Digital city as a generative platform for urban innovation

Couple days ago, I gave a talk at the 2010 Mayors’ Technology Summit. After the talk, several participants asked me to share my slides. Given the way I use my slides, I felt that just sending out slides wouldn’t be that useful. Instead, I decided to post the whole talk in text here after the break.

Good afternoon! It is my great honor and pleasure to be here to share some of my thoughts about the vision of digital city as a generative platform for urban innovations. Over the next 20 minutes, I will build an argument that digital city conceived as a generative platform for urban innovations can help us inspire our collective ingenuity and mobilize resources to address one of the most pressing challenges of our generation, our cities. I will build the argument based on three observations and a broad historical review of cities in Western civilization.

First, before I do that, I would like to tell you a story. In December 2008, the world renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma recorded his new album, “Songs of Joy and Peace”. In collaboration with Indaba, he made one of the tracks from the album available to the public. The piece was “Give Us Peace”. He invited others on the internet to create new music by using his recording. He then asked the fans to vote on the winner of the competition who would be invited for a future recording. The winner was a Japanese Canadian, Toshi O. We don’t know whole lot about him, other than he is a very gifted guitarist. But one thing is clear. He is a not a trained professional classical musician. This story shows how the digital technology can change some of the fundamental rules and assumptions that we used to take for granted: the separation between production and consumption, and professionals and amateurs. I will come back to this story later in my talk.

Now, let me make three quick observations. The first observation that I would like to make is the development of digital technology. This is Moor’s law. The computing power doubled every 18 – 24 months. The implication of this becomes much clearer when we look at the changes in price-performance ratio. The same microprocessor that cost over $200 in 1992 now costs a little over a quarter. To have one gigabyte memory, it cost over $560 in 1992. Now, it costs a little over a dime. One giga byte transmission cost almost $1200 in 1999. Now, it costs $130. Such radical changes in price-performance opened up the flood gate of what I call digital innovation. We digitize everything that we can digitize. For example, we digitized tools. This is a picture of a digital model of a building that architect Frank Gehry designed. He and many other architectures build a digital building first before he builds a real building. This led to digitization of various tools for measurement, fabrications, and modeling among contractors and fabricators who work with them.

We also digitize ordinary products like coffee table. We digitize contents like photos and music. Our experiences in time and space are now digitized. This shows a movement of a tourist in Philadelphia whom we studied in collaboration with Samsung Electronics. We digitize our social relationships using Facebook. For many people, if you are not on my Facebook, you are not my friend. And, we also digitize the most trivial things — like what you ate for lunch today and that you are going to sleep. Individually, these are trivial things that no one really cares. But collective, they can provide useful information. If you are in lunch business in Philadelphia, for example, you probably want to know what people ate for lunch today.

Together, we are experiencing radical digitalization in all dimensions of human life that involves how we interact with other people and things as we move in time and space. As a consequence, we are seeing increasingly tighter connections between digital and physical worlds. This also changes what we mean by computing. Let me show you few images of traditional computing. Now, let me show you new images of computing.

The second observation is the new generation. We call them digital natives. They were born into the digital world. They have never been without computers in their entire life. They think and act differently, particularly related to computers. This is a web site, called Roblox. This is an open source virtual world. This is much like Second Life, except that most programmers here are under the age of 14 and that the things that they build look like Lego blocks. Two years ago, my son learned basic programming techniques from here without any formal training. He built his first iPhone App in two days at the age of 13. Unfortunately, that was his last iPhone app. They grew up using Facebook and Mario. They learned how to do “Cut and Paste” with a computer mouse, rather than a pair of scissors and a glue stick. They participate in the production of Wikipedia and YouTube. That is my second observation.

The third observation is the global trend of irrevocable urbanization. According to the United Nations, more than 50% of world population is now living in urban areas. And the trend is likely to continue.

Now, with these three observations, let’s think about the historical evolution of cities and how the idea of digital city fits in here. Before modernization, ancient and medieval cities performed many different functions. They provided defense. They were the center of trade. They were also centers of religion and education. So, there was a separation between the powerful and the powerless. The freeman and the slave.

Since the industrial revolution, however, cities went through significant changes. Industrial economy was one that drew its power from physical machines that transformed natural energy into production energy. Industrial economy can be characterized by the economic activities that focuses on making products cheaper, faster and better than competitions. Since physical machines were expensive, capital market emerged as an important force in the industrial economy. With the emergence of large firms that produced and sold products, we saw a massive separation of production and consumption. People no longer consume stuffs that they produce. This led to the emergence of professionals — whose roles are productions. We have professional managers, professional musicians, professional investors and so on. We also saw a massive growth in professional institutions and professional school who train these professionals. Modern cities reflect this industrial economy. Cities became the center of production, finance, and transportation. They also became the center of consumption and cultural activities. At the same time, cities became the magnet of social problems such as crime, poverty, traffic, pollution and public health.

Now, as we move well into the 21st century, we are no longer living in the industrial society. We live in so-called knowledge economy where smart machines as opposed to physical machines have become the main instruments for value creation. Smart machines transform knowledge and information into production forces. In knowledge economy, therefore, knowledge and creativity became important resources. Furthermore, in knowledge economy, possession of things no longer become the basis of value creation. Instead, users create value through experiences. The value is not inherent in things, but rather they are co-created in actions. Therefore, products we produce and consume do not have a single meaning; instead, they have multiple meanings. It is a world of AND, emancipated from the tyranny of OR that dominated the industrial economy. It is also a world of verbs, not nouns.

Furthermore, using digital tools, new generation of consumers want to participate in the production. Therefore, we are now living in a post-professional society, where the distinction between professionals and non-professionals are becoming less and less important. This does not mean professionals are not important. Instead, it means, professionals need to find a new roles in the society. Remember the story of Yo-Yo Ma. Instead of being a producer of music which then is consumed by consumers, he invited and enabled others to innovate with him and through him. He provided a generative platform on which others can create their own music.

Now, let’s think about digital city in this changing context of society. In particular, let’s think about how we can harness the power of digitalization to address many challenges that urbanization brought to us in this post-industrial, post-professional, knowledge-based economy.

I want to emphasize two characteristics of digital innovations. First, digital innovation is generative. Users invent new derivative innovations that were not originally intended by the inventors. The way we use internet today, for example, goes far beyond the wildest imagination of the founding fathers of the Internet.

Second, digital innovation is unbounded. Apple’s iPhone has over 250,000 different apps. That means, it can be used in 250,000 different ways. And the number is still growing. It is unbounded. What Apple has done is not just producing a popular product. They built a powerful generative platform that enables thousands of developers from all industries and backgrounds to pursue their own ideas.

When we combine this generative and unbounded power of digital technology with the increasingly pervasive digital infrastructure that we find in cities, we begin to see that digital city can be a powerful platform for generative innovations to address many challenges of our cities. This requires us to see digital city as a computing platform. What do I mean by that?

Throughout cities, we have digital sensors, actuators, networks, databases. We also have cars, buildings, signs, and people that carry many forms of digital technologies, forming parts of the digital city. In a way, our cities are rapidly becoming computers. The communication bandwidth that connects many of these separate entities has exceeded the speed of internal communication inside old main frame computers and PCs. If you look at it this way, then we are not just using computers in a digital city. We are a part of a computer. Or, may I dare to say, we are computers.

And I have some good news and bad news on this. The good news is that we already have many components that are necessary to build digital cities. We have wireless networks every where. This is a map of wifi access points in Denver. I am pretty sure the map of Philadelphia or any of the cities that you represent would look just like this. We are building smart homes and buildings, embedding all types of digital technologies. We are talking about smart grid and many other smart infrastructure. In Seoul, the street lamps have been replaced with digital media polls that interact with pedestrians and local business, while illuminating the streets. Our subways and commuter trains are getting computers and LCD screens, with GPS sensors and wireless networks. Increasingly large number of cars are equipped with advanced computing technologies. Individuals carry powerful smart phones in their pockets. Cities like Philadelphia are digitizing information about buildings and many things on the surface. Utility companies have been building digital models for stuffs under the ground. There are many private databases for restaurants and shops, and local businesses. In Japan, almost everywhere you go, you see this 2D bar code, interacting with mobile phones, providing windows to digital worlds. Soon, many of these 2D bar codes will be replaced with RFID chips.

The bad news is that most of these initiatives are closed, disconnected, and proprietary. They are not generative. For example, once you build a smart building, users must use it in the way it was originally designed by the designer. You cannot add new apps, if you will. They are not participatory. You cannot create new contents. You cannot connect it with other digital resources. As they are built on industrial logic, they are thing-centric. So, what do we need to realize the vision of digital city as a generative platform for unbounded urban innovations? We need something like an operating system. Yes, we need an operating system of a digital city. Think of it as Apple’s iPhone eco-system. What Apple provides is an operating system with its iTunes apps store and payment systems that forms a foundation of a vibrant, unbounded and heterogeneous ecosystem. They provide APIs and SDK to support others to build applications.

Similarly, when you think of digital city as one large operating system of a computer, with all of components, we need APIs and SDKs so that citizens, students, governments and local business can mobilize the existing digital resources that are already there and those that will be newly created. In other words, we can open source it. Through such an operating systems, local communities can collaboratively build apps mobilizing all available resources to solve their own local problems. This way, the professionals and non-professionals can collaborate together.

Establishing such operating systems as a core of digital city infrastructure is a social problem as much as it is a technical problem. In fact, we need a social solutions that are technically implemented. In that social process, we need many different stakeholders including local governments, technology vendors, service providers, system integrators, local businesses, residents, local universities, and other non-for-profit organizations, all working together to build digital city as a generative platform.

Through that process, we need to identify what digital resources need to be and can be shared. We need to think about how we can provide security and safety, while keeping it open and generative. We also need to negotiate what services will be open and what services will be closed. If it is open, to whom will it be open? Who will be allowed to participate in and what levels of services need to be created? How do we handle ownership, intellectual property and cost and revenue sharing. These are all complex social problems. This will be a complex human design endeavor.

In order to be a catalyst in such a process, at Temple University, we are setting up a new Center for Design + Innovation. Through the center, we want to provide a forum for such social negotiations, design research, and provide technical and business related innovation activities, working with many different actors. We will focus on design, digital technology and urban innovation and entrepreneurship. We will teach our MBA students to understand unique challenges of urban environments and equip them with necessary design and technical skills.

In conclusion, every generation has its own generational grand challenge. When that generation embraces its grand challenge, it discovers its own goodness, its character and potential. Previous generations had cold war as their challenge. They responded to that challenge with unprecedented developments in science and engineering. They built rockets and went to moon. They invented space satellites, GPS, titanium, and database. The internet was invented. They even gave us Tempur-pedic bed. Schools like MIT and Caltech became the world class universities as they led the charges to invent new scientific and engineering solutions in response to that grand challenge.

What is the grand challenge of our generation? I believe it is our cities. It embodies all the challenges of our humanity — poverty, sustainability, health and education. It is a global problem. Every country has its own cities. Yet, it is intimately local. That means, each city can offer a unique design studio, building its own vibrant Apps ecology.

So the goal of digital city is to create a generative platform to support unbounded urban innovations that help us build humanly satisfying, environmentally sustainable, and economically viable cities. Through such a platform, both professionals and non-professionals, business and universities, and the government and citizens can participate in creation, discovery and design of solutions for many of the challenges that our cities have.

That is the vision of digital city.

Professor | Writer | Teacher Digital Innovation, Design, Organizational Genetics Case Western Reserve University

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