science

The porous city

January 29, 2016 by

This is not a thought piece, it’s a call to action.

We have failed to create smart cities. We have failed to create truly scalable and sustainable mechanisms to enable our cities and countries to benefit from the internet age. We are not addressing the challenges we face, from housing to healthcare, from taxation to climate change, in line with the pace of change.

We’ve built incomprehensibly complex systems and infrastructure, to the point that no one understands them, and therefore the ability to effect change is throttled. I don’t just mean physical or technical systems, but also political, legal and social constructs.

From a range of perspectives, we have created the wrong incentives, been caught up in technology utopianism and sales jargon. We have missed the point of urban design and its role in the creation of social inclusion in both our physical and digital realms, and this is actively damaging to our free-market economy, our environment and our society (both in damaging existing culture and in preventing evolution to new systems).

The issues we can see and feel in our physical spaces: runaway property prices, housing developments and city-as-airport designs—that undermine the principles of an inclusive culture—are echoed in our digital space, except there they are not visible to many, and certainly not understood in terms of infrastructure or in a frame of reference that would suggest you are building our pervasive societal structure upon.

We are in an unprecedented age: an anthropocene that affects our ecosystem as whole, and in which the digital and physical blur. Where the definition of an asset, whether physical or digital, may be only rendered in the digital domain as a transaction. There are now more mobile phone contracts on Earth than there are people. More sensors than phones. More X than Y.

Whether ‘big data’, the ‘internet of things’, ‘blockchains’, ‘augmented reality’, ‘artificial intelligence’ — the words so noticeably missing are ‘people’, ‘society’ and even, given where the money comes from, ‘business’.

We have seen decades of technology-first, technology-will-save-us unicorns, about to tip over once more. We see the enthusiasm and investment at the beginning of the hype-cycle not followed through (either conceptually or with deep investment) in the longer tail. As our attention spans have shortened, so has our ability to commit to the difficult challenges of systemic change, at a time when we need this more than ever. We have drowned our sense of urgency.

There are, of course, exceptions. But they are that: exceptions.

Having worked online for over twenty years, I am tired of explaining what has changed, and what will change. There seems to be a sense that incremental change is ok. Meanwhile our global population has doubled in my lifetime, and there are more people online today than existed on the planet when I was born. And, we have hit peak everything (from antibiotics to chickens). Looking forward, I expect the combination of digital technologies, data, and artificial intelligence to make huge swathes of blue and white collar workers redundant (from truck drivers to accountants to lawyers).

Yet, the one thing we know (apart from change being only constant) is that we are a deeply creative species. We constantly invent new things, new jobs, new economies, and always at new scales.

To bring out the best in people, and give them agency over the process of creative destruction that they are now in we need to do two things. Firstly we need to accept, really accept, that everyone is connected, and that we cannot control this fact, however hard we might. Secondly we need to embrace a transition to an open culture.

What do I mean by open culture?

With one lens I mean open innovation. I mean that there are no parts of our economy that are not wholly dependent on the internet in some way. If you look at the web itself, it has evolved remarkably quickly from a context where it echoed our built environment into something else: a ‘website’ was something you built and put all your own things into and it all existed in a place where you had complete control. Today, there is no way to tell what a website is: the front page of a news service may be made up from feeds from a dozen other places, in random locations around the world, with content that any one of the 3.6B people in the world may have added. There is no ‘website’. There is a porous collection of content. This is a modal shift that has happened and we must build upon to address other challenges.

In businesses we see continuous ‘innovation programmes’ that try and build in-house teams to bring the world ‘inside’ and build their new thing, which they will store in their silo of IP.  Except a lot of what they are trying to box up and contain is a set of fluid knowledge from an unknowable number of connected sources. This represents closed innovation.

From a culture of closed—our default since the inception of the industrial revolution— the rules are such that we instruct people, by default, to collate, store and protect everything in our chosen constructed framing of company. This is entirely at odds with the way that the system from which the innovation was gathered worked and, only rarely does it feed back into that system.

Open innovation is porous.

With another lens I mean open society.

As more than half the world’s population lives in cities (or more correctly, cities and urban environments), we are developing new social responses to enable people to interact with each other, and with their environment. I have long believed that the invention of the internet, and the web, are social responses to globalisation: tools which provide the only way to maintain a sense of community. Aligned with a Dunbar number of your choosing— when the population-density of your train exceeds your psychological capacity to feel engaged as a social group, how do you respond? You see it every day. Heads down. Faces illuminated. Connecting—digitally—to a human network that provides a sense of place.

But it’s not just the social network. It’s the rise and rise of ‘civic tech’, as people start to understand the power of using information, connecting people, helping people recapture a sense of agency, or community and purpose in our population-dense world.

Governments and leaders around the world are struggling to understand this shift. There are many investments, many initiatives, many programmes. We know it’s important. Yet, in my view, we are failing. We haven’t yet truly accepted that to address the pace of change requires us to change our default.

We need to design for open.

This does not mean making everything open—far from it—but we must design, provide the architectures for, embrace and lead with an open agenda.

I hear, daily, that this is a challenge. I also hear, daily, that people are trying to change. From global health companies to housing, from the financial markets to retail, from local governments to the World Bank, people are pushing for greater partnerships, for systemic impact from their investments, for solutions to epidemics, to helping refugees and mass migration, to addressing climate change. It feels like there are tentative steps toward solving problems together.

If we design for open, ‘together’ can involve everyone. Whether it’s a teenager in <US example of medical research paper opened up by Aaron that led to cure> or the human genome project, whether its the <transport API example of N,000 developers making things> or <open banking project>, this is a systems change.

A huge challenge is that countries and national governments can’t move at speed: their own institutional challenges are huge. There is momentum, and it is powerful, necessary and we can help it directly and indirectly.

Companies cannot create systemic change in isolation. There are millions of partnerships that are wonderful, but limited in scope and impact, and not connected to broader impact. There are NGOs who struggle, with limited funding, to create impact. And, to address issues at the scale I have touched upon requires the connection of industries and systems that currently have no incentive to connect.

And individuals, and groups, simply cannot influence at the scale and pace required.

All options are complex. We need to find a unit of complexity that has boundaries, yet contains all the issues, that can be brought together. We need not spin up a new organisation that will take a top-down, systems-level approach to ‘design’ a solution. We need to enable everyone to engage in solving the problems that matter to them. We need a system that we can use as an exemplar for open design.

I believe cities, and their communities, are one such system.

One of the challenges with cities is that they simply don’t have the information or control that everyone thinks they do. Companies have some. Citizens have some. The State has some. If we help them design for open, we can give people permission to innovate without asking. We can provide the tools for businesses or startups, to governments and their agencies to explore their own solutions, or partnerships without having to constantly reinvent new programmes.

If you’ve ever run a time-limited impact initiative and watched what happens at the end of the funding, you’ll know what I mean. A sustainable, malleable, living solution requires continuous engagement. An open design lets people, administrations and businesses build products and services that embrace users, create supply-chains and ensure that there is an economic model to keep them going. If not, the product or service can adapt or die, but the underlying raw materials must be available.

In my view, one critical material is data. Data about everything and everyone. Data that is closed, shared and open. We need to work out the ways to create open standards that enable our data to be treated as infrastructure. Opening access to data, as infrastructure, will have as profound an impact on our society as providing electricity.

Action

And this is my call to action is: let’s unlock our city data infrastructure. Let’s create open city standards that address the user-needs, business needs, policies, training, tools, processes and techniques that cement the underlying assets for our digital economy (as, rest assured, our economy is already digital, as much as we are all data now).

Let’s do this in collaboration with the administration, the local businesses, civic bodies, and citizens, to ensure that our process is porous, and our outcomes are open and usable, creates open innovation, and that unlocks knowledge for everyone.


 

A selection (partial) of references and sources that may be interesting:

http://futureeverything.org/events/city-api/

http://www.connectingbristol.org/

https://github.com/Liverpool-UK/somebody-should

http://opendata.brussels.be/api/v1/console/datasets/1.0/search/

https://lsecities.net/media/objects/events/the-future-city-cruel-or-consoling-utopia-lse-cities-literary-festival-discussion

http://chicago-ctos.com/ (nb: the fictional connected city from hacking videogame Watch_Dogs)

http://faculty.washington.edu/plape/citiesaut11/readings/Low%20Gated%20Communities.pdf

http://liverpooluniversitypress.co.uk/products/60747

https://books.google.co.uk/books/about/A_Pattern_Language.html?id=hwAHmktpk5IC

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Invisible-Cities-Vintage-Classics-Calvino/dp/0099429837?tag=hohtel0c-21

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/We_(novel)

http://www.meetup.com/Economics-and-Big-Data/events/227867413/?a=socialmedia

https://medium.com/the-development-set/the-reductive-seduction-of-other-people-s-problems-3c07b307732d#.em1mbeqb3

http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/exhibitions/exhibition-engineering-the-world-ove-arup-and-the-philosophy-of-total-design/

http://www.ted.com/talks/kevin_kelly_on_the_next_5_000_days_of_the_web/transcript?language=en#t-40986

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some themes emerging

August 2, 2015 by
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Welcome back Philae!

June 14, 2015 by

To celebrate the news:

Click the green flag and press S to start …. then press space bar to launch Philae. Arrow keys for left and right. Up arrow for thrust. If it all goes weird, hit R to reset.
Hit the red landing site to get points, but not too fast or you’ll pop! You have limited fuel, so try and get as many points as you can before you run out.

Class notes:
This project was written in Nov 2014 by my seven year-old son and I for fun. We used it (about 2 months ago) to teach his class of 18 seven year old kids about the Rosetta mission.

After watching the ESA video, and some narrative from me, they played this game. After about 10 minutes we went “inside the game” to let them edit the code (e.g. size of comet, speed, etc.), and draw their own Philae (which they loved). The game is deliberately more like lunar lander as I thought it was a bit too much to do a full gravitational and trig-based model with that age group!

 

Key learning outcomes for the class:

  • What comets are.
  • We sent a spaceship to a comet: it was an amazing achievement.
  • That the spaceship was controlled by software, and we can make something like it.
  • That we can “see inside” a game.
  • That we can edit it to make it our own version.
  • That we can draw our own things.
  • They also got an idea of what stop-frame animation is.

My favourite moment was when I said “we’re now going to go inside the game” and they all looked amazed – one turned and said “are we going to hack into it?!” – to which I said “yes”, of course.

https://scratch.mit.edu/projects/60406286 to see the code/copy/modify as you wish.

 

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A quadrillion lives are in your hands. We often hear people talk of “protecting future generations”,and there is certainly a lot of value in thinking of your children and grandchildren when thinking about the future – it makes it personal.

But there is an additional way of thinking about this, which carries equal moral authority – that of existential risk at a human-extinction level.

If you use a pan-generational lens, the lives of all of the potential future generations are at stake.

Think about that idea for a moment. The future of human history.

It changes our perspective: we are familiar in considering genocide as abhorrent, but we are not used to thinking of omnicide (or ecocide) as even a credible threat.

You can also contextualise this by thinking of the differences between (a) peace, (b) 99% extinction, and (c) 100% extinction. What are the relative differences between (a), (b), and (c)?

Arguably the Manhattan Project was the first time we’d formally assessed the potential for omnicide – the study looked at whether a nuclear blast would create a chain reaction in our atmosphere, potentially destroying all life.

With an economic lens, we could consider our current financial markets as a “flawed realization” – we may have reached a technological maturity, but our financial infrastructure may be dismally and irremediably flawed: and a systems change needed to remedy it. It certainly has succeeded in ephemeral realization – but this spike of value is countered by our global consciousness of our bounded condition and is degrading rapidly.

The image of our island Earth has taken a generation to kick in.

Humanities “production possibility” frontier depends on the resources available at any point in time, but the amount of accessible free energy is finite and bounded. Whether we are 1 billion or 10 billion.

The distance between the reality of physics and the reality of our economic and social structures are so great, that it’s hard to envisage any material solution.

When we look at facts, such as the fact we have lost four fifths of arctic ice volume since 1980, that cleantech is already a $trillion dollar industry (about 1% of planetery GDP), or that PWC think that there might be some kind of “business as usual” scenario in a 6C world  we know one thing: we have to change. Typically change doesn’t happen slowly: it waits a long time, then happens much faster than anyone expects. We need to remember that to create the problems of an industrialised world, we spent *multiples* (not fractions) of our GDP. While this has created many kinds of wealth, the systems-cost, the existential risks, are still struggling to be truly taken on-board.

I wonder, now, what change we will see in our generation, and if we will even be in a position to reflect on what was needed to make a meaningful difference.

I view environmental sustainability (including but not limited to climate change) as an existential risk. In the systems design of our economic, resource-scarce, finite and bounded ecosystem, there is a desperate need to create meaningful mechanisms to engage, at scale and in the mainstream, that enable people to discuss, understand and act on their environmental impact.

In an age of fiduciary, evidence-based decision-making, our balance-sheets are missing volumes of data.

We have tried to create laws, processes and standards (e.g. Kyoto, Climate Acts, ISO), and ratings (e.g. green scores) but none have managed yet to scale to hundreds of millions of people and businesses and dozens of countries in any meaningful way.

There are many, many reasons for this, but looking forward, we have new tools (the web, open data, new currencies, pervasive networks), and new ways to drive collaboration. In order to catalyse engagement, we can now create different starting points: the rest is down to collaborative (p2p) engagement between people with the absolute minimum of hassle (e.g. understanding methodologies, zero or low financial costs of change, and minimal time and effort) to improve our insight. We then need to automate everything, so the lowest barrier to entry is to do nothing at all (we’re all busy and/or lazy to change unless confronted).

One question is “how can we influence our Treasuries?”. I wonder who will be the first to truly bring change here – governments in the EU, China, or the USA? or Kickstarter and BitTorrent? Or who will be the first to join up our global data-ecologies to reveal the health benefits of energy efficiency, the true financial impacts of education, or the social benefits of codified law.

To catalyse change needs many forcing-functions: policy has a role and will play a greater role over time, but until then we will continue to rely on the goodwill and foresight of the small number of inventors, innovators, influencers that have actively engaged in trying to make a difference. We need to build more success stories, based on evidence, and redirect our collective energies at scale. And fast.

Essential reading
http://www.nickbostrom.com/existential/risks.html (you may find Existential Risks PDF easier to read)

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RIP Patrick Moore

December 9, 2012 by

Very few public figures have influenced me over the years – Patrick Moore was an exception.

As a friend of my aunt, he wrote to me when I was 8, sending letters and copies of his books. Being on Arran, the skies were dark, and even the Milky Way visible on a clear night.

Fast-forward 10 years and I’m studying Astronomy at Glasgow University, then working at Jodrell Bank on Radio Astrophysics.

Fast-forward another 10, and I’m working at an early start-up, Virgin Net, where one evening we held an “webchat” with Sir Patrick. We then went for dinner.

Fast-forward another 10, and I’m in discussion with Sky at Night magazine about writing a feature, and separately with Chris Lintott on related projects.

I know his enthusiasm for Astronomy was felt by many of my peers.

Thank you. Goodnight, and RIP.

And now, go outside and look at the stars.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-20657939

http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2012/dec/09/sir-patrick-moore

http://boingboing.net/2012/12/09/sir-patrick-moore-1923-2012.html

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My slides from O’Reilly’s Strata conference “Making Data Work” today.

I described some of AMEE’s journey: through open data aggregation and distribution, accessibility, provenance,  and structure. But better data isn’t enough – no one (well, a few) really cares about the science or the technology. We need to engage with stakeholders to provide meaningful insight and relevance to their business. AMEE will be launching a new initiative this year to create an environmental score for every company in the UK.

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During the Olympics Opening Ceremony, the creator of the web tweeted “This is for everyone” to millions of people around the world.

Decades since their invention, we are still discovering and unlocking value from the innovations catalysed by the open web, open internet, and open source. The Open Data Institute‘s mission is to demonstrate and unlock the value in Open Data.

Today, I am joining Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Professor Nigel Shadbolt at the ODI, as its CEO.

The ODI is a start-up – the first of its kind in the world. We have ambitious plans, and aim to have a substantial and positive impact for many, many people.

  • Incubate and catalyse innovative new companies
  • Help large and small companies develop and derive value from open data
  • Provide the right environment to inspire, train, and develop world-class talent
  • Enable organisations publish high-quality open data
  • Help shape standards in this emerging space

We have had fantastic support across the political spectrum, from academia, from the private sector, and from individuals.

Open Data creates the potential for anyone to innovate. The web was created using, and exists because of, open source and open data. I want to explore how we can best deliver;

  • data presented in a structured, “machine-readable” form so that data can be used by and between services (for example, using Apps)
  • data that is addressable via the internet and can therefore be linked together

I believe that

“information causes change, otherwise it’s not information”
James Burke, dconstruct 2012

There are massive benefits of getting this right. Governments, businesses, and individuals around the world are gradually coming to understand the power of data. The World Economic Forum has now categorised Personal Data as a new “Asset Class”:

“Personal data is the new oil of the Internet
and the new currency of the digital world.”

Meglena Kuneva, European Consumer Commissioner

And this is just the beginning: there is an emerging shift in our collective understanding of the power of connected, addressable information.

The ODI will help us reveal this power, guide us towards best practices, fair usage, and empower a new generation of innovators to create value – and in this definition I include economic, environmental, and social value.

What is Data?
This may seem like an obvious question, and to help anchor our language I want to be clear what this means. We live in an age where almost everything is, or will be, digitised. We are familiar with government spending data, health statistics, company financial reports, school assessments, and our own personal records. We are less familiar with data that is collected when we (as governments, businesses, or individuals) use the web, or devices that generate new data (such as location data from your mobile phone, or using Facebook).

I see two trends here: one is a growing set of opportunities for innovation – creating new services that improve our lives, the other is a growing sense of anxiety – that we are monitored and not in control of our information. I want to address both these areas.

What is Open Data?
Firstly Open Data does not mean “all data”, or that it’s a free-for-all. For example, your personal health data is extremely private. There are benefits, for example aggregated anonymous statistical analysis can help us make better decisions. There are also risks – we know that companies, governments, and individuals are not always as well equipped to handle information as we may want.

Examples (please send me more – I am keen to learn!)
- Public data released around MRSA has contributed to reducing death rates
- Company data released around environmental data has helped to catalyse the transition to  more energy efficient operations
- And even remarkable stories involving individual data could help to find new cures…

 

NB: I will remain on the board of AMEE.

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I’ve been tracking Arctic sea ice melt for over 5 years – we now seem to have broken the 2007 record. There are a few week left in the melt season, so this isn’t the minimum yet….

More from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, Earth Observation Research Center

More from the USA National Snow and Ice Data Center

Opinion from The Guardian

Note the grey bar, indicating the +/- 2 standard deviations range.

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This is good news:

“Nature Publishing Group’s (NPG) Linked Data Platform now hosts more than 270 million Resource Description Framework (RDF) statements….The data is now being updated in real-time and new triples are being dynamically added to the datasets as articles are published on nature.com.

Available at http://data.nature.com, the platform now contains bibliographic metadata for all NPG titles, including Scientific American back to 1845, and NPG’s academic journals published on behalf of our society partners. NPG’s Linked Data Platform now includes citation metadata for all published article references. The NPG subject ontology is also significantly expanded.

The new release expands the platform to include additional RDF statements of bibliographic, citation, data citation and ontology metadata, which are organised into 12 datasets – an increase from the 8 datasets previously available. Full snapshots of this data release are now available for download, either by individual dataset or as a complete package, for registered users at http://developers.nature.com.”

http://www.nature.com/press_releases/ldp.html

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ISEA 2012

May 29, 2012 by


I’ll be speaking at the Eighteenth International Symposium on Electronic Art, ISEA2012 Albuquerque.

Machine Wilderness is a symposium and series of events exploring the discourse of global proportions on the subject of art, technology and nature. The ISEA symposium is held every year in a different location around the world, and has a 30-year history of significant acclaim.

Acoustic Cosmology will be included in the “Radical Cosmologies” track.

Update: I’m speaking on “The Utterance of a Cosmological Model” in Hotel Albuquerque: Sandia Room at 2:30pm.

The “Radical Cosmologies” theme will gaze at the universe and question our place in it. It will explore a wide range of creative perspectives and practices around the cultural, scientific and philosophical possibilities of contemporary astronomy. This theme will incorporate various forms of media, written word, performance and installation, as well as workshops, community-based actions, lectures and online projects to offer viewers fresh interpretations and experiences of cultural myths, indigenous histories and contemporary science.

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