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What cities should become

Source: PSE Oct/Nov 2018

Tom Leaver, project manager at Future Cities Catapult, examines the rationale behind the creation of the City Data Sharing Toolkit, and explores how this is driving a seismic shift in how cities evolve into our data-rich future.

We’re used to big-screen sci-fi future cities being dystopian monoliths to everything wrong with the world – overcrowding, over-pollution, chaotic, ill-considered spaces expanding relentlessly beyond any consideration of both what they’re for, and who they’re for.

Cities have arguably already, in the popular consciousness and in these febrile political times, become something to rail against – at the ballot box, for example, almost two-thirds of US rural and small-town voters chose Trump, while similar proportions in the cities chose Hillary. In the English countryside, 55% voted for Brexit, while cities such as Bristol, Glasgow, Cardiff, Liverpool and London voted even more decisively for remain. How have cities ended up carrying the can for our worst excesses? And is it a fair cop? Well, yes and no.

It’s evident many cities globally tick one or more of those cinematic dystopian boxes – social deprivation, soup-thick pollution, archaic civic and legal systems, either over-restrictive or barely existent planning systems… the list goes on.

But they’re also arguably our greatest shared asset: home to 55% of the world’s population and generators of 80% of global GDP, cities are potentially ever-evolving social engines driving knowledge exchange, productivity, prosperity, and human advancement.Are they perhaps our greatest hope?

If only we could run them more effectively and efficiently. If only cities became hotbeds of wellbeing, for their citizens and for the world as a whole, to which they could supply so many solutions to the challenges ahead.

The potential of data sharing

OK, so that was maybe a bit dramatic, but admit it: if I’d come straight in with ‘data sharing,’ you’d probably not still be here. Data sharing isn’t known for being particularly sexy – which isn’t entirely fair.

The thing is, like that other renowned party topic of maths, without giving it some context it is a bit, shall we say, dry. So: that future-world stuff was the context where data sharing gets very interesting.

Take for example another current Future Cities Catapult project, the Future of Planning, which looks at one of those archaic civic systems – city planning – and applies the science of data sharing to create a vision that is actually rather exhilarating.

The Future of Planning vision comprises a complex ecosystem of working digital parts and processes with the potential to unlock an organic principle, ultimately optimising a city’s capacity to self-organise in real time to meet its citizens’ ever-evolving hopes and needs.

And for all my talk of sci-fi dystopias, what we’re not talking about here is city planning by machine or artificial intelligence. Quite the opposite. We’re talking data sharing frameworks and capacities that realise the shared, and disparate, visions of its citizens. That drastically reduce needless repetition, duplication, or hindrance of data access and approvals currently redolent of our archaic, siloed, bureaucratic planning models.

As fantastical as that one example might seem, it’s less contingent upon the development of new technologies than it is about embedding a culture of data sharing across civic institutions and partners. Furthermore, it’s just the tip of an iceberg in one facet of civic life – city planning. Imagine what data sharing could unlock in healthcare, mobility, adaptability, breathability, smart city capacities…

The time to start is now

With the recent rapid, ongoing emergence of information gathering, processing and sharing technologies – from the internet to augmented reality and 5G phones – the sheer volume of city data, alongside very real demands for it across multiple urban development organisations, means the inevitability of agile city data sharing is fast approaching certainty. That’s why, to implement best practice, now is the time to start.

But there’s more to this than simply having to keep up with the (technical) times. Instituting the data sharing these evolving information technologies demand creates very real and tangible behavioural advantages – particularly when it comes to intuitive, value-driven collaboration across, and between, organisations.

The Future Cities Catapult’s City Data Sharing Toolkit was developed specifically to help organisations share city data. Based on detailed insights gathered from city data-sharing projects around the UK, the toolkit has been refined at co-creation workshops attended by a broad cross-section of professionals working in public-sector organisations, or closely with them, and provides guidance on setting up the kind of data-sharing projects of which the Future of Planning is just one example.

With civic budgets increasingly constrained, it’s easy to see innovation as a luxury. But the opposite is true. Innovation in fact unlocks previously unconsidered solutions (and efficiencies) to the many social and infrastructural challenges our growing cities face.

Cities have long integrated innovative technologies to overcome challenges and improve their competitive edge – from street lighting to skyscrapers – and urban innovators have long collaborated to create places where people want to live, work and play.

At the heart of this capacity to innovate and catalyse evolution is the ability to collaborate holistically and in real time with everyone else that shares this positive future vision of what cities could become. And that real-time city-wide collaboration can only be made possible through successful implementation of effective data-sharing mindsets and systems. What are you waiting for?


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