Three things a city in charge of its destiny ought to know about software

2015 promises change in the way that Leeds, Yorkshire and England’s north are governed. Not before time, decision-making and funding are to be brought closer to us, to the cities and localities where we live, learn, play and work. This new settlement will arrive at a time when cities and governments everywhere are challenged to design and deliver service differently. It also comes just as, in Marc Andreessen’s words, software is eating the world.

Over my Christmas break I’ve been thinking about the malleability and abundance of software; what this looks like at the scale of a 200-year-old post-industrial city; and how it should shape the ways we decide and deliver things together. This is the first half of a 2-part ramble. Part 2 (still an outline in my drafts folder) will probably look at the structuring principles of the internet and the web, and how we might apply them at city scale. But before I can get to that story, I want to tell you this one: three things a city in charge of its destiny ought to know about software…

Light Night 2014 - Some rights reserved by CarlMilner

1. The clue is in the name

The first thing to know about software is… it’s soft: the opposite of hardware, malleable, endlessly changeful. When we shift the dominant logic of a thing from the hard layers to the soft we open it up to unpredictable new uses and reuses. We move from a world where things must be finished before use to a swirl of beta versions, A/B tests and updates on the fly.

  • Google repurposes links between pages as votes to rank websites’ authority, and in so doing grows a multi-billion dollar business based on an algorithm tweaked constantly to stay a step ahead of the SEO industry it has spawned.
  • The half-finished world of Minecraft is released missing its game mechanics and becomes a sandbox for the imaginations of millions of children.
  • Strangers collaborate to make Wikipedia at a pace of 10 edits per second across 4.6 million articles in the English version alone.

Massive though these software-driven behemoths may seem, they exist only as long as people choose to interact with them: the moment they stop moving, they begin to wither away. Remember Friends Reunited? Microsoft Encarta? The Yahoo Directory? Software facilitates the delivery of service in the moment, with value created at the point of use. It does not produce assets that can be hoarded in a warehouse or on a balance sheet.

This service-dominant logic of software poses a special challenge to the traditional imaginings of the world’s first industrial cities, synonymous as they are with unprecedented accumulation of hard, fixed capital. Here, the newly rich industrialists staked their claims on history’s grand sweep with facades designed to endure for centuries. Victorian navvies raised 18 million red bricks high above the River Aire so that 21st Century trains could rumble right into Leeds city centre. Little wonder that when today’s businesspeople and politicians want to symbolise a northern revival they reach first for the nostalgia of industrial museums and commitments to big infrastructure projects. This is, however, a misdirection that we need to avoid.

Leeds Brick Man maquette - Some rights reserved by nualabugeye

I’m a sucker for steam engines, but there are other stories that we should surface if we are to make sense of the era of software. The history of city after city is that people settled first, and shaped the infrastructure around them afterwards. And while they were waiting for the mod cons to arrive, they had to figure out how to get along together, how to raise the next generation, how to look after the old, sick and poor. To organise service for so many people demanded new forms of social software. The first mutual societies, trade unions, public health boards, and even modern local government arose first in cities like Leeds. Keep hold of those stories. Seek out more of them.

Surrounded by very concrete ruins, we overlook the intangible skills and habits of service that remain intact here. Let no one tell us that service is a new concept for the formerly industrial cities – it’s what we were doing all along. Renewing our cities in the 21st century should be more about these things – the soft, changeful ones – than about hard, physical infrastructure projects.

2. There’s a lot of it about

The second thing about software is abundance. It is infinitely copiable, an embodiment of human knowledge. The more it is shared, the greater its utility. Every day, more is added to the store of freely available code. When the team behind GOV.UK released their code on Github they enabled the people of New Zealand to re-use it for their government website, at no cost to British taxpayers. Indeed we Brits may even benefit further, if the New Zealanders improve on our code and share it back with the world.

Leeds Santa Dash - Some rights reserved by Old Bluebeard

Not only is software plentiful, but so, increasingly, are the skills needed to create and use it. In Leeds alone there are thousands of people working in-house with organisations and across digital agencies and service providers. Our universities and colleges train hundreds of students in software disciplines. Moreover, in almost every office there are people without this formal training who can wrangle a spreadsheet or paste in some HTML formatting. There are people who go home from day jobs which have nothing to do with software and spend their evenings running websites for their football clubs or churches.

This is how platforms are made in the age of software, not by fiat of a central authority but emergently with layer built upon layer in response to the needs of users and the growing capabilities of makers. As platforms build they can raise everyone up to levels of attainment previously only available to a privileged few. They don’t so much lower the barriers to entry as help us to scramble over them – by wrapping up what used to be hard in easy-to-use packages.

  • Freeserve pioneered a pay as you go model that made dial-up internet accessible to millions of Britons.
  • Blogger, Typepad and WordPress made everyone a writer on the web.
  • Ebay and Paypal made everyone a seller who could accept card payments.
  • Satnav endowed everyone with the knowledge of a London cabbie.

Software in all its abundance can and should be made accessible to all in our city, without mystery – but this is not something that happens by default. There are players in the software world who don’t want you to know about abundance. They seek excess profits in the gaps where people haven’t yet cottoned on that something formerly hard and expensive has now been rendered easy and cheap. Before you know it, a major systems integrator is charging the government £30,000 to change a logo on a webpage.

At the height of the early noughties DotCom boom, I knew the game was almost up when I met a consultant whose business card proudly declared “Because It Really Is Rocket Science”. It wasn’t even then. It certainly isn’t now. As cities, we should demand platforms that raise the knowledge, confidence and capability of all our citizens, without leaving us in hock to snake oil salespeople.

3. Don’t ask if it will scale

“Yes, but will it scale?” is a common challenge when evaluating the commercial potential of a new service. I’ve come to believe this is the wrong question. Focusing too soon on scale leads us down the road of the lowest common denominator. In my private sector career I’ve seen multinational companies blow millions of euros and lose market share because of global “solutions” that were wholly inappropriate to the realities of business on the ground. I’ve seen the error compounded by bending good local services out of shape to spare the embarrassment of the people who specified the wrong things from the centre.

The so-called economies of scale claimed for big IT solutions turn out to be largely illusory. Their business cases begin with wrong-headed, goods-dominant accounting copied from the world of manufacturing, where buying stuff in bulk really can be cheaper. Wishful thinking by people remote from the frontline carries these projects forward unchallenged. But by the time complex shared services have been tailored to the needs of the people and teams who use them, they can actually increase costs substantially.

This is an important point to understand when thinking about efficiency at different levels of government. We should be suspicious of those who tell us that devolution will lead to duplication between cities. Given that software is cheap and abundant, duplication is the least of our worries. In fact, two neighbouring cities doing things in slightly different ways would present a wonderful way to learn what works in each context. We should resist pressure to merge IT services between neighbouring authorities – that would dilute quality as well as blur democratic accountability.

revengance on aire street - Some rights reserved by Johnson Cameraface

Instead of asking “will it scale”, ask a better question: “Does it gracefully handle massive diversity?” The old paper form to claim Carer’s Allowance handled the massive diversity of people’s caring needs and relationships, but it did so gracelessly – by asking many questions not relevant to all carers. By doing user research, and diving into the detail of the application process, the digital exemplar team were able to remove 170 questions from the application process and structure the service so that users are only asked things relevant to them.

This is not to say that scale doesn’t matter. Rather, understanding diversity is the better starting point. The diversity question accommodates scaling; the scaling question tramples all over diversity.

Our cities are havens of diversity (not that you’d know it from the white, male, middle-aged-dominated board of our local enterprise partnership). The only way to understand and serve diversity is to go and see the users, learn what really matters to them and start to meet their needs. The good news: with software eating the world, with its inherent malleability and abundance, there’s never been a better time to get out of the bubble and do just that.

Postscript – a couple of days after I published this, JP Rangaswami posted a beautiful piece on his blog. I can smell the printer’s ink too: Bureaucracy as a platform? The power of diversity

On wellbeing in a smart city: when I hear the word dashboard…

On Friday, a group of us spent a couple of hours chewing over the question of wellbeing; specifically wellbeing in a smart city; more specifically still wellbeing in a smart city that happens to be coterminous with the Metropolitan Borough of Leeds.

We were talking about this stuff thanks to Tim Straughan and the “Smart Cities – Health and Wellbeing Leeds Task and Finish Group” whose draft report bears a lofty ambition to (deep breath!)…

make every asset count, remove certain existing legal barriers and commercial obstacles and develop new financially sustainable business models using a range of possible new institutions engaging a workforce with enhanced skills and empower our citizens and work with our local communities to deliver a shared goals.

Let’s not go into the overall definition of a smart city. I take it as read that most of us prefer some messy, inclusive, people-centred flavour, over the proprietary techno-utopias pushed by naïve systems integrator business development teams.

Let’s also not dwell here on the health side of the report, which if anything is too dominant. Jon Beech made a shrewd point about the root causes of frustration with our fragmented health service – and questioned whether more data, better understood and shared, would really address them.

Some fantastic wellbeing ideas came up in our discussion, especially the little oddball things that nevertheless speak of bigger integration challenges – special hat tip to Paul Simkins, what if a GP really could prescribe her patient a tree?

But the session wasn’t easy. As a Brackenist, I found the level of abstraction in the published draft report frustrating. Some of the solutions it contained didn’t seem very well adapted to the questions that were posed.

My hunch, expounded below, is that the response should be made of lots of small, practical experiments, plus a set of qualities, habits and behaviours that would make our city emergently smart. There are no dirigiste, politician-pleasing big ticket prizes to be won on this stall.

I felt we edged forwards, and afterwards I jotted down some thoughts in a personal manifesto. I numbered the points. It goes up to 11.

Manifesto for wellbeing in our smart city

1. Wellbeing is subjective. There is some fascinating work among statisticians in this area but the actual definitions remain more art than science. In the words of National Statistician Jil Matheson, “We must measure what matters – the key elements of national well-being. We want to develop measures based on what people tell us matters most.”

2. Wellbeing is socially constructed. It cannot be sustained in solitude. When two people meet, the first question is invariably “How are you?” More often than not, the answer comes, “I’m fine.” And yet both parties are acutely tuned to minute delays and inflections to know when “I’m fine” does not mean “I’m fine.” Cities – consciously smart or not – are settings where wellbeing is co-created every day.

3. Wellbeing is a moving target. It weaves in and out of work, play, learning and health. It tumbles up and down Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It follows economic cycles and the fortunes of football teams. Wellbeing is a complex system. As W. Edwards Deming revealed, you cannot optimise a system merely by optimising its individual parts. We need a holistic view, but…

4. The word “holistic” begs the question of unit. A whole nation? A whole city region? A whole neighbourhood? A whole family? A whole person? A whole lifetime? A whole lunch-hour? I’m inclined to think we should start with individuals here and now, then work our way outwards, not the other way around.

5. A smart city would broaden its options. Its people would think beyond obvious wellbeing measures and narratives. It would draw in a larger number of actors and create more spaces for them to try new things. The high degree of uncertainty demands collective thinking and action research to better understand the territory.

6. Dashboards don’t do this. In fact they’re a design pattern for narrowing options down. In a car this is great – literally a lifesaver. We know where we’re going and need just a few well-understood metrics – miles per hour, revolutions per minute – to be sure things are working as they should. More than this would be a distraction, and most of the time we want to keep our eyes on the road, not on the dashboard.

7. An asset map is a much better metaphor. On a map, new information can be plotted. Multiple destinations and routes can be considered. There’s a big difference between a map and a dashboard. An asset map would increase the number of actors – so long as it could reach out beyond the usual suspects. The conversations inherent in creating the map would themselves change the territory.

8. New institutions are no sort of solution (though they may be an outcome). Organisational boundaries are what got us into this mess in the first place! If they constrain new approaches, we should set people free to do their best work regardless. New institutions may later emerge, to formalise working practises developed by empowered people. But creating new institutions to make up for the failings of old ones would be putting the cart before the horse.

9. Let’s take a user centred, agile approach. Let’s start with needs* (* – user needs, not government needs!). User needs for wellbeing will be many and varied. Some will be in conflict with others. If they’re not, we’re doing it wrong. Create a multi-disciplinary team (not a steering committee). Give them time and space. Let them try some things. Tell everyone. Iterate wildly.

10. If this is our devolution moment, we are woefully under-prepared. But that’s OK. Taking control of your destiny is not something for which one can plan a great deal. We’ll just have to do it, feel the weight of responsibility, fail fast, raise our game, start to improve. We can’t do much worse that the vacuum of ideas we’re replacing.

11. Cut us some slack. Learning to be a smart city demands that we put diversity ahead of efficiency. People can’t learn unless they can take some risks. There has to be slack in the system. Without that, the stakes will be too high for the iterative process that leads to new learning. One day we may get to a dashboard, but first we need to make the map.

At Future Everything: nobody likes a smart arse, even when it’s a city

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“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” – Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, opening line

Why did Glasgow win the right to host the Technology Strategy Board’s £24 million Future Cities Demonstrator? Project Leader Scott Cain reels off a set of doom-laden statistics: a looming crisis in affordable warmth; a high incidence of anti-social behaviour; a shocking 28-year life expectancy gap between rich and poor neighbourhoods. Oh, and good city leadership, the kind that’s up to hosting the 2014 Commonwealth Games.

Poverty, conflict and inequality rarely figure in the “smart city” visions of those who seek to sell infrastructure dressed as “technology”.

I’ve railed against these things before. At Future Everything in Manchester on Thursday the chorus was deafening.

From Dan Hill’s call for “active citizens” not “smart cities” – “if we want people to think about carbon, don’t make the lights go out automatically.”…

… through Martijn de Waal’s pitting of computer-rendered master-planned Songdo against the very real, spontaneous “Seoulutions” of Hongdae: “engage and empower publics to act on communally shared issues.”…

… to Usman Haque’s praise for the messy city of Grub Street after 200 years of Enlightenment dirigisme: “a backlash of messiness in which the great uncalibrated rise up.”…

… and the audience’s line of questioning of the panel in which Scott, Martijn and Usman took part…

… it was abundantly clear that nobody likes a smart arse, even when it’s a city.

To frame problems in terms of efficiency is to miss the point of what it means to be a city, a platform for people’s numerous, contradictory drives and dreams.

The hunt for economies of scale chases us inexorably to the lowest common denominator. (So London gets the Future Cities “Catapult” because it’s Britain’s only “World City” – you can guess how this revelation went down in Manchester :)

Worst of all is the abdication of responsibility. Usman: “What I see specifically in the open data movement is that someone else is going to find the solution because it resides in the data.”

We’ve been here before, warns Dan, and the result was not pretty. It was Richard Weller’s “city that cars built when we weren’t looking.”

But if not that, then what?

As Dan notes, the interventions that make us smile, that feel intuitively right, like Helsinki’s Restaurant Day or Silje Johansen’s lonely traffic light, are fleeting and leave no trace but memory.

Dan urges us to consider the power of engaging with the “dark matter” of local administrations and building codes.

Despite its unpromising name, I also found some answers in a session titled “Building Creative Ecologies for Smarter Cities”.

There, Claire Reddington of Bristol’s iShed talked about “keeping the money at the margins” and trusting “the unreasonable expectations of artists”: “Tech conferences often fetishise failure. If you are not predefining the outputs it’s hard to categorise something as a failure.”

I loved Claire’s suggestion that if you want to be part of a network it’s “best not to have all the bits” – for example not having an art gallery on-site at the Watershed had prompted collaborations with surrounding galleries and venues.

On the same panel was Doug Ward, co-founder of Tech Hub Manchester in a listed warehouse in the city’s Northern Quarter. Referencing Brad Feld’s “Boulder thesis”, he listed the reasons he chose to stay as an entrepreneur in his home city: its history, universities and culture.

My take-outs: Endurance is greater than scale; diversity more valuable than efficiency; and actors are what matter, the networks will follow.

Make mine a messy city: Riot Sim and the City that Didn’t Riot

If you live in, work in, or occasionally visit a city, any city, but especially one in England’s North, please set aside half an hour or so some time soon to watch and read two powerful critiques of the prevailing techno-determinist vision of the so-called “smart city”.

All 11,000 words of Dan Hill’s post on his City of Sound blog repay an extended reading, but the title also says it all: “On the smart city; Or, a ‘manifesto’ for smart citizens instead“.

Dan asks: “Can a city be ‘smart’ and inefficient at the same time? Perhaps this is a fundamental question, un-voiced by smart city advocates.”

Then there’s Adam Greenfield’s more clinical dissection of the smart city missions of leading enterprises moving in on the space, such as Siemens’ somewhat sinister “the goal of such a city is to optimally regulate and control resources by means of autonomous IT systems.”

Watch Adam’s talk now, it’s only 10 minutes long.

Adam speaks of : “All that messy history caused by an infinity of small acts… It’s not just any city, it’s this city, wherever this city happens to be with all its texture, all of its history, all of its people…”

Mess, texture, history… all things Leeds, Bradford and their northern neighbours have in abundance. No more so than in the city districts that have been home to successive waves of immigration, making new dishes out of past occupants’ leftovers, as in Caribbean/Jewish Chapeltown or South Asian/Jewish Manningham.

When I look back over the glinting shards that Andrew, Imran and I have collected on our New Idea of the North Tumblr, one of the themes I see crop up repeatedly is that of the messy city, the celebration of small acts, randomness, spontaneity, lack of control.

I see it in the positive, creative activities like Emma Bearman’s Playful Leeds events…

Some rights reserved by Imran…

Take this intervention from the Scott Burnham Urban Mischief playshop last year…

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A pair of sticky tape legs, appear to have dived just this second from a half-finished shopping centre walkway and into the tarmac below. A beautiful piece of trash in the middle of a street that has itself been trashed by piecemeal development for as long as I can remember.

The smart city could not tolerate this. Development would be too well coordinated, the flow of pedestrian traffic too precious to permit even a temporary perturbation. Only in the messy city can such creativity flourish.

Of course the messy city has its dark side too. Don’t miss Radio 4’s upcoming re-staging of Tony Robinson’s ‘V’, the powerful and profane poem written at the time of the Miners’ Strike. The city that gave the world practical steam locomotion also grew the terrorists who bombed London’s underground railway.

But in contrast to the sterile efficiency of the mythical smart city, the messy city is real, and there’s always hope. To understand how the smart and messy cities see things differently, consider responses to the summer riots of 2011.

Exhibit A, the most egregious example at a recent smart city “social” sciences demo event at Leeds City Museum. The “Riot Sim” seeks to gamify law and order. Participants take the role of police commissioner, moving cute Lego officers across a projected city map to quell computer-generated outbreaks of violence.

In the movie world of the Matrix, the authorities are software agents, but here in the smart city, the computer assumes the role of the citizens. It’s tidier that way; even the riots are tidier. Riots are presented as inevitable, an apolitical phenomenon to be modelled and controlled. Tellingly, the high score is a financial one – how many thousand pounds of damage to property could the user/police chief/god-like viewer mitigate?

Riot Sim

Meanwhile in the messy city, real people were determined to change the narrative. In London they rejected the myth that Blackberry Messenger caused the riots and organised on Twitter to start the clean-up.

And in Chapeltown, there’s another story, one that the Riot Sim is incapable of imagining. In this story the police, community leaders and rioters are all humans, who look each other in the eyes and refuse to conform to stereotypes and computer models. After a gang-related shooting at the height of the ferment, police agreed to hold back while youth workers went round to calm tensions and call on parents to enforce an informal curfew. Because, not in spite, of the district’s troubled history the people of Chapeltown chose a different August 2011.

I’ll see your #riotcleanup and raise you, against all provocation and expectation, the City that Didn’t Riot.

#walkshopping (winter edition)

We made a walkshop! At sunset on Tuesday, undeterred by George Osborne, high winds and torrential rain, 17 of Yorkshire’s finest designers, technologists and geographers gathered to walk and talk, to see Leeds in a new light.

The inspiration came from Adam Greenfield and Nurri Kim’s booklet “Systems/Layers”:

“A walkshop is a new kind of learning experience that’s equal parts urban walking tour, group discussion, and spontaneous exploration. As we’ve presented them, in cities like Toronto, Barcelona, Copenhagen, Oulu and Wellington, walkshops are a half-day event, held in two parts. The first portion is dedicated to a slow and considered walk through a reasonably dense and built-up section of the city at hand. This is followed by a get-together in which participants gather over food and drink to unpack and discuss what they’ve just experienced.”

To their tried and tested format we added winter, a German Christmas Market, and the cover of darkness. Despite a nervous few hours where I checked the weather forecast more avidly than on my wedding day, I think the gamble with the timing paid off. As I’d hoped, the glow of screens and lights was accentuated by the gloom. We set out from Millennium Square at dusk, and returned an hour later in the dark to our meeting point in the Leonardo Building. It was a time of transition: for some passers-by this was going home time, for others going out time, or hanging about on the square time.

The 17 split into three groups. Each walkshopper was armed with a map, the obligatory service designer’s bundle of Post-It notes and three simple questions:

  • Where is information being collected by the network?
  • Where is networked information being displayed?
  • Where is networked information being acted upon?

Photos were taken, sensors noted, QR codes scanned and scorned in equal  measure. The different tacks taken by the three groups were fascinating, and I hope others will write up their experiences to compare and contrast.

Some things that impressed me personally:

A lot of infrastructure…

Visibly, there are cameras everywhere, also alarms, windspeed sensors, traffic sensors, footfall sensors. And screens – in bars, shops windows, and the granddaddy of them all, the BBC’s big screen overlooking Millennium Square.

We noted with fascination how phone boxes have morphed from kiosks for calling into internet terminals and now into wireless access points. A number of phone boxes and cabinets also seemed to be taking up prime pavement real estate despite being completely redundant. In the spirit of these straitened times, we wondered what else we could do with them.

Then there was the invisible. Ground-level lighting betrays cables and ducts buried underground. And layer-upon-layer of wifi blanketed the area we walked. There’s no formal city-wide wifi, but, for those in the know, a patchwork of access points spills out from educational and public institutions, covering the area with connectivity inside and out.

Dotted around the Christmas Market we found signs (literally signs) of the cheap and ubiquitous connectivity that enables temporary stalls to affect the trappings of permanent retail. Mobile phone numbers, credit and debit cards welcome, even a fast-food stand with Twitter and Facebook IDs.

… much apparently under-used or unused…

The iconic memory of the walk for me was the sight of a lone, hooded texter, face illuminated by a screen, standing in front of the Henry Moore Institute. On one side of the building stood a brace of Giles Gilbert Scott phone boxes, on the other a Royal Mail pillar box: several tonnes of bright-red painted cast iron disintermediated by a hundred grammes of smartphone.

We saw screens blazing, needlessly bright for the time of day, yet unheeded by passers-by. QR codes went unscanned (though unlike many of the walkshop group I still have a personal soft spot for them). Smokers lit up in front of the Post Office oblivious to the comprehensive display of foreign exchange rates just inches from them through the plate glass window. An LCD display tucked inside the entrance to a shopping centre reported alarming malfunctions in the building’s security systems; no one seemed concerned.

Pedestrians crossed in equal numbers on both sides of the Cookridge Street/Great George Street junction, even though one side has a pedestrian crossing and the other does not.

… low-fi is high impact…

When it comes to public display, I was struck by the way the utility of the screen tended to be in inverse proportion to its resolution.

The two most successful public screens we encountered were the illuminated signs showing numbers of empty spaces in nearby car parks, and the displays at bus stops with real-time departure information. While people were making real, time-saving, money-spending decisions on the strength of these mono-colour LED matrices, nearby HD TV screens frittered away their millions of colours on drinks promotions and national news tickers. Even parking ticket machines can tell you the time.

… and the old still dominates the new.

From our vantage point at the top of the Leonardo Building the most striking visual presence was the clock on Cuthbert Brodrick’s Town Hall. Its trustworthiness enhanced by synchronisation with the smaller clocks on the nearby Civic Hall. I suspect this trick is achieved the old-fashioned way, without the aid of sophisticated networked time-servers.

And then the sound of bell-ringing practice wafted over from St Anne’s Cathedral. These effortless assertions of authority by church and state have gone unchanged and unchallenged over more than a century. Together they set a high bar for the new media that aspire to a place in the cityscape. Nothing I saw on our walk came close to clearing that bar.

I say these things not as criticism but as opportunities.

Never in the city has so much infrastructure been so under-used. Our walkshop group came back frothing with what-ifs of connecting this stuff just a little more smartly, to itself and to the needs of the people who use the city.

The raw materials for fun, useful and engaging services now litter the streets for the taking.

Credits…

Thank you to the Leeds walkshoppers for braving the wind and rain, and especially to Leeds Digital Festival hero Leanne Buchan and Leeds City Council for the use of the Leonardo Building for our post-walk discussion. Thanks to Kathryn Grace, my Service Design Leeds co-organiser, and to Leeds Psychogeographer Tina Richardson for their support. Also, of course, to Adam Greenfield and Nurri Kim for the whole walkshop concept, which made organising the event a case study in simple internet-based group formation.

The conversation continues. All three groups collected lots of evidence and had many more ideas than we were able to share on the night. I hope they’ll  upload more photos and blog about the walkshop, letting us know via the #walkshop hashtag, and by adding notes or links on the wiki at http://leedswalkshop.pbworks.com/w/page/48487583/what%20we%20found

Aramis, or the Love of Pedalling

Interesting North presentations by James Boardwell and Toby Barnes plus an all-too-short chat with Tom Armitage in the pub after the event prompted me to rescue this post from my blog’s permanently-in-draft folder. I’m not sure it’s finished yet, but make of it what you will.

Originally it was going to be a sober and constructive service design account of my experiences on London’s cycle hire scheme: a tale of how my most regular London trip takes precisely 30 minutes and 19 seconds thus costing me an extra pound; of how the supply of bikes to major train stations at rush hour could make or break the scheme; and of how the chosen shade of blue now evokes a Pavlovian pedalling response.

But then I fell into reading the story of a different mode of urban transport, every paleo-futurist’s dream machine, the Personal Rapid Transit system. Specifically, on the recommendation of a colleague (thanks to that person, you know which Matt you are :) I got a copy of Bruno Latour’s 1993 work, ‘Aramis, or the Love of Technology,’ which traces the ill-fated 18-year journey of a guided transport project.

It’s a gem of a book, part documentary, part ethnographic meditation, part fictionalised romance of technology, a post-modern retelling of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein where we cannot tell if the monster is the creation or its creator.

“It’s typically French. You have a system that’s supposedly brilliant, but nobody wants it. It’s a white elephant. You go on and on indefinitely. The scientists have a high old time…”

Aramis was a prototype at Orly Airport in the early 1970s and a network planned for southern Paris in the 1980s. It was made up of moving pods, each carrying a few passengers, which could link up electronically to form ad hoc trains along busy routes then disband as they headed for their various destinations. The idea was that you’d hop on, take a seat, select your destination, and be whisked straight from A to B without having to change at C, or even wait a few minutes at D, E and F while other passengers boarded or disembarked.

In addition to the application of a revolutionary new motor, Aramis relied on “non-material coupling” by which its cars would travel packed together as if in a train, yet contactless…

“Aramis, the heart of Aramis, is nonmaterial coupling. That’s the whole key. The cars don’t touch each other physically. Their connection is simply calculated.”

I half-remember seeing Aramis on Tomorrow’s World. It was definitely the transport of the future, or at least of a future, the one depicted in books with titles like ‘The City of the Future’.

Ultimately the technology proved too complex and the political will too weak: the project was canned in 1987, having swallowed up half a billion francs of research and development costs and half the careers of some fine engineers along the way. All that we’re left with is an object-lesson in institutional inertia, a warning of how big businesses and governments can waste a fortune when they become too fixated on the technlogical solution at the expense of the user need.

But it struck me that in a funny way the French did get their Aramis. Because before London got its blue bikes Paris deployed Vélib’, a network of cycles for hire from docking stations dotted around the city.

And looking at the requirements (not the solution) that Latour discerned for Aramis, Vélib’ matches pretty well:

Requirement Aramis Vélib’
no transfers On board software determines the most efficient direct route Rider gets on bike at start of journey and gets off when they get where they’re going
no intermediate stops Cars peel off from train to drop passengers at station, so other pods can continue uninterrupted Rider stops only to buy a litre of milk or something. Other riders are not affected
passengers control the destination By pressing a button at the stop or in the car By steering with the handlebars
passengers don’t have to think They trust the car’s navigation computer to take them where they’re going They achieve a dream-like state of flow while following a well-marked cycle route

Watch the bike lanes of Paris or London in the rush hour, especially on a strike day. Cyclists link up subconsciously to form ad hoc trains along busy routes then disband as they head for their various destinations. The bikes don’t touch each other physically. Their connection is simply calculated. Yes, I have seen the future, and what it lacks in non-material couplings and variable-reluctance motors, it makes up for with a basket and a bell.

We don’t notice these things though. As James Boardwell so smartly put it in his Interesting North talk, we’re unable to picture something as simple as a bike playing a role in a radical vision of the future.

In this respect the pushbike is like Frank Chimero’s tiny horse in the Apple Store (as referenced by Toby): we’re too busy looking at the new shiny to even register the glaringly wonderful.

What really fascinates me about the cycle hire schemes, however, is the way they turn the bike into just a small part of a bigger system. To the hardware of gears and chains and brakes are added official and unnofficial services that multiply the bikes’ utility.

  • The access control systems and kiosks at each docking point…

  • The mobile apps that help users find a bike to use and a place to leave it…

  • The route planners that tell them the best way from A to B (without a care for C, D, E or F)
  • The GPS apps that records data trails for future reference.

These things may not be as obvious as Trondheim’s spectacular escalator (and I’d vote for one of these up Chapeltown Road) but they are real nonetheless.

Aramis’ body may have long since been scrapped, but its spirit lives on in the emerging software of the city.

The Makers of Leeds

Notes for my TEDxLeeds presentation, “The Makers of Leeds”. The Prezi version is here.

It starts with the amazing view from the top of the TEDxLeeds venue, the Mint, which looks out over Leeds on all sides. The American architect Hugh Newell Jacobsen said:

“When you look at a city, it’s like reading the hopes, aspirations and pride of everyone who built it.”

And where better to illustrate this than in one of the world’s oldest industrial cities? The new cities springing up in Asia, Africa and South America have 200 years to wait before they have such depth of stories.

Looking down towards Leeds Bridge, we can imagine the scene where Louis Le Prince shot one of the world’s first ever movies. Together with his wife Lizzie, who trained in ceramics, Louis started a “school of technical arts” in Leeds. This marriage of arts and science is still alive today among the Leeds Savages and hackers at the Hackspace. While we think of new media as bits and bytes, digital content, the new media of the late Victorian period was chemistry – specifically the actions of light and chemicals on ceramics, brass, paper and celluloid. The Le Princes had to combine these things to come up with a whole new artform.

But to make his design a reality, Le Prince needed a way to reliably move the film through the gate of his camera or projector. He turned to an inventor who had something every city needs – tickets (just think of all those football matches and theatre performances). James Longley had invented a machine for dispensing tickets. Le Prince commissioned him to combine this know-how with his own work on photography to create his camera-projector.

And the result is this snippet of traffic moving across Leeds Bridge. If you don’t believe how important this is, you can look it up yourself in the Internet Movie Database where Le Prince dominates the movie charts for 1888. There are no entries for 1887.

Just down the road from Leeds Bridge is Meadow Lane where hacker Joseph Priestley moved in near Jakes and Nell’s brewery. He noticed bubbles on the vats of beer and wondered what they were. This led to a series of experiments which isolated the gas we know today as oxygen. Priestley shared his discoveries of the effect of this gas on plants and animals with his coffee-house friend Ben Franklin who, in a startling leap of imagination, suggested that we should stop chopping down trees. The green movement began wih a mint plant in a bell jar in Joseph Priestley’s kitchen. Steven Johnson also tells how Priestley invented a process for making fizzy drinks. He open sourced the method and Johann Shweppe cleaned up.

Speaking in Shanghai, the writer Charlie Leadbeater set out six C’s that determine a city’s capacity for innovation: combination, conversation, co-evolution, challenge, commitment and connection. I think we can see plenty of all six C’s here in Leeds. The Le Princes combined art and science, mchanics and chemistry to make moving pictures. Priestley’s exchanges with Ben Franklin and his French rival Antoine Lavoisier give us conversation.

For co-evolution – the ability of suppliers, manufacturers and customers to develop solutions together – we look across the city to the three Italianate towers of Tower Works. Thomas Harding who built the towers was a maker of pins, not dress-maker’s pins but the pins used by billion in the textile industry. He understood that the business would prosper if his customers could rely on standard sized pins from multiple suppliers, so he worked with his customers and competitors to develop a range of standard pin sizes, called the Harding Gauge. For a modern parallel, picture those pins as angle brackets and the Harding Gauge as HTML, a standard language facilitating endless innovation and efficiency improvements.

Co-evolution was also central to the parallel developments of coal-mining, manufacturing and consumption in our city. In Holbeck, Matthew Murray built the Round Foundry, possibly the world’s first integrated engineering works. But he faced challenge in the form of competition from Boulton and Watt, a much bigger name in the steam engine trade. James Watt Junior stole Murray’s ideas, recruited a spy at his factory and bought up land to stop Murray growing his business. But the competition spurred Murray on, and he built the steam engine for the first commercially-successful steam railway at Middleton Colliery.

It seems unjust that the engineer commemorated by a statue in City Square is not Matthew Murray but his nemesis James Watt.

Murray’s mentor John Marshall faced challenges of a different kind. He was a flax spinner and flax spinning was a flamable businss. When one of Marshall’s wooden-framed mills burned down he partnered with a designer of a different kind of mill, one made of cast iron and brick. That’s commitment! The resulting fire-proof mills, like Marshall’s Mill in Holbeck are an important step in the evolution of the skyscraper. So it’s fitting that Leeds is the home of the best new tall building of 2010.

We can list a series of start-ups and businesses grown in Leeds:

  • Marks & Spencer, founded on Leeds Market
  • Burtons, which mass-produced suits for de-mobbed soldiers after the Second World War
  • Freeserve which revolutionised the business model for ISPs in Britain, enabling millions of households to get online for the first time.

But what’s left as we move from the indutrial to the post-industrial? At St Aidan’s former colliery near Garforth a five-storey-high giant walking robot stands marooned in a Teletubbyland of grassy hills and lakes.

What’s left, I think, is narrative capital, the wealth of stories we can draw on to make sense of our present and inspire our future, it’s the power people have to tell stories about their places and lives. And unlike coal, narrative capital never runs out. It’s a rich seam that’s getting deeper all the time.

Stories belong to everyone, so as well as the great innovators, the dead white men, it’s important to remember the contributions of ordinary people, like the thousands of women who laboured over spinning machinery in Temple Works, in its heyday the biggest room in the world.

And stories can be slippery when we try to grab hold of them. Of the heroes listed here:

  • Louis Le Prince was a Frenchman who had to go to New York to commercialise his invention
  • Joseph Priestley was from Leeds but ended his life in exile in the United States, having been hounded out of the country due to his radical political views
  • Matthew Murray was a Geordie so the North East has as much claim on him as we do here in Leeds.

All of those people bear out Charlie Leadbeater’s sixth C, connection to the wider world. As do the buildings that our Nineteenth Century predecessors have left us. Squint and you can see:

  • The Temple of Horus at Edfu on Marshall Street
  • Rennaissance Florence, Verona and a Tuscan hill town on Water Lane
  • A Venetian palazzo in Park Square
  • Paris at Cuthbert Brodrick’s Corn Exchange

So when I hear that people want to make Leeds “the best city in UK” I wonder whether that’s ambitious enough. Our predecessors saw themselves not as better than, but certainly equal to, any great city anywhere in recorded history.

Which makes me optimistic for the future of the city. As the American writer and campaigner Jane Jacobs put it:

“Lively, diverse, intense cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration, with energy enough to carry over for problems and needs outside themselves.”