Cities are getting good at collecting data—using neighborhood sensors, for example, to monitor traffic flow or accelerate emergency response. This is an important step in urban evolution, but more needs to be done for the world’s cities to become truly intelligent. What’s missing is the idea of sustainability, the long-term view of a city’s productivity and livability. Here, the newly formed City Protocol Society (CPS) shines. Its founding members—cities, companies, organizations, and academia—are modeling cities and creating protocols to help local government leaders talk to and learn from each other. These protocols have city sustainability at their core—a more promising approach than I’ve seen anywhere else.
Here’s what makes the CPS’s work distinctive.
Essence: Urban metabolism
A philosophy applied in urban design and development, urban metabolism underlies and informs everything the CPS is doing. It compares cities to living organisms and describes the materials that flow into and out of productive, sustainable systems. This type of metaphor is useful enough for looking at static bodies, but for growing systems—such as 21st century cities that will be stretched to their limits—it’s invaluable. It gives all of us a new way to talk about and visualize cities as systems of interconnected systems. With this as the foundation, the CPS is creating—as we speak—a common framework to help cities innovate together to address the challenges of urbanization.
At the CPS table are city leaders—urban planners, city developers, and administrators of smart city programs—who are leading the effort to develop this common framework. What’s different is that they’re equating information with key city assets like water and energy, and giving those who work with information a seat across from them at the table. The protocols being created, then, align the thinking of city planners and technologists to bridge the boundary between the material and virtual domains. That’s the secret to realizing the true, substantial benefits of technology: the ability to solve real-world problems. Until such a bridge exists, cities will struggle to communicate and innovate in ways that advance sustainable growth.
Something that’s said a lot around the CPS’s meetings, like the one last month in London, is “if it isn’t transformative, it isn’t CPS.” This organization isn’t about incremental change. As my colleague Dave Welsh wrote on this blog, the CPS is developing nothing less than a common vocabulary—a lingua franca—that will enable cities to learn together as never before. They have the potential to do something extraordinary.
Until now, the focus of much of the “intelligent cities” discussion has been around improving efficiency. This is understandable given the huge pressure on today’s cities to provide more services with fewer resources, especially within the context of rapid urbanization. Still, I believe efficiency alone falls short as an objective. We need to elevate the conversation to one of city sustainability—as the CPS is doing through its focus on urban metabolism. Want evidence that they’re on the right track? The World Bank is now measuring the urban metabolisms of the 100 largest cities in the world as part of its effort to move the concept into the mainstream. I encourage you to get involved with the CPS and participate in this larger conversation. You could be one of the governments that help cities evolve sustainably.
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