Marcus Foth, Professor of Urban Informatics in the QUT Design Lab, speaks to Kate about creating, applying and using information technology and data to create cities and urban environments in which people can thrive.
00:00:07 Kate Joyner
Welcome to ExecInsights, brought to you by QUTeX, executive education for the real world. Part of our program in executive education are short courses drawing from a range of expertise from across the university. Recently we hosted a day on the topic of smart cities with Brooke Dixon, who was a previous guest on ExecInsights and also Professor Marcus Foth. Marcus founded the Urban Informatics research lab at QUT in 2006. He’s one of the world’s top 25 leading thinkers and innovators in the field of urban planning and technology. Marcus is going to share with us some of the critical issues facing cities and the promise of smart city strategies.
00:00:45 Marcus Foth
Thank you, thank you for having me.
00:00:47 Kate Joyner
Good, are you busy still, going up to Christmas?
00:00:49 Marcus Foth
It is still quite busy, yes. Usually, people assume that once the teaching semester is over that people go into a quiet part of the year, but that’s actually when the research deadlines are all looming.
00:01:00 Kate Joyner
Yes, give us sense of what your research questions are in your in your research area.
00:01:05 Marcus Foth
So, I work across three main domains or disciplines and we call this “People, Place, Technologies”. So, it’s on the one hand, the social sciences, humanities, some even arts influences. Broadly speaking, the disciplines that try to understand people and all the social implications. Then we have collaborations and interactions with people from the built environment, from urban planning, architecture and design. And the third one is technology, computer science, human computer interaction, interaction design. So, it’s quite a broad array. And then within that we try and find research questions that connect all three. So, we are specifically focusing on cities and urban environments and we’ve been doing this for a long time now, so questions that we pick up are around sustainability, energy reduction in domestic environments, for instance we’ve been working on different ways and novel approaches to community engagement when it comes to urban planning and the kind of decision making that involves citizens in urban planning. And we’ve been looking at situated engagement and technology as a way to reach out to a broader section of society.
00:02:21 Marcus Foth
And we’re currently interested in in blockchain and distributed ledgers as well.
00:02:24 Kate Joyner
In what way? As an application for cities?
00:02:28 Marcus Foth
Yeah, there’s different ways that it can apply to cities, it’s quite interesting. It can be applied to the technical layout when it comes to the deployment of Internet of Things (IoT) devices and sensors, the way that they are currently communicating is through what we call the cloud, but the cloud is actually run by central corporations, so you would usually have to subscribe to different cloud services.
00:02:50 Marcus Foth
And for Internet of Things devices to then interact and communicate with each other, different protocols and interfaces need to be set up. Whereas what blockchain does, actually, the big thing that everyone talks about when it comes to blockchain and distributed ledgers is called disintermediation, which means that the middleman an be cut out, and these different sensors providing data can actually provide the data directly to the recipients rather than having to channel through different layers of intermediation.
00:03:22 Kate Joyner
There, everything seems to come to blockchain. I think this is the fourth conversation I’ve had about blockchain this week.
00:03:30 Kate Joyner
So, I mean those research questions that you just outlined. So, issues about sustainability and so forth and the rest of your research program. So, we’re a University of the Real World, so are these the kind of the questions that cities are telling us that they require more knowledge, more information, more attention?
00:03:50 Marcus Foth
Very much so. I think the smart city agenda really got going around 2012, 2013. In those early days, early adopter cities that were adopting a smart city mantra, even some very early examples in South Korea, for instance, that were supported by the South Korean large family conglomerates like Samsung and LG, but also South Korean Telecom and other very large corporations.
00:04:21 Marcus Foth
They were very much looking at the technology piece in isolation. They were not necessarily looking at a more holistic picture of what the city is all about.
00:04:30 Marcus Foth
And I think we’ve now moved on and cities have moved on from these early examples of just looking at deploying technology for the sake of deploying technology and then pointing the finger at different technical pieces of infrastructure and saying there you go, we’re now a smart city. It’s not quite as easy as that. It’s actually the way that the technology is embedded and an entanglement of social and cultural and commercial relationships, and I think the cities these days that also come to us, and particularly those that participated in our short course a couple of weeks ago, they’re telling us that this picture needs to be complexified much more in order to actually arrive at solutions that are successful in driving workability, livability, sustainability, the kind of mantra of the Smart Cities Council.
00:05:22 Marcus Foth
And that requires not just expertise around the deployment of sensors, IoT, Wi-Fi, public screens and the rest of it. It’s actually about how that can drive improvements with regards to social outcomes, commercial outcomes and environmental outcomes. And that is then a research and practice that requires a transdisciplinary approach rather than just having people with expertise in computer science or technology paths, we are working with people from anthropology, from design, from urban planning, from the arts. And I think it’s that fruitful mixing and really that nexus of those different types of relationships together with industry partners and with government partners where we produce quite interesting and exciting results that are different from what everyone else is doing.
00:06:20 Kate Joyner
So walkability, livability, and sustainability are sort of the outcomes I know that a lot of cities are trying to meet and there are challenges in all of those I would imagine. So which cities do you look to, I suppose, and all urban planners have the cities I think that they look to and think, “Oh, you know you’re doing the right thing. You’re making good choices here or applying technology well or working with your community well.” So which cities do you sort of look to as some sort of a bit of a North Star, I suppose, in each of those three areas?
00:06:53 Marcus Foth
Well, I think the early examples are different to the ones that we’re looking at now. So, in the early days of Smart Cities, a lot of people got excited about the, again the South Korean policy, and the national policy around the “You” city or the ubiquitous city and Incheon was, for instance, a master planned city that had a lot of the smart city components. But I think these days it’s not so much those Korean examples or the Singapore example or the examples that we see in the US, it’s actually cities that are very progressive in the way that they implement different policy frameworks and different regulatory form pieces. So rather than just focusing on the technology, it’s the technology in conjunction with really interesting and innovative business models, different and innovative policy frameworks and so examples, and also places that we’re working with in Denmark, a lot of the Scandinavian and northern European cities are very progressive in their thinking.
00:07:56 Marcus Foth
In Denmark, we’re working quite closely with Aarhus, which is the largest city after Copenhagen. Copenhagen itself is doing some marvelous work as well, but particularly Aarhus is a great example because it’s a very compact city, but you don’t necessarily feel that you’re in a small place, so it has all the kinds of features that you expect from a large metropolitan city. But yet you can be on your bicycle and get everywhere quite quickly.
00:08:20 Kate Joyner
So that’s sort of Accessibility or walkability or bikeability, I suppose, yeah.
00:08:25 Marcus Foth
And it relates to the workability as well because you are able to have a much more inclusive and accessible kind of way, not just to use the city as a way to go about your work and your life, but it’s also about the different, I suppose, channels at the city provides to interact with their citizens. So, they’ve recently invested quite a sizable amount in building a new library that was awarded the best library building in the world, when the city actually desperately needed a new airport.
00:09:00 Marcus Foth
Because they’re using, most of them use the airport that Legoland build for in Billund, and so for a city to actually say “We have a sizable budget. We’re not going to go ahead with the airport. We’re still gonna go 2 hours further south to go to Billund, but we’ll build this library directly at the waterfront.” And for that to now advance into this Civic Centre where it’s not just about the usual features of a library, but it’s actually about a maker space. It has incubation facilities, it has engagement spaces. The city is showcasing different kinds of ways the technology is deployed in various parts of the city to educate people about the different possibilities. And so, it’s a buzzing hive of activity. They are constantly extending the opening hours and it’s just marvelous to see that that kind of interaction
00:09:53 Kate Joyner
That would have required a tradeoff of some kind I suppose, and you’d need to bring the community along with you. So, you were saying that part of your research is around strategies of community engagement, so would they have engaged some of those strategies in order to bring the community along with them?
00:10:12 Marcus Foth
Yeah, I’m sure that there is still a lot of people that would have said, “Well, the airport would have been nice as well.” but I think everyone is really pleased because an airport, unless you’re really a busy businessperson that travels on a regular basis, for people that are traveling on a more sporadic basis or for holidays, yeah, you know, once you go to the airport, that’s then a bit of a hurdle. But that building and that facility is now accessible in the in the city centre. A lot of people use it on a regular basis, daily or weekly basis, and it has different options or opportunities really, for everyone to get involved. And I think in the lead up to that decision and the actual development there were also a lot of the kind of engagement approaches and strategies that we’ve been advocating used in order to work with the community in shaping the ideas, in bringing together the architects, the local government and citizens and adjacent businesses. And there’s also a history, I suppose in not just Aarhus, but in Denmark, more widely to not only allow people to participate in those decisions, but also to listen.
00:11:21 Marcus Foth
And I think that is sometimes a huge difference. It makes a small difference, but it’s actually then quite an impactful one because you can have all the latest technology, using social media, using situated technology to engage people. But if that feedback is not actually listened to and you don’t as a person, as a citizen that has provided that feedback in the sense that anyone has taken account of it or paid attention, then any…
00:11:49 Kate Joyner
Unlikely to participate to again. If you feel it’s an exercise in communication rather than getting real feedback.
00:11:58 Marcus Foth
Yeah, I think our risk that we see in a lot of cases is kind of similar to the early examples of smart city deployments that were just about the cosmetics of having a showcase piece to say here’s our public screen. It looks all digital and fancy and now we can call ourselves a smart city. It’s not quite as easy, and I think a similar lesson to be learned from these window dressing approaches to community engagement.
00:12:30 Marcus Foth
When fancy technology is used to collect people’s feedback, but then there isn’t really any further evidence that that feedback has actually been used to drive decision making further down the track. So I think people are getting much more emancipated I suppose, and having much more experience when it comes to these kinds of things and they want to see that dialogue. We do have to close that feedback loop.
00:12:57 Kate Joyner
Given that everything is not about economics, I appreciate that, but is there a case to be made that those cities who invest you know in the strategies that build walkability and sustainability livability so that they attract, I suppose more investment in those cities? I mean, I’m thinking about the work of Richard Florida.
00:13:20 Kate Joyner
Which most of us, yeah, I mean that’s probably as much as we know really, about cities.
00:13:24 Marcus Foth
Yeah, it’s interesting that you that you mentioned Richard Florida. So, he’s actually driving, in a way, one of our latest research questions, and in a research funding proposal that we are putting together that has gained a bit of interest from different partners that we are signing up to this funding bid from regional Queensland and regional Australia. And so Richard Florida has been quite instrumental internationally but also here in Australia in driving urban policy, and the kind of urban renewal strategies that a lot of cities have been implementing.
00:14:00 Marcus Foth
In fact, my early work as a post doc here at QUT was based on the Kelvin Grove Urban Village, which was at the time a master plan community between QUT and the Department of Housing, the Queensland Government. And Richard Florida was flown in as a consultant gave a big lecture and told us about the creative class.
00:14:22 Kate Joyner
The creative class. Yes, so his thing is about, if you can bring enough sort of funky, creative people, you know good things will flow from that?
00:14:32 Marcus Foth
At that time he had these conceptual instruments like the Bohemian index or the gay index of you know how many LGBT people would feel comfortable in your neighborhood, etc. But this year he’s apologized, he said that, “I’m sorry, a lot of these policies of urban renewal have actually now in practice been continuing to drive gentrification, inequality, segregation, and in misery in people’s lives.” And so he’s written this book, The new urban crisis, where he’s reflected on maybe the last 10 or 15 years of these urban renewal policies that were all about focusing on the CBD.
00:15:18 Kate Joyner
That’s right. What Bernard Salt calls the “Goat cheese curtain”, I think. Like, 5 kilometres from the CBD.
00:15:24 Marcus Foth
So, I think from that point of view it’s important to have a more diverse and again as I said, a more complex understanding of the different layers and the entanglements in cities. So cities are more than just computers, so it’s not just the technical layer. They’re more than just the business. It’s not just all about us going to work and going home and going to work and going home. I think the richness of those cities where we go to on holidays or we go to when we, when we travel overseas even for work.
00:15:55 Marcus Foth
We come back and say, “Oh, we’ve been to XY and Z City in a in a far away place, you know, wouldn’t it be nice if we had this here in in Australia?” So, I think it’s about something that allows citizens and people, residents living in cities to create their own city, to actually have not just the perfect urban development project that once it’s completed, it’s complete. There’s nothing more for you to do.
00:16:21 Marcus Foth
A lot of the older cities, they have traces of history and heritage, and you can actually see…
00:16:26 Kate Joyner
They call it the palimpsest, I think is the word there, where you can see the imprint.
00:16:30 Marcus Foth
Yeah, so it’s that level of participatory place making that once you are living there you in a way, the traces and the footprints of human activity are left over generations. And I think that what gives them their charm, their unique kind of we call it the essence of a place. So rather than being in a shopping centre and you squint your eyes and it you know, it could be in Chermside, in North Lakes, or it could be at Bondi Beach. They all look the same ’cause they’re all made to a cookie cutter model. It’s about maybe at that time of development, creating something that isn’t 100% finished yet. There are still things for the actual inhabitants, businesses, local communities, school groups, etc, to contribute, and I think it’s that contribution and that interaction that allows people to make the city their own.
00:17:27 Kate Joyner
So, you weren’t born in Brisbane, Marcus, but you have lived in Brisbane for some time. So, QUT we have a campus in Canberra, ofcourse but where we have two campuses, two lovely campuses here in Brisbane. What would you describe as the essence of Brisbane? Since we’ve used the term essence.
00:17:43 Marcus Foth
Yeah, the essence of Brisbane. Well, it’s been changing. I’ve arrived in Brisbane in 2000. I’ve been here now for nearly 18 years. I think Brisbane is still for me, my favorite city. I’ve come here as a student during my study abroad year at Griffith University first and I was just, you know, in love with the city very quickly because of the climate, the atmosphere, the attitude of people, the wildlife, the access to fantastic, you know, natural environments, the beaches and so forth, and that is still the case. I just think that there is certain development goals currently at play in Brisbane that need to be much more qualitative than quantitative. So, we usually hear people involve industry and in government talk about numbers and percentages and those numbers and percentages are not necessarily indicative of us making qualitative improvements. So only because we have “more of”, it doesn’t mean that people are healthier, happier…
00:18:50 Marcus Foth
So more hopeful, six star hotel rooms, for example as well?
00:19:00 Marcus Foth
Yeah, so it is useful to have some evaluation assessment based on numbers, but I think in addition to that we also need to look at, are people healthier? Are they happier? Is the environment healthier? Is it sustaining us? Is it nurturing us? If we’re just looking at pure growth trajectories, then we’re missing out on direction. We’re just kind of saying we’re growing, growing, growing.
00:19:23 Kate Joyner
And we’ll lose that essence.
00:19:24 Marcus Foth
We’re losing the essence already. I think a lot of people are getting increasingly frustrated and in the current project that we are putting together, it’s based on a… Originally it was based on the study that Bernard Salt, the demographer working for KPMG did last year for NBN Co, and he projected that in addition to the sea changes and tree changes, the generations that usually around retirement would move out of larger cities and go into the countryside or find accommodation closer to the coast, that there is now a third generation of people not at the age of retirement at all – much more working age and generation – still looking to build their careers and they’re the ones that he called the e-changers.
So, the ones that would take advantage of broadband internet access now across Australia predominantly but looking for more affordable real estate, less pollution, less congestion, and being able to still maintain their startup or their freelance work, or, you know, their different careers in a creative industry or in a in a digital economy. And, so he’s designated a whole bunch of different local government areas in regional Australia that would be predestined to embrace this generation of e-changers. And so, I think if Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney, another Metropolitan areas continue to aspire to become the next Los Angeles or the next Tokyo, then we’re probably all gonna kind of say, “Well, this is actually now, I’m reaching a tipping point where this is impacting on my quality of life on my workability, livability and sustainability.”
00:21:09 Kate Joyner
And I may well go to Rockhampton?
00:21:11 Marcus Foth
Yeah, and so that’s where now people are, you know, starting to consider other options where you have a more compact… I mentioned the example of Aarhus in Denmark, a more compact city that ideally is following a different pathway that has more qualitative KPIs in terms of how they want to grow. They do want to grow, but it’s not this blind growing for the sake of growing. We actually want to grow things that that are good for us, but we will not not grow the things that are bad for us, and I think that’s the differentiation of values and ethics that is missing in those cities that are growing very, very quickly right now.
00:21:49 Kate Joyner
Well, we should reconvene in maybe 10 years and check in and see how we’ve done. So, Marcus I ask all my podcast guests this question. So we’re about to head into a Christmas break. What are you going to be reading over Christmas?
00:22:01 Marcus Foth
Oh well, being an academic, there’s usually lots of things I’m reading for work. But I think I’m really interested, and this kind of goes back to the blockchain and distributed ledger kind of literature, because a lot of it at the moment is following maybe a similar pathway to what happened with smart cities, that a lot of the literature, both online as well as what people write in journal articles and there’s some early books emerging, it’s just about the technology. That people get very excited about what it can do for security and encryption and so forth, but I actually think it’s really interesting to read more about the kinds of pieces that come afterwards. And my colleague at RMIT, Jason Potts has just been promoted to head up the RMIT Research Centre in blockchain. And so some of his writings are really interesting. He is an evolutionary economist and he looks at blockchain much more from a social, cultural, societal point of view.
00:23:03 Kate Joyner
I can say that yeah, well, I think I might need to hook into that one too. Or not the kind of book I think you’d read on the beach maybe, but maybe on a plane somewhere. Well Marcus, thank you so much and we look forward to you joining us in QUTeX in 2018.
00:23:17 Marcus Foth
Awesome, thank you so much for having me.