Service.  His comments echo some of my recent thinking about the potential impact when social movements meet social media, and the impact upon modern-day governance structures.  Here’s the view of Henry Crumpton (with my emphasis in bold):

The most important change on the global security and business stage is the empowerment of the individual and their ability to have inexpensive, exponential impact through technology and collaboration. This revolutionary development has led to an unprecedented shift in relationships, with a degree of asymmetric power never seen in the history of human conflict or commerce. There are micro actors with macro impact operating on a global landscape and they constantly challenge the status quo, and this trend is accelerating.

via A CIA veteran’s lessons for CEOs – Fortune Management.

Andrew Zolli, the organiser of the PopTech conference has just published a book about resilience.  Given I’m living in a city that was hit hard by a series of quakes last year the topic is very interesting to me.  It’s also interesting from the point of view of foresight, and outlines an approach that is a necessary response to a world increasingly characterised by complexity and volatility:

One of the things that we could see happening very clearly was–and this was the observation that led directly to the book–was that organizations of very different kinds were all converging to the same core observations,” he says. “That was that the sustainability framework, which was based on what you might call ‘risk mitigation,’ was coming to an end and that we were increasingly headed toward a world of ‘risk adaptation.’

via Resilience: Lessons On How To Bounce Back From Disaster | Co.Exist: World changing ideas and innovation.

This post is intended for those that attended the Australia and NZ School of Govt Masterclass I held in Wellington on July 24th.

It’s a list of resources that may be of use when thinking about different ways to think about the future, and how to tell your story.  Firstly, here’s a list of organisations that think about the future, and share that thinking:

  • Shell energy scenarios can be accessed here.
  • The Institute for the Future in California publishes a wide range of information, including it’s Maps of the Decade.
  • The team from the Ministry of Trade and Industry in the Singapore Government do some outstanding work and they blog here.
  • The Sustainable Future Institute has a robust and fascinating series of publications that address the future of NZ, and you can access them via the website here.
  • the entire output of Future Agenda (including the book) can be accessed here.

With regards to telling rich stories that resonate, here’s a list of the links I referenced in my presentation:



I like TED, and the talks that it spreads freely.  Friends have spoken at the conference, and come away waxing lyrical about the off-stage interactions, the meeting of minds and the thinking that results.  However I can’t help thinking that there’s something beyond TED that’s not focussed on North America and Europe, and not stuck in the old-style broadcast paradigm.  Some of this is encapsulated in a post I was referred to (thanks Twitter):

Can a new wave of technology thinkers produce a fresh outlet for smart ideas not (yet) co-opted as badly as TED? If so, it won’t come from the well-financed centers of Silicon Valley but from the margins, the actual cutting edge.

via Against TED – The New Inquiry.

A quick link to something that has been discernible for a a while, and something that was clearly identified when we ran Future Agenda two years ago.  However now the clever (and time rich) analysts at McKinsey has quantified it:

A thousand years ago, the economic centre of the world was in central Asia, just north of India and west of China, reflecting the high levels of wealth enjoyed in the Middle and Far East at that time, says the report, Urban world: Cities and the rise of the consuming class. At that time, Asia accounted for two-thirds of the world’s wealth.

By 1900, the centre had shifted to northern Europe, which had leapt far ahead of the rest of the world thanks to the Industrial Revolution. And by 1950, the centre had shifted to the North Atlantic, reflecting the economic rise of the United States.

But now that trend is reversing itself, and at a stunning speed. What took 1,000 years to travel west will have travelled all the way back east in a matter of a few decades.

According to the McKinsey report, the economic centre of gravity has been shifting east for the past decade at a rate of 140 km (87 miles) per year, and by 2025, it will have returned to a spot in central Asia just north of where it was in 1,000 A.D.

“It is not hyperbole to say we are observing the most significant shift in the earth’s economic centre of gravity in history,”

via World’s Economic Centre Of Gravity Shifting Back To Asia At Unbelievable Speed: McKinsey Institute.

Over at McKinsey there is a fascinating article about engaging an entire workforce in the development of organisational strategy:

…executives at organizations that are experimenting with more participatory modes of strategy development cite two major benefits. One is improving the quality of strategy by pulling in diverse and detailed frontline perspectives that are typically overlooked but can make the resulting plans more insightful and actionable. The second is building enthusiasm and alignment behind a company’s strategic direction—a critical component of long-term organizational health, effective execution, and strong financial performance that is all too rare, according to research we and our colleagues in McKinsey’s organization practice have conducted.

This is similar to some very successful work I’ve done with one client over the last five years. Initially we involved eighty thought leaders and influencers (along with a handful of hierarchical leaders) in a process to develop a vision.  Later in the process we spread that out to thousands of people using word of mouth.  It was extremely powerful, but you need to take great care to ensure the process does not go astray, and the McKinsey article touches on this.

via The social side of strategy – McKinsey Quarterly – Strategy – Strategy in Practice.