Swarms and Smart Hives, Part 2

In his last post, Warren Karlenzig discussed how cities enabled by data and modeled after beehives can improve our urban experience. Here is part 2 of his discussion, including a mention of Ecocity Builder’s Ecocitizen World Map Project.


Recently I explained how cities benefit from open data-enabled “swarms” of sustainability apps for energy, the built environment, mobility, food and more, transforming them into “Smart Hives.” The focus was on the rise of citizen-business user sharing apps and crowd-sourced capabilities emerging in the Silicon Valley as the Next Big investment wave. Let’s look at how global cities can plan capacities to attract and facilitate these emergent Sharing Economy swarms.

Metro Smart Hives need to be in the right place and affordable, with the right amenities, including convenient access to whatever the nectar may be–jobs, education, entertainment, social activities or sustenance. Since we can’t fly like our winged honeybee friends, Smart Hives will offer diverse mobility options that don’t require owning a car. The emerging car-reduced or perhaps even car-free era (Hamburg, Germany is planning a car-free central city by 2034) will require scenario planning for infrastructure that anticipates swarm apps making mobility easy, efficient and cost-effective.

We’ve known for many years that public transit planned with transit-oriented development (or vice-versa) can make cities globally competitive and locally equitable. Now we’re seeing that the future of global urbanity provides more well-planned connectivity points for low-carbon and also zero carbon forms of mobility. Guangzhou (China), for instance, provides in conjunction with its Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system bike-sharing stations, secure and weatherproof parking for bicycles, and interchanges for dedicated pedestrian and bike ways. Madrid’s parking rewards transport that reduces greenhouse emissions, and more and more cities around the world are dedicating parking space and permitting benefits for shared mobility. [Editor’s note: See San Francisco delegates 900 parking spaces for car sharing programs]

Upfront, the planning, design and investment in Smart Hives will require new practices to support the emerging technologies in infrastructure simulation, analysis and visualization. Energy and resource scenario planning is particularly critical with climate change exacerbating the need for cities to both reduce GHGs and to become more resilient to climate impacts.

The open data-powered swarms of apps can be complemented by scenario modeling tools that provide cost-benefit analyses. Take Autodesk’s BIM for Infrastructure and Autodesk’s Infraworks 360 engineering tools (disclosure: Autodesk is a client), which can model building energy use, potential for use of renewables and estimated impacts of green infrastructure (such as green roofs, bioswales, permeable pavement) on stormwater treatment versus conventional hardscaped systems. Once data is inputted, including open source city data, these scenario planning and visualization tools have the potential to provide everyone from planners to financiers energy, water and resource impacts according to climate conditions, infrastructure options and building retrofit strategies.

Meanwhile, citizen participation will make the government-facilitated elements of Smart Hives more effective and conducive to people’s needs. NGO Ecocity Builders and local government planners and citizens produced the Medellín (Colombia) Ecosystem World Map on ESRI’s GIS platform, which shows photos and narratives of local sustainability in action by mapping useful resources and crowd-sourced neighborhood projects.

Boundlessgeo provides the technology for the US national broadband map. Enter an address and you get available broadband providers and speed of services. While to some that might sound insignificant, with this kind of information planners or community advocates can assess whether or not people’s homes, businesses or neighborhoods are living up to the 2012 United Nations’ declaration that Internet access is a basic human right, along with shelter, food, clean water and education.

Of course, Smart Hives will also provide city resource and safety managers with critical information as they monitor water delivery, water use and natural conditions, including floods, heat events and even superstorms. IBM has developed a variety of sensor-based systems including a city-wide command center that is now alerting Rio de Janeiro residents of potential pending natural disasters. (This capability was developed in response to a series of superstorm-induced mudslides in 2011 that killed 1,700 residents). Integrating 30 city agencies, the system uses weather monitoring combined with geo-location sensors to send out real-time alerts to people in harm’s way, based on neighborhoods most at risk to potential rapid flooding or mudslides.

The era of sharing open data enabling the emergence of cities as Smart Hives is only just the beginning of a global green economy that will prosper in some locations while lagging in others.

City leaders and agencies will need to be anticipatory in terms of policy and data management while remaining transparent and flexible. Los Angeles through a new chief innovation officer position, for instance, is joining Seoul, Singapore, San Francisco, New York, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and Barcelona in opening city data access to public, private and NGO developers.

With some forethought around privacy safeguards and flexible city policies, we can prepare for new more efficient and sustainable ways of planning, managing and living in our cities. Shaping cities through efficient, creative teams of government, citizens, NGOs and the private sector will make our cities—and our increasingly urban global economy–buzz with higher quality of life and new economic opportunities.


Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current (www.commoncurrent.com), a global consultancy for urban sustainability planning, policy and development. He has led urban sustainability strategy with clients including the The White House Office of Science and Technology; the United Nations; the nations of South Korea and Japan; Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; US Department of State; nation of China’s Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development (MoHURD); and the private sector. He is co-author of the United Nations publication the “Shanghai Manual: Guide for Sustainable Development in the 21st Century.” Warren wrote the original language for one of the nation’s first municipal green building ordinances (San Francisco).

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