IBM Smart Cities, Helsinki – latest notes

9.50 Keynote

What will the future city look like?
The city of transaction

How to plan a socially, economically and environmentally sustainable city
The effects of the digital revolution on human behaviour patterns

Tim Stonor, Architect & Urban Planner, Managing Director, Space Syntax (UK)

Data is not the solution.
Turning data into knowledge is a beginning.
Turning knowledge into wisdom is the next step.
Turning wisdom into action is the key.

All of this requires theory.

Here is a theory of the city.
It begins with a description of the city as a geometrical configuration.
Of land uses and linkages.

Addressing the question that planners ask. That politician ask and demand of planners. That property developers make and lose money on.

What goes where and how is it connected together?

This is a theoretical problem. There is more than one way of doing it. There are competing positions. Each is well intended and each is built on doctrine.

My aim today is to demonstrate that the shape of the city, in and of itself, is a critical determinant of social, economic and environmental performance. My argument is that this shape – made by the relationship between land uses and linkages – creates a framework into which, onto which, beneath which and between which the products of organizations such as IBM fit.

I want to argue that the city is an operating system and that the products – the applications of the IT industry – work better or worse, harder or stronger – according to the design of the operating system.

The city as platform

The competition:
The city of fragments

Sold as: green, local, community

It isn’t so new. Look at the historic UK New Towns programme.
Poor economic & social performance. High carbon footprint although low income = low car ownership.

So, was it a lack of technology that prevented these places from doing better?
That can’t be the only factor, or even a factor at all, because other cities have performed well during the same period.

These tend to be the historic cities.

So, do we need to make our buildings look old?
No, because these historic cities have been the home of modern development: London, Munich, Bilbao.

The key distinction is the land use/linkage relationship.

Historic city – continuously connected. Pervasive centrality – centres at all scales. Overlapping with each other. Land uses coordinated with linkage hierarchy. Complete streets serving all modes of transport: pedestrian, cycling, vehicles.

Fragmented cities – the opposite in all regards.

How do we know this?
An interest in human behaviour, leading to the discovery of the role of space.

Examining the differences between the Connected City and the Fragmented City

– movement, including car ownership & public transport
– land use pattern
– economic performance
– health
– crime.

When do they work? When energy is affordable. When resources are plentiful. When time is a luxury. When health isn’t an issue. When ignorance is permissible.

Hold on…

All these factors are influenced by the design of the connective tissue of the city – the grid of streets and spaces. To a mathematician it shouldn’t be surprising that a grid is a better structure. It is more resilient to change. Take one part out and the rest rebalances to accommodate itself. Disconnected he fragmented city and large parts of it go offline. Hence the problem of traffic congestion: the fragmented system has an essential global movement infrastructure, a weak structure – break one small part and you break a large area. The grid, on the other hand, is a strong structure.

Nor is any of this surprising to historians – continuously connected grids have been the common theme of historical urbanism. The North American gridiron is one more manifestation of the grid. It has its origins in the Roman grid and the Mesopotamian grid. The deformed grids of western Europe are still grids: when you come to a street intersection you typically have at least three and typically four choices, sometimes more. Far from being confusing, this works with the cognitive structures of the human brain. We find grids intuitive. We find them memorable.

So why are we building the opposite? The rise of Landscape Urbanism, or Fragmented Urbanism.

We hear about the data but where is the intelligence? Why haven’t we learned the lessons of the UK New Town building programme?

One step further

It is not enough to be great at the centre – where the tourists and the urban writers/thinkers, the intellectuals, come. A city has to be great up to its edges. Look at Paris – the social problems in the housing projects outside the Peripherique. Look at the edges of Copenhagen.

Look at the slums, attaching themselves to the edges of all growing cities.

Working on slums we have identified an almost consistent spatial characteristic – fragmented urbanism. Strong local qualities but weak global connections. This creates an all-too-low threshold for economic productivity, limiting much of the economic reach to the inhabitants of the slum itself. Why? Because slums don’t get many passers-through. Passing trade.

Jeddah slum redevelopment strategy.

The city of tomorrow

A city of fragments & slums?


A city of continuous connectivity, pervasive centrality, economic intensity, social equity? A just city.

The city of transaction.

In so far as you are citizens of cities, makers of places – the choice is yours. Let it be an informed choice. Yes, a choice supported by data – but, above all, a choice supported by knowledge of not only your applications but of your ultimate platform. The city.

Thank you

1 Comments on “IBM Smart Cities, Helsinki – latest notes”

  1. Interesting notes, thanks. Instead the theory beginning ‘with a description of the city as a geometrical configuration,’ could it begin with a description of the character and aspirations of its inhabitants? Or is that taking it too far into the abstract?

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