FutureEverything: “This publication aims to shift the debate on the future of cities towards the central place of citizens, and of decentralised, open urban infrastructures. It provides a global perspective on how cities can create the policies, structures and tools to engender a more innovative and participatory society. The publication contains a series of 23 short essays representing some of the key voices developing an emerging discourse around Smart Citizens. Contributors include:
Dan Hill, Smart Citizens pioneer and CEO of communications research centre and transdisciplinary studio Fabrica on why Smart Citizens Make Smart Cities.
Anthony Townsend, urban planner, forecaster and author of Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia on the tensions between place-making and city-making on the role of mobile technologies in changing the way that people interact with their surroundings.
Paul Maltby, Director of the Government Innovation Group and of the Open Data and Transparency in the UK Cabinet Office on how government can support a smarter society.
Aditya Dev Sood, Founder and CEO of the Center for Knowledge Societies, presents polarised hypothetical futures for India in 2025 that argues for the use of technology to bridge gaps in social inequality.
Adam Greenfield, New York City-based writer and urbanist, on Recuperating the Smart City.
Alexis Wichowski in The Atlantic: “Can the open-source model work for federal government? Not in every way—for security purposes, the government’s inner workings will never be completely open to the public. Even in the inner workings of government, fears of triggering the next Wikileaks or Snowden scandal may scare officials away from being more open with one another. While not every area of government can be more open, there are a few areas ripe for change.
Perhaps the most glaring need for an open-source approach is in information sharing. Today, among and within several federal agencies, a culture of reflexive and unnecessary information withholding prevails. This knee-jerk secrecy can backfire with fatal consequences, as seen in the 1998 embassy bombings in Africa, the 9/11 attacks, and the Boston Marathon bombings. What’s most troubling is that decades after the dangers of information-sharing were identified, the problem persists.
What’s preventing reform? The answer starts with the government’s hierarchical structure—though an information-is-power mentality and “need to know” Cold War-era culture contribute too. To improve the practice of information sharing, government needs to change the structure of information sharing. Specifically, it needs to flatten the hierarchy.
Former Obama Administration regulation czar Cass Sunstein’s “nudge” approach shows how this could work. In his book Simpler: The Future of Government, he describes how making even small changes to an environment can affect significant changes in behavior. While Sunstein focuses on regulations, the broader lesson is clear: Change the environment to encourage better behavior and people tend to exhibit better behavior. Without such strict adherence to the many tiers of the hierarchy, those working within it could be nudged towards, rather than fight to, share information.
One example of where this worked is in with the State Department’s annual Religious Engagement Report (RER). In 2011, the office in charge of the RER decided that instead of having every embassy submit their data via email, they would post it on a secure wiki. On the surface, this was a decision to change an information-sharing procedure. But it also changed the information-sharing culture. Instead of sharing information only along the supervisor-subordinate axis, it created a norm of sharing laterally, among colleagues.
Another advantage to flattening information-sharing hierarchies is that it reduces the risk of creating “single points of failure,” to quote technology scholar Beth Noveck. The massive amounts of data now available to us may need massive amounts of eyeballs in order to spot patterns of problems—small pools of supervisors atop the hierarchy cannot be expected to shoulder those burdens alone. And while having the right tech tools to share information is part of the solution—as the wiki made it possible for the RER—it’s not enough. Leadership must also create a culture that nudges their staff to use these tools, even if that means relinquishing a degree of their own power.
Finally, a more open work culture would help connect interested parties across government to let them share the hard work of bringing new ideas to fruition. Government is filled with examples of interesting new projects that stall in their infancy. Creating a large pool of collaborators dedicated to a project increases the likelihood that when one torchbearer burns out, others in the agency will pick up for them.
When Linus Torvalds released Linux, it was considered, in Raymond’s words, “subversive” and “a distinct shock.” Could the federal government withstand such a shock?
Evidence suggests it can—and the transformation is already happening in small ways. One of the winners of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Innovations in Government award is State’s Consular Team India (CTI), which won for joining their embassy and four consular posts—each of which used to have its own distinct set of procedures-into a single, more effective unit who could deliver standardized services. As CTI describes it, “this is no top-down bureaucracy” but shares “a common base of information and shared responsibilities.” They flattened the hierarchy, and not only lived, but thrived.”
Tom Simonite in MIT Technology Review: “In early September, news outlets reported that the price of onions in India had suddenly spiked nearly 300 percent over prices a year before. Analysts warned that the jump in price for this food staple could signal an impending economic crisis, and the Research Bank of India quickly raised interest rates.
A startup company called Premise might’ve helped make the response to India’s onion crisis timelier. As part of a novel approach to tracking the global economy from the bottom up, the company has a daily feed of onion prices from stores around India. More than 700 people in cities around the globe use a mobile app to log the prices of key products in local stores each day.
Premise’s cofounder David Soloff says it’s a valuable way to take the pulse of economies around the world, especially since stores frequently update their prices in response to economic pressures such as wholesale costs and consumer confidence. “All this information is hiding in plain sight on store shelves,” he says, “but there’s no way of capturing and aggregating it in any meaningful way.”
That information could provide a quick way to track and even predict inflation measures such as the U.S. Consumer Price Index. Inflation figures influence the financial industry and are used to set governments’ monetary and fiscal policy, but they are typically updated only once a month. Soloff says Premise’s analyses have shown that for some economies, the data the company collects can reliably predict monthly inflation figures four to six weeks in advance. “You don’t look at the weather forecast once a month,” he says….
Premise’s data may have other uses outside the financial industry. As part of a United Nations program called Global Pulse, Cavallo and PriceStats, which was founded after financial professionals began relying on data from an ongoing academic price-indexing effort called the Billion Prices Project, devised bread price indexes for several Latin American countries. Such indexes typically predict street prices and help governments and NGOs spot emerging food crises. Premise’s data could be used in the same way. The information could also be used to monitor areas of the world, such as Africa, where tracking online prices is unreliable, he says.”
Feedback: Strong negative feedback is core to resilience. A simple example is our body’s response to heat stress—sweating, which is a natural feedback to cool down our body. In social systems, feedbacks are also critical for maintaining functions under stress. For example, communication by affected communities after a hurricane provides feedback for how and where organizations and individuals can provide help. While this kind of feedback used to rely completely on traditional communication channels, now crowdsourcing and data mining projects, such as Ushahidi and Twitter Earthquake detector, enable faster and more-targeted relief.
Diversity: Big data is enhancing diversity in a number of ways. Consider public health systems. Health officials are increasingly relying on digital detection methods, such as Google Flu Trends or Flu Near You, to augment and diversify traditional disease surveillance.
Self-Organization: A central characteristic of resilient communities is the ability to self-organize. This characteristic must exist within a community (see the National Research Council Resilience Report), not something you can impose on it. However, social media and related data-mining tools (InfoAmazonia, Healthmap) can enhance situational awareness and facilitate collective action by helping people identify others with common interests, communicate with them, and coordinate efforts.
Eroding trust: Trust is well established as a core feature of community resilience. Yet the NSA PRISM escapade made it clear that big data projects are raising privacy concerns and possibly eroding trust. And it is not just an issue in government. For example, Target analyzes shopping patterns and can fairly accurately guess if someone in your family is pregnant (which is awkward if they know your daughter is pregnant before you do). When our trust in government, business, and communities weakens, it can decrease a society’s resilience to climate stress.
Mistaking correlation for causation: Data mining seeks meaning in patterns that are completely independent of theory (suggesting to some that theory is dead). This approach can lead to erroneous conclusions when correlation is mistakenly taken for causation. For example, one study demonstrated that data mining techniques could show a strong (however spurious) correlation between the changes in the S&P 500 stock index and butter production in Bangladesh. While interesting, a decision support system based on this correlation would likely prove misleading.
Failing to see the big picture: One of the biggest challenges with big data mining for building climate resilience is its overemphasis on the hyper-local and hyper-now. While this hyper-local, hyper-now information may be critical for business decisions, without a broader understanding of the longer-term and more-systemic dynamism of social and biophysical systems, big data provides no ability to understand future trends or anticipate vulnerabilities. We must not let our obsession with the here and now divert us from slower-changing variables such as declining groundwater, loss of biodiversity, and melting ice caps—all of which may silently define our future. A related challenge is the fact that big data mining tends to overlook the most vulnerable populations. We must not let the lure of the big data microscope on the “well-to-do” populations of the world make us blind to the less well of populations within cities and communities that have more limited access to smart phones and the Internet.”
New paper in Development Policy Review: “Analysis of the impact and effectiveness of Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation has been hampered by lack of systematic evidence and conceptual confusion about what kind of right it represents. This article discusses some of the main conceptual parameters of FOI theory, before reviewing the available evidence from a range of studies. It presents case studies of civil-society activism on FOI in India and South Africa to illustrate the extent to which access to information is having an impact, in particular on socio-economic conditions. After reviewing the range of approaches used, it concludes that the academic community and the FOI community of practice need to come together to devise robust and rigorous methodologies.”
Martin Tisné, Director of Policy at Omidyar Network, in The Telegraph: “Trust in government has rarely been at a lower ebb. Citizens in developed and developing countries alike feel increasingly disconnected from the political process and their political leaders. They complain of having too little influence over decisions, too little access to government information and too little control over their own data.
In such an environment, suspicion and anger can erupt as we have seen across the world, most recently in Istanbul’s Taksim square.
At the same time, governments are operating in very challenging circumstances. They have to meet rising expectations from their citizens with, thanks to the impact of the global financial crisis, often severely reduced revenues. They also face a whole range of pressures which will make bridging this gap ever more difficult. There has never been a greater need for open and honest dialogue.
There is no single answer to these concerns. But it is clear that opening up government data must be a major element of the answer. Open data has enormous potential to drive economic growth and spread prosperity. It improves accountability, strengthens governance, builds trust and drives innovation in both the private sector and the delivery of key public services.
There are already many examples from around the world that these benefits are already being delivered. In the UK, Mastodon C, a start-up incubated by the Open Data Institute, used open data on prescriptions by GPs to show that the NHS could have saved over £200 million by prescribing generic drugs instead of their more expensive patented equivalents.
In India, the technology platform I Paid A Bribe enables citizens to publicly log whenever they have been shaken down for a bribe. In Mexico, Compara Tu Escuela (Check Your School) empowers parents by providing them directly with information on school performance.
We all benefit as citizens and consumers, as economies and societies, if we get this right. It is why the expected decision by the G8 countries to adopt an Open Data Charter at the G8 summit in Lough Erne is so important.”
A Glossary of Ideas from the BMW Guggenheim Lab—New York, Berlin, and Mumbai : “Over the past two years, the BMW Guggenheim Lab, a mobile urban laboratory centered around the topic of life in cities today, has offered free programs and workshops and implemented urban projects in New York City (August 3–October 16, 2011), Berlin (June 15–July 29, 2012), and Mumbai (December 9–January 20, 2013). Created as a resource, 100 Urban Trends aims to identify the most talked-about trends in urban thinking, as they were discussed in these three venues. Each individual glossary offers 100 contextualized definitions that apply to the way we understand, design, and live in cities.
Integral to 100 Urban Trends is the concept of cities as “idea makers.” In cities, people come together, share their thoughts and common interests, and generate the ideas that shape our world. Dense, growing cities have been and continue to be the catalyst for human progress, powered by daily proximity among their citizens as much as anything else. Despite some of the drawbacks of such massive urban centers, they may well embody the future for human life. Today’s cities are competing to attract more people; greater urban density can mean more conflict, but it can also produce a greater diversity of viewpoints and more opportunity for positive change.
In recent years, there has been an unequivocal shift in the study of cities. Urban thinking, whether related to architecture or urbanism, has become dramatically less focused on infrastructure, and more on the ultimate goal and reason for the existence of cities — that is, the well-being of the people that inhabit them and constitute their very soul and essence. “Cluster,” “concentrate,” and “collaborate” seem to have become the three big Cs of urban thinking of late — but that story is not new. Clustering, searching for a concentration of people, and finding ways to collaborate have been part of the human experience since prehistoric times. Then, as now, people gathered in search of protection, conviviality, and exchange.”