BIG CITY, BIG IDEAS: Data Innovation and City Governance

Earlier this year, as part of my sabbatical at the Munk School of Global Affairs, I gave a public lecture in Toronto on the theme “Data Innovation and City Governance”. This was part of the University of Toronto’s ‘Big City, Big Ideas’ series, and I was following in the distinguished footsteps of speakers such as Richard Florida, Mayor Naheed Nenshi, Michael Storper, Meric Gertler, and others.

You can view the webcast of my talk 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.

International Cities Week?

You know how it goes – you wait ages for a good conference in London, and then four of them arrive together.

This week I spoke on London’s economy at the Centre for London/Brookings/JPMorgan citiesfest on Tuesday and participated in a panel on Smart Cities at the World Islamic Economic Conference yesterday . Had I but world enough and time, I could also have attended the Economist Infrastructure Summit on Future Cities,  and also the first conference of the Open Data Institute.

The ODI gets my vote in the Don’t Take Yourself Too Seriously Award by having the humility (or perhaps confidence) to have a key session entitled “Open Data, So What?”. It would be a better world (or at least a better conference circuit) if that  kind of self-referential humour were more widespread.

Does this confluence of conferences indicate something important? I think it provides evidence, along with the current contents of my inbox, of an acceleration of interest in the policy issue of how we encourage and manage the economic growth of cities in a way which is sustainable in all senses of the term, and is also informed by a richer understanding of the scientific and technical challenges and what solutions might be possible. I think we also have a naming problem at present: there is increasing consumer resistance to ‘Smart Cities’ on the part of many policy-makers and budget-holders who have been on the receiving end of some hard selling recently on single solutions to complex problems. ‘Future Cities’ is the term preferred by our own Technology Strategy Board for the Catapult. This avoids some of the connotations of ‘Smart Cities’  but often puts me in mind of jetpacks,  1950s science fiction, and the wonderfully inspired if slightly-bonkers 1960s visions of groups such as Archigram with their walking and plug-in cities (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archigram) – perhaps no bad thing.

This policy debate sits close to, and overlaps with the debate about “Big Data” – with that term itself being contested of course – and whether this is the Next Big Thing or just the Next Big Hype. My own view: these developments are significant, and will have important and profound consequences, but at a policy and government level, we are still struggling to  come up with workable models that make measurable real impacts on people’s lives. This one, I believe, will run and run.

On the narrower, but endlessly fascinating topic of the London Economy, my slides for the Centre for London conferences are attached here:

Mark Kleinman London Conference 2013 v2