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.

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.

The UCL runs a research lab called the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis (CASA). I met with Dr Andy Hudson Smith who is the director for the centre. Among other things the group is responsible for the fascinating London Dashboard.

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.

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.