City Protocol Society: Creating a lingua franca for cities

14 April 2014 | Dave Welsh , Corporate Standards at Microsoft

Today, everyone talks about smart and sustainable cities. But often, this is an abstract idea without a real blueprint for execution. The City Protocol Society (CPS), a non-profit launched last year, wants to change that. In meetings like the one I attended in London last month, its members—cities, businesses, organizations, and academics—are coming together to create a series of protocols based on a lingua franca, a common vocabulary that will enable cities to talk to each other. With their populations swelling and resources dwindling, cities need this common ground on which to learn and innovate to ensure sustainability. The three underpinnings of the CPS’s lingua franca are:


“Adopt, adapt, and if necessary, create.” That’s the philosophy of the CPS. Instead of acting as a standards organization and creating new standards, the CPS is acting as a society that adopts standards for next-generation cities, formalizing a city model based on standards that already exist. This is a good thing. There are so many standards out there now that can be repurposed. Among them is ISO 37120, a standard that is about to be published by the International Standards Organization. ISO 37120 will be the first international standard to provide key performance indicators for cities, enabling all cities to use the same metrics.


The CPS’s city model is based on a holistic view of cities as “systems of systems”—built environments comprised of dozens of networked subsystems, from water to energy to transport to information. Using this systems approach as the foundation will help us understand cities as a whole and see how interrelated elements interact to achieve certain ends. In this way, city leaders can simplify the complex, so they can explain and predict city transformation, according to Sebastien Moffatt, a global leader in city sustainability and a principal author on the City Protocol Systems Platform task force. This is powerful stuff—with the potential to deliver a new language for urban development.

City Anatomy

The CPS presents its city model visually using an iconic and provocative drawing called the City Anatomy. It’s based on the Urban Metabolism concept in which cities, like living organisms, are said to take in, process, and release resources continuously. The CPS’s formal depiction of City Anatomy—and the way they’re putting it through rigorous analysis using ontology—makes a lot of sense. It is also critical in establishing a common language for talking about the three key systems in cities—structure, society, and data—as well as the eight subsystems: Environment, infrastructure, built domain, public space, functions, people, information flows, and performance. And because it’s visual, the City Anatomy speaks many languages, writes Moffatt in the Systems Platform, opening up new opportunities for learning and policy transfer between cities.

I’m excited about the work the CPS is doing to facilitate city-to-city learning and exchange. Not only are they taking the right approach to standards, systems modeling and ontology, and visualization, but they also have a unique vision for instrumenting and automating the City Anatomy that should enable leaders to manage rapid urban growth. This is something I haven’t seen anywhere else. Global companies like Microsoft and Cisco, plus cities like Barcelona, Amsterdam, London, Dubai, Genoa, and Peterborough are leading the way. But more cities are needed. If your city can benefit, check out the documents being developed, join the CPS and get involved in a task force. You could be on the forefront of developing the new lingua franca for cities.

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Dave Welsh
Corporate Standards at Microsoft

Microsoft on Government Blog

About the Author

Dave Welsh | Corporate Standards at Microsoft

Dave covers Microsoft’s global interests on a variety of subjects, from Software and Systems Engineering standards, to Software Discovery and Identification standards, to Smart City standards. Read more