Weapons For Change #1 – The City

Mass Weapons

A City. A Smart City. Vehicle For Change?

From where I stand the City has a major responsibility to shape the future for society. It is a significant edifice in all our lives. It represents both a major cross section of interests and audiences as well as informing and influencing our behaviours.

There has been a real increase in urbanisation – a rush to live in cities – as people demand work, wellbeing and the promise of greater riches.

I suggest our crusade for a smarter city must be to empower children, preserve culture, teach wonder and creativity – positively disrupt the business models of any cynical systems. Create Wellbeing.

Interesting phrase. Smart City. Just a ‘buzz’ phrase constantly being hijacked by certain interests? A great sound-byte? Frankly it remains pretty meaningless to most people. So let’s give it some meaning and make it how we create real change for good.

Humans have an amazing skill, an enduring quality to solve the wrong problems really well.


The phrase ‘Smart City’, which is doing the rounds just now, does evoke some powerful ideas.

Cities are compelling because we like their energy – perhaps we feel more optimistic and safer in them. As a result we see significant urban growth. Smart just sounds cool so we engage with the coupling. Smart City!

The City As A Tool To Cause Change

Weird thought but if we think about (and look beyond) all the buildings and noise, a city is a living and interconnected system. And like any living system it’s a sophisticated and comprehensive mash up of bits. In fact it’s a foggy collection of bits of bits – systems connected to a bigger even more complex global network. Of bits.

To the majority it appears a deliberate thing but in reality it has evolved, primarily through a random pursuit of survival in the name of progress, by us humans. To say it was part of a grand design is unhelpful and mostly a major overstatement.

It grew just like the roses on your smart porch alongside the weeds on your smart drive.

To most of us it can appear a mess.
Good news – mess is the right way to think about systems.

Bad news – not enough city planning strategies understand how to design within the mess. This mess and all the bits and ‘systems’ provide us with the services and experiences we want and the food, energy, water we depend on.

Any visitor to Lagos would be expected to say it looks a mess. They would be forgiven for that if we look through Western eyes. But in so many many ways it is an extremely smart system. It optimises many of its resources through recycling and the whole thing has evolved to support many millions of people. Cities are deceptive. Value can be very subjective and standards are a fickle measure when dealing with countless interests.

A City Under Cover

Much of what goes into making things work are hidden – taking place in unseen places – frankly we don’t care much about them until things cease to work. Encouragingly we are beginning to care more about how it works and where things come from. But are we caring enough about the impacts of all this consumption on the quality of life of others. Are we going far and fast enough.

Think of those in new world regions – do we really consider the pain and suffering of child labor and the trafficking of humans to deliver lower and lower cost commodities. Do we really bother if our energy resource is artificially controlled for commercial gain by a few – and in the process running the planet dry?

Calling All Super Heroes.


How do we think differently – create a smarter mess?

Cities are a focal point. That makes them perfect for channeling these efforts – changing the attitude, mentality, behaviours, values and metrics for society. They are increasingly under our and the media’s gaze. We get frustrated shouting for better and better experiences. Cities may be just about our best chance of thinking differently about meaningful change. It’s a very real opportunity.

Smart Or Dumb? The Dilemma Of It All.

So let’s say that we can get everyone yet more keen on the idea of doing smarter more mindful stuff. Then how do we think we might actually go and make all that happen. We all know what gets in the way of making anything happen.



What would convince us to create a smarter City?


A Dilemma. Cities need to be prepared for serious chaos – natural or man made – because being that ready is no longer a choice. Hurricane Sandy hitting NYC. Terrorism on the streets. Cities need to think like never before. Ready to withstand unknown disasters and disruptions. And they need to do that at the same time as creating inspirational places for people to live and work.

Living The Life – Effectively Efficient?

A Dilemma. Maintaining the existing systems that generate jobs and commerce at the same time as automating everything for smoother and more efficient consumption. Set directly in conflict with less need to travel – the death of the High Street – online everything – easy to access and use. Offering what you needed when and where you needed it. Serendipitous even. Reducing the need for traditional infrastructure like travel and corporate offices. Reducing the time between where you are and what you want.


Being Truly Sustainable?

A Dilemma. Massive energy interests – huge investment in the status quo. Consumer demand for more ethical and less harmful/more sustainable forms and use of resources. Play that against everyone needing a job to put food on the table to create an equally sustainable family. Sustainability itself is a tricky concept. What does it actually mean?

Sustainable over the long term? Available – likely to last for the long term? We’ve heard it described so many ways – Everlasting – evoking the ideas of being Recyclable, Upgradable, Reusable, Reconfigurable – Ethical.

A Human System? WTF!

A place for us to live and work – and be happy. Scott Nazarian said, “For many people, the draw of cities is their pulse and flow, the veer and crush of humans, our shared machines, the vertical, the symmetrical, the seemingly impossible. We connect, go forward, are thrust. We revel in the contrasts of urban materials – steel, stone, leaf, blade, glass, branch, Plexiglas, vinyl, flesh. The sheer matrix of it, the complexity of relationships and their potential outcomes, is almost a will unto itself, compelling us to be shaped, inviting us to form and move with it.”

Well how close are we?

A Dilemma. And It’s a massive variable right? We are privileged. Reading this we are mostly Western – that’s supposed to be civilised? I’m not so sure. Our human systems are very biased towards large businesses making money – putting commercial aims – growth and profit above human existence. Been through an airport recently? Shame.


I love Cities. I live in one. I travel. Like I said – privileged.

A ‘smarter city’ is a hugely contextual term. Smart in the East, in Africa, South America will mean something very different and must always be unique – and long may that be true. Speaking personally I don’t want to be anywhere in the world feeling like I am still in my own town – on my own high street. I love the vital differences. I want the challenge of different cultures and creativity.

So where does this take us?

We need the designers of cities to be as ‘smart’ as the outcome we want. We need these multi-headed teams of people to forget their individual vested interests and think about their real purpose. Start changing the systems in favour of the more sustainable outcome. We want them to resist the self serving interests of the few and find better models that support the whole. In short change the frame for what a smart city might mean.

smart cities


Somebody very smart said – You Cannot Solve What You Don’t Understand.

A City represents something pretty high on the scale of hard to understand. A journey to making one requires very smart and very different thinking and working.

It’s a sad reality that so many attempts at innovative challenges and critical problem solving programs like this one will fall flat. They will target the wrong problem because those thinking about it view the objective through the frame of a vested interest. Beware the unintended consequences that are now excluding minorities and radicalising whole communities. Beware the inevitable consequences of disenfranchised sectors of society. This has to change?

We will only get this right if we start to think.

“If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.” – Albert Einstein

Rolls-Royce’s Darrell Mann – with profound insight points out -

“Twenty-five percent of our failures were due to people trying to solve the wrong problems.” He also states from bitter experience that – “Only 2 percent of all companies’ innovation attempts end in success.”

He tops this off – stating something regularly lacking in the development of complex strategies of transformation or change –

“Defining the problem clearly and completely represents 90 percent of the difficulty of the innovation.”

Unless we invest time, think consciously – apply the right resources and brainpower – boiling down the challenge and mission accurately this won’t work. We won’t actually solve our problems. If we don’t get deeply creative changing the frame of how we design – ask the right questions, change our concepts – then we fail. Unless we are prepared to think it all through from the essence to the purpose then we miss our golden opportunity for societal change.

And that wouldn’t be smart right?

Human Systems

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johncaswell @johncaswell
John Caswell  @johncaswell
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