Chris Dymond is the Academic Director for Smart Cities at Zigurat Global Institute of Technology, Director of Unfolding, Sheffield Digital, and UTC Sheffield.
- Chris Dymond
- 1 hour, 20 mins
Tom: Hello and welcome to Episode Ten of the Makes Things Better Podcast today, I have Chris Dymond on the show. And Chris, I've been looking forward to talking to you for quite a while. As I was just saying you're kind of a bit of a celebrity in my eyes within the digital community in Sheffield, and I'm looking forward to talking to you about smart cities in particular.
But before we get into that, can you just tell us a little bit about what you've been up to really over the last few years and the work that you're doing at the moment?
Chris: Yes. You know, I'm a celebrity in your eyes because I'm old. That's why, I've been around a long time. I've been involved in Sheffield's digital scene for a long time, so a lot of people know me.
Yeah, my background is in web development and then design. Pre Web, actually, I mean, my first job actually in my gap year before I went to university was designing a front end for a bulletin board system for a Swiss telecommunications company.
So that was like my first exposure to a designing kind of visual software for network applications.
Tom: Wow, how long ago was that?
Chris: That was 1987. Yeah, 1987.
In fact, that piece of software was exhibited at Telecom 87, which was in this massive trade show in Geneva. It was the trade show that they launched ISDN. They were like, you know, communications satellites hanging from the ceiling in this auditorium it was massive. Like, I think there was 50,000 people at this conference.
Tom: No way.
Chris: Yeah, it was really big. So this company that I did my gap year with, they had a stand and my software, was their pride of place on the stand. Showing all of their American customers that they could now dial in over a modem to a bulletin board system and download firmware for their networking devices. That's what it was about. They could download the firmware and then burn it onto an EPROM and put it and swap the chips in their network gateways and stuff like that.
Tom: Ok, I'm going to be honest, a lot of that's kind of gone over my head is that like old technology or is it new technology I've just not come across?
Chris: Yeah, it's old tech now, but it's still the same stuff Tom
Tom: So yeah, I've got a little bit of an excuse, at least because, I guess it's maybe a bit before my time. I mean, I wasn't even born then. Like in 87, that's like ten years before I was born.
But, yeah, Chris, what have you been up to since let's say March 2020? That's a good timeframe.
Chris: Yeah. So I guess a lot of people know me as one of the co-founders and directors of Sheffield Digital, so that was taking up a lot of my time. And I'd started doing a little bit of teaching for Sheffield Hallam, I've done some workshops for them at the back end of 2019 and basically kind of digital design workshops, design thinking workshops.
But they wanted to give the students real world challenges, and they were using the smart city framework that Mark Gannon and I had kind of devised at the time. And so they were using an article that Mark had written to kind of set the scene for the students, and I was doing some workshops and then I agreed to do some more teaching in the spring.
And then of course, lockdown hit and everything went online. So that happened. And then roughly the same time, I was invited by an old colleague of mine or former colleague of mine. He's younger than me to do some teaching on a course that he'd started directing for a company called Zigurat, based in Barcelona.
They do international masters degrees online in affiliation with the University of Barcelona, so they're accredited by the University of Barcelona,and he asked me if I'd like to do some teaching. And I kind of thought, well, it's probably a good idea seeing as we're about to go into a lockdown.
He literally asked me like ten days before we went into the first lockdown. I'd just bought this microphone. I'd bought a green screen because me and my son who's now eleven, were going to do some livestreams of playing vintage video games because it's a hobby of ours. And so I'd bought all this kit to do that. And then lockdown happened, and I found myself basically teaching from the desk that I'm sat at now.
So the course that I teach on at Sheffield Hallam is the digital media management master's degree and I teach design thinking in the Autumn.So I'm teaching that at the moment and I teach digital ecosystems analysis in the spring, and then I do project supervisions in the summer
and every intake we've had we've broken the previous record for the number of students enrol, every intake we've had, partly because of the pandemic, I guess because I think more students are staying on in higher education after graduating, but also we're getting a lot of international students. So we currently have, I think, 105 students enrol on the master's course. I think it's the biggest master's course, postgraduate course that Hallam run.
Tom: Yeah. Okay that sounds pretty cool and how have you found teaching? Have you taught much before, prior to the pandemic?
Chris: No, you know, it's one of the things I've always liked, I've always enjoyed working with people and developing them, right, when you kind of when you get to a certain point in your career, your you're basically hiring people that are younger than you and you're creating an environment for them to do their best work and you're not so much teaching them, but you're giving them opportunities to learn, you know, you might be putting them on projects and, you know, watching them fail and picking them up and making sure they learn from the experience and stuff like that.
But you know, I always enjoyed that. I always enjoyed that aspect of it. When you're in a team, you're developing the people around you, you're trying to make everybody better, you're trying to make sure that everybody knows what their role is and understands what they're doing and is able to kind of relax into what they're doing and then get really good at it and then push it, you know, keep learning, keep trying new things and pushing the practice. And I really miss that because, you know, I used to be one of the senior management team at technophobia back in the day. And I left quite soon after the company was sold because I wanted to concentrate on other things.
I had two young children at the time. My kids were very little and they were going to be growing up in Sheffield and I felt like I needed to try and do something to give them more opportunities here. Try and do something for the digital kind of environment in Sheffield. So that's what I was focusing on, but as a result, I was self-employed. I'm a one man band essentially. I was no longer in that position of kind of mentoring anyone.
So I think from that, from that perspective, you know, I'd forgotten how much I really missed that. So it's been incredibly rewarding. I've really thoroughly enjoyed, you know, being involved in other people's education.
Tom: Yeah. So moving on to like smart cities a little bit. And we were talking yesterday in a meeting and I was with Alan, our designer at Hive, and I think what he was kind of getting at in a way was that the kind of buzz around the words 'Smart Cities' has maybe diminished a little bit over the last few years, and it was kind of more trendy a few years ago. So I don't know whether that's even. Is that still kind of the right phrase to use and what is a Smart City?
Chris: Yeah, it's a tricky one. You know, terms are very useful, right? You want to have terms that that are searchable, that allow you to discover information that you can put in Google and get and find stuff with. So it's useful to have a phrase like that, that has a massively contested meaning, but it's in the right kind of ballpark.
There's a kind of a history to the term smart cities, which I don't think is, you know, it's not really worth going into in too much detail, but I think there's like a hard definition and a much softer definition or a narrow definition and a broader definition. And in terms of its trendiness and buzziness, it really depends where you are in the world.
It's very easy to think about these things in terms of, you know, where we're sat right now in the UK or in Europe even the idea of smart cities is much newer in other parts of the world.
There are a lot of standards around smart cities now that there weren't back then. And so I think maybe the buzz has diminished a little bit, but it's become more meaningful as a term and people that work in the field. To them, it means something a bit different than it did.You know, five or ten years ago when it first started being used.
I think you know, the narrow conception of smart cities is that it's about technology and it's about data and sensing and measurement and, you know, networks that are pulling data where it can be analyzed centrally and acted on.
And so it's really the instrumentation of cities. There's this idea of the Technopolis, the efficient city where digital technology is making the city more efficient. So it's making traffic move faster. It's making, you know, your bin collections cheaper and more cost effective.
So there's a very kind of mechanical idea of what a smart city is. But then there's also this much broader idea of the application of technology for other outcomes. So, the impetus in city thinking and planning for a long time has been, you know, based on economic imperatives. You know, if you look at the history of cities and what has influenced their design and why they've appeared in certain ways, there's been lots of different movements in urbanism, different patterns, street patterns, you know, different types of design, enabling different ways of living and a lot of the design impetus in the in the 20th century was for cities that were effective at producing industrial output and producing economically.
But you know, there are increasingly other things driving city design, particularly sustainability and equity. So, smart cities has come to mean for, you know, for people in the know kind of thing, really the application of not just technology, but new methods and approaches to try and produce a set of outcomes that are more holistic, that are not just about economic output outcomes, but are about the well-being of citizens and about sustainability and resource use and carbon impact and things like that.
So kind of making cities more efficient and better, for people who live in them by using a range of new technologies. And then also you have like the The Things Network as well. Yeah. Where does that come into things? Because yeah, I was looking in smart cities the other day and I got into The Things Network.
And I think I mentioned smart cities yesterday to someone at Hive and yeah, Johnny, our founder at Hive mentioned how actually we did have a hub at some point in our Park Hill flats and that was like connected to The Things Network. And so I think we did try out for a brief period of time, but I don't really know too much about that.
Can you tell us a little bit about The Things Network?
Chris: Yeah, sure. So one aspect of this is what's called the Internet of Things. So the idea that you know, there are different digital communications networks for different types of information and different types of application. So obviously there's you know, there's Wi-Fi, there's fiber and copper broadband, but then there are other wireless types of wireless network.
So, chunks of what used to be the television spectrum have been chunked up and sold off to providers other point to point communications protocols. And there's a whole bunch of these and things like, you know, the cellular networks, including 5G, are also part of that.
And, you know, some networks are better for certain things and have better bandwidth. And so some of them are designed for very low bandwidth, very long distance, very low energy. Ok, so The Things Network is an international community of people that are building what are called LoraWAN networks. So, that's long range wireless lans. And this is based on a networking protocol and technology that is extremely low energy and extremely low bandwidth and extremely long distance, which means that you can buy or make a gateway and you can put it on a pole on the roof of your building or you can suction it to the window of your office and connect it to power and connect it to the network.
You know, either wired or a SIM card, and that gateway can support up to 10,000 other devices that can be up to quite a long distance away from it that are communicating with it with what are called like chirp communications. Sometimes because they're really, really small packets of data that you might get, you know, a few times a day.
So you can use this to build environmental or sensor networks that are telling you something about the environment, and they're used in lots of different contexts for measuring air quality or measuring water levels or measuring, they're used in rural areas. Obviously, in rural areas, the distances are much greater because they don't get so much interference from buildings but you can use them to measure the movement of animals.
You can even triangulate and provide, you know, equivalent to GPS locations, but for a fraction of the energy cost. Ok, so you could run a sensor. Some estimates are that you could run a sensor on a pair of AA batteries for a decade with these things.
Tom: Am I right in saying that because of the low bandwidth and maybe because of low energy, they can't really be used for applications that are very fast and very powerful?
Chris: No, that's right.
So you wouldn't want to use them to stream to video. Yeah. And also there's latency, so you know, you don't there's no like they're engineered to be really, really minimal.
Like you've got a few, you know, for the things network LoRaWAN devices, that protocol, you've got a few options as to how you communicate. So you can either not care whether a message is received or not. Or you can send the message and then wait three seconds for a reply.
Or you can send the message three times in a twelve second period and hope that one of them got through kind of thing, right? So they use for applications where it's not imperative that you get an application that you get a message through.
So you wouldn't use that particular protocol if you know as an early warning system, right? You wouldn't want to send an alert that needs action off the basis of a single message. But what you would have is that you would have a network that sends you a packet of information every time you know, there's some kind of state change.
Tom: Yeah, I think, another example I saw was with the parking bays, so you could have it where there's like sensors and it shows whenever the car, you know, has left a parking space and then that sends out a message to tell someone that, yeah, there's a parking space available because that sort of thing doesn't change like every minute, does it? No. Realistically, it's going to change quite infrequently throughout the day.
Chris: So temperature pressure, you've got it both ways, though. So it's not just sensing. You can also have actuators. So, you know, you can send a two way network, so you can send it, you can send a message to an actuator which will, you know, flip a relay and close a sluice gate or, unlock something or, you know, whatever you need it to do.
I mean, there's tons of different applications for this. And The Things Network started in Amsterdam, where they basically crowdsourced six gateways to put up over the city to blanket the city in a network. And there's now a community of people all around the world that are building their own community of IoT networks, essentially.
Chris: And so we have one here in Sheffield. It was one of the kind of outputs from the Urban Flows project which Sheffield University won some funding for a joint project with Bristol and Newcastle.
I think were the three universities called urban flows and they used some of their kit budget to buy some LoRaWAN gateways. And so I think they,I haven't spoken to Steve Jubb actually, from Urban Flows for a while, but I think they've got five out in the field now. And then there was a bunch of others. You guys had one when you were at Park Hill.
The guys at Wandisco had one, the guys at Pimoroni had one. So there is a map and there is a network and there was a move to I don't know if you're aware, but Sheffield has got one of the largest air quality monitoring citizen science, air quality monitoring networks in the country.
Tom: Did that have anything to do with the air monitoring and the kind of big news article that came out a few years ago around Hunters Bar School?
Chris: Yeah, so that was related. So the guys that are involved in clean air for Sheffield.
That was one of the outcomes of a school consultation that they did where there was a concern that, you know, at the times they're taking their kids to school, it's rush hour and the air quality is very poor. And so as a result of that, that led to basically this sort of citizen science effort where Graham invited people into the back room of pubs to build air quality sensors so for 40 quid of bits, you can build your own air quality monitor and you can hook it up to your network, and you can start sharing data from wherever you put your monitor to an international air quality data platform called Luftdaten. So you can go to the Luftdaten website and you can see the air quality map across Sheffield.
And they ended up ended up putting about, you know, over 100 of these sensors out in the field. Part of what urban flows was doing was understanding how to calibrate these cheap, low quality air sensors against the very expensive, high-quality air sensors that they had at the university. To see whether you could trust the data that the citizen scientists were producing and under what atmospheric conditions they were accurate and under what conditions they weren't. And so there were some Ph.D., some doctoral thesis run on that and that's informed some of the other projects around the world.
But there's also a movement to convert those original air quality monitors to LoRaWAN so that they use less energy and could be set up in more places.
Tom: Yeah. So using LoRaWAN is more like it's more energy efficient, but I'm guessing that means it's like much better for the environment as well?
Chris: Well, yeah, and in a lot of ways and these are environmental monitors, so the idea is that you can use them to save resources, make things cheaper and easier. And so there are a number of networks across Sheffield. There is actually the council also along with their partners at Amey and connexions run, another IoT network, I'm not sure if it's based on LoRaWAN or on a on a different protocol, but they run one that monitors a lot of the bins and they've got environmental monitoring in some of the green space and street trees that are monitoring kind of soil and moisture and things like that.
So it basically gives them more information to know where they need to go and allocate resources, right? Do they need to go and tend to this area and water it or not? They can tell from looking at their data. We've had some interesting kind of results from it. In terms of understanding what kind of waste is produced in different parts of the city and also things like how heavy it is, so it's actually improved the health and safety because there are certain areas that tend to produce heavier waste than others and they can make sure that they have enough people going to those areas to remove it.
But obviously, there's lots of issues around waste and fly tipping and things like that, but yeah, they introduced the system. I run a meetup series called Smart Sheffield, and we had the guys that run that network come and talk to us about it about a year ago, actually.
So those videos from their talk are available on www.smartsheffield.city if you're interested in this kind of thing. But this is, as I said, this is the very kind of instrumental end of smart cities. Yeah, actually instrumenting the city and getting actionable data from it that improves the service you can provide citizens but reduces costs and allows you to optimize things that have been very inefficient previously.
Tom: Yeah, everything that you said so far about smart cities sounds like good, like it just does sound like it'd be beneficial really to people. And when we're talking about Sheffield, like, yeah, it sounds like a lot would benefit people in Sheffield are then any kind of disadvantages in your opinion or is there anything to be scared of as well?
Chris: I mean, so it's a very broad thing, right? And, it depends. You know, there are negative externalities from a lot of things, and it depends what use the data is put to. Right. So there are issues in terms of data bias, there are issues in terms of the data that you use to make decisions on. So there's a big chunk of the smart city agenda that is about urban design and planning and using more data in that and modeling.
And so, you know, the quality of the data and the type of data you use to do that is really important, right? If you're only using data from part of the population and there are populations and communities that are excluded because they're not producing any data, because they have fewer mobile phones and you're using mobile phone location data, for example, you'll end up with biases that are inherent in the designs that you produce and you end up producing cities that only work for these people and not for those other people, and that's a bad thing.
Ok, so there's a bunch of things around that which people need to be aware of and that policymakers need to be aware of. Obviously, there needs to be some strategic oversight and strategic objectives as to what the purpose of these technologies are. You know, the thing that bothers me is the governance side of it and the idea that cities are implementing these things because it's being sold to them or because their partners and contractors are using these technologies. And there's no governance, oversight over it.
And some and a lot of these technologies do involve, you know, data that belongs to citizens, it's citizen data. Some it's maybe not personal data as you'd think of it. But you know, there needs to be data oversight. And obviously, the law is catching up on this. And you know, these systems need to be compliant, but they also should be interoperable. You should be avoiding lock in. You should have access to that data, if you as a city are commissioning, services and technology that is gathering data then partly some of that data belongs to the citizens, but also it should be made available to the city for other uses or at least for some kind of oversight.
And there's lots of issues around that and there's been lots of examples, you know, there's some famous examples where, you know, some of this data was leaked, well not so much leaked, but there’s the ability to de-anonymize data that is supposedly anonymized or pseudonymized when it's made available. So there are situations like New York quite a few years ago now released all of their taxi data, all of their licensed taxi data anonymized to an open data platform.
So you could go and look at taxi trips and you could, you know, the dataset emitted anything that was personally identifiable, but it kept the routes, the door-to-door route and it kept the fare. And it also capped whether or not the person had provided a tip or what proportion of the fare was made up of tip. Right. And then people very quickly realized that if you knew roughly where a celebrity lived and you knew where they were playing, on a certain night where they would be on a certain night and you could identify the taxi journey that took them there from the area of the city they lived in.
Then you could then see whether or not they tipped. And, you know, they literally broke down a bunch of celebrities and identified who were the good tippers and who weren't by name.
Tom: Yeah, no way, that's a great example actually, and that’s what probably scares some people is that fear that they're not really going to have control over their own data. And like, you've had that a lot on social media in the past as well with people, you know, fearing about. And I mean, some people obviously rightfully fearing about their data going to whoever. And I think one important point you made, which I totally agree with, is about how you use that data and try and avoid any biases because what I always think about is like as humans we are innately bias in many ways, like we have psychological biases, we just do.
And so whatever data we create and whatever formulas we use, often they are going to be biased in one way or another. So, I can definitely see why that might be a real challenge. And yeah, I guess people are just kind of scared about their privacy, but you know, it's a hard one to weigh up. The other thing I'd probably want to consider or maybe ask you is how do people kind of get more involved in knowing what's going on with all of this and actually making like a decision themselves?
Because from my perspective, it doesn't really seem fully democratic in a way because like most people wouldn't really know about these decisions being made.And so I guess that might be another concern for some people when it comes to like smart cities and these technologies being implemented.
Chris: Yeah, I mean,this is partly what you know,running the smart Sheffield Meetup series was about, you know,to try and get some of these projects more widely known, get them on record, get them on video so people can go and actually listen to what's going on and what and why these things are happening.
I think partly one of the promises of this is for a more equitable city, for a city that is more engaged, where it's more participation, where there’s more distributed decision making. So, you know, there's lots of examples in other cities of things like, you know, collective budgeting.
And it was one of the things that was part of that web strategy that we developed for the city back in 2009. One of the major components was educating people about what the local authority is, educating people about the city because I just felt it was missing. And I think my concern and the concern of a lot of people at the time was that cities were becoming more important,but city authorities were becoming less relevant.
And the things that were becoming relevant to people were social media. And you know, these other platforms, the local authority just couldn't compete for attention and usability.And people's relationship to their city was becoming a transactional one where you only need to engage with the local authority, where you need to go through some process.
Tom: That's a really interesting point, by the way. And I think like that is something that I haven’t really thought about too much but it is like so true in my life personally. I'm currently in Manchester and the only real connection I ever have with the council here, any governance of the city is literally just me paying my taxes.But that's kind of it. It's kind of weird that physically this is where I live and yet most my time is spent probably, more time anyway, spent online, on social media, in different spaces, completely disconnected to where I live. Anyway, carry on. Sorry.
Chris: Yeah, I think it's still a massive problem. I think it's a huge problem and I think there's a lot of money being spent on sensor networks and telecommunications networks and data platforms and, you know, predictive analytics to keep our streets cleaner and to keep the city lit and traffic moving and all of those things. But there's very, very little being spent on educating people about how to democratically engage and opportunities for them to really learn about how the city actually works, how it really works.
You know, I mean, you ask the majority of people and they wouldn't be able to tell you even the basic parameters of local elections and you know which ward they're in and and how many councillors each ward gets or anything like that.
You know, just the basic representational structure. It's irrelevant to most people. It doesn't really have any connection with their lives.And so there was, there's a bunch of stuff about transparency and communications and opening up decision making. Obviously, we've just had a big change, a public referendum in Sheffield last year to change the way that the decisions are made and to make them more open. But, a lot of cities only go so far. Right? You need to go the extra bit in order to make the difference, so it's not good enough to broadcast or record a council meeting, right?
So imagine you've got a council meeting going on in the council chamber and you televise it. You put cameras in there. You can stream it online much, much cheaper than you used to be able to do. And people can go and watch it and you do that. And lo and behold, five people watch it right out of a city of, you know, 600,000 like we have because no one's got the time to sit and watch this stuff? If you've got the time to do it, you might as well actually go to the town hall and watch it, you know, in person.
But what's important is what is being discussed. And so you know that content of people discussing these issues in a public forum. It needs to be atomized. It needs to be chopped up, (Alexa talks in the background)
Tom: It's so annoying that it’s called Alexa because my partners called Alexa.
Tom: Yeah, it's a nightmare. We went to this party the other week and literally we walked in and they had some music playing. My partner hadn’t met anyone there before so I go ‘Hey, everyone, this is Alexa.’ Just that moment the music stops because the music was connected by there Alexa speaker. And then for the rest of the night, that sort of thing just kept on happening every time I said her name. So annoying.
Chris: Wasn’t there a class action in France, brought about by people whose name was Zoe against Renault in their new car?
Chris: Yeah, I remember something about that?
Tom: Yeah. Well, I mean is it's a weird one because I'm guessing, like in the future,no one's ever going to be called Alexa
Chris: Stop saying it.
But so that information needs to be chopped up and it needs to be tagged and it needs to be discoverable. So if you're interested in Hunter's Bar school and you want to know every time Hunter's bar was mentioned in the council chamber session over the last five years, right?
If there's some planning thing going on you want to be able to educate yourself so that you understand the issue and you know the process. Otherwise, you’ve just got people coming in with no knowledge and voices of varying loudness, you know,and there are some very loud voices on social media. But, you know, initially there was actually very little desire from the council to engage at all. It was better not to say anything and just, you know, not concern yourself. But I always felt that there was a responsibility, a civic duty of, you know, the local authority to present information to give citizens the information that they need in order to be part of the discussion and to be part of decision making.
And you can't just leave it to the press, God knows the pressure the press are under and still are, you know, being ripped apart by the new medium, especially local press. They still haven't discovered a business model to replace the old one because the old business model was propped up through classified adverts and you know, that market has been taken so you know, it's kind of the responsibility of the local authority to provide good information and accurate information. And it needs to do more to empower and enable other actors in the city to take that information and to turn it into media and to turn it into information to make sure that the general population, has better knowledge at their disposal to make decisions and to participate and these discussions.
And you know, a lot of that is data that the local authority itself is producing, the discussions it has. And it's not good enough anymore just to put it in minutes and have it as a PDF somewhere buried in a website that nobody's going to visit.
Tom: Yeah, absolutely. I really like the idea about having tags so that you can, like, search somewhere. That's a very cool idea.
Chris: And, you know, even that was just part of it. You know, you need to be notified like,here are the tags. So, it's not just about semantics, it's about having a Gazetteer as well. Right? So a whole set of local phrases that mean something here in the city, people places, you know, things that have meaning here that you can use to bring up, you know, a set of references that are tagged with those things, but also to notify you of, so whenever that thing is discussed, the next time that Hunter's Bar School is discussed in any, you know, local authority forum that's relevant that you get a notification of it, you know, you get an email saying it's been discussed. Do you want to see what this new piece of information is?
Tom: Yeah. And I think all of that is so key to the kind of evolution or whatever you want to call it, of smart cities. Because otherwise there’s just going to be a disconnect between those people in the city and whoever is making these big changes, which are actually going to have an impact on people's lives. And that's where that feeling of lack of control is going to come from.
And that's why there could be pushback against initiatives, which actually could be very good for the city and really environmentally friendly, saving money efficient and so on.
Chris: Absolutely. I mean, you know, we saw something very similar to this happen in Toronto just, you know, over the last five years or so. So I'm not going to go into all of the details of it, but Sidewalk Labs, which is an Alphabet subsidiary, you know, sister company to Google, were hired by the by the city of Toronto to be their innovation partners to the joint venture they set up to redevelop part of the waterfront. And they tried to do that job, but there was a huge amount of distrust and they couldn't answer questions about how people citizens' data was going to be treated properly, and there was a huge amount of pushback. And some of that pushback was perfectly justified.
It's fascinating. It's still rolling on even though Sidewalk Labs pulled out of the project in May last year. But yeah, that's a case in point, I mean, I think people are very disconnected.
There are the vast majority of people who are disconnected and then a small minority of people who are massively engaged. And when that happens in a social media world where everybody is surrounded by an information environment that they helped curate, the people that are engaged keep building more and more, they keep constructing their information environment and the algorithms that recommend things to them keep using that to feedback. And so it becomes all enveloping. And so the people who are engaged are not just a bit educated in it, they're like massively educated in it, you know, like the ability of social media and digital media to accelerate someone's learning and someone's knowledge about a subject is enormous.
You can accelerate people way past what we would traditionally think of as being a normal set of knowledge. People used to have a like a a certain set of knowledge about a lot of things. And increasingly people have now got very little knowledge about vastly, most things and an incredible amount of knowledge about a very, very small number of things. And I think that that creates a very difficult environment to to share commonalities and to agree or account for other people's level of knowledge.
It's very, very difficult to be empathic enough to and to predict and build a mental model of how much someone knows about a subject.
Tom: Yeah, absolutely. And I think kind of on that point, maybe a slight tangent from that point is that on social media, you have the polarization of opinions. And so as you say, the algorithms will only provide you information on things that you already agree with. So one example was with 5G. And then you have 6G being developed now as well. And so, yeah, you have some people who are 100% against 5G.
And I found that quite interesting because I looked into it, reading and watching videos on YouTube and across social media platforms and you have some people saying why 5G is so dangerous. And then I found some resources saying why 5G is safe, basically backed up by tons of science and very logical. I kind of went through a journey myself consuming many different people's opinions and voices to get to a conclusion myself. And, you know, at one point I was like, ‘Oh, this actually could be quite dangerous’ because I was reading certain content, right?
And then I read and watched some other videos. I was like, ‘Oh, Ok, well, that actually supports my initial opinion, which is that it's totally safe’ because, yeah, well, that other content had been totally taken out of context. So, you know about like it being used in, I think in the army, in America, that kind of thing. But when you actually discover the context it is fine because they were aiming some rays onto people in a certain way directly onto people, but 5G would never be used like that, you know?
And that was really interesting to me, and I also thought about the psychology behind it as well. And that's a huge thing because as we said on a podcast very recently, you have like the amygdala, which is always trying to seek out problems and fear. It's very fearful, right?
So, if you are to read that content initially where there's a lot of confirmation bias going on as to why 5G could be dangerous, which is mostly made up, you can see how psychologically that could have like a scary impact and it can fire up the amygdala.
But you just have to do more research yourself. Anyway I think you were going to say a few things on those points.
Chris: Yeah, no. The issue is that it's exploitable, right that kind of knowledge environment is really, really exploitable. It's a really dangerous environment because there's a whole range of bad actors that will exploit it. And part of it is exploited algorithmically unintentionally, you know, just through basically, a kind of a capitalist logic of, you know, increasing engagement, you know, engagement equals money on platforms.
So, you know, engagement is the key metric that social media platforms use and what is the most engaging content, you know, it's the stuff that makes you afraid. Or the stuff that is controversial. And, you know, so there's kind of that baked in. But then it's also really, really exploitable because you've got grifters and people that make money from content and from selling supplements.
And you know, there's usually a sideline, there's usually something that hooks people in and wins their confidence. But it's very easy to con them because they can control the narrative and only show one, particular viewpoint.
And you know, any counter factual information is immediately squashed. And you know, the motivation to do that is financial. And it's, you know, it's kind of the standard thing. Also for foreign states that are trying to gain control or influence elections or influence public opinion or sew chaos generally it's a very, very cheap way. Exploiting it is a very cheap way of creating damage and weakening, you know, an adversaries position. So there's a whole, geopolitical aspect of this that's playing out across social media and people are complete victims of it.
And so I think that concerns me a lot. The ability of citizens, especially some of the most marginalized and excluded people in society. A lot of the concern is to make sure that they can access the services they need to by the internet, you’ve got benefits services that now require internet access in order to access social services and local authority services.
You know, you need to be able to transact online, especially during COVID, when people couldn't go into libraries and the assisted digital services were shut down for a while. It's much harder to access services. So there's a lot of movement to getting people online.
And if you can just get them on the internet and they can access the services and all the data about how much they could save in domestic, utility bills and how they could be able to find work more easily. And all of these benefits. But it's actually those are benefits that come from an old way of thinking about the internet. And actually what you're also exposing them to is a huge amount of misinformation and people trying to con them out of money or trying to manipulate their opinions so that they act and vote in a certain way. I think that's really dangerous. So to me, a smart city is not just one in which, you know, people have the skills to use computers, but also have a much more sophisticated sense of knowledge and media.
Tom: Yeah. One thing that I've learned this year and probably something I thought about quite a lot, and I guess this was perhaps provoked in some sense by my podcast with Gemma Milne who wrote a book called Hype and Smoke and Mirrors, and it was all about hype in society and how dangerous it is, really and it was really interesting to me. And what I think one of the main purposes of that book was actually to be a big advocate really for critical thinking which is so, so important. And yeah, I think a lot of these issues, if people could think more critically or were taught the skills to think critically, because it's not necessarily people's fault if they're not thinking critically and I think we can all be very, you know, it's very easy to just fall into like long lasting subconscious patterns of thought where we don't actually think as in-depth as we’d like because of our automatic biases or whatever else, but all of that can contribute to ultimately bad decisions being made and maybe impulsivity and so on.
And just along those lines and bringing it back to smart cities. Do you think humans at this point within our very capitalistic society, Are we ready to like start to implement all of these new technologies despite knowing that we can cause a lot of damage through technology like we have done via social media.
So like the purpose, of social media at first was not to cause this polarization throughout society. And it's like, at first Smart Cities might sound amazing, but right now, are we ready to do that?
Chris: Yeah. Well, I think we're certainly learning very quickly. Yeah, what would have taken generations to learn. I'm in my fifties now, and, you know, I obviously remember a pre-internet time. I remember when computers were first arriving in homes, and now I've got two kids that are growing up with technology and, you know, connectivity all around them. And I'm hoping, but I'm certainly aware that, you know, not everyone is going to grow up like that in this next generation and it's going to take a while.
I mean, I've been watching this happen for ages and a lot of it is not the technology, right? A lot of it is people's behavior and what they know and whether they really understand what's going on, right? If someone likes your tweet, is that really a person or is that, you know, is it automated? Is it a bot? Is it a sock puppet? Is that one of 40 accounts that all belong to the same person or the same social media team?
We as digital professionals, don't put very much credence in that stuff, right? We kind of know from our exposure to it what could be happening. And it's all a bit of a game. We know it's not real, but to people that don't, they take it at face value or a lot of people do tend to and why wouldn't they?
And you know, the dopamine hit that they get from people, you know, responding to them and for them having a voice, maybe when they didn't have a voice before is real. That experience they have is real. So I think it's going to take quite a long time for people to adapt to it.
But I think, you know, as humans, if you look back through history in terms of, you know, whether we've been wise in our deployment of new technologies, I don't think it's any accident that, you know, the first atomic bombs were used within a few years of inventing the things. Added to which, right, there's the continual like chain throughout human history of millennials and the idea that the end of the world is near and you know, we're the chosen people who are going to be saved by all and everybody else is going to die hideously. And that makes us feel good and it makes us good to think about that. And God, you know, just the blessed relief of it being all over. And you know, finally, we're significant because our generation is the one that experienced the end of the world. History does not bear that out at all. Like, we're a rolling disaster that is moving through time, wrecking things and trying to stitch it together and keep some kind of sense of purpose and togetherness and hope. And, you know, I don't see any reason why that isn't going to keep on happening generation after generation. You know, as we adapt to climate change, as maybe we develop the technologies to recover as, you know, whatever we do. I think humanity has been hanging on by its fingernails for thousands of years, and I don't think that's ever really going to stop. But that's the fight that we're in. And so you might as well spend your time you've got here fighting for what you consider to be the right side.
Tom: Yeah, that’s some really great thoughts Chris, I appreciate that, it’s gone very deep, and this is probably the deepest podcast I’ve recorded for a long time. So it's almost like, I need a few seconds to collect my thoughts again. And now I think we'll go back to Sheffield. And what technology do you think could be be used to improve Sheffield?
Chris: So like in answering your last question, about are we ready for the technology kind of thing? There are a lot of technologies that I think we are ready for. Right. There's a lot of areas in which we can use technologies and data to make a real difference. And so you could look at an area, one of the companies that I love the concept of, I love what they're doing. And they’re a Sheffield company and they are a great name. They’re called District Eating.
One of the things about Sheffield that people don't realize or don’t realize enough is that we have one of the largest heat networks in the country, one of the largest district heating systems in the whole of Europe actually, because we started putting pipes in the ground and connecting up public buildings back in the eighties and connecting them to sources of heat, including the incinerator. So, you know, a large proportion of Sheffield's waste, it gets burned. And there are issues about that in terms of air quality and pollution levels. And there's been there's been lots of issues with our recycling. It's one of the reasons why we don't recycle as much plastic as other cities do because some of that plastic is used for feedstock. It helps keep the incinerator hot enough. So there is things, around waste management that most people in general probably aren't really aware of.
But one of the things that it does is it produces a lot of heat and that heat heats the water in the district heating system and that heats I think there's over 2000 public council houses or council flats and about one hundred and eighty public buildings. So, from Hallamshire hospital to the town center to the workstation, they’re heated essentially for free by the waste heat that the city produces in burning its waste.
And, also I think it's connected to some forgers, so some industrial heat that is piped into the district heating system. I think EON’s bioreactor so EON built a biofuel reactor where Tinsley towers used to be. So they demolished the cooling towers at Tinsley and built that energy facility there that also has a heat network. And there was a plan to connect the two. Well, I'm not sure if that actually happened, but there's a lot of heat. And so one of the things about this heat system is that in order for the heat to flow optimally, you need to make sure that it sheds firms it sheds energy so that it's almost like there’s a potential difference.
So, you know, you need to get rid of the heat in the network so that it pulls through at an optimal speed. So at various points along the network, it actually sheds heat. It hasn't got any use for it, it just sheds it. But that heat is really useful, right? You can use that heat and you can also deliver carbon dioxide through the network as well. And both heat and carbon dioxide is used in farming. So if you can create a network that optimizes where you locate urban farms to produce fresh produce, you not only reduce your supply chain costs and carbon footprint because you're producing more food locally for local consumption.You're converting heat and CO2 that already exists in the system,but in the process of doing that, you’re also making the heat network itself more efficient and saving money.
You know, so there’s literally energy being wasted in the ecosystem that could be used to grow food and grow food at quite some scale. And so there's a small company called District Eating that maps heat networks and public land and identifies good sites to build urban farms that can tap into the waste, heat and CO2 that's available in those networks and calculate how much of an improvement that will make to the district heating system by venting those things at that point in the network.
Tom: Wow, that's a pretty, pretty impressive bit of tech. How do people even discover these things? And this sounds so, so smart to me, I guess it is an episode about smart cities, but yeah, that does sound pretty smart to me. Like, I've just not come across or heard about any of this tech before.
Chris: Yeah. I mean, one of the great joys I have actually of teaching on this international program is the kind of the ethos we have, the conception of smart cities that we have is a very holistic one. So, you know, to us, it's about the application of technology, not just for efficiency sake, but also for sustainability and for equity. And so we look at best practices. We look at, you know, the latest thinking and technologies in each of these areas and how they can be harnessed and how they can make an impact.
And so I'm literally, I'm now the academic director of that program. I have 20 international experts that are that are teaching on it. It's a year long master's program. We're starting the next program next week. I've literally got my inaugural lecture next Thursday. I've got about 50 students from around the world that are joining. They're going to be part of the program for a year. They get two lectures a week and assignments and yeah, we’re training kind of the average age of a student on our courses is 37 or was 37 last year. So, these are mid-career professionals that have worked in a particular area for a while, whether it's architecture or software or public administration or community activism. And they're looking to broaden their understanding. They're looking to become more strategic,they're looking to connect to a network of practice and thinking that is going to help them develop projects that they can apply in their own cities, whether they're in Cape Town or in Mumbai or in in Bangkok or Medellin or wherever they are in the world.
And we have students from all of those cities and many more So, yeah, that's what it's about. These are not things that the general population are aware of, but these are things that practitioners are developing and starting to understand. And so, you know, there are many, many more examples of great new technologies to change the way that we eat, the way that we move, the way that we use energy, the way that we learn - all of those things.
Tom: I bet it's really enjoyable for you to like, learn so much about what's going on in so many different places across the world as well as well.
Chris: Yeah, it really is. It's fantastic. And we try and set assignments so that our students do research in the places that they are, so we can find out more about what's going on in them.
Tom: Yeah, that's really cool. I read the blog not long ago that was about what's going on in loads of different cities. I think you wrote it, I can’t remember exactly what it was called, but yeah, it was really interesting, actually.
Chris So it was probably the Bloomberg Mayors challenge. I was giving examples of how different projects can try and effect positive change in multiple areas at once.
Tom: Yeah, that was it. Yeah, it was dead interesting. So I've got three questions left. All right.
So what are the main attractions to working in the Sheffield Digital scene?
Chris: Well, it's really friendly, right? There's lots of people that are willing to talk, willing to chat, there are people that are always willing to do stuff like that's always been the case. If anybody's ever wants to do stuff, you can usually find other people that will help you do it. And I don't think that's the same everywhere.
I think Sheffield. There's more people coming into our community all the time. I was just saying yesterday I was looking at the Sheffield Digital Slack and there's a bunch of people who I don't know, talking to each other and answering each other's questions, and I'm like, I've no idea who these people are.
You know, I don't know if they've just moved to the city or whether they've been here all along or they’re just starting out in their careers or anything like that. But that's great. That's what Sheffield Digital was really set up to do. It was to try and give people a way of meeting each other and talking to each other and supporting our meetups and finding out what's going on and all of that kind of stuff. So I think that's great. I think Sheffield, there's a lot of people that work in tech here and there's only a small proportion of those that are really engaged and involved, which is absolutely fine, obviously.
But there's a lot of people that are watching. There's a lot of people that are around. It's been really great to kind of go back to the City center and to see it come back to life again after COVID, because you know, a lot of the tech scene here is based within a 20 minute walk, right? It's really compact within the Ring Road, you know, from St Mary's Gate, where Twinkle are to the wicker, where the Flow are you can walk across the entire city in half an hour. So it's easy to meet people for a coffee.
Often when people come and want to kind of find out about the tech scene in Sheffield, you know, politicians sometimes or investors or companies that are thinking about setting up here, they get the presentations and stuff from the council and from the inward investment team and stuff like that. And they get taken out to the AMRC and all that kind of stuff usually. But if I get a chance to meet them at all, I suggest that we meet in a coffee shop somewhere, either in the City Center or Tampa or somewhere. And I'll say, let's get some coffees to go and I'll just go for a walk like I’ll just go for a tour. Let's just spend half an hour walking around and I'll point out where everyone is.
You know what's going on there, that building that's got these companies that do that. Did you know that, you know, all this kind of stuff and it really wakes people up. I think people go away with a the sense that there's just an absolute ton of stuff going on in Sheffield, which there is.
Tom: Yeah, I think that density is quite nice as well because, yeah, I mean, that's what I personally love about Sheffield, the most. So as I've said, I live in Manchester now. My family, my partner and most my friends and my football team and everyone else is in Sheffield So I am over in Sheffield all the time to watch football matches, see my family and friends or whatever. And yeah, that's what I always love about going back home is that I just walk everywhere, whereas in Manchester, it's like, Yeah, it's just so big. It's almost like London here in Manchester, I just find it almost too big.
And like you can’t really walk from one end of the city to another where as in Sheffield, I'll literally walk from like even the Peak district to town. You can do that like obviously it’s a bit of a trek but yeah that is one great thing about Sheffield is that you can really just walk everywhere.
Chris: Yeah, yeah, it really is the outdoor city. I think the balance that lifestyle balance is fantastic.
Tom: Yeah, yeah.
Chris: Or, just, you know, walk along the canal out to Meadowhall. It's a beautiful walk. You know, there's the, I can’t remember what it’s called, I think it’s the three waters walk or something like that.
Tom: Yeah, I know which one you're on about. Is it the one with the cycle path as well?
Tom: Because me and my dad did that when I was younger, like about twelve or thirteen, and it was a good day out. So yeah, and relating that back to to smart cities as well like I think before this chat, one thing that kind of concerned me a little bit was that all of that, like natural scenery, that you get in Sheffield, which I think is amazing and the parks as well.
So I love Endcliffe Park which is just by me back home and the Peak District and Forge dam and everything else. And so like, I guess, with smart cities from the videos I've watched, it all seems a bit too urbanized without the natural scenery as well. But I feel like from our conversation, I've got a new perspective of it in a way, it's more about the environmental side and more efficiency and to service citizens really, rather than about just technology being there for the sake of technology being there. I guess it's more about trying to find ways to actually build upon what's already existing in a city, right?
Chris: Yeah. Well, you know, all cities are different. And they have their own needs, and they have their own challenges, and, you know, there's lots of parts of the world that are undergoing incredibly fast urbanization. You know, they've got rural populations that are just moving to cities and those cities ability to provide services is really constrained.
You've got cities in some parts of the world that are being built from scratch, you know, places like Masdar in Dubai and Songdo in South Korea. These are like kind of like bespoke new cities, right? Sort of built on these, technological,visions of how people are going to live and we have different challenges to that. We have an old city.
We have a city that needs to be retrofitted. You know, we have you know, roads that are clogged with vehicles that have no cycle infrastructure. We have a third of our city boundary or, you know, city area is national park. And how do we preserve that? How do we enhance that?
I think the council, I think I read that they look after 100 individual pieces of green space across the city, which is a huge number.Obviously, we've had the whole, you know, tree felling debacle in the city. How do we look after our urban forest better? You know, so I think to me, it's not that there's no single vision of a smart city, right? It's not like all cities are migrating to this vision of the future. Right?
It's about understanding what is available to us to enhance what we've got and solve the challenges we face here, what we face in this place or that place. That is unique to this place.
Tom: And I think that's probably one of the challenges again with social media and the content that you consume online because it often will present a one size fits all approach. Certainty with any of the videos I've watched on smart cities, you know, they're all kind of presenting a similar vision for a smart city. As you say, that's like a new vision, but it's not based on a previous city that already exists.
Chris: I started collecting videos like that, videos which present a vision of the future. I find them fascinating, vision of the future videos. I've got a pin board. If anybody wants to find where my pin board is, I've got a future vision pin board where I chucked loads of these videos of mainly corporate imaginings of what our future is going to be like enhanced by technology. And I think it's a fascinating starting point for discussion about this stuff because they all look fucking dystopian to me.
Tom: I couldn't agree more. I honestly could not agree more. Yeah, they look horrible. But what I found quite comforting was reading the comments, which basically said what you just said then. And so a lot of people shared that opinion. I mean, the thing is like the future is created by people. And if people don't think that those visions are good, then hopefully they won't be created.
Chris: But this is the question Tom, right? The real question is what kind of technological future would the people of Sheffield make?
And that's the real question. You know, not what is Sheffield going to become if it adopts technologies that are produced by people outside? But what future will we make? What would Sheffield's smart city be?
Tom: Yeah, exactly.
Chris: What would that technology look like, what would they be like?
And obviously, like, I know that’s more of a rhetorical question, But, I think just off the top of my head like people in Sheffield. It's kind of based on being, you know, it's like a friendly green city. They're probably the two best adjectives I could use to describe Sheffield off the top of my head.
But that's what hopefully we'd use technology to build upon and enhance even further. Anyway, final final question for you, Chris and it’s been really good talking to you.
So what can people do to make things better? It's the most broad of questions, but I love asking people this.
Chris: It's a really good one. I think there's so many options for people to find something that they want to change. I think everybody needs to find something they want to change. I think if you can find that, if you can decide that that's the thing that I want to change then work towards that.
Find out as much as you can about it, find other people that are interested in it and want to help you do it. And it's amazing what you can do. It's amazing what you can do just as a private individual. It's amazing how much change that you can affect. If you, you know, if you want to really get to grips with something you know, you can set organizations up, you can start projects, you can build applications.
You know, we have so much power as developers and people that understand how to use this technology to create things that can make a difference. And so, you know, I see examples of people doing that. There was a couple of couple of women who wanted to understand playgrounds, for example, because it wasn't clear what facilities were available in the playgrounds across Sheffield. So they created a map where you can go and you can add information about what there is in the playground that's near you.
And you know, for parents for whom that is useful information, that's really useful. There was a similar map application for places in town to breastfeed in town, for example, and there was another one for where you can go to the loo. Or whether it's you know, that you want to be more politically engaged or whether you want to…
I think almost the problem is that there's too many opportunities and too many things to concern yourself with, and it's too easy to do nothing and to be distracted by everything and so I think, you know, if people wanted to make a difference, there's literally nothing stopping them from making a difference. I think all you maybe need to do is find something that really pisses you off and do something about it.
Tom: Yeah, that's a great answer. And I think like a lot of meaning and purpose can be found in that, like finding something that you want to change and actually taking action.
That’s amazing for the mind and the soul and just everything else, I'm sure. So yeah that’s a great answer and thanks for coming on, Chris, I really appreciate your time. It's been a very interesting discussion, at least for me, and hopefully listeners/readers have found it interesting as well.
Where can people find you and maybe get involved in the Sheffield digital community?
Chris: Yeah. Well, go to Sheffield.Digital Have a look at what we do there. We're basically a media platform that kind of communicates about what's going on in tech and digital media across Sheffield.
We have a slack community, so you can sign up or fill out a little form explaining who you are and you can join our community on Slack, where I think there's close to 2000 people have registered there so far. And there's like at least several hundred that use it regularly.
There's about 100 different channels for all sorts of different topicsthat you might want to get involved in. We're a membership rganization, so if you want to join us as an individual member, you can and you then become eligible to join our mentorship programs.
So we're running a mentoring program for people who join us as individual members. And then we also have company members that support us and we provide business networking and opportunities and and stuff like that to our company members, so if any companies want to get involved in policymaking and kind of shaping the future of the digital tech and media industry in Sheffield then come and talk to us about it and then we run events and obviously we advertise all the meetups that are happening in Sheffield and other events. And I run a thing called geek breakfast every Friday morning, both online and also in Tampa Sellers Wheel as well, which is just a drop in networking breakfast.
So if you're ever around and want to have a chat or come and introduce yourself and meet other people, just come down to Tampa on a Friday morning from 9:00am and say Hello.
Tom: Yeah cheers Chirs, I'm sure I'll see you there sometime soon as well. Thanks a lot. Thanks to everyone listening/reading.
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