Cities As Platforms

Take a look at the last decade’s fastest-growing companies. You’ll notice they have one thing in common: They’re all platforms.

YouTube was not the first video-hosting site, but it was the first to disrupt the stagnating online broadcasting model, creating a platform with digital engagement at its core. And the catalyst for Google’s exponential growth trajectory was when it opened its core search function to let people bid on keywords.

Facebook was not the first social network, but it was the first social network to view itself as a foundational digital platform, opening its APIs for apps and creative re-imagination.

If proved to be effective, innovation spreads like wildfire. Take the rise of the data scientist. Once only valued by a handful of Silicon Valley startups, Chief Data Officers are an integral part of today’s C-suite executives, found everywhere from the White House to Burberry.

It’s not uncommon for the public sector to look to private companies for inspiration, so what does this trend teach government? Can cities be viewed as platforms? Can they, too, be digitally disrupted?

Technological progress means cities and their corresponding governance structures are no longer untouchable entities. They must be connected to their citizens directly, seamlessly.

They are not intangible composites of capital, steel and glass.

Of course, cities like London and New York encompass physical objects like Buckingham Palace and The Empire State Building, black cabs and the subway. But more significant perhaps, are their digital footprints. Cities exist in our phones and laptops, and within the urban wisdom we share over digital networks. Increasingly, our urban environments are facing unprecedented challenges.

With more people now living in cities than ever before in history, we are placing ceaseless demands on public transportation, housing and public spaces. Far from alluring sites of opportunity and cultural exploration, the cities we inhabit are becoming microcosms of the most extreme impacts of human activity.

With digital innovation spreading like a creative pandemic across the globe, we must harness its potential for radical reinvention.

To evolve, cities must be viewed as platforms, with populations encouraged to utilize technology to creatively disrupt and redefine core functionalities. Every digitally enabled citizen living in a city is a hub of real-time data. When analyzed in isolation, there’s no actionable intelligence. But when you view the data we produce on a macro scale, the possibilities for radical inventiveness are endless.

Much like the iterative approach adopted by trailblazing software companies, citizens and city officials will have to shift their focus into a new default position: constant reinvention.

How would this look in practice?

Like the digital powerhouses of San Francisco and London’s rapidly expanding list of unicorns, let’s think of the city as possessing its own complex but penetrable API.

We must start with the recognition that, like its physical architecture, we can augment our city’s digital foundations; building sustainable solutions from the data we collectively produce.

Here’s a simple analogy for how to think about this more disruptive urban paradigm. If you take a set of encyclopedias and ask, “How do I make this digital?” you will get Microsoft Encarta, an encyclopedia on a disc. Remember those?

But if you ask, “How can digital change our engagement with encyclopedias?” you get Wikipedia, one of the largest publicly accessible knowledge stores on the planet with which we all can engage.

Along the same lines, we could take a city and ask, “How can we make it more digitally responsive?” and we would most likely end up with is a list of inane and oft-cited “smart city” solutions. Think smart toilets, bins and elevators, and you’re close.

But if we ask, “How does digital change our engagement with our city?” we get closer to exploit its full potential in a dynamic and civically minded way.

Waves of digitally astute cities are setting the pace, including Singapore, Panama, Seoul and Tallinn. They’ve all created spaces for digital disruption, opening data sets and convening citizens to challenge the digital architecture of the city and engage in direct democratic dialogue with officials. The more that we get into the mindset of a city as a platform, the easier it is to set virtual terms of service between citizen and city.

How could this be implemented systemically?

There is potential for what I’m calling “a Digital Social Contract” between city and citizen, built around the mutually accepted and shared understanding of rights, responsibilities and delivery.

This Digital Social Contract is premised on the agreement that the city will do more for us in exchange for our active and passive contribution. It’s a quid pro quo model. For the provision of our data, we get real transparency and the promise of greater urban efficacy.

The more we feel engaged with our city, the more we will feel collectively responsible for it; it’s a virtuous circle, with technology supplying the fuel for acceleration.

All of us need to recognize that putting our data to use in a meaningful way can improve our lives. But city officials have a part to play. They must create the appropriate systems and publicly accountable spaces to ensure measurable and effective use of data.

Think about how much we trust Facebook with our personal thoughts, locations, images and feelings. Yet we seem to balk when we think of public institutions housing far less emotive, but in some ways more important, information.

To evolve, cities must be viewed as platforms, with populations encouraged to utilize technology to creatively disrupt and redefine core functionalities.

That has to change if we want to make our city move from something that’s out there, to something we can mold, reshape and creatively re-imagine. Actionable intelligence has to move from the cloud into the hands of the public and City Hall.

This can be a nuanced and inherently complex interrelationship, I know. To illustrate it, let’s take a great example.

In my home city of London we’ve witnessed how transport can be massively improved through the use of smart data. We’ve gone from printed schedules on bus stops to SMS messaging and the latest incarnation, the CityMapper app.

Through CityMapper, we engage in a social contract of digital trust with the provider. You know where I am; in return, you provide me with actionable intelligence on the quickest and cheapest route to my destination.

These GPS-enabled applications are made possible through the use of datasets opened by the Greater London Authority and Transport for London, as well as Placr, who are running the transport API.

Two cities adopting the platform approach are Reykjavik and Tel Aviv, as signposted by Nesta’s recent CITIE initiative. The Icelandic capital opened datasets and worked with civil society activists to create a platform so that the public can propose and prioritize new ideas for the city. More than 60 percent of the population has participated already, with 257 ideas formally reviewed and 165 accepted and implemented since launch.

One example is where neighborhood organizations have been empowered to use public funds as they see fit, based on their allocated budget — participatory democracy in motion.

Far from alluring sites of opportunity and cultural exploration, the cities we inhabit are becoming microcosms of the most extreme impacts of human activity.

Similarly, in 2013, Tel Aviv launched a digital residents’ card that enables the beginnings of a two-way relationship between the citizen and the municipality so the city can become the creative vision of the people who inhabit it. It’s a centralized hub for Tel Avivans to get the most out of their city, from paying bills, to engaging representatives and finding out which movie theatre isn’t sold out of tickets on the opening weekend of the latest blockbuster.

On a micro scale, when the UK experienced some of the worst floods in its history in 2014, Tech City UK convened the renowned UK Government Digital Services team (GDS) and the Government’s Environmental Agencies and private sector developers in a hackathon at Google Campus in East London.

The agencies at the time released new datasets, so the community could build new apps and solutions. The impact was not just inspirational, but it also helped launch a number of new solutions to help flood victims, such as Flood Beacon.

London, already home to the internationally acclaimed Open Data Institute, has taken further brave steps with the opening of the London Data Store, one of the most extensive publicly available data banks of any city in the world. But it must go further as the urban infrastructure buckles under the weight of its growing population.

The process will only work if there is political will and a culture of citizen empowerment — prerequisites for an empowered disrupted democratic approach. In addition to thinking of cities as platforms, capable of generating and sharing data to create a laboratory for change, city officials must have strong representation from across the technological spectrum to make the Digital Social Contract a reality.

This must include everything from a Chief Digital Officer (CDO) responsible for the strategy, to a head of data, responsible for generating actionable insights and trends, to the need for developer relations, featuring a team of evangelists, promoting the use of data, to programmers, designers and businesses, and the people who are interested in building applications and services to plug gaps.

With digital innovation spreading like a creative pandemic across the globe, we must harness its potential for radical reinvention. It’s timely and it’s necessary — let’s take back the city.