The London Meeting – Degrees of Freedom by colin Harrison

Last week Joe Cortright kicked off this series of articles in preparation for USC’s London meeting with a strong argument for getting the basics of urban design right and some cautionary language about the limitations of Smart Cities.  In particular he emphasized ““our focus has to be….on people.  Cities are about people, particularly about bringing people together.  We are a social species, and cities serve to create the physical venues for interaction that generate innovation, art, culture, and economic activity”.  Also this last week I had the chance to hear Jeff Speck speaking in Santa Fe about Walkable Cities; it was an impressive performance based not on exhortation, but on factual motivations rooted in Economics, Epidemiology, and Environment.

This week I want to step back and look at what is happening to the design space itself.  By design space, we do not mean a physical space, but rather the multiple dimensions or degrees of freedom that confront the designers of cities as well as those who are charged with providing services – both public and private – within those cities.  Cities around the world face many new challenges today, including ageing infrastructures, declining industries, declining tax revenues, rising costs and growing scarcity of many resources – notably water – and populations that may be growing or declining, but in many cases are certainly ageing.

But others changes underway offer hope for cities.  For example, the influx of Millennials with their increased receptiveness for high density living and decreased interest in owning or even in driving cars.  In Jeff Speck’s talk last week, he noted that of US Millennials, 25% have not bothered to get a driving licence.  This is a new degree of freedom – cities in the future need not be so dominated by the car.  It changes the shape and the size of the design space.  For example, it might liberate significant downtown areas that could be use for other public or private purposes.  Or it might improve air quality and other factors related to public health and reduce demand for healthcare services.  Are the urban design community and the infrastructure agency leaders ready to respond to this and other emerging degrees of freedom?

Among the other emerging degrees of freedom is the increasing flow of information.  My goal for the USC’s London meeting is to work together for two days to consider how this degree of freedom in particular can contribute to citizens’ perceptions of quality of life.  I hope that we will come away from this event with ideas and principles that urban designers and agency leaders will recognize as opportunities to overcome the many challenges they face.

In planning the meeting, I took a guess that among the new degrees of freedom we might expect from increasing flows of information is mutual adaptation between providers and consumers of municipal services.  This freedom emerges from combining both near real-time and long-term knowledge of how such services are being used with new organizational and management methods that liberate modern services from Victorian industrial methods based on centralized means of production.

update adobe

A great example of long-term evolution in public transit services came from the city of Dubuque, Iowa.  Dubuque is an example of a city whose core industry had declined and died some thirty years ago, leaving behind a decaying industrial district.  Over time new businesses developed in new commercial areas and new residential areas were also developed.  As the city’s foot print expanded, transit routes were extended to provide coverage for the new districts.  This increased the cost of transit services, but passengers complained about the poor service and the buses seemed to be under-used.

The city asked its transit users to allow some of their smartphones to be tracked and what this revealed was that the established transit routes – which once connected workers directly to the old industrial district – no longer reflected how the system was being used.  The travellers were obliged to take two or even three buses in order to complete their commutes to work.  By adapting the routes to correspond to how the travelers needed to travel, ease of use was greatly improved and the cost of the service was reduced by almost a third.  Smiles all round.

In a larger city, a similar approach can enable near real-time adaptation in which service capacity is adjusted dynamically to meet the user demand.  This can reduce waiting times for travellers and increase utilization of service capacity.  Such flexibility applies not only to transportation, but also many other services.

A principal challenge here is whether urban planners and agency service leaders can change the way they think about these services.  In the old industrial model, management’s job was to push product or service towards the consumers with little thought of how it was actually being consumed.  One of the meanings of smart in this context is that there is a much greater interaction – dialogue – between providers and consumers.  We have seen how difficult it is for the electrical distribution industry to adapt its thinking to this new world in which they actually need to talk to their customers.  And I suspect that municipal managers will have a similar struggle.

The purpose of USC’s London meeting is to begin to build the case for exploiting these new degrees of freedom with the goal of improving urban quality of life.  I hope you will come and join us.