Will Smart Cities lead us to Subtopia?

Why you must influence the Smart City agenda where you live

In 1955 critic Ian Nairn wrote a piece for Architecture Review called “Outrage”, in which he coined the term “Subtopia”:

Subtopia is the annihilation of the site, the steamrollering of all individuality of place to one uniform and mediocre pattern

Nairn was calling for the preservation of characteristic places, fearful that if things were allowed to continue then “…the end of Southampton will look like the beginning of Carlisle; the parts in between will look like the end of Carlisle or the beginning of Southampton.”

Over 60 years later the New Economics Foundation (NEF) has found that 41% of our town high streets are clones, full of national identikit chain stores and devoid of local character, with another 23% well on their way.

Just a few months ago a survey in my home town of Reading revealed that 60% of businesses felt that Reading “lacks a clear identity” – perhaps the bigger surprise being that 40% of business believe Reading HAS a clear identity!

What do high streets have to do with high tech Smart Cities?

The cultural identity and heritage of towns and cities is once again under threat – this time from the impending roll-out of Smart City technology.

Nobody sets out to deliberately damage local culture and heritage, but it is inevitable if global IT companies are allowed to impose their top-down “Smart City Vision” onto city councils and local authorities. The cost to the council of implementing a sensitively tailored smart city will be prohibitive, and so they will opt for the off-the-peg, cookie-cutter option. They literally have no choice – councils are obliged to deliver best value, and unfortunately culture and identity are difficult to price.

But Southampton is not Carlisle, Birmingham is not Brighton – these places have different styles and different challenges, and it must be up to the people who live and work there to determine how their smart city should look and feel.

Cities (and towns) compete amongst each other to attract growing businesses and talented workers. Having rich culture and a strong identity are valuable differentiators, something that the smartest cities develop and capitalise upon.

Council staff, residents, organisations and businesses urgently need to get a good grip on what Smart City technology can do for them, what opportunities it opens up, and what concerns it may raise.

The hugely successful IT firms and their vision for Smart Cities are necessary and valuable partners. But if our cities are going to work with them then we all need to be Smart Customers!

Becoming a Smart Customer

There are some popular misconceptions about Smart Cities and the Internet of Things that prevent people from getting involved:

“It’s all a bit too technical for me…I wouldn’t know where to start”

We need to stop people feeling like Smart Cities is all complex, high tech stuff that is only something the geeks understand.

It wasn’t so long ago that computers were something that only scientists, programmers and the word processing pool touched. But now the veil has been lifted and we all carry computers with us and using them is second nature. You don’t even hassle your IT dept to install a programme for you any more – you just pay a small monthly fee to use it online, wherever you are.

Smart City technology is currently shrouded in mystery, firmly in the clutches of fee earning experts in consultancy firms, and seemingly out of reach for residents and local businesses. But there is no great mystery, there is just a veil.

“Smart Cities doesn’t really affect me”

It does and it will. Wake up. Energy companies are installing smart meters in our homes, and by monitoring your usage of electricity, gas, water will know all kinds of things. They will be able to tell you when your fridge is about to break, for example. This could be really useful for you to know – it might save the big family dinner. It could be really annoying if they told Google or Facebook and all you see are fridge adverts and get inundated with appliance insurance phone calls for 3 weeks! So you might want a say in how companies use the data they gather about you.

There are ethical issues around this kind of technology and access to the data it gathers. It raises all kinds of questions about rights, responsibilities and consent. For example, it may be reassuring to put a location tracker on a person with dementia that is prone to getting lost and frightened, but who decides, and who gets to monitor their whereabouts? What if the data reveals something that they would rather not share – for example that they visit a secret lover on Tuesday afternoons? Is it acceptable to put a similar tracker on a toddler when they are away from their parents, for example at playschool? At what age do you remove it?

If you live in a city you will be affected indirectly whether you want to or not, so it is in your interest to be informed. Maybe there are opportunities that would benefit you – perhaps you can see exactly when the bus is coming and avoid standing in the rain, or can check your home is safe and your tomatoes are watered when you are on holiday.

“Don’t we all just need the same thing?”

To a point, yes.

We all want our cities to run efficiently, and to provide good services at a reasonable cost. But each city or town will have different priorities that it wants to focus on, they might prioritise cycling in Cambridge and recycling in Rotherham, services for the elderly in Eastbourne and local enterprise in Liverpool.

Just like we all have a basic need to be clothed, when it comes to Smart Cities one size does not fit all.

Three steps to becoming a Smart Customer

Councils need to be knowledgeable, empowered customers when designing and implementing their Smart City agenda. They need to strike the right mix of top-down “vision” brought by the experts in the huge technology companies, and the bottom-up views and innovations offered by their residents and local businesses.

Local businesses and residents need to be knowledgeable and willing to consult with the council on the kind of Smart City they would like to live and work in.

Here is a simple 3-step approach to becoming a Smart Customer that you can start right now:

  1. De-mystify the Internet of Things and Smart Cities for your team
  2. Start small – experiment with a variety of Smart City ideas
  3. Evaluate, refine and and scale-up the most promising initiatives

1. De-mystify the Internet of Things and Smart Cities for your team

Nothing de-mystifies technology like getting your hands on it and doing it yourself. By far the most effective way we have found is to run a hands-on workshop where in just a few hours your group can build simple sensors and have them sending real data to a website on the Internet.

The Head of Innovation in a global software company headquartered locally asked Thingitude to run a workshop for 16 staff – half technical, half marketing and finance. They were so pleased with the results they ran a company-wide hackathon to take some of the ideas forward. The winning project from the hackathon was presented at their Global Summit in Chicago. All this took place in the space of just a few months, which shows how quickly a well-resourced organisation can move when it is excited.

2. Start small – experiment with a variety of Smart City ideas

Not all your initial ideas will be brilliant, or even possible! Allow time to play with the technology first, conduct a few experiments and build demonstrations that show the potential of the idea to learn whether people can see the value and get excited.

Building demonstrations is a very cost effective way of proving or disproving an idea. The original prototype for Thingitude’s device to count people in a space was built in less than a week with off-the-shelf parts costing around £100. This particular idea carried on into production. Another device for tracking hedgehogs didn’t get beyond the first prototype, but found a use tracking a mobile information kiosk.

It is important to build and show people your ideas – by making it real you let people interact and give concrete feedback on what they’ve seen and saves time and money in the long run. Feedback from the demonstrations will make it clear which ideas sparked enthusiasm, and which should be scrapped.

3. Evaluate, refine and scale-up the most promising initiatives

At this point you can confidently expand the trial, and invest in some design and development skills to make your devices and apps more robust and user-friendly. It needn’t be expensive but you are going to put your prototypes in the hands of friendly users and ask for their involvement and feedback. It is important that you give them something that is more finished than your original proof of concept.

For small production runs of physical devices we use a creative 3d-printer service to design and make the case, and an experienced electronics designer to produce the circuit board. We develop an outline business case and broaden our thinking to consider security/access to the data, and the full customer journey – installation of the device, usability of the apps, how to support the users in the trial, and how to gather feedback.

By evaluating the user trial objectively, you can decide whether to refine the solution and put it into your Smart City plans; or to run a larger trial; or to scrap the project. In this way you control costs and limit your exposure to risk.


Smart City technology aims to make a city or town a better place to live and work, but it is vital that in implementing these improvements we don’t lose the character and culture that gives the place its own unique identity. We need to avoid creating Nairn’s Subtopia with off-the peg, cookie cutter Smart Cities.

Engaging with residents, community organisations and local businesses on what kind of a Smart City they would like, and proving ideas before committing to the cost of supporting a large implementation is a winning approach.

The Smart City / IoT marketplace is rapidly evolving and big investments in any area of Smart City technology are high risk. Our councils, and the residents and businesses they represent need to equip themselves as Smart Customers in order to be able to get the very best from their technology partners.

Bottom-up, community driven experiments and trials are a low risk and low cost way to engage with citizens and learn what works for your area.

Happy Birthday TTN Reading!

One year on from launching The Things Network Reading, I was invited back to Reading Geek Night to give an update on what we have been getting up to…


Here’s a link to the slides:

There wasn’t an official videographer this time, but Mike kindly put this together from his mobile phone.

Here’s to the next year of fun 🙂

Reading Hotspot project report

hotspot device and power supply

Earlier this year Thingitude bid for some funding from Reading Council to develop an Internet of Things project with students throughout the summer holidays as part of Reading 2016 Year of Culture. A couple of months later I was told the bid was successful!

Reading 2016 Year of Culture

(gulp) – what did I promise?!!

“We will create a live heat-map of Reading’s arts events, that shows the size of the audience at each event, and allows audience members to rate the event and share it on social media. We will provide the data to the venue owners and artists so they can see how big an impact the event had, and how it compares to other events.

For publicly funded events it will provide a direct, objective measure of the impact of the event, and therefore an indication of the value delivered through the funding.

This is delivered through developing a device that is installed in each venue (whether indoors or outside), and counts the number of mobile phones in the area as an estimate of audience size. The devices will use The Things Network to send their data to an app that presents the data in a useful way to artists, venues and allows audiences to rate the event.”

Ok, so we need to design, develop, test and deliver:

  • An app for the public that shows the venues on a map, and how many people are currently in the venue
  • An app for the venue owners so they can see over time which days, times, events are busy and which are quiet
  • A few devices that count mobile phones as a proxy for people, and then sends that data via wireless to the internet
  • Some kind of database to hold all the information
  • …oh, and the small matter of finding some students and a place to work

Now I respond well to a challenge, but in my day job the project budget is normally such that I can hand-pick a couple of top notch team members which sets the project up to succeed from the outset. And even if I can’t hand-pick the team, at least *I* know what I’m doing so can steer things along pretty well. Not so in this project – the joy of the Internet of Things is that it is all new and largely unexplored.

What could possibly go wrong..?

Getting started

Finding a place to work was supremely easy – our local collaboration, incubation and co-working hub offered me desk space before I could even ask. I am very grateful to GROW@GreenPark for their extraordinary hospitality and the residents for their friendship and generosity throughout our stay.
It was an amazing base for our project

Finding students – not so easy. Reading University has closed most of its computer science and systems engineering research (because…?!), and disappointingly I didn’t get a single applicant from the University. So my plan for genius geeky undergrads knocking out a couple of apps in a few weeks needed rethinking. Luckily we have UTC Reading – the first university technical college to be rated as “Outstanding” by Ofsted – and their Physics teacher often comes to Reading Geek Night. He put me in touch with their head of IT and within a couple of days I had a handful of applicants. Hmm, how should I interview 17/18 year olds? – ooh, lets run a hackathon and see if they are any good!

Slight aside – I feel very fortunate that ICL (remember them? – the UK’s answer to IBM) took me on as an A-Level student and trained me up for two years. It was a fantastic opportunity and in hindsight an incredibly brave thing to do – putting this grinning idiot in front of customers, installing computers, swapping broken parts… I was so young and knew nothing, yet they paid me well – £7k including London weighting in 1987 was pretty good going, and in real terms much better than 18 year olds are getting on today’s “modern apprenticeships”. And the training was superb. More of this please modern companies!

attendees at the Thingithon
Team Thingithon!

The thingithon was fun. Four students turned up and after a quiet start gradually opened up over the course of the day. It was a pretty steep learning curve, but they just about got the hang of the challenge I’d set by the end of the day and I was happy I could work with them.

They all said YES – so I had a team: Kieron, Sam, Simon and Tom. Tom is a year older and off to university at the end of the summer, whereas the other 3 have another year of A Levels to go. What I didn’t have was any computers! Frustratingly the college didn’t want them installing software on their school laptops, and wouldn’t flex the rules, so I had to beg/borrow the necessary kit propranolol pills 20 mg. Reading geeks and a brother in law came to the rescue! Many thanks to Ant, Ferg, Peter and Tom for lending us their spare old laptops – you saved the project 🙂

Whiteboard solution design
Whiteboard solution design

The first few days were spent describing the project aims, writing up the user stories, flows and sketching a data model. The next big challenge – find a common programming language. It turns out that C and PHP aren’t so popular with the cool kids these days, which was a bit of a problem because the starting point code I’d written for the device was all in C, and the code I’d written for the server and web apps was all PHP. And the students *really* wanted to create mobile apps not web apps, so PHP was not a good candidate. Kieron, Simon and me did a bit of research on possible languages/frameworks while Sam got to grips with my C code and Tom started designing circuit boards.

The apps and programming choices

We settled on Meteor.js as the platform of choice. You write your code in Javascript, and the server side stuff runs on Node.js so that’s Javascript too, which means we need to learn just the one language and the Meteor framework. Plus the bonus – one set of code will give you a web app, an Android app and an IOS app. We win! Kieron set to work on the public/audience app and Simon took on the venue owner app.

The public/audience app with a map of venues

Programming has an odd relationship with time. You can spend days grinding through one seemingly simple feature, and then flash through the next 5 features in a couple of hours. It’s unpredictable, intensely frustrating, and you flip from feeling like a fool to a champion and back again. Over the weeks we all stumbled, got stuck, and then flew …sometimes straight into a wall! Kieron, Simon and me all struggled for a couple of weeks getting to grips with Meteor. Its biggest failing in my view is that it is so brittle – as in it breaks easily (and it ALL breaks); but it breaks silently with hardly any error messages, just a blank screen and a shrug.

Poor Sam struggled for a couple of weeks with C, and then rewrote everything on the device in Python. So now I had to learn Python. I may have complained about this. Sam didn’t mind, his stuff was beginning to work nicely. I remember spending several hours getting really annoyed at stupid Python because I couldn’t see how to convert my string into hex, which is straightforward in C (maybe half a dozen lines of code). So annoying, stupid langua… hey, what I just put “.encode(‘hex’)” on the end of the string? Oh, yeah that works. Hmmm…

I love Python.

I *quite* love Meteor too – it is frustrating when it breaks, but it breaks less often once you know what you’re doing. Funny that. Figuring out how to deploy it into production and for mobile phones is another battle with dodgy documentation, but worth the struggle!

Venues app shows todays data (or this week,month etc)
The venues app shows today’s data (or this week,month etc)

The back-end

Obviously we used The Things Network to connect our devices to the internet. The Things Network publishes our sensor data using Mosquitto (aka MQTT) and my server subscribes to the feed with the right security credentials and receives the data. I am please to say it works like a dream!

I chose MongoDB as the database to hold all the sensor data – it loves the JSON data from The Things Network, and it works really well with Meteor.
My original collector program was written in PHP, but seeing as everything else is javascript I rewrote it in node.js for consistency, along with an aggregator program.

The hotspot device

The “thing” in our Internet of Things project needed a collection of sensors on a circuit board. Over the summer Tom took it from this:

Lots of wires, LCD display
The hotspot prototype (all my own work, excuse the mess!)

…through a few iterations…

Hotspot board v1 - not helped by me ordering rather large capacitors by mistake!
Hotspot board v1 – not helped by me ordering rather large capacitors by mistake!
Hotspot board v2 - it works, but a few snags to fix
Hotspot board v2 – it works, but a few snags to fix

…to this:

The v3 board!  Much neater and now has curved corners to please the professionals :-)
The v3 board! Much neater and now has curved corners to please the professionals 🙂

We encountered a few problems along the way, which Tom overcame with each revision of the board. One of the local residents at GROW, Luke – gave Tom a masterclass in soldering and let him use his professional soldering kit which was incredibly helpful. We also uncovered some strange quirks of circuit board designers – they are very passionate about curved corners and dressed screw-holes. Who knew? Anyway, I think you’ll agree the circuit board is looking a lot better and a lot neater than when I started!

Tom beavering away with the soldering station
Tom beavering away with the soldering station

To finish it off we commissioned Alex from ADMG Consulting to design and 3d-print a case for us. Alex runs his 3d printer business out of GROW – he designs and builds 3d printers as well as designing items to print. This case has some very nice features including grooves for cables, angled holes for the sensors, built in mounts on the back, and a rainjacket for the mobile/outdoor version.

Here’s part of the case being printed:

The front cover being printed
The front panel being printed

…and here is the finished item. Ta-da!

hotspot device and power supply
The finished hotspot device!

The big questions

1. YES – it works. Not perfect, but perfectly good enough to start using. You can download it to your android phone or use the web app if you prefer – I’d love your feedback, but right now please use the Example quiet venue – I’ll keep that one running until I install the devices for the Council and we start using it for real.

2. YES – absolutely I would work with students again. I feel lucky with these 4 – all very bright, all happy to argue for their own ideas, all added a great deal to the project. It took a little while for them to realise that I was only searching Google and Stack Overflow to solve their problems, and it was easier all round if they did that themselves and only come to me with the bigger things to solve. It also took a little while for them to confidently try out new stuff without really knowing what they are doing. School does not teach these things, but that’s fine because they are all quick learners. Obviously they are not yet super high performing professionals, but their attitude was superb, they were 100% reliable, and I hope I get to work with them again.

3. YES – you can buy a hotspot for your venue! Get in touch 🙂

LoraWAN shield for BBC micro:bit

Richard Ibbotson from rLab – Reading’s hackspace – has made a LoraWAN shield for the BBC micro:bit which connects to The Things Network!

You can read all about his excellent project here: https://hackaday.io/project/12164-just-do-iot

Richard's LoraWAN shield next to a BBC micro:bit

Richard’s LoraWAN shield next to a BBC micro:bit

Reading features in the next TTN webcast!

Next TTN webcast features READING!!

The Things Network is organizing a series of webcasts in which initiators share their best practices.

Hot on the heels of Gonzalo Casas (Zurich) and Matthijs Jaspers (Rotterdam) the next TTN webcast will have Andrew Maggio (@maj) and Mark Stanley (@markstanley) sharing their experience gained through the initiation of the communities in Sydney and Reading (UK).


Next webcast takes place on Wednesday 3rd of August.
Join our webcast by clicking https://plus.google.com/events/c4dtalpskivqcs0tan8otrom708