What Have Architects Ever Done for Us?

I’ve been thinking about blogging on the topic of what value architects bring to the table in an age of open source software, commoditized hardware and agile development for a while. I’ve finally been spurred into action by re-discovering the famous Monty Python sketch What have the Romans ever done for us? (I often find that thinking of a name for a blog post helps me to formulate the content and structure what I want to say). Here’s the video in case you haven’t seen it.

So, picture the scene…

You are in a meeting with the chief information office (CIO) of a public or private sector enterprise who has been tasked with aligning IT with the new business strategy to “deliver real business value”. The current hot technologies, namely social media, mobile, big data/analytics and cloud, are all being mooted as the thing the organisation needs to enable it to leapfrog the competition and deliver something new and innovative to its customers. The CIO however has been burnt before by an architecture team that seems to spend most of its time discussing new technology, drawing fine looking pictures that adorn their cubicle walls and attending conferences sponsored by vendors. She struggles to see the value these people bring and asks in a frustrated tone “what have architects ever done for us”? What’s your response? Here’s what I think architects should be doing to support the CIO and help her achieve the enterprise’s goals.

  1. Architects bring order from chaos. The world of IT continues to get ever more challenging. Each new architectural paradigm adds more layers of complexity onto an organisations already overstretched IT infrastructure. As more technologies get thrown into this mix, often to solve immediate and pressing business problems but without being a part of any overall strategic vision, IT systems begin to sink into more and more of a chaotic state. One of the roles of an architect is not only to attempt to prevent this happening in the first place (see number 2) but also to describe a future “to-be” state, together with a road map for how to get to this new world. Some will say that this form of enterprise level architecting is fundamentally flawed however I would argue it still has great value provided it is done at the right level of abstraction (not everything is enterprise level) and recognises change will be continuous and true nirvana will never be achieved.
  2. Architects don’t jump on the latest trend and forget what went before. When a new technology comes along it’s sometimes easy to forget that it’s just a new technology. Whilst the impact on end users may be different, the way enterprises go about integrating that technology into their business, still needs to follow tried and tested methods. Remember, don’t throw out the baby with the bath water.
  3. Architects focus on business value rather than latest technology. Technologies come and go, some change the world, some don’t. Unless technology can provide some tangible benefits to the way a business operates it is unlikely to gain a foothold. Architects know that identifying the business value of technology and realising that value through robust solutions built on the technology is what is key. Technology for the sake of technology no longer works (and probably never did).
  4. Architects know how to apply technology to bring innovation.This is subtlety different from 3. This is about not just using technology to provide incremental improvements in the way a business operates but in using technology to provide disruptive innovation that causes a major shift in the way a business operates. Such disruptions often cause some businesses to disappear but at the same time can cause others to be created.
  5. Architects know the importance of “shipping”. According to Steve Jobs “real artists ship”. Delivering something (anything) on time and within budget is one of the great challenges of software development. Time or money (or both) usually run out before anything is delivered.Good architects know the importance of working within the constraints of time and money and work with project managers to ensure shipping takes place on time and within budget.

So there you have it, my take on the value of architects and what you hopefully do for your organisation or clients. Now, if only we could do something about bringing world peace…

A Tale of Two Cities

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…

So began A Tale of Two Cities written by Charles Dickens in 1859. The novel depicts the plight of the French peasantry demoralized by their aristocracy in the years leading up to the revolution and many unflattering social parallels with life in London during the same time period.

This week I’ve come across two very interesting and contrasting views of what smarter cities might look like which could well be summed up by the opening words of Dickens’ novel. One very new (February 2013) and one quite old (September 2008), they offer respectively a utopian and dystopian view of of the future of our cities.

The first view comes from the engineering and architectural consultancy company Arup. Their internal think-tank, Foresight + Innovation, has produced a report called It’s Alive – Can you imaine the urban building of the future?  In the report the author, Josef Hargrave, imagines what life will be like in 2050 if, as is predicted, 75% of the planets 9 billion population are living in cities. Hargrave asks:

As city living takes center stage, what will we come to expect from the design and function of urban structures and buildings?

In the future cities of Hargraves view:

  • The buildings in our cities will be manipulated in real-time and the components that they are made up from will be a part of the internet of things.They will be flexible structures whose components can be upgraded and rearranged over time.
  • Buildings will understand an individuals personal preferences, possibly at the level of their genetic composition.
  • Buildings will be more akin to living organisms and react to external conditions through a series of feedback loops. They will function as a “synthetic and highly sensitive nervous system”.
  • Buildings will not only be made from sustainable resources but will become an integral component of urban food production, containing areas for food production as well as bio-fuel cells that provide energy for the building.
  • Buildings will be integrated with the systems around them (green spaces, public transport and smart energy grids).

All of the above are obviously going to require a smart infrastructure of sensors generating data that can be analysed in real-time and reacted to by both the buildings systems as well as individuals who live and work in them. A nice job not only for the building architect but also the IT architect who needs to design those systems and make sure they all work together.

The other future vision I stumbled across this week is not quite as reassuring or cozy. Written in 2008 The Internet of Things – A critique of the ambient technology and the all seeing network of RFID is a series of essays which describe a slightly more alarming world where the promise of large numbers of interconnected devices (AKA The Internet of Things) are used for more surreptitious monitoring of the earths citizens.

Mark Weiser, Chief Scientist at Xerox-PARK and the so-called father of ubiquitous computing once said:

The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.

As the name of this paper suggests it largely focuses on the threat of ubiquitous RFID devices. At the time the paper was written smart phones like the iPhone, introduced one year earlier, were only just taking off and the tracking and monitoring capabilities of these devices was in its infancy. This paper provides a series of warnings of what might happen when computers disappear completely and really become fully integrated into our lives.

For example at one level there might be benefits from tracking John who goes to shop A and buys object B, then visits shop C and buys object D because we know the ingredients for making that bomb too. For some governments however if shop A happens to be the offices of an “illegal” human rights organisation and shop C is actually an outside public space where an organised march is taking place arresting John may be for a different purpose.

I guess the second city tale could be summed up by asking: when the environment becomes the interface, where is the off switch?

Whichever vision comes to pass (and it is most likely to be some combination of the two) as technologists we have it within out power to shape our future for the good not the worse. In the United Kingdom, where I live, we sometimes work ourselves into a bit of a frenzy over the machinations of government and industry whether it be the latest sex scandal, expenses misconduct or banking wrongdoing. We do, compared with many countries, have a relatively free press however where we eventually learn of these scandals. We also have unfettered access to the internet and tools like this where we can make our voices heard. It is beholden on us all therefore to make sure we do express concerns where they are valid and make sure we continue to make out governments and business leaders are held to account and use technology wisely. I certainly know which of these two cities I would rather live in.

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?

Disruptive Technologies, Smarter Cities and the New Oil

Last week I attended the Smart City and Government Open Data Hackathon in Birmingham, UK. The event was sponsored by IBM and my colleague Dr Rick Robinson, who writes extensively on Smarter Cities as The Urban Technologist, gave the keynote session to kick off the event. The idea of this particular hackathon was to explore ways in which various sources of open data, including the UK governments own open data initiative, could be used in new and creative ways to improve the lives of citizens and make our cities smarter as well as generally better places to live in. There were some great ideas discussed including how to predict future jobs as well as identifying citizens who had not claimed benefits to which they were entitled (and those benefits then going back into the local economy through purchases of goods and services).The phrase “data is the new oil” is by no means a new one. It was first used by Michael Palmer in 2006 in this article. Palmers says:

Data is just like crude. It’s valuable, but if unrefined it cannot really be used. It has to be changed into gas, plastic, chemicals, etc to create a valuable entity that drives profitable activity; so must data be broken down, analyzed for it to have value.

Whilst this is a nice metaphor I think I actually prefer the slight adaptation proposed by David McCandless in his TED talk: The beauty of data visualization where he coins the phrase “data is the new soil”. The reason being data needs to be worked and manipulated, just like a good farmer looking after his land, to get the best out of it. In the case of the work done by McCandless this involves creatively visualizing data to show new understandings or interpretations and, as Hans Rosling says, to let the data set change your mind set.

Certainly one way data is most definitely not like oil is in the way it is increasing at exponential rates of growth rather than rapidly diminishing. But it’s not only data. The new triumvirate of data, cloud and mobile is forging a whole new mega-trend in IT nicely captured in this equation proposed by Gabrielle Byrne at the start of this video:

e = mc(imc)2


  • e is any enterprise (or city, see later)
  • m is mobile
  • c is cloud
  • imc is in memory computing, or stream computing, the instant analysis of masses of fast changing data

This new trend is characterized by a number of incremental innovations that have taken place in IT over previous years in each of the three areas nicely captured in the figure below.

Source: CNET – Where IT is going: Cloud, mobile and data

In his blog post: The new architecture of smarter cities, Rick proposes that a Smarter City needs three essential ‘ingredients’ in order to be really characterized as ‘smart’. These are:

  • Smart cities are led from the top
  • Smart cities have a stakeholder forum
  • Smart cities invest in technology infrastructure

It is this last attribute that, when built on a suitable cloud-mobility-data platform, promises to fundamentally change not only how enterprises are set to change but also cities and even whole nations.  However it’s not just any old platform that needs to be built. In this post I discussed the concept behind so-called disruptive technology platforms and the attributes they must have. Namely:

  • A well defined set of open interfaces.
  • A critical mass of both end users and service providers.
  • Both scaleable and extremely robust.
  • An intrinsic value which cannot be obtained elsewhere.
  • Allow users to interact amongst themselves, maybe in ways that were originally envisaged.
  • Service providers must be given the right level of contract that allows them to innovate, but without actually breaking the platform.

So what might a disruptive technology platform, for a whole city, look like and what innovations might it provide? As an example of such a platform IBM have developed something they call the Intelligent Operations Center or IOC. The idea behind the IOC is to use information from a number of city agencies and departments to make smarter decisions based on rules that can be programmed into the platform. The idea then, is that the IOC will be used to anticipate problems to minimize the impact of disruptions to city services and operations as well as assist in the mobilization of resources across multiple agencies. The IOC allows aggregated data to be visualized in ways that the individual data sets cannot and for new insights to be obtained from that data.

Platforms like the IOC are only the start of what is possible in a truly smart city. They are just beginning to make use of mobile technology, data in the cloud and huge volumes of fast moving data that is analysed in real-time. Whether these platforms turn out to be really disruptive remains to be seen but if this is really the age of “new oil” then we only have the limitations of our imagination to restrict us in how we will use that data to give us valuable new insights into building smart cities.