Do Smarter Cities Make their Citizens Smarter?

This is an update of a post I originally put in my blog The Versatilist Way. I’ve removed the reference to the now discredited book by Jonah Lehry (though I believe the basic premise of what he was saying about “urban friction” remains true) and added some additional references to research by the clinical psychologist Professor Ian Robertson.My IBM colleague,  Dr. Rick Robinson, blogs here as The Urban Technologist where he writes about emergent technology and smarter cities. This particular post from Rick called Digital Platforms for Smarter City Market-Making discusses how encouraging organic growth of small to medium enterprises (SMEs) in cities not only helps with the economic revival of some of our run down inner city areas but also means those SMEs are less likely to up roots and move to another area when better tax or other incentives are on offer. As Rick says:

By building clusters of companies providing related products and services with strong input/output linkages, cities can create economies that are more deeply rooted in their locality.

Examples include Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter which has a cluster of designers, manufacturers and retailers who also work with Birmingham City University’s School of Jewellery and Horology. Linkages with local colleges and universities is another way of reinforcing the locality of SME’s. Of course, just because we classify an enterprise as being ‘small to medium’ or ‘local’ does not mean that, because of the internet, it cannot have a global reach. These days even small, ‘mom and pop’ business can be both local as well as global.

Another example of generating organic growth is the so called Silicon Roundabout area of Shoreditch, Hoxton and Old Street in London which now counts some 3,200 firms and over 48,000 jobs. See here for a Demos report on this called A Tale of Tech City.

Clearly generating growth in our cities, as a way of improving both the economy as well as the general livelihoods of its citizens, should be considered a good thing, especially if that growth can be in new business areas which helps to replace our dying manufacturing industries and reduce our dependency on the somewhat ‘toxic’ financial services industry. However it turns out that encouraging this kind of clustering of people also has a positive feedback effect which means that groups of people together achieve more than just the sum of all the individuals.

In 2007 the British theoretical physicist Geoffrey West and colleagues published a paper called Growth, innovation, scaling, and the pace of life in cities. The paper described the results of an analysis of a huge amount of urban data from cities around the world. Data included everything from the number of coffee shops in urban areas, personal income, number of murders and even the walking speed of pedestrians. West and his team analysed all of this data and discovered that the rhythm of cities could be described by a few simple equations – the equivalent of Newtons laws of motion for cities if you like.  These laws can be taken and used to predict the behavior of our cities. One of the equations that West and his team discovered was around the measurement of socioeconomic variables such as number of patents, per-capita income etc. It turns out that any variable that can be measured in cities scales to an exponent of 1.15. In other words moving to a city of 1 million inhabitants results, on average, 15% more patents, 15% more income etc than a person living in a city of five hundred thousand. This phenomena is referred to as “superlinear scaling” – as cities get bigger, everything starts to accelerate. This applies to any city, anywhere in the world from Manhattan, to London to Hong Kong to Sydney.

So what is it about cities that appears to make their citizens smarter the bigger they grow? More to the point what do we mean by a smarter city in this context?

IBM defines a smarter city as one that:

Makes optimal use of all the interconnected information available today to better understand and control its operations and optimize the use of limited resources.

Whilst it would seem to make sense that having an optimised and better connected (city) infrastructure that ensures information flows freely and efficiently would make such cities work better and improve use of limited resources could this also enable the citizens themselves to be more creative? In other words do smarter cities produce smarter citizens? Some research by the clinical psychologist Professor Ian Robertson indicates that not only this might be the case but also, more intriguingly, citizens that live in vibrant and culturally diverse cities might actually live longer.

In this blog post Professor Robertson suggests that humming metropolises like New York or London or Sydney, through what he refers to as the three E’s, provide their citizens with stimulation’s that effect the chemicals in the brain making them smarter as well as reducing their chancing of developing aging diseases like Alzheimer’s. These three E’s are:

  • Excitation – the constant novelty that big cities provide, whether it be in terms of the construction of the next architecturally significant building or a new theater production or art gallery show provides a stimulating environment which has been shown to develop better memory and even lead to the growth of new brain cells.
  • Expectation. When there is a mix of cultures and ages it seems that older people don’t think themselves old; instead they seem to discard the preconceived notions of what people of a certain age are supposed to do and act like people of a much younger age.
  • Empowerment. By definition people who stay or live in cities tend to be wealthier. Again research has shown that money, power and success change brain functions and make people mentally sharper, more motivated and bolder.

If this is correct and the three E’s found in big cities really do make us both smart and live longer then the challenge of this century must be that we need to make our cities smarter, so they can sustain bigger populations that can live healthy and productive lives which can then have a positive feedback effect on the cities themselves. Maybe there really is a reason to love our cities after all?

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