Digital Platforms for Smarter City Market-Making in Birmingham

Local delicacies for sale in Phnom Penh’s central market

I was recently honoured to be asked to take over the position of Chair of Birmingham Science City‘s Digital Working Group from Dave Harte. As an alumnus of the University of Birmingham and as a long-term resident of the city I have a passion for exploiting new developments in technology to add value to the city’s economy.
I hope that I can continue Dave’s great work in doing that through the Digital Working Group. I think the opportunity exists to do so through some ideas that I recently posted on my personal blog at

There’s been a distinct change recently in how we describe what a “Smarter City” is. Whereas in the past we’ve focused on the capabilities of technology to make city systems more intelligent, we’re now looking to marketplace economics to describe the defining characteristics of Smarter City behaviour.

The link between the two views is the ability of emerging technology platforms to enable the formation of new marketplaces which make possible new exchanges of resources, information and value. Historically, growth in Internet coverage and bandwidth led to the disintermediation of value chains in industries such as retail, publishing and music. Soon we will see technologies that connect information with the physical world in more intimate ways cause disruptions in industries such as food supply, manufacturing and healthcare.

There are two reasons we’ve switched focus from a technology to an economic perspective of Smarter Cities. The first is that these new marketplaces are the way to make both public service delivery and economic growth within cities sustainable. The second is that it’s only by examining the money flows within them that we can identify the revenue streams that will fund the construction and operation of their supporting technology platforms.

The importance of driving sustainable, equitably distributed recovery to economic growth from the current financial crisis was championed by Christine Lagarde, the Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, in her speech ahead of the Rio +20 Summit. She emphasised the role of stability in enabling such a recovery. Instability is change, and managing change consumes resources. So stable systems – or stable cities – consume less resources than unstable ones. And they’re much more comfortable places to live.

(Photo of a Portuguese call centre by Vitor Lima)

This concept explains a shift in the economic strategy of some cities and nations. In recent decades cities have used Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) tools such as tax breaks to incent existing businesses to relocate to their economies. When cities such as Sunderland and Birmingham lost 10%-25% of their jobs in less than two decades in the 1980’s and 1990’s, FDI provided the emergency fix that brought in new jobs in call centres, financial services and manufacturing.

But businesses that find it possible and cost-effective to relocate for these reasons can and do relocate again when more attractive incentives are offered elsewhere. So they tend to integrate relatively shallowly in local economies – retaining their existing globalised supply chains, for example. When they move on, they cause expensive, socially damaging instabilities in the cities they leave behind.

(Photo of the Clock Tower in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter by Roland Turner)

The new focus is on sustainable, organic economic growth driven by SMEs in locally re-inforcing clusters. By building clusters of companies providing related products and services with strong input/output linkages, cities can create economies that are more deeply rooted in their locality. Examples include the cluster of wireless technology companies in Cambridge with strong ties to the local university; or Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter, an incredibly dense cluster of designers, manufacturers and retailers who work with Birmingham City University’s School of Jewellery and Horology and their Jewellery Innovation Centre. Many cities I work with are focussing their economic development resources on clusters in the specific industry sectors where they can demonstrate unique strength.

In order to succeed, such clusters need access to transactional marketplaces for trading with each other; and for winning business in local, national and international markets. The disruptive, disintermediating capabilities of Smarter City technologies could help such marketplaces to work more quickly, at lower cost; to extend the market reach of their members; to find new innovations through discovering synergies across traditional industry sectors; or to support the formation of innovative business models that recognise and capitalise social and environmental value. These marketplaces are also exactly what’s needed to support the transformation to open public services.

(Photo of cattle market in Kashgar, China by By Ben Paarmann)

Marketplaces need infrastructure. In traditional terms, that infrastructure might have consisted – in the case of my local cattle market in Kidderminster say – of a physical building; a hinterland connected by transport routes; a governing authority; a system of payments; and a means of determining the quality and value of goods and services to be exchanged. Smarter City markets are no different. They may be based on technology platforms rather than in buildings; but they need governance, identity and reputation management, payment systems and other supporting services. The implementation and operation of those infrastructure capabilities has a significant cost.

This is where large and small organisations need to partner to deliver meaningful innovation in Smarter Cities. The resources of larger organisations – whether they are national governments, local councils, transport providers, employers or technology vendors – are required to underwrite infrastructure investments on the basis of future financial returns in the form of commercial revenues or tax receipts. But innovations in the delivery of value to local communities are likely to be created by small, agile organisations deeply embedded in those communities. An example where this is already happening is in Dublin, where entrepreneurial organisations are using the city’s open data portal to develop new business models that are winning venture capital backing.

(Photo of the “Container City” incubation hub for social enterprises operated by Sustainable Enterprise Strategies in Sunderland)

In order to replicate at scale what’s happening in Dublin and Sunderland, we need to define the open standards through which agile “Apps” developed by local innovators can access the capabilities of new marketplace infrastructures. Those standards need to be associated with financial models that balance affordability for citizens, communities and entrepreneurial businesses with the cost of operating resilient infrastructures.

If we can get that balance right, then stakeholders across city systems everywhere could work more effectively together to deliver Smarter City solutions that really address the big survival challenges facing us: reliable systems that everyone can use across the rich diversity of our cities, communities and citizens.

I hope that I can help the Birmingham Science City Digital Working Group contribute to Birmingham’s Smarter City agenda by exploiting the ideas I’ve discussed in this post. One very concrete way we could do that is by holding co-creation events with local stakeholders to discuss how new technologies might disrupt industry sectors in which Birmingham has a strong capability already. I’d like to discuss how we might do that at the next Working Group meeting on Wednesday 19th September. Perhaps I’ll see you there.


Rick Robinson