MESH Cities Meets Crisis-Response Journal

Our founder and editor Robert Ouellette mashed up a couple of our more popular articles for Crisis-Response Journal to come up with a new way cities can respond to a massively changing world. Get the journal online at the Apple App Store or read it here.

What happens the day cities become smarter than their citizens? When so-called smart cities become sentient, as it were, will we face a frightening, Terminator-like world? We don’t think so. But get ready just in case. The days of smarter-than-us cities are coming, although probably not as soon as Ray Kurzweil’s Singularity predictions would have us believe.

If we start to make the right choices now, really smart MESH Cities will offer governments, planners, designers, and inhabitants an urban future they can aspire to (MESH is an acronym for Mobile; Efficient; Subtle; Heuristics). Cities that are truly MESHed are manageable. They are resilient—even anti-fragile—if we can borrow that term from Nicholas Taleb.

We Are Here

With every passing day new, Internet-of-Things powered technologies weave themselves into the urban landscape. Not surprisingly, in a consumer driven world economy our homes are ground zero for the smart “thing” revolution. Technologies like the surprisingly popular Apple-inspired NEST thermostat make once passive houses into autonomous environments. They even have a kind of rudimentary, I.P.-based, nervous system. But compared to cities houses are simple. Project those tech-inspired changes outward to the much more complex urban world and we will have an infinite network, call it a very nervous system, on top of essential sewers, cables, and pipes.

This massive urban change—along with ideas on how to manage it—has been a long time coming. Fiction writers were some of the first who looked to the future in anticipation of what a wired universe might offer.

A half century ago science fiction author Isaac Asimov imagined a time when machines outthink and outlive their inventors. Would sentient machines be inclined to benevolence unlike HAL’s of 2001 fame? In the event they weren’t, Asimov offered a preemptive answer to the question of how to take the danger out of smarter-than-us cybernetic systems. He gave us the often referred to but little understood three laws of robotics.

Living and writing in Asimov’s new world, post-war context, the idea of autonomous, cybernetic machines with the power to perform human tasks presented his generation an irresistible view of a science-enhanced future. Remember Walt Disney’s mid-century EPCOT? Asimov built his career writing about the fictional capabilities of automatons.  As an accomplished scientist, he realized that along with superhuman abilities came the potential for these machines to destroy their creators like so many real life Frankensteins.

To prevent the displacement of humans by their creations, Asimov came up with his three laws of robotics, later embellished with the “Zeroth”, base law. Here they are for our reference:

  1. A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm (the zeroth law).
  2. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  3. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  4. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Asimov’s intent was admirable, but really, any good lawyer could steer a starship through the laws’ loopholes. In fact, physicist and science fiction writer David Langford offers his modern take on the three laws in a post-Snowden world, and they are sobering:

  1. A robot will not harm authorized Government personnel but will terminate intruders with extreme prejudice.
  2. A robot will obey the orders of authorized personnel except where such orders conflict with the Third Law.
  3. A robot will guard its own existence with lethal antipersonnel weaponry, because a robot is bloody expensive.

Langford writes that even the best laws can be ambiguous. As his parody shows, sometimes means-and-ends thinking (Thanks to Hanna Arendt for the conceptual frame) will take populations places they wish they hadn’t gone. But even if flawed, Asimov’s Laws still provide a cross-culturally understood navigational beacon in otherwise uncharted, virgin territory. Any policy geek worth their salt will agree that as we make cities smarter and arguably more self-aware, we will have to balance the needs for operational efficiency with the more messy and unpredictable needs of citizens. MESH Cities’ authors are optimistic that people will learn to balance the power of new, Internet of Things-based city technologies against the common-law functionality of civil society.

With that hope in mind, what might three realistic laws of a smart city be?

The first law probably shares Asimov’s general principle:

  1. “A smart city may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.” After all, cities have always been places of refuge and safety for their citizens. People would not inhabit them if they weren’t. The first law for smart cities bakes that civil legacy into the urban operating system.The second law would define a mission acceptable to city taxpayers everywhere. Something like:
  2. “An intelligent city will use its information-management power to increase the energy efficiency of day-to-day functions like traffic and waste management, power distribution, and sustainable planning and development. Tax savings generated by these new efficiencies will be used to increase employment in activities creating alternative energy innovations and in making the city more livable.”And finally, the third law might offer this assurance:
  3. “Smart sensors and the data they collect will not be used to track individuals and/or arbitrarily control human behaviour for political purposes, or any actions in conflict with the first law.”  Do no harm indeed Google.

The wording of our smart city laws needs work. In fact, we invite your ideas on the topic. But the notion is right. In an increasingly information-driven world we have to prepare for the day when our creations are smarter, faster, and more long-lived than we are. Or else we may be surprised by the results. How do we begin?

Changing Cities: A Case Study

Big picture cyber laws aside, preparing for the cities of tomorrow, today is demanding work. City managers and urban politicians everywhere are awash in heaving seas of change and opportunity. With so many options, how do we bring citizens together with new smart technologies? How can we move cities forward to a more sustainable, livable future that does not look like Asimov’s Laws turned inside out?

Here is one example of a MESH initiative that worked in the real world.  In Toronto, Canada’s largest city, a mash up between digital crowd sourcing and the enabling power of mobile technologies changed things. This is how it was done.

In early 2007 an ad hoc group of young, digitally empowered citizens (call them the vanguard builders of the self-aware city) jacked into Toronto’s corridors of power intent on challenging the way the city’s biggest people mover, the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC), did things. A few months later Harvard Business Review’s editors considered the results so successful they deemed it one of the breakthrough business ideas of the year.

Toronto TransitCamp, as the citizens brainstorming project came to be called, made Toronto a leader among Open Cities, an accomplishment that was unceremoniously upturned when urban best practices aware mayor David Miller found himself replaced by a less than new idea focused Rob Ford.

None-the-less, the trajectory towards Open Cities as the vanguard of smart cities continued in mayor Michael Bloomberg’s New York, in London, and in other competitive urban centres concerned with attracting what Richard Florida describes as the Creative Class. That trend is complimented by digital powerhouse Google Inc.’s massive influence as an engine of urban change. Its driverless car system is just one example of an array of data-driven services that will completely upend the way people use cities.

Why should urban designers, planners, and citizens, for that matter, care about what digital geeks think and do about the city? For one, Open City tools can show us how cities really work, not how we want them to work. That new insight—the equivalent of gaining the conceptual high ground—leads to better measurement and ultimately management of a city’s functions. A good example of this overview is seen in Vancouver digital developer Andrew Walker’s work. Walker ponders, “I was hoping these videos would help generate some discussion on the role of transit.” His open data based videos showing city transit flow over 24 hours are as beautiful as they are informative. Take a look at the YouTube archive of his videos exploring cities’ often hidden transit patterns.

Against that background of change, just how did TransitCamp launch Toronto into the lead of the nascent Open City movement?

As with most Christensen-like, disruptive-of-the-old-order projects in the history of technological advancement, the potential for innovation was in the air. New technologies fuelled the disruption. A growing number of transit users were carrying smart phones; micro publishing sites increased in popularity; and traditional citizen engagement methods were upended by the so-called “Un-Conference,” BarCamp approach to civic problem solving. Add to this game-changing fuel Toronto’s abundance of young digital developers wanting to use their skills to improve the world, and the City’s old way of doing things didn’t stand a chance.

Beyond the momentum of disruptive forces, however, it was also the power of traditional print media, hand-in-hand with strong organisational skills that fueled TransitCamp (and for Crisis-Response readers this confirms the importance of strategic policy engagement even in the face of disruptive change).

Skills and influence gained as an urban affairs and architecture critic for Canada’s National Post newspaper, helped cut through the normal barriers around city hall bureaucrats and politicians. As a digital publisher as well, this author worked with the city’s most energetic not to mention capable new media based journalists, people like Spacing’s Matt Blackett. With their help, the TTC challenge went viral reaching thousands of people willing to crowd source answers to what had become a wicked problem.

We started by deciding to keep the objective simple. Find the loose end of the string to pull and the whole Gordian Knot of civic intransigence might just give way. In this case step one was easy to identify. The TTC’s website failed to provide transit users with an easy way to plan trips let alone learn when the next streetcar was due. The next step was a call to action. Using the hyperlocal blog, we asked city leaders to work with us to solve the problem.

This was our challenge.

“We have a challenge and an offer for the TTC: Toronto bloggers are more than willing to offer their insights into how the TTC site might be designed (look at the reaction to a proposed route map). Why not give us a call and ask for our input. We’d be able to go to our readers for their ideas too. This makes sense to us and takes advantage of the “Wisdom of Crowds,” phenomenon the Internet provides.

Will the new Chair take us up on our offer? Stay tuned.”

To his credit TTC Chair and city councilor Adam Giambrone did just that. With his support the next six weeks tracked inextricably towards either an innovation catharsis for civic leaders or an embarrassing, highly visible public relations fiasco.

City leaders did not have to worry. Hundreds of suggestions on how to fix the TTC’s website shortfalls came from readers of Toronto’s top blog sites (ReadingToronto, BlogTO, Torontoist, Spacing, etc.). In the end, though, a simple challenge had Toronto’s politicians, bureaucrats, and transit managers exchanging ideas with young urban activists chafing to improve the system.

Leslie Scrivener, a journalist at one of Canada’s leading newspapers the Toronto Star, described the event this way:

The 100 or so campers were young, in their 20s and early 30s, mostly people who work in the communications and tech industries and university students, all madly in love with transit?. . . Peering over their shoulders, watching as the younger people moved images around on their white Mac laptops, were the 50-somethings, the people who run the TTC, listening and learning. And politicians were hovering, too. Adam Giambrone, the TTC Chair, spent the day there. Vice-chair Joe Mihevc was also present.

In a few short weeks the established way of doing things—or is that avoiding doing things—got rebooted. The TTC cracked open its musty data vault to eager developers. It didn’t take long before phone-based Apps were guiding riders to bus or streetcar stops just in time. TTC users were delighted. Then came the business spinoffs. A small but growing cluster of infrastructure services evolved. Change fostered economic growth.

A big part of this story is that forward-looking city leaders were willing to risk failure in the search for new, more effective ways of running key parts of the city. Their optimism and/or trust inspired a group of young citizen activists to do more. And why not, this was a group willing to donate their skill and countless hours of their time to improve the way their city worked.

City administrators should try this more often. In many ways the approach is like the more traditional architects’ charrette: Identify a problem; bring smart people together in one place; get ideas on how to solve it.

The TTC Challenge Case Study shows that providing interested citizens with enabling technologies improves cities. In a world where city users of all types seem eager to criticize failures in the evolving urban operating system, we can preempt that negative script by empowering citizens not restricting them. Given the chance, they will work to make cities livable without the need for Asimov-like laws (although those laws will help keep smarter-than-us cities on the right side of history). New technology enables this result to be sure, but strong people skills, good organisation, and a design vision of how things might be remain the key levers to be pulled when crowd sourcing change.

If the underlying approach called MESH Cities thinking takes hold, managing crises in tomorrow’s cities will be easier. Just as smoke detectors have saved countless lives since their broad deployment, if your city boasts a smart, MESHed infrastructure you will know when it is time act to save a life and keep your community livable even in the face of massive change.



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