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Mining the Surplus City

07 December 2011
Mining the Surplus City

By Molly Webb, Head of Smart Technologies, The Climate Group.

December 7, 2011 

With over 50% of us living in urban areas, how do we make them more sustainable? One set of tools in our arsenal is the increasingly ubiquitous information and communications technologies that drive our global economies to be ever more integrated and productive

Some have called this marriage between the physical and digital worlds the ‘smart’ city. We could also call it ‘City 2.0’.

The ‘smart’ city vision encompasses both existing and new cities, but its features are as varied as the citizens who reside in them. For some, the smart city is about its infrastructure: how efficiently do we build our cities and deliver services? For some it is about the knowledge and information that is available to citizens and what they do with it to become more sustainable.  

Across new or old cities, ‘smart’ means continuing to be creative about finding ways to get the services we crave, for more and more people, without using exponentially more resources. It is about enabling a more efficient use of infrastructure and new options for citizens to live their lives. 

How does this happen? By using connectivity to move beyond the ‘Surplus City’.

It is often invisible, but the interactions between our infrastructure, technologies and people can be inefficient. There are empty passenger seats in cars, lights on in rooms where no one is working, and wasted food in every restaurant. But hidden in the city is also a lot of untapped creativity, which is ready to be unleashed, made more effective through collaborative technologies.

So what we really have hidden in our cities is a ‘Surplus City’ - a surplus of waste but also of human ingenuity. 

We create value when we avoid or reduce surplus: when we put sensors on electricity grids to more appropriately calibrate voltage, or allow home dwellers to manage energy more effectively via web ‘portals’, thereby requiring fewer power plants to supply the same number of people. Intelligent transportation systems that route traffic to avoid congestion means less pollution, better for our lungs and the environment. 

We can also draw on surplus creativity to create new behaviors and outcomes. We can use our laptops and mobile phones to work from home to avoid travel altogether, and avoid the use of office buildings. Amsterdam is seeing its smart work policy reduce the number of buildings for their employees from 200 to 120. We can collaboratively source data about our cities (via platforms like Pachube) to make new insights and actions possible.  

Mining the ‘Surplus City’ yields not traditional manufactured products but instead ‘information products’. Our new report, out today, entitled Information Marketplaces: The New Economics of Cities describes how city leaders can better create the conditions for these new marketplaces, which will in turn create citizen value. 

Real transformation - or indeed, a Clean Revolution - will require us to look at the ‘Surplus City’ hidden within the city. Beyond the wind turbines, public transport systems and parks there is an underlying system, connecting waste to consumption in a set of complex interactions. Tackling that complexity is our next challenge, and for those who make the surplus city accessible, the rewards are limitless

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