The Inevitable tension between organic and planned growth

complexcity_pattern_paris Most CIOs will relate to the tension between user demand-driven technology deployment, and top-down implementation based on best practices or regulatory requirements. Cities are no different. We’ve written before about the future of cities, about smart cities such as Seoul and how technology is enabling better city administration. And each time, there is a tension between what the city plans, and what the individuals within it accept. We could think about this as the difference between top-down and bottom-up, perhaps, or maybe the difference between planned and organic growth. But is this tension inevitable? And if so, is it necessarily a bad thing?

Technology defined ‘smart-cities’
One interesting issue which is emerging from top-down initiatives to improve technology use is that they are often turning out to be very different from the way they were envisaged. The Economist, for example, notes in an article on mining urban data that the label ‘Smart Cities’ was originally applied to new cities that were being built using new technology, and often in deserts, such as Masdar in Abu Dhabi. But Masdar, like many of its fellow ‘new cities’, is not developing at quite the rate envisaged, and is struggling to find people who really want to go and live there.

Instead, it is the ‘old’ cities such as Amsterdam and Singapore who are embracing smart technology to improve lives for their residents. Amsterdam is generally agreed to be the ‘first among equals’ and has put together a platform of infrastructures and institutions that help companies and individuals to use green technology. The projects range from super-fast broadband through smart meters to reducing the energy use of an entire shopping street.

Smart data
And London, though not technically a smart city, used many elements of smart planning around the Olympics. Data from Oyster cards, used by most residents to pay for journeys on public transport, showed the extent to which Londoners changed their travel habits in response to advice during the Olympics. Overwhelmingly, it seems, people are prepared to take advice to help them avoid delays and congestion. The take-home message? If you provide data about delays in real time, people will act on it to avoid problem areas, and public transport systems will work better. This shows where the tension between top-down and bottom-up becomes less of a tension, and more of a creative partnership, with both partners essential to making the system work well.

Singapore, already one of the most advanced cities in the world, provides another example of a creative partnership between top-down and bottom-up. It is planning new systems that will provide real-time data about weather and transport availability. The aim is to ensure that there are taxis where people need them when it rains, but of course a side-effect will be to provide information to enable people to manage their journeys in the most efficient way.

Guiding organic change
So why don’t planners just leave cities to grow organically? Well, the answer to that is pretty simple: they can’t afford to do so. Not just because they want to keep their jobs, but because the world can’t afford the luxury of unplanned city growth. A recent review of  intelligent cities noted that 300 million people were expected to move into Chinese cities over the next 20 years. That’s the equivalent of the entire population of the United States. If the industrial density in Chinese cities increased to that of Paris or London, that population growth could be accommodated within the existing urban footprint. That would potentially save 75,000km of arable land. And with the increasing pressure to feed the world’s growing population, that’s not a trivial issue.

So what’s coming from the top-down direction just now for smart cities? The National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO) reckons that most of the priorities for city information leads are to do with improving efficiency and effectiveness, often driven by budgetary requirements, meaning better use of cloud, consolidation of systems, updating old and worn out systems, and improving shared services. All the things that citizen-generated initiatives can’t really deliver, in fact!

So yes, planners are necessary, but so are those who are driving and supporting the organic growth of smart cities. Whether they are creating apps for their fellow-citizens to use, or simply using the apps to make their own lives easier, they are all helping to make cities just that little bit smarter. And the more people who use the apps, the better they will get. There is opportunity for everyone to be involved in making their city a bit smarter, and a huge amount of potential for those who are paid to do this for a living.

Image credit: Lee Jang Sub via urbanculturalstudies

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