Last week, on July 23rd, I went along to the spectacular Level39 offices in Canary Wharf for the “Connected Cities Assembly” – an evening of networking and brainstorming hosted by the TSB’s IC Tomorrow team. Now to some extent this event was outside my usual purview; regular readers will know that my professional bag is the meeting point of the content industries and digital tech. Nonetheless, I’m profoundly interested in all matters urban, as a city centre dweller myself, and someone convinced by eco-heretic Stuart Brand’s argument that cities are the last best hope for the planet. So it was great to be in the company of people thinking profoundly about issues of urbanism – and how digital technology plays into them.

The evening was a three-acter: scene setting around four key themes; facilitated round table discussion around each of those; and informal networking, of course. The scene setting stuff was fascinating; Rick Holland from the TSB discussed Connected Buildings; Richard Miller, the TSB’s Head of Sustainability talked about The Connected Environment; Beatrice Rogers, the Knowledge Transfer Network’s Head of Design introduced the Connected Communities theme; and the TSB’s Head of Transport Stephen Hart talked about Connected Services.

I won’t go through each of these themes in detail, but here are some of the observations and anecdotes that caught my ear:

  • London is the 15th most water-stressed city in the developed world.
  • 50,000 people a year die in the UK because of poor air quality. (I confess that both these points were quite shocking to me.)
  • There is no “one answer” to the problems that increasing urbanisation brings – rather we need to find solutions that address problems laterally – and smart use of data is key here.
  • And with regard to data, we are moving to a point where we “sense everything”.
  • The question is: when we do sense everything, what do we do with the data that arises as a consequence?
  • Specifically, standards and regulations around data are pretty appalling across the board (a common theme here when we’ve been thinking about data standards in the content industries).
  • With regard to design, “the technology drive often forgets the user”.
  • A smart approach to tech is about more than “the new app of the day”.
  • Transport systems the world over are “at breaking point”; how can tech entrepreneurs help address this (“what would happen if every traffic light in a city had its own IP address?”)

Following these introductory remarks, attendees were asked to circulate every 15 minutes around the four “themed” tables for something of an informal brainstorm addressing the issues raised so for. The pace across the following hour was pretty furious and the energy in the room obviously high.

The facilitators then brought us all back together to summarise the main points of the discussions they’d been hosting. I will go through these, briefly, theme by theme.

Connected Services

Stephen pointed out that the tenor of the discussion had ultimately been more about describing the problems in detail than coming up with specific solutions. Issues included:

  • Private vs open data
  • Coordination between different teams and bodies
  • Data visualisation
  • Standards

Connected Environment

Some of the themes that emerged here clearly echoed the previous set:

  • Standards
  • Open platforms
  • Data sharing
  • “It’s too much about the tech; not enough about the citizen”

Connected Communities

Beatrice’s summary touched on:

  • How can we utilise “communities of interest”?
  • Doing more with less.
  • Changing behaviour – especially among the disengaged
  • There is no one size fits all solution.
  • Digital exclusion remains a very real problem.
  • Trust is vital – but how is it “captured”?
  • Just why is word of mouth so important?
  • And, of course: the criticality of good design.

Connected Buildings

Finally Rick summarised his group’s key themes:

  • Route to market is crucial… –
  • Are property developers the right people to work with? They’re crucial for revolutionary approaches – but things can take a very long time…
  • If, on the other hand, you’re thinking about retro-fitting quick wins then you need to be thinking about who runs existing buildings.
  • Find what motivates people.
  • That is… how can we take data about energy and turn it into something meaningful and motivating for ordinary people?
  • Oh, and again: design is critical.

Listening back, it struck me that Stephen’s observation about his theme applied across the board: that what had emerged was more an in-depth discussion about the problems of urbanism than a hard set of solutions. But frankly this is among the thorniest of areas we face, not just as creative technologists – but as a species! The solutions will only emerge from a hard-headed mapping of the problem space such as tonight’s. Personally, as something of an “outsider” to the sphere, I found the evening completely fascinating and look forward to seeing what the group does next.