Today I travelled from my home city of Bristol to London. Before I left for the station, I looked up the bus time on my app so that I didn't have to stand waiting at the bus stop in the rain. Fortunately, Siri had reminded me that I would be needing a brolly. I paid the bus fare with my smart phone. Whilst on route, I used the on-bus free Wi-Fi to find the train platform before collecting my pre-booked ticket from the self-service kiosk and buying a coffee with my Apple wallet. On the train I set up a personal hot spot so that I could tether my tablet to my phone's 4G and did a good hour's work before listening to a streamed music playlist. In London, I exerted customer choice and used Addison Lee instead of Uber. Just a normal experience for me and for many millions of others who take connectivity, mobile apps and the Internet of Things (IoT) as a given.
PERMANENT BETA CITIES
Gartner report that 6.4 billion internet-connected objects were in use around the world in 2016, up 30 percent from 2015 and predicts the number could reach 20.8 billion by 2020. However, despite all of this, when it comes to smart cities and smart mobility in particular, there is a frequent grumble that progress is slow - 'a lot of time spent talking about the future and not enough on delivering it'. But is this really true?
The issue is that many still expect the future to arrive with a whizz and a bang. When I was a boy this would have been in the form of a flying car. Nowadays, the connected and autonomous vehicle has taken its place: we will all be in absolutely no doubt that the future is here when our highways are full of them! I presume this is how the Victorians must have felt when they experienced the wonders of electricity, sewers and running water for the first time. But I would argue that the way we need to think about 'smart' has changed significantly in the last hundred plus years. Rather than the future arriving with a great, momentous invention, we should learn to recognise it through numerous small and frequent improvements, which we can think of as cities in a state of 'permanent beta'.
The IT literate will be familiar with the beta concept, and indeed agencies such as the UK Government Digital Service (GDS) hardwired it into their way of working - launching 'minimal viable products' and gearing-up to make dozens or more of improvements in the hours, days, weeks and months following the launch. But what if we apply this idea to the city and to its mobility system? Can we conceive of new smart mobility products and services that are launched when they are 'good enough to go' and regularly enhanced in response to user feedback? Could this adaptability become the hallmark of a premium smart mobility brand?
EMERGING BRISTOL PRACTICE
Bristol sme's such as Esoterix have long since operated in this way with their Buxi (half bus and half taxi) pioneering the way in mobility on demand. The City Council and the SME Urban Things launched the Bristol Transport API as a city open data platform to support urban innovation; and through the ground breaking work of Knowle West Media Centre, Bristol has long since positioned itself as a Living Laboratory - a safe place for user-focused city experimentation.
SMART FOR EVERYONE
This is not to say that things can't be better, in Bristol and in the wider world. None of the buses, trains or taxis that I travelled in ran on renewables, something that needs to change rapidly if we are to stand even the faintest chance of minimising the global impacts of climate change. And for every journey that goes as smoothly as the one I described, there is another that is full of friction. We must also remember that access to the benefits of mobile connectivity, apps and an IoT enabled future is not equally distributed. Poverty, disability, lack of knowledge and skills are serious impediments that need to be tackled through long-term strategic interventions and much greater investment in inclusive co-design.
Finally, as residents of cities in a state of permanent beta, we must learn to celebrate iterative change. This means being flexible, adaptable and resilient. I believe that these are key attributes that we need to develop if we are to flourish. So come on, stop grumbling – the future is here now, so enjoy being part of the experiment!