ULI Digital city and Urban Tech Conference 2018

Digitisation of cities and urban technology is enabling highly dynamic environments that offer far reaching opportunities to transform many aspects of our urban environment and society. ULI brought together professionals from across the city, technology, innovation and urban realm (planning, design, development, management) and investment fields on the 17th April 2018 at City Hall, London to share, understand and challenge how innovation and digital transformation could play a role in addressing city level challenges.

Adam Burstow, Digital Director/Grosvenor, and Co-Chair of the ULI Tech Forum, opened the conference.  He noted how we are all technologists now.  Via a snap poll, we learned that about 15% of 130-strong audience had direct experience through work with IOT, 3D printing, AR/VR visualization, machine learning, but 100% of consumed goods and services that involved at least some of those processes.

Dr Richard Robinson, Digital Property Lead/ARUP
Keynote address.  Unlike many previous tech conferences, including others that ULI/UK itself has hosted, the overall focus was less on emerging tech products and systems, and more about the social aspects of technology.

Rick noted emerging challenges that exist societally, and potential implications for the tech and related property sectors:

  • Stagnant workforce productivity
  • Threats to environmental resilience
  • Polarised community relationships
  • Scarcity of public finances

Rick underscored the rise of networks vs corporations, and pointed out that 7 out of the global 10 top companies (ranked by market capitalization) are tech companies. (15 years ago, none of them were). And this profound shift in the priorities of market capitalization also parallels the broader prioritization away from fixed assets and towards platforms that – through networks – allowed individuals and companies to agglomerate and leverage the assets of others.

Overall workforce productivity in developed economies has stagnated since the 1980, for various reasons.  This stagnation is highly correlated with the gradual socialization of desktop computing; while technology has helped individuals complete time-based tasks more efficiently, the value of those tasks has also decreased in almost direct proportion.  In the meantime, however, through the rise of the digitally-enabled platforms, it has been possible to share physical assets in unanticipated ways, thereby accelerating an economic shift away from maximising labour to ‘sweating’ assets. (Consider the ‘uberization’ of mobility, ‘airbnb-ing’ of accommodation, etc.).

Cities will continue to be on the frontline of employment transformations related to digitalised economy, not just because their thick labour market has increasingly relevant population groups, but because cities have always functioned as networks more than commodified territory.

Dr Stephen Lorimer – Smart London Strategy lead for the Greater London Authority discussed the digital strategy London’s mayor.  As a general rule for major cities these days, digital transformation seems to emerge as a mayoral priority about halfway into their respective first terms, after they have begun addressing other fixed-asset issues like housing and transportation; will digitalisation become a more urgent priority in the future?

Stephen noted that in data-driven economies, earning the trust of constituents is increasingly important.  As government entities aggregate and accumulate government-sourced meta-data, there are debates about how to determine levels of access for a broad range of interested parties, from government officials and planning agencies, to political candidates, developers, businesses, and citizens in general.

The GLA is establishing the London Office of Tech and Innovation, which will develop data sharing standards to promote cooperation between the London boroughs

Lauren Poon, Senior Designer, CallisonRTKL moderated the first panel: Digital Transitioning and Leadership, and posed a number of deceptively simple questions:  what is a ‘Smart City’? How will cities physically respond to future tech? How will cities govern data?

Margot Orr Jones, Future Cities lead at Jacobs, suggested that a Smart City was ultimately a platform for collaboration.  Physically these cities will look much the same as they do today, but will be managed differently, optimised and operated from the ground up rather than top-down.

David Lewis, Managing Director at E.ON, considered how a Smart City will allow data sources and controls to work together.  He noted that there were differing cultural attitudes about harmonization of data; the US for example has a looser approach towards standardization, looking to the market to define the best way forward.  Europe and Asia prefer more regimented approaches.  He suggested that there is a growing risk of backlash against breaches of data privacy and un-regulated use of data by centralised authorities.

Dr David Dunn, CEO Sunderland Software City, suggested that a Smart City enabled urban centres to function at their full-capacity.  He identified the progress that areas in Sunderland were making, and stressed the importance of bringing along SMEs in particular rather than forcing tech standards onto them. David noted how Tech centres are increasingly becoming nodes for urban regeneration, much as cultural and community centres have been in the past.

Stephen Lorimer, who joined the panel after his previous round, stressed the need to balance open data sources with some regulation and standardization.  He cited the GLA’s federalised approach, encouraging London boroughs to collect their own data (including records of face-to-face transactions, not just online activity) but leaving it up to the GLA to define the protocols for inter-borough coordination and agglomerating data London-wide.

The next ‘Lightning Round’ was a high-energy parade of company founders pitching the potentials of their new proptech businesses:

Freddie Talburg, founder of EMSOL, underscored the importance of clean air in the formation of successful city strategies, and presented a default solution for managing freight companies’ emissions compliance.  Citing P. Drucker’s famous adage – ‘what gets measured gets managed’, he highlighted proprietary air quality and analysis protocols.

Garry Atkins, founder of enLight, demonstrated how municipal lighting upgrades could shift away from being a cost burden to becoming a significant opportunity for traffic management, improving waste collection efficiency, localising flood warnings, and monitoring air quality. He outlined a range of specific solutions that leveraged the ubiquity of lighting standards over extended areas, including innovations such as geo-fencing to support early-stage dementia protection.

Nathan Koren, founder of Podaris, reminded the conference of how data alone isn’t useful until it evolves into information, then knowledge, and hopefully wisdom.  They key to this progression is defining objectives, given context, and then collaborating with a wide range of sources.

Ed Parham from Space Syntax, and co-chair ULI Tech Forum moderated the second panel – ‘City in 2023 – Innovative Approaches’ which included Bridget Wilkins, lead for UK Development, CBRE; Priya Prakesh, CEO, Social Change; Sarah Drinkwater Head of Campus, Google; and Vanessa Butz, CEO, District Tech.  The group shared how they defined long-term returns and emerging models for collaboration and data sharing. In particular, they focused on how they defined promises – for example produce social good – and how they measured progress and returns.

Christopher Choa, Cities lead at AECOM and ULI/UK Chair reviewed some of the highlights of the day’s proceedings and suggested related observations.

Almost every speaker brought up the issue of data privacy.  As the general public continues to adopt many aspects of technology, growing concern about privacy represents a maturing understanding of technology’s capabilities and unintended consequences.  But perhaps the public that produces data – intentionally or otherwise – should understand data protection as a property rights issue rather than one about privacy.  We understand that wages are stagnant even as we continue to adopt data-mining technology in almost every area of our lives.  Real returns are not increasing for time-based activities but rather when we ‘sweat’ property assets.  In our data-rich world, we often willingly exchange data in return for a service or convenience.  It’s a new-age form of barter, but we will increasingly be asking ourselves if the exchange is fair – if our data property is being correctly valued relative to the value we receive.

The value of data is not absolute; it’s defined by context, agglomeration, and intended use.  In many respects, we recognise this phenomena when we carry out physical planning of cities as well; the value of a building asset is relative, not absolute either – the assets value depends on how it fits into the surrounding context, how adjacent or separated it is from complimentary uses, if it is well-connected to surrounding potential or not.  As our society continues to shift away from corporations and commodities to networks and service platforms, we should also consider an analogous shift to bottom-up outcome-based masterplanning.  Perhaps we will be focusing more and more on infrastructure ‘nudges’ that allow commodified and boundaried assets to redefine themselves as shared amenities, thereby maximising their returns to both the asset holder and a wider range of other users.

Democratic societies depend on the enforcement of a social contract; citizens remain engaged when they sense that there are tangible returns from their active participation in society.  In an increasingly data-rich and digitised world, this social contract will remain an expectation.

The ULI would like to thank  E.ON for its generosity as lead sponsor, and the Greater London Authority for providing the City Living Room as the spectacular conference venue.  ULI is also grateful to Women Talk Real Estate, Green Sky Thinking/Open City, and PlaceTech for their support.

Speaker Presentations

Keynote – Dr Rick Robonson- Arup

Lightning Round – Start-Up Presentations – addressing city challenges


Past Forums and Get Involved

ULI Tech Conference: 4th Revolution

ULI Tech Conference: Driverless Cars and the City

Get involved: ULI UK’s  Tech Forum and wider ULI programmes such as the Young Leaders, and Councils all convene a range of initiatives in the technology and innovation field.

Author: Chris Choa, Cities lead at AECOM and ULI/UK Chair

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