"Any city has to give some thought to its ambition and brand in order to set sustainability goals." – Virginia M Rometty, IBM SVP and Group Executive.
I recently attended a ground-breaking event hosted by IBM and The Prince’s Charities. 9 Days of discussions and presentations about sustainability, business, and government with a stellar attendee list. 9 Days! Day 1 was all about the Smarter City – check out this link for videos and so on from the event.
What’s a smarter city? Ginny Rometty, hotly tipped as IBM’s next CEO, kicked off the day with a keynote to help us understand what a smarter city might look like.
She didn’t explain with a look to the future, though, so much as the present. Cities around the world are already making real progress in terms of sustainable development. We can see the future in pockets – as William Gibson said, its just unevenly distributed.
Before we discuss innovations and approaches for building a more sustainable resilient city however I want to to get back to the quote above about branding and city planning. The idea really resonated with me. Its one of those extremely obvious statements… extremely obvious once someone points it out, that is. It certainly had me thinking with both left and right brain for the rest of the day.
It makes very little sense to take a take a scattergun approach to sustainable development. If you’re going to put down the bucks there has to a bang… a clear and significant improvement in operational efficiency or resilience.
Windows dressing is by definition temporary. Better to nail key areas – such as water or traffic management – and then leverage improvements into other areas. Key to sustainability are viable economic models, and a good understanding of the “externalities” that will affect economic sustainability and quality of life.
Its important to understand the city as a system of interconnected systems, which can make prioritisation harder. When is a transport problem a traffic problem? Or is it really a supply chain issue? This issue was writ large in the 9 day format of IBM’s Start conference. Most of the delegates could have attended any of the themed days and got value out it. Smarter Transport, for example, was clearly a key topic for Smarter Cities. But nobody said sustainability would be easy.
Let’s take LA. While traffic management at first glance should be a high priority for the city, everybody knows LA is a traffic nightmare. That’s part of its brand identity. LA has absolutely no problem attracting talent and finance. A more pressing concern is – water management.
- The world is at an unprecedented level of urbanization.
- Cities contain an increasingly large share of the world’s highly skilled, educated, creative and entrepreneurial population, giving rise to highly concentrated and diverse pools of knowledge and knowledge-creation networks.
- Cities can support large-scale business and investment networks that create economies of scale in absorbing and extending innovation
To compete in this new economic environment, cities will need to better apply advanced information technology, analytics and systems thinking to develop a more citizen-centric approach to services. By doing so, they can better attract, create, enable and retain their citizens’ skills, knowledge and creativity.
I love the way IBM puts the citizen at the heart of this model for the city. But even this definition can be challenged. A city which sees its core business as tourism may indeed be less concerned with the “citizen” per se, and more with the User Experience of the city. Venice’s day as a world-leading commercial hub are long behind it, but that’s not to say it can’t be a smarter city.
Cities are the only way we know of providing services at scale to millions of people. Its time to do this more effectively. And brand values inform prioritisation in cities, just as they do in corporations.
As Gordon Matheson, head of Glasgow City Council put it, when discussing plans to cut carbon emissions by 30%:
We were the European capital of culture. we will be the European capital of sustainability…