Some notions about cities, after I came across a 2017 posting asking for potential cities to visit for a month (which yielded a list of over 50). We did some extended city visits over the years (months in Vancouver, Cambridge, Copenhagen, Lucca, and 10-14 days in Berlin, Helsinki). Originally the idea was an adaptation of what Tim Ferris in his book The 4 Hour Work Week called ‘mini retirements’. We wanted to figure out where to go live, and what was important to us in choosing a European city to live. This as there were no other elements (like location of day jobs) that would narrow down our choices.

To get to know a city better, not as a tourist but as part of the local fabric as much as possible, we’d relocate there for a month. Beforehand we’d contact our network there, or search for local introductions to find contacts and network. While we were there we worked and explored the city, and reached out to existing and new contacts. The change of surroundings and people, and taking in the city brings new inspiration, ideas and activity.

Cities are serendipity hubs (1), a heady mix of ideas, people, resources and capital that bounce into and off each other, making all kinds of new combinations possible. Cities are efficient, when they double in size they don’t use double the resources (2), and that frees up capacity for other things. Cities grow super-linearly, for each doubling it becomes 15% more productive and innovative (as well as more criminal btw) than you’d expect from the doubling (3). The engine behind that is the density of social connections, the more intense interaction fires up the city (4). Social connections have a network effect, which is non-linear.

When you visit as an outsider all that serves as a source of inspiration: you see the traces of other people’s creativity, emerging trends, the rough edges where the friction is. And you meet the people who are involved in all of that.

When you as an outsider first join life in a city you experience a contrast, and the bigger/different/other the city, the bigger the contrast.
I think that contrast between yourself and a city you relocate to is a potential energy. A potential energy that is based on the starting point that is your unfamiliarity relative to the city. As a curious outsider you see more things, hear more diffrences, then as a regular visitor or as an inhabitant. If you seek out that contrast there’s a rush of ideas, impressions, observations and associations to harvest. But like any potential energy, the contrast dissipates as you get closer to it, get more familiar with the city, explore more of it. You get used to your surroundings, and start seeing less that jumps out. So there are diminishing returns from relocating to somewhere for a while. Unless you embrace it, grow roots, and become fully part of the fabric: then cities are well suited to seek out the contrasts within it, more suited than less densely packed environments as they hold so much more variety, but it is a different activity and a qualitatively very different experience from the first ‘rush’ that contrast can provide. These type of stories can be found around the world about people packing up and going to NYC to act, university in London, etc.
Those dimishing returns are good I think, because it provides a natural end to a phase of exploration and discovery, making way for digesting all those impressions from the rush of using up the initial contrast.

I can’t remember where I read it, but somewhere I came across someone who applied a Pareto distribution to exploring a place: he spent 80% of a visit seeking out new things (restaurants, places to hang out etc), and the final 20% of a visit going to the best places he found in the first 80%.
That way you don’t stop exploring too early (letting the contrast slip away by quickly settling on a routine), but at the same time also preventing to keep on exploring only (akin to the endless scrolling of a FB timeline), helping the transition to the return trip by visiting some of the highlights again, and ending on a positive note (you don’t want to end up in your worst choice of restaurant on your last night in town). A rule of thumb for how to ease from discovery into digesting the discoveries.

We didn’t go anywhere after I asked for suggestions in that old blogpost I mentioned at the start. A few months before that posting we moved permanently to Amersfoort, and in the end getting to know our new surroundings was more important. We had plenty of contrast right in our own hometown.

Now that we’ve been here for three years, I’m thinking about ways I can heighten the contrast a bit, to be able to see more. And to take a different perspective on what’s really part of the urban zone as a serendipity hub around me. Amersfoort isn’t very big, but is within reach of a number of other cities, including Amsterdam (also not a big city, but the largest in NL). Now, someone from Amsterdam wouldn’t come to Amersfoort much for inspiration perhaps, but I can treat Amsterdam as part of my own urban environment, as it is close, without disregarding Amersfoort itself. I can add them together. The same is true for Utrecht (where I keep my company’s offices).

My friend Paolo‘s answer for any location in London about how far it is, is “about 50 minutes”. It’s funny and it is also true, because our natural surroundings are about one hour of travel in radius. E.g. people tend to treat a commute up to one hour as reasonable. So let’s take that as a measure: how many people do you have access to within one hour of travel? And how many within a circle of 90 minutes? You can use that notion to see where you can get inspiration, or contribute it, where the contrast has the highest potential. Or how to be a connector between one side of your radius and another (because they will be 2-3 hours apart)

Mapumental was an online tool that would show you from any given point in cities like London, Berlin and Helsinki, what was in reach of e.g. at most a 1 hour public transport journey. It usually showed surprising locations where you could go live and have as much access to the things you wanted as more expensive places. That tool is no longer online. I wonder if there’s an easy way to plot such a isochrone radius for public transport on a map with other tools. I found an online tool for isochrone maps that works for walking, and cars. The image below shows 1 hour and 90 minutes distance driving by car from our home (I had to register with the tool, to obtain an API key for testing). Although my actual reference would be public transport travel times, this gives a good illustration. Including that it covers most of the Dutch population, and that it has some surprises (like only needing an hour to get to rural Medemblik in the north-west, which mentally is more like 3 hours.) If you compare it with the coverage at our old address in Enschede, both w.r.t. Dutch and German population centers, the difference is striking.


Isochrone map with our home town at the center. Click to enlarge

Since my early university years I’ve held that from a spatial planning perspective, e.g. for infrastructures like rail, you’d need to take the Netherlands as a single city. Meaning that e.g. the train network should look more like a metro map (circles and cross lines), less like a long distance network (stars, hubs and spokes). More like a distributed network really. The image above underpins that I think. A 2016 report by Dutch middle sized cities came to a similar conclusion about seeing the Netherlands as a single urban area: don’t compete, but specialize and collaborate (5), as a single networked entity in short.

Seen from my hometown, I can reach Amsterdam within the hour by public transport, Utrecht in half an hour. While cities like Den Bosch, Zwolle, Arnhem and Deventer are also all within one hour, Rotterdam, The Hague, Eindhoven, and Haarlem are within 90 minutes. All of these are easily accessible, and I could mentally treat them as home turf, using them to maintain a higher alternating contrast. I think I don’t do that enough, but tend to default to Amersfoort too unthinkingly. A much richer perspective would be to see those other places as quarters of the Netherlands as a city, and use the fact that we live so centrally in this country-as-a-city much more actively.

(1) My talk at Cognitive Cities in Berlin, 2011
(2) Bettencourt e.a. 2007, Growth, innovation, scaling, and the pace of life in cities
(3) Bettencourt e.a. 2010, Urban Scaling and Its Deviations: Revealing the Structure of Wealth, Innovation and Crime across Cities
(4) Pan e.a. 2013, Urban characteristics attributable to density-driven tie formation
(5) Magazine Midsize NL, 2016, PDF in Dutch

In the past years Elmine and I have visited different cities for a longer time, to experience how it is to live there. For a month, sometimes shorter, sometimes longer, we would stay in a city, and work from there, seeking out local entrepreneurs, while also enjoying the local food, coffee, and art on offer. Exposing ourselves to a different environment but not in a touristic capacity, provides inspiration, and generates new insights and ideas. We spent extended stays in Vancouver, Copenhagen, Helsinki, Berlin, Cambridge and Lucca, and are now exploring which city to set up camp in in the summer or fall of 2017. As I did in 2013 I asked around for suggestions, this time on Facebook. I got a long list of responses, which makes filtering and ultimately choosing likely a project in itself.

For us, for a city to qualify as a candidate it needs to be in Europe (as we want to drive there by car, given we are bringing our young daughter plus all the gear that entails), needs to have something to offer in terms of culture, and food, and good places to hang out in, but above all needs to have a few communities around new tech, start-ups, or other topics that we are interested in. This because we want to seek out new conversations and connections (such as when I organized the first Danish Data Drinks in Copenhagen in 2012).

Here are the (over 50!) suggestions we received, on a map:

Or see the list.

Last weekend the Cognitive Cities conference took place in Berlin. It was very well organized and a inspiring event. Over 300 participants looked at how our digital networked era and cities can co-evolve. One of the organizers, Igor Schwarzmann, approached me to speak there and we settled on Open Government as a theme: how open government might be of help for cities.
This posting is a write-up of my talk “Spice Up Your City: Just Add OpenGov“.

New Beijing Cities are complex adaptive systems. That means there is no predictability as to how they evolve and take shape, but you can see how things, once they are there, came to be. We, as human beings, immediately recognize the patterns and structures that emerge in cities. So much so that if someone mimicks those structures and patterns, for instance with pots, pans and other kitchen utensils, we instantly associate it with city scapes. We also intuitively know on a deep level what cities do for us, that they are serendipity hubs: a heady mix of ideas, people and resources that bounce into and off each other, making all kinds of new combinations possible. That intuition is what is worded in the REM quote. Cities, in short, are very exciting things.
Government on the other hand is mostly seen as much less exciting. And open government can be just as stale. Particularly so if you see open government as something you do for the sake of transparency. Either because you are a civil servant who thinks you need to do it for citizens. Or because you are an activist who thinks the concrete silos of government need to be cracked open so others can see what is going on inside. In both cases it is not for the sake of government or the people creating transparency itself, but for the imagined and assumed sake of unnamed ‘others’.
Change or DieI however hold a different view of open government, one that comes with a lot more excitement.
First, for government itself, open government is a ‘change or die’ issue. This is, as Chris Taggart says, the wave of digital disruption hitting government that previously hit the music and publishing industries. Governments institutions and work flows are ‘business models’ from an era when the logistic costs of organizing and scaling were quite different. In the digital era trust in government, as well as its ability to act, will only survive if government opens up and enters into a much more networked way of interacting with the public. If they don’t we all will see there is no wizard behind the curtain and simply route our actions around it, like is the norm in a network where some nodes fail.
I see open government as consisting of two components: participation + open government data. Now participation in the ‘classic’ way of being consulted at the start of some policy initiative is not what will make open government exciting for citizens. However, participation is actually synonymous with life itself, being an active person in your own social environment. Urban farming is a great example of this. Inner city Detroit has no shops that sell fresh vegetables anymore, and those without cars cannot drive out to shops that do outside the city. So urban farming emerged. Now that is participation!
CornucopiaOpen data at the same time is a rich untapped resource. Government holds enormous amounts of data about all aspects of society, to be able to execute its tasks. An EU legal framework is in place that, except when privacy and things like state security are concerned, allows citizens to get and re-use that data. Practice is not quite there yet, but ideally open data is data shared in open standards, machine readable, and comes with no legal strings attached.

Participation and open data need each other. Participation needs to be informed by data, and likewise the re-use of data lies in participation.
Together, forming open government, they make government as a platform possible, where government asks itself what type of data and information needs to be released so citizens and organizations can come up with the answers to the questions that politicians and policy makers ask. This in contrast to traditional government, where citizens and organizations ask, and politicians and civil servants are expected to come with solutions.
Martin and ElmineThe place where this can be expressed best and most tangible is right in our own living environments, our cities and neighborhoods.
That is where all the things happen that matter to us directly. So you get services where you can check if a restaurant is safe and clean enough to go eat, and platforms where citizens can report issues, or discuss what is going on in there neighborhood. This way you can inform yourself and your decisions.
Using singular data sources can however lead to a pitfall, of making visualizations that are really meaningless, that do not inform at all.
Much more interesting is when multiple data sources are combined and lead to new insights. That is like us all becoming Dr Snow, who figured out the connection between cholera and water quality in London in the 19th century.
But why stop at simply informing ourselves, why not also use data to activate ourselves. Why not use data so we can undertake things again. Like the Danish findtoilet.dk which allows people with bladder problems to go out into the city again without having to fear they will not know where the nearest toilet is in case of need. Or alerts send to you when air quality predictions cross a threshold you have set yourself.
And why not go even one step further. You can start augmenting government data with your own data. Having your own sensors collect data and publish them, like the Dutch sound sensor net created by citizens, or people feeding data into Pachube.com. When government publishes data it turns out that people and organizations are willing to also release data. This is happening in international aid, as well as visible in for instance the food industry.
But you can go one more step further still. That is building your own sensors, as well as actuators. Create data, and feed data from other sources into smart devices you build. So that these devices can take actions, based on the received data. The means for building those devices are available to you in FabLabs.
In this stage, we are truly acting like we should in complex environments: data form probes, and measurement has become intervention. That way we can build much more resilient communities. Cities are the perfect platform for data in the context of action and participation. Open government is a key ingredient to spice up our cities.
It does assume one thing though: your knowledge of a problem is leading, and coding and data skills are the literacy you need and use. Not the other way around. You need intimate knowledge of the issue you are addressing.
So here’s my challenge and invitation to you, to bring open government into play in your city:
Global Open Data HackdayFind an issue that matters to you, that you own emotionally. Think about what data you need to address the issue. Then go to government and get that data. But realize that ‘the government’ does not exist. It consists of a multitude of organizations and bodies, and all of those are filled with people. So you just need to find one single civil servant that is willing to help you. I found my single civil servant in my city government, the guy in the blue shirt in the picture, who has been working with me and others to release data. You need to go out and find your guy in the blue shirt.
Make it real, make it matter to you, make it count. All it takes is just a little shove, to open things up.
Push here
(the conference organizers plan to make videos of the talks available soon)