Sharing ideas in science, technology and innovation

Tag Archives: digital

(Millenium Point, home of Birmingham’s Science Museum and Birmingham City University’s Technology Innovation Centre, photographed by Martin Hartland)

Back in September, we held the last meeting of the Birmingham Science City Digital Working Group – my first meeting as chair. We were joined by many enthusiastic representatives of Birmingham and the region’s digital community – entrepreneurs, small businesses, industry interest groups, universities and companies.

We had a thought provoking discussion of how the Digital Working Group can continue to be a valued forum and a catalyst for its members to share insight, create new ideas, and discover new opportunities in the digital economy; contributing to and benefitting from the Birmingham Science City objectives to create “scientific, technological and economic advantage for wealth, opportunity and worth”. In such a challenging economy, with funding for innovation and enterprise in short supply, such exchanges can stimulate new activity by increasing awareness of the resources that are nevertheless available.

The consensus we seemed to reach was that the working group could do that by:

  • Bringing together stakeholders from our digital community who are aware of problems and challenges, and those who may be aware of solutions;
  • Focussing on emerging opportunities for technology to contribute to Birmingham Science City’s economic and social objectives, but for which the business models are not yet clear;
  • Using social media between meetings to explore specific topics within those broad criteria so that each face-to-face meeting has a clear agreed agenda beforehand;
  • And continuing to use the group to provide updates between members, and in particular an update on current opportunities to access funds and resources.

As an example of the sorts of disruptive emerging technologies we might like to consider for our focuses, I found a couple of short videos interesting recently. The first, from the Financial Times, focuses on three small businesses in Shoreditch who are combining information technology, social media and advanced manufacturing in what the FT called “Industry 2.0”; a good example of the disruptive opportunities that are created when capabilities from different sectors are converged. The second is this presentation of an idea called “being nicely messy” presented by the Collaborative Research Initiatives Trust (CRIT) to the Audi Urban Future Awards 2012; the idea tries to capture the way in which innovation emerges in unexpected forms from Mumbai’s economy and physical environment as entrepreneurs search for gaps and opportunities in the market and use whatever resources are available to them to respond. The full report of the project is worth a read, and contains these excerpts:

“New patterns of work emerged as the new entrepreneurs struggled to survive and settle. they occupied varied locations and blurred the distinction between formality and informality …

… the entrepreneurs of Mumbai have innovatively occupied city spaces maximizing their efficiency …

… the blurry / messy condition further contributes to the high transactional capacity of the urban form.”

These remarks emphasise to me the need for us to be very open in considering where innovation and opportunity might emerge from; and what form it might take. The markets, business models and technologies we know today are in many cases unrecognisable from the world of only a few years ago; we should expect any and all of our assumptions to be challenged by the innovations that emerge in the very near future.

With these thoughts and provocations in mind, I’m thinking of organising the agenda of our next meeting, which will be in early December, around the following topics:

  • Introduction and review of the last meeting
  • Update on innovation investment and support
    • An update on current trends in funding – e.g. from a local venture capitalist, or an update on tax credits for Research and Development from a Digital Working Group member
    • An update on funding and projects from Birmingham Science City
  • Introduction to the theme for the meeting
  • Provocation
    • An alternative viewpoint from Birmingham Science City – i.e. from somebody outside the usual Digital Working Group Community; and perhaps in this case from the Low Carbon Working Group, as discussed at our last meeting
  • Creative discussion:
    • How can Birmingham’s digital community exploit this theme, and how can the Digital Working Group help?
  • Next steps, and discussion of the agenda for the next meeting

(Matthew Boulton, James Watt and William Murdoch, Birmingham’s three fathers of the Industrial Revolution, photographed by Neil Howard)

So what should our “theme” be?

In our last meeting we agreed that the area of Low Carbon technology was an interesting one for us to explore; and there are already interesting initiatives underway in that area in Birmingham, such as the “Birmingham Energy Savers” project, and the European Bio-Energy Research Institute, who are seeking to establish a regional supply chain of SMEs to support their work to develop small-scale, sustainable technology for recovering energy from waste food and sewage.

So my suggested theme is:

“How can the Birmingham Science City Digital Working Group create or stimulate innovation using digital technology to contribute to a low carbon economy – whether in the transport and energy sectors or elsewhere?”

If the Digital Working Group is able to do that, it could help Birmingham’s economy access the investment resources available to support low carbon innovation; potentially assisting in the creation of jobs, as well as lowering the city’s carbon footprint and improving its physical environment.

This discussion, in fact, reminds me of some important statements in Birmingham Science City’s Constitution; the constitution states that Birmingham Science City should stimulate collaborative innovation in using science and technology to create wealth, opportunity and worth by:

“Developing activities that increase public appreciation of the application of Science & Technology and the economic, employment and quality of life benefits that it can bring.”

and:

“Encouraging collective maintenance and development of resources for innovation including finance and physical infrastructure.”

I’d like this suggestion to be the start of a discussion; hence I’m making it in this public forum, and posting links to it in several discussion groups on Linked-In as well as sending it to the Digital Working Group members by e-mail.

I look forward to hearing from the Digital Working Group members – or any other interested parties – for comments and feedback to my proposal for the next meeting.

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Birmingham is making some great progress as a Smarter City this year, with announcements such as the City Deal; the launch of the Green Commission; and investments in ultra-fast broadband infrastructure. And the buzz is spreading. I was one of four speakers in the “Smart Cities” session at the recent Base Cities London conference. All four of us were involved in some form of “Smart” initiative in Birmingham; prompting one of the first questions at the subsequent panel debate to be: “Everyone seems to be working in Birmingham; will it be the world’s next Smart City?”. Of course, my answer was “Yes!”

(In fact, I was even cheekier. I claimed that Birmingham had invented the modern city. Citing the respected urbanist and economist Edward Glaeser I referred to the fact that Matthew Boulton’s commercialisation of James Watt’s uniquely efficient steam engine during the formative years of the Industrial Revolution was a fundamental innovation that led to cities being built “up” around elevators rather than “out” around horses and carts).

There are a variety of historic, scientific and contemporary sources that can inform Birmingham’s approach to reclaiming that role as a world-leading Smarter City innovator. I considered some of them this week in the following post taken from my personal blog, theurbantechnologist.com:

(Photo of Kowloon by Frank Müller)

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I recently read Geoffrey West’s fascinating paper on urban scaling laws, “Growth, innovation, scaling and the pace of life in cities“.

The paper applies to cities techniques that I recall from my Doctoral studies in the Physics and Engineering of Superconducting Devices for studying the emergent properties of self-organising complex systems.

Cities, being composed of 100,000s or millions of human beings with free-will who interact with each other, are clearly examples of such complex systems; and their emergent properties of interest include economic output, levels of crime, and expenditure on maintaining and expanding physical infrastructures.

It’s a less intimidating read than it might sound, and draws fascinating conclusions about the relationship between the size of city populations; their ability to create wealth through innovation; sustainability; and what many of us experience as the increasing speed of modern life.

I’m going to summarise the conclusions the paper draws about the characteristics and behaviour of cities; and then I’d like to challenge us to change them.

Professor West’s paper (which is also summarised in his excellent TED talk) uses empirical techniques to present fascinating insights into how cities have performed in our experience so far; but as I’ve argued before, such conclusions drawn from historic data do not rule out the possibility of cities achieving different levels of performance in the future by undertaking transformations.

That potential to transform city performance is vitally important in the light of West’s most fundamental finding: that the largest, densest cities currently create the most wealth most efficiently. History shows that the most successful models spread, and in this case that could lead us towards the higher end of predictions for the future growth of world population in a society dominated by larger and larger megacities supported by the systems I’ve described in the past as “extreme urbanism“.

I personally don’t find that an appealing vision for our future so I’m keen to pursue alternatives. (Note that Professor West is not advocating limitless city growth either; he’s simply analysing and reporting insights from the available data about cities, and doing it in an innovative and important way. I am absolutely not criticising his work; quite the oppostite – I’m inspired by it).

So here’s an unfairly brief summary of his findings:

  • Quantitative measures of the creative performance of cities (such as wealth creation or the number of patents and inventions generated by city populations) – grow faster and faster the more that city size increases.
  • Quantitative measures of the cost of city infrastructures grow more slowly as city size increases, because bigger cities can exploit economies of scale to grow more cheaply than smaller cities.

West found that these trends were incredibly consistent across cities of very different sizes. To explain the consistency, he drew an analogy with biology: for almost all animals, characteristics such as metabolic rate and life expectancy vary in a very predictable way according to the size of the animal.

(Photo of Geoffery West describing the scaling laws that determine animal characteristics by Steve Jurvetson). Note that whilst the chart focusses on mammals, the scaling laws are more broadly applicable.

The reason for this is that the performance of the thermodynamic, cardio-vascular and metabolic systems that support most animals in the same way are affected by size. For example, geometry determines that the surface area of small animals is larger compared to their body mass than that of large animals. So smaller animals lose heat through their skin more rapidly than larger animals. They therefore need faster metabolic systems that convert food to replacement heat more rapidly to keep them warm. This puts more pressure on their cardio-vascular systems and in particular their heart muscles, which beat more quickly and wear out sooner. So mice don’t live as long as elephants.

Further, more complex mechanisms are also involved, but they don’t contradict the idea that the emergent properties of biological systems are determined by the relationship between the scale of those systems and the performance of the processes that support them.

Professor West hypothesised that city systems such as transportation and utilities, as well as characteristics of the way that humans interact with each other, would similarly provide the underlying reasons for the urban scaling laws he observed.

Those systems are exactly what we need to affect if we are to change the relationship between city size and performance in the future. Whilst the cardio-vascular systems of animals are not something that animals can change, we absolutely can change the way that city systems behave – in the same way that as human beings we’ve extended our life expectancy through ingenuity in medicine and improvements in standards of living. This is precisely the idea behind Smarter cities.

(A graph from my own PhD thesis showing real experimental data plotted against a theoretical prediction similar to a scaling law. Notice that whilst the theoretical prediction (the smooth line) is a good guide to the experimental data, that each actual data point lies above or below the line, not on it. In most circumstances, theory is only a rough guide to reality.)

The potential to do this is already apparent in West’s paper. In the graphs it presents that plot the performance of individual cities against the predictions of urban scaling laws, the performance of every city varies slightly from the law. Some cities outperform, and some underperform. That’s exactly what we should expect when comparing real data to an analysis of this sort. Whilst the importance of these variations in the context of West’s work is hotly contested, both in biology and in cities, personally I think they are crucial.

In my view, such variations suggest that the best way to interpret the urban scaling laws that Professor West discovered is as a challenge: they set the bar that cities should try to beat.

Cities everywhere are already exploring innovative, sustainable ways to create improvements in the performance of their social, economic and environmental systems. Examples include:

(Photograph by Meshed Media of Birmingham’s Social Media Cafe, where individuals from every part of the city who have connected online meet face-to-face to discuss their shared interest in social media.)

In all of those cases, cities have used technology effectively to disrupt and transform the behaviour of urban systems. They have all lifted at least some elements of performance above the bar set by urban scaling laws. There are many more examples in cities across the world. In fact, this process has been taking place continuously for as long as cities have existed – as was described recently in a Centre for Cities report on the development and performance of cities in the UK throughout the 20th Century.

(That report contains a specific challenge for Birmingham, by the way. It shows that in the first part of the 20th Century, Birmingham outperformed many UK cities and became prosperous and successful because of the diversity of its industries – famously expressed as the “city of a thousand trades”. In the latter part of the Century, however, as Birmingham became more dependent on an automotive industry that subsequently declined, the city lost a lot of ground. So the great steps that we are beginning to take here are vitally important in order to re-create a more vibrant, diverse, innovative and successful economy).

As cities everywhere emulate successful innovations, though, they will of course reset the bar of expected performance. Cities that wish to consistently outperform others will need to constantly generate new innovations.

This is where I’ll bring in another idea from physics – the concept of a phase change. A phase change occurs when a system passes a tipping point and suddenly switches from one type of behaviour to another. This is what happens when the temperature of water in a kettle rises from 98 to 99 to 100 degrees Centigrade and water – which is heavy and stays in the bottom of the kettle – changes to steam – which is light and rises out of the kettle’s spout. The “phase change” in this example is the transformation of a volume of water from a liquid to a gas through the process of boiling.

So the big question is: as we change the way that city systems behave, will we eventually encounter a phase change that breaks West’s fundamental finding that the largest cities create the most value most efficiently? For example, will we find new technologies for communication and collaboration that enable networks of people spread across thousands of miles of countryside or ocean to be as efficiently creative as the dense networks of people living in megacities?

I certainly hope so; because unless we can break the link between the size and the success of cities, I worry that the trend towards larger and larger cities and increasing global population will continue and eventually reach levels that will be difficult or impossible to maintain. West apparently agrees; in an interview with the New York Times, which provides an excellent review of his work, he stated that “The only thing that stops the superlinear equations is when we run out of something we need. And so the growth slows down. If nothing else changes, the system will eventually start to collapse.”

But I’m an optimist; so I look forward to the amazing innovations we’re all going to create that will break the laws of urban scaling and offer us a more attractive and sustainable future. It’s incredibly important that we find them.

(I’d like to think Dr. Pam Waddell, the Director of Birmingham Science City, for her helpful comments during my preparation of this post).


I have been away for a while doing other things.

Now, to be back in the digital media and creative industries in Birmingham, I am more excited and invigorated than ever by the potential of the people I meet in (and outside) of Birmingham and the ideas they have. Put that alongside some amazing work of established companies it makes for a very exciting future ahead.

I recently read a book called ‘Start-up of you‘ (by the chaps that started Linked In). Once you get over the fact that it is one big advert for Linked In (which is not a bad thing) it touches on the importance of the people who are around you and what role they play in creating a dynamic and progressive economy.

It also discusses a ‘geographical density’. When you first read it you could be forgiven for thinking that it is trying to say “big buildings with lots of people working inside them”. I don’t read it like that in its entirety. What it is trying to say (and does quite well) is that a physical location(s) with lots of things happening in it gives ‘density’, and within which an opportunity rich environment can occur. (Dr) Rick Robinson (Dr because he is far better informed than I am!!) helpful pointed me towards some interesting formal scientific work to back the theory that the size and density of cities directly feeds their creativity.

This is where Birmingham does very well by these metrics.

It does very well because there is a very small degree of separation between everyone (giving rise to the concept of ‘everyone knowing everyone’) (if you don’t believe me plug-in InMaps into your Linked In profile and believe that).

Geographical density for technology, digital, media and creative industries is clearly achieved by the Birmingham Science Park clockwise round to the Custard Factory (17 minutes walk via Fazeley Studio, even less when you cut through Millennium Point). When you take into consideration the Jewellery Quarter, Moseley Exchange the emerging resource of University of Birmingham’s Digital Demonstrator and don’t forget the Independent Coffee Shop of Birmingham – you start to see not only a network of people, but a network of places with excellent resources available. (He writes sipping a coffee wondering how many businesses start with a coffee?)

However, for all the benefits, there are draw backs.

If everyone does really know everyone else then where do two worlds of experience and expertise collide to create something new?

I am always delighted when I catch up with someone that I have known for a long time and start looking at an enterprise with them … a sense of excitement and energy can be created so easily with a little imagination.

However, I am even more delighted when I meet someone that no one knows and bring them in. They are continually amazed by what they find in Birmingham.

I encourage everyone to bring in 10 ‘new’ people into these spaces and introduce them to your network. Show them what we have got. They will want to come back, and you never know, some of them will want to stay.

On that point, at the moment, I am not going to play the numbers game. Playing the numbers is a cyclic argument that ignores the reality of what is actually happening if you just see it for yourself. I’ll post another blog about that in the future – when I know what the numbers look like!

In the mean time, food for thought …

Business Birmingham report:

“23% of the digital media business increased their turnover by over 10% and staffing by more than 20% annually during the last three years”. They must know the businesses that they talked to.

The Guardian Report:

 “There are more than 3,000 tech firms in east London, employing up to 50,000 people in the digital economy. Here are 20 companies to watch out for” … with an interesting comment made by mrchristian99.

“Can’t a journalist even do the basics and research their figures, these opening stats of[…], are just completely made up stuff that the PMs office pump out as part of the TechCity programme. Like if a hair dressers has a web page they´re startup. Jees, if only the gov could create some jobs here.”

(I particularly like the idea of “if only the gov could create some jobs here” … I thought entrepreneurs created jobs …  mea culpa)

I report:

Come and see it for yourself. You only need one or two good people to make a business fly. The rest you go and get.

David Roberts is founder of drProjects Enterprises and is co-founder of Settle with three other people (Steffan Aquarone, Will Grant, Andy Smart) that he met in the opportunity rich, geographically dense Urban Coffee Company Church Street. I tweet @daviddrprojects. I use Linked In. Say hello.



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