Cities & Eyes – Calvino’s prophetic vision

My family spent the Christmas of 1977 in a small cottage in an island in eastern Finland, in the middle of a frozen lake.  I remember two things from that holiday: it was very cold, and I read Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities for the first time. It was a profound experience for the 15-year-old me.

Invisible Cities was one of the main reasons I wanted to become an architect. Later I learnt that digging that book is an equal architect cliché to wearing black polo shirts. Could not care less. I have revisited that book countless times, and there is always something to find.

My latest epiphany is the chapter Cities and Eyes 1, which is an accurate description of our cities made transparent by social media. We all live in Valdrada.

Cities and Eyes 1

The ancients built Valdrada on the shores of a lake, with houses all verandas one above the other, and high streets whose railed parapets look out over the water. Thus the traveler, arriving, sees two cities: one erect above the lake, and the other reflected, upside down. Nothing exists or happens in the one Valdrada that the other Valdrada does not repeat, because the city was so constructed that its every point would be reflected in its mirror, and the Valdrada down in the water contains not only all the flutings and juttings of the facades that rise above the lake, but also the rooms’ interiors with ceilings and floors, the perspective of the halls, the mirrors of the wardrobes.
    Valdrada’s inhabitants know that each of their actions is, at once, that action and its mirror-image, which possesses the special dignity of images, and this awareness prevents them from succumbing for a single moment to chance and forgetfulness. Even when lovers twist their naked bodies, skin against skin, seeking the position that will give one the most pleasure in the other, even when murderers plunge the knife into the black veins of the neck and more clotted blood pours out the more they press the blade that slips between the tendons, it is not so much their copulating or murdering that matters as the copulating or murdering of the images, limpid and cold in the mirror. 
    At times the mirror increases a thing’s value, at times denies it. Not everything that seems valuable above the mirror maintains its force when mirrored. The twin cities are not equal, because nothing that exists or happens in Valdrada is symmetrical: every face and gesture is answered, from the mirror, by a face and gesture inverted, point by point. The two Valdradas live for each other, their eyes interlocked; but there is no love between them.


Coal pile near Merihaka, my favourite Helsinki neighbourhood, with the light installation “Counterlight”.

London’s CDO appointed

Big Hand to Theo Blackwell, who will London’s first ever Chief Digital Officer (CDO)!

According to the press release, “Theo will play a leading role in realising the Mayor’s ambition to make London the world’s smartest city, ensuring that the capital’s status as a global tech hub helps transform the way public services are designed and delivered, making them more accessible, efficient and responsive to the needs of Londoners.”

Theo has been a Camden councillor since 2002, so he knows city from the inside. He joins the city from the public sector accelerator Public. Earlier he was a Head of Policy & Public Affairs for the video games industry’s trade body, Ukie.

Theo will be working with the Smart London Board , which was appointed in July, yours truly being one of the members. A few months old London Office for Technology & Innovation will be in a key role in making seamless, interoperable and safe digitalised London a reality.

Theo will face a rather interesting, hopefully not impossible amount of challenges. A tough nut to crack will be the model of collaboration between the boroughs of London. As much as I am a fan of local democracy and devolution of power, trying to build seamless services and interoperability across 32 districts with their own mayors and council must be an absolute pain. In the digital domain joint initiatives are especially critical – Londoners move around a lot, and people should be able to access their services through the same interfaces if they move from Camden to Islington.

Interoperability is also critical when building the holistic picture of the city, which is increasingly important when managing urban systems. Digital twin of London needs data, and that data is often locked away in the legacy systems of the boroughs.

The key to success is in partnerships. According to Joy’s Law: “no matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else”. Hardly anywhere is this more true than in city administration. The secret sauce in urban transformation is to empower the people of the city of change it. As one of the leading tech hubs in the world. London certainly has all the necessary ingredients to succeed.


Liveable Cities Index, oh so safe & sound

The Liveable Cities Index by Economist gathers lots of visibility every year, with cities’ marketing departments bragging about high positions in social media, and local politicians using the scores as ammunition against their mayors in lower scoring cities.

The ranking measures cities on 30 factors related to safety, health care, educational resources, infrastructure and the environment. The top scores have been for years reserved for mid-sized cities from Canada and Australia, with some rather similar US and European cities making it to the top 10, as well. My former home city Helsinki is proud of its ranking in the 9th position this year.

These top cities are those of riverside terraces, great galleries, skillfully designed parks, flat whites whites and vibrant offering of established cultural events. They are like gastro burger restaurants, all original, all similar, populated by the global middle class educated elité easily swapping cities from Melbourne to Vienna.

Is that really all there is to liveability? At least that’s not all there is to vibrancy and creativity. Had New York been Vancouver-nice, we probably would not have had Andy Warhol, Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Basquiat, Mapplethorpe. Or even Madonna, the disco girl who lived through late-70’s boom. Had London been as safe and clean as Vienna, we would not have had Pink Floyd, Sex Pistols or Bowie. Or Banksy, whose works would have been efficiently washed away.

World’s mega cities are packed, clumsy, often dirty, sometimes dangerous. You can’t quite know what could happen, and you have to deal with all kinds of people. You might end up in weird places and odd situations. You see sights you might not particularly want to see.

That is the friction of the city you need to learn to cope with and digest which  But isn’t that what a City is all about?



Catapult Network Report Published

What on earth are those UK Catapults? Stop wondering and read the new report of the Catapult Centres by our sponsor organisation InnovateUK. In case you are too lazy to read it all, the Future Cities Catapult cases are on pages 15 – 16 (Smart Belfast), and 28 (Connected Roadworks).

Screenshot 2017-08-17 22.44.37

Smart Belfast

In Belfast, we worked with the City Council to recognise critical challenges. Chief amongst these was the need to maximise revenue from business rates, which accounts for half the Council’s annual income. The assumption was that companies were operating in the city without declaring themselves to be businesses. This was due to a variety of reasons; some businesses were classified incorrectly, others registered as residential properties and more generally, the Council’s data sources were not up-to-date. Following an open call issued by Belfast City Council, prototype digital tools were produced which used information such as energy consumption to pinpoint potential business rates avoiders.

The success of the experiment was evident from the get go. With an investment of £150,000, the Council was able to uncover potential new revenue of £350,000 per year in just the initial pilot phase.

Connected Roadworks

In Straffordshire, we supported Amey to develop an interactive portal to host data from a wide range of utilities, contractors and developers in the area, enabling better coordination of roadworks. The benefits were both impressive and tangible: ten proposed works by different contractors were combined into one, requiring just a single road closure. This meant the roads could be kept open for an additional 25 weeks and saved the contractors c. £184,000 in terms of reduced materials and management costs.