Saturday, 10 September 2011

Digitizing the Perfect City

In the not too distant past, SimCity had the monopoly on digital city building.  This game introduced many frustrated teenagers to what happens when your city goes bankrupt or crime spirals out of control.  Yet now digital city building has gained new impetus from multi-national businesses looking to explore what compromises the perfect city.

Two good examples are the PWC 'Cities of Opportunity' research and the BMW-Guggenheim Lab with the 'Urbanology' game.  The PWC research has established a correlation heatmap (see here) that allows you to correlate different variables to judge city performance.  For example, how strongly (or weakly) does life satisfaction correlate to traffic congestion.  The BMW-Guggenheim Lab (see here) makes use of data generated from answering simple questions to predict what is your perfect city (mine turned out to be similar to Toronto).  

The popularity of digital city planning and benchmarking by companies not commonly associated with the development sector is revealing.  Firstly, it reflects a general move towards open source data.  Increasingly, Governments and cities are releasing raw data to allow citizens and experts to develop their own analysis and potential solutions to problems.  Not only does this move show a level of transparency, it is also cost-effective - tapping into creativity outside the normal channels of dialogue, and often for free.  For example,the City of Vancouver released data to allow citizens to formulate their own mock budget.

Secondly, businesses see a future in 'smart cities'.  By this I mean a city which uses sensors and data to provide a greater understanding of how the local infrastructure is used.  This new approach to city building provides endless business opportunities in the creation of new infrastructure and software, and also in consulting (hence the involvement of a company like PWC).  Companies therefore recognize the benefits of early involvement in this growing trend and can establish a presence to capture a higher market share further down the road. 

Finally, these digital platforms are a form of advertising.  The word 'urban' has certain trendy and creative connotations and this allows businesses to associate themselves with this movement.  This is an area of advertising and marketing that could be difficult with their main business function, e.g. financial services.


So, though SimCity and other games are still going strong it is interesting to see how and why big businesses are also trying to plan the perfect city.  With the growing move towards open data, the popularity of smart technologies and the interest in city benchmarking, expect a few more big beasts of the business world to take an active interest in what the future city looks like.

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