Smart Cities and Governance: What we discussed in Barcelona

The helpful people at Smart City Expo World Congress have uploaded the video of my panel discussion last year in Barcelona with Steven Goldsmith, Anibal Gaviria, Minerva Tantoco, Rob Bernard and Charbal Aoun on smart cities and governance. You can find it here.


Big Data and Cities – “Nobody’s good at this”

This article by John Lorinc in the Globe and Mail sets out in a balanced way both the opportunities and the potential pitfalls of applying Big Data to a host of urban issues. Lorinc sees New York, Chicago and Boston as leading the pack, driven forward by activist Mayors. He also looks at how Toronto and other Canadian cities are beginning to get into the game, while arguing that there is some catching up to do. Lorinc quotes Professor Stephen Goldsmith from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government – with whom I shared a panel at the Smart Cities Expo in Barcelona last year – as saying that the application and intelligent analysis of data torepresents a sea change in thinking that could rival the shift to professional municipal management that marked the dawn of the Progressive Era over a century ago:  “Whenever we’re talking about data, we’re talking about modernizing how government works”.

Smart Cities needs smart clients – that is, we have to define the problem we are trying to solve, make best use of the data and tools we already use, and develop solutions from the bottom up before rushing to would-be top down comprehensive solutions.

Lorinc refers to the observations of Mike Flowers, formerly head of Data Analytics for Mayor Bloomberg in New York City and now with the Centre for Urban Science and Progress (CUSP) in New York.

Mr. Flowers points out that city officials shouldn’t be tempted to blindly make huge investments in “smart city” information technology in order to foster such insights. Indeed, his group relied on off-the-shelf spreadsheets to compile the data that led to New York’s dramatic analytics breakthroughs…While most municipalities in recent years have released large tranches of raw information – road-closure locations, transit schedules, and other intelligence – through so-called “open data” portals, the game-changing potential lies in interpreting those mountains of quotidian facts and finding new ways of putting them together. The analytics is equal parts art and science. As Mr. Flowers says, “Nobody’s good at this.”

This is very much the same as the approach we hope to develop in London through the Smart London Plan – ambitious in vision and scope, but realistic and sceptical (in the best sense of that word) in terms of next steps and above all conscious of the need to engage with and respond to citizens.

Tech and the city

Yesterday was the Bloomberg Tech Summit in London, and the start of London Tech Week. The former Mayor of New York and the present Mayor of London emphasised the key role that technology and digital will play in the economic futures of both cities. This is not just about a single sector; London’s (& New York’s) competitive advantage derives in large part from the size and diversity of its economy, generating economic spillovers, agglomeration economies and supporting convergence of technologies. Proximity generates the marriage of art and science.

Talent – skills, human capital – is crucial to this. More than 2000 tech apprenticeships have been created in London and there are fantastic initiatives like Code Club to generate excitement and later careers among young Londoners. But we will need to do a lot more collectively to exploit fully this opportunity and ensure both that new and growing companies can meet their skills needs, and that all Londoners can benefit from the expected growth in the sector.

The city and the middle class: two views

This week I read two very different views on rising inequality in successful global cities, from Ed Glaeser in the New York Daily News on New York City, and from Michael Goldfarb in the New York Times on London. The titles alone point up the contrast – Ed Glaeser’s piece is “A happy tale of two cities” while Michael Goldfarb‘s is “London’s Great Exodus.

Ed Glaeser picks up on Democrat Mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio’s pledge to make “the crisis of income inequality” a major theme of his campaign, and argues that the inequality in the city (which Glaeser acknowledges is extreme) is paradoxically a sign of its success. New York attracts both rich and poor, and for specific reasons – “if anyone should be cringing, it is our more ‘equal’ suburbs – which often zone out the disadvantaged…New York has been successful in attracting rich and poor alike, and that makes the city unequal.” Glaeser is far too subtle a thinker to be an advocate of ‘trickle down’; he is in favour of reducing poverty and inequality – but sees the locus for these processes and for the policies to tackle them as the national level. “Local inequality reflects the choice of where to live, made by rich and poor alike.” I think this is correct, and have written about it in the UK context:  see for example  my 2002 article ‘There goes the neighbourhood’  . 

Glaeser, above all, wants to promote opportunity and social mobility, and big successful cities provide the job niches and ethnic networks that help new immigrants become the new middle class. Successful cities have to retain their middle class, and so political candidates should be concerned about the ‘missing middle’ who will leave the city if a combination of high house prices, poor schools and rising taxes takes hold.

It is this missing – or rather fleeing – middle that Michael Goldfarb writes about. For Goldfarb – a writer rather than an economist –  the process whereby London property has become a “global reserve currency” is squeezing out professionals who leave for more affordable cities elsewhere. Over the last few years, money has poured in to London property as a safe asset – attractive both to the rising wealthy of the East and to anxious investors from the Eurozone. As a result, “the ordinary uses of the city have changed beyond recognition. London was never a cheap place to live, but now more expensive property means more expensive everything else: restaurants, cinemas, bars and theater tickets.”

How accurate is the picture painted by Goldfarb?  While some of the most desirable parts of the centre of London have clearly become un-affordable for all but the super-rich, describing London as a whole as ” a no-go area for increasing numbers of the middle class” is an exaggeration. London is growing at a rate of around 100,000 people every year – effectively a new London Borough every three years. This is the fastest rate of growth in Europe, and at the very least implies a city that is increasingly attractive to some groups. Goldfarb correctly identifies the low annual property taxes in the UK which look absurd at the top end of the scale – but a full account would also refer to Stamp Duty, a property transactions tax which has recently been raised for the most expensive properties.

As far as schools are concerned, yes new school-building is not keeping pace with the rate of population increase, which will create problems if not speedily tackled. But London schools are improving far faster than those anywhere else in the country – a key driver of middle class locational choice. Research by the FT earlier this year showed that “London schools have improved so rapidly over the past 10 years that even children in the city’s poorest neighbourhoods can expect to do better than the average pupil living outside the capital.” .

And yet…Goldfarb strikes a chord in me when he writes “A very organic sense of London pride has allowed this city to withstand substantial shocks…Now it is beginning to feel that the next phase of London’s history will be one of transience, with no allegiance to the city.”  I think  (and I hope) he is overly pessimistic in this assessment, but he is undoubtedly pointing out a very real danger.