Planning generates valuable intellectual property. It’s time cities used it

A scale model of London. Why not. Image: Getty.

The knowledge economy has shaped cities. As part of the startup gold rush, civic administrations have toiled to create conditions that will attract entrepreneurs keen to set up shop and create intellectual property. But while doing so, cities have overlooked the fact that they have also been generating valuable knowledge.

The planning process intrinsically requires urban environment models to understand the best courses of action. These are often, though by no means always, based on data, perhaps formalised in a spreadsheet or jotted in notebooks. Regardless, they capture patterns, insights, and observations about how a city works, today and in the past; and are used to forecast how they may continue to work in the future.

Cities invariably don’t solve all of their problem alone. That’s because many – such as as, say, improving air quality or reducing traffic congestion – require expertise and resources that they don’t possess. In those cases, they turn to experts to help them.

But, the relationship between the two is broken. Cities pay large sums for experts to create models or refine existing ones, often with a great deal of input from the city authority. And yet cities ultimately retain the rights to use only a small proportion of the work for which they’ve paid: a report, perhaps slides from a presentation, maybe some results from the model in a spreadsheet if they’re lucky. Rarely, if ever, do they retain the model itself.

That means that, when the time comes to revise a strategy or plan, the city has to start from scratch. The Greater London Authority, for instance, has an annual budget of around £500,000 to employ external experts to update the London Plan. The majority of it is used to revise and refresh existing studies and models, rather than build new ones – and some of that could be done more efficiently in-house

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that domain experts hold the newly generated IP, which they can either sell on to other clients or else use to leverage new contracts. In extreme cases, the dual role played by experts – in supporting both cities and organisations that work for cities – can lead to perverse consequences.  The knowledge gained in developing affordable housing policies is, for instance, also useful to developers seeking to minimise exposure to such projects. In these cases, cities pay a consultant, give away their own IP, then allow other parties to use the knowledge against them.

City authorities and their staff must be far more pro-active in understanding and valuing the models and knowledge that they use to support the planning process. In the future, it should be the case that cities design, build, and own their own models of their city. These will still require the input of domain experts – but instead of handing over intellectual property, they will pay for the knowledge of others to create models that they can re-use, edit, and build upon, enabling the planning process to move far faster.


This will prove expensive in the short term. It will require cities to employ data scientists to capture and codify their knowledge, as well as altering their expectations about IP in relationships with contractors.

But costs will be easily recouped. First, cities will act as the gatekeeper of models built on their own data, that other organisations – housing developers, utilities companies, even other cities – will seek to utilise, and the city will be able to charge accordingly. Second, those same models could be used to inform broader city planning and service delivery, reducing duplication of effort and increasing consistency across the local authority.

At Future Cities Catapult, we’ve already started investigating how cities could adopt these kinds of approaches. With Space Syntax, we’re developing an innovative project called Tombolo that will provide an open source platform to streamline the connection of multiple urban datasets and models. Currently, we’re working with Leeds, Milton Keynes, and the Royal Borough of Greenwich to understand how their data and models could be simply and easily fused, to give policymakers new insights into complex challenges.

Tombolo, though, is just one of three large-scale products being funded by Innovate UK which are investigating how data modelling can be used to inform real world issues – and this must all be seen as part of a much larger trend towards the concept of modelling-as-a-service, which is being led by the likes of Andreessen Horowitz-funded London startup Improbable.

If UK cities take advantage of this trend and use their own intellectual property, they will be able to interrogate assumptions that sit deep within the myriad planning documents that currently remain inaccessible. Ultimately, that will allow them to perform land use planning with increased speed, efficiency, and transparency. By using their own knowledge, cities will finally be able to develop as effectively as possible.

Stefan Webb is head of projects at Future Cities Catapult.

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How do North Koreans get to work? A guide to transport in the DPRK

Buhung station, on the Pyongyang Metro. Image: Jodie Hill.

Like so much else in North Korea, the country’s transport can be divided into categories: Pyongyang and not Pyongyang.

In the capital, centrally-run transportation is, compared to other extremely poor countries, efficient, cheap and well maintained. Outside Pyongyang, by contrast, the state has withered away – albeit not quite as Marx imagined it would. The near total collapse of state run transport infrastructure has left room for a wide range of enterprising North Koreans to make their living in the transport sector – provided, of course, a chunk of those proceeds makes its way back to the party.

So how do North Koreans get around Pyongyang?  

Here’s a homemade map of the city’s transport section:

A homemade map of the Pyongyang transport sector. Image: Michael Hill.

Some notes on all this. The names for Subway stations are translations of the Korean names, but bear no relation to their location. I filled in the (unnamed) trolley bus and tram stop names myself, with reference local landmarks; in fact, those systems both stop way more than my map implies.

What’s more, the Gwangmyeong/Bright Future station is closed, and has been for years – out of respect for Kim Jeong Il and Kim Il Sung who are in a nearby mausoleum, which used to be Kim Il Sung’s Pyongyang pad. The tramline to Gwangmyeong/Bright Future is also not really part of the public transport network, but is just for visitors to the mausoleum.

Getting about

A subway ticket costs just 5 North Korean Won (9,500 won to the dollar at black market rates). If you need to transfer you will have to buy another ticket, there are no travelcards or season tickets. You can check the best way to get where you are going at most stations (possibly all) contain interactive maps.

Pyongyang subway interactive map. Image: Jodie Hill.

Just press the name of the station you wish to travel to from the list along the bottom, and the route from your current station to your destination lights up. This may or may not be overkill for a network with just two lines and 16 stations.

Incidentally, the logo has the word 지 (ji) which is the first syllable of 지하 (jiha) which means underground. The title just means “Information board”, and the question is, ‘Where are you going?’

Some stations are 360ft (110m) deep, double the depth of the deepest station (Hampstead) on the London Underground.

The escalators at Buhung/Revival station escalator. Image: Jodie Hill.

While this bomb shelter might be useful one day, for now it just means Pyongyangites add ten minutes to their planned journey time – which encourages many people to take the tram or trolley bus instead. When you finally get down to the platform you won’t have long to wait – at most 5 minutes during peak times, 10 minutes off peak.

The North Korean government never misses a chance to propagandise: every station has a theme. For example the station name Gaeson means “Triumphant Return”; it’s situated near where Kim Il-Sung gave his first speech as ruler. Inside the murals depict crowds attentively listening to him. The style is not dissimilar to the grandeur of subways in the former Soviet Union, but with much less emphasis on the workers and modernist art and a lot more on the rulers.

The trains themselves were made in West Germany in the 1950s and 60s. There are allegedly some new trains – but they look suspiciously like their older counterparts given a lick of paint and an electronic information board. The old East German stock has been moved onto the national rail network. While these days powercuts are much rarer than in the 1990s (when, for long periods of the day, the subway didn’t operate at all), a torch and something to read might be advised just in case you get stuck.

The central figure is Kim Il-Sung. Image: Jodie Hill.

The ‘showcase’ station is Buhung (“Revival”):

Images: Jodie Hill.

The others are much the same only without the chandeliers and with much dimmer lights.

Above ground

While electricity is hardly plentiful in North Korea, compared to oil it is pretty abundant. Therefore, buses have gradually been phased out: now trolley buses and trams then form the backbone of the transit network in Pyongyang. As regular as the subway, but with a bigger network and not requiring a long escalator ride – or walk, as the escalators often break down – this is the most popular way to travel around Pyongyang.

The ticket price is again just 5 won (about 0.4p). The trolley bus vehicles were mostly manufactured domestically, while the trams are second hand from communist era Prague. Power cuts are much more frequent on the trolley buses and trams than on the subway: passengers on an affected service are expected to push.

The rail network is rarely used for commuting. Even for those way out in the plush satellite town of Ryeongsong (at the far north of the map, and home of Kim Jong-Un and many other top party cadres), those not high enough ranked for a car take the trolleybus rather than the train to commute to work.

Venturing out of the capital, the official transport network shows signs of near collapse. As far as I am aware, the only other city with a tram network is Chongjin, but it’s hardly extensive – a one line system, eight miles long. It suffers from much more regular power cuts than its Pyongyang counterpart, and relies on hand me down trains from the capital. Many cities have a trolley bus service on paper – but most have no service at all or, at best, a skeleton peak hours service only.

The national rail network is worse. Before you can even get a ticket you must apply for permission – a process that can take days – though nowadays this can be circumvented with a bribe. Tickets are cheap, usually just a few hundred won (a few pence), but with frequent power cuts, journeys take even longer than the 12mph average speed suggests they will. While Kim Jong-Un’s travel habits are unknown, both his father and grandfather liked to travel by private train, and this would lead delays of 24 hours for people travelling in the same area. Freight takes priority over passenger rail, and virtually the entire network is single track and with no sophisticated signalling equipment, meaning trains often have to wait for a long time to let others pass.

A map of the network. Image: Voland77/Wikimedia Commons.

As a result of these problems lot of passenger traffic has moved onto the roads. Enterprising Koreans who have obtained licenses, as well as state operated enterprises (particularly people associated with the police), have bought second hand buses from China and now use them for inter-city transport.

Reports vary about whether travel permits are required for bus travel, and about how hard they are to obtain. Prices fluctuate due to changes in the oil price and vary wildly by region. A journey from Nampo to Pyongyang (about 30 miles) costs $5. A journey of similar length between two cities in the north east costs around $15, while in the north west just $2.

Journeys are not comfortable. North Korean roads are often unpaved, always potholed, and the buses were not in great condition even when they left China. Nevertheless they link the emerging market economy together.  

North Korea road map:

A map of the network. Blue routes are all paved, others mostly unpaved or paved a very long time ago. Image: Voland77/Wikimedia Commons.

For shorter journeys, taxis are now an option in most medium sized cities and even in some rural areas. There are at least four taxi companies operating these days in Pyongyang.

North Korean won won’t get you very far though: taxi drivers want dollars (two of them), to take you anywhere plus another 50 cents for every kilometer you travel, about three times the cost as in North East China. The only network outside Pyongyang I know in detail is one run by a state-owned enterprise in Chongjin, which recently imported dozens of almost new taxis from China. Payment is accepted in North Korean won, Chinese RMB and US dollars; a 10 minute journey costs 1 dollar.

Taxis are beyond the means of most North Koreans, though. The backbone of North Korea’s transport infrastructure is formed by bikes.


Bicycles were illegal in Pyongyang until 1992, and this ban was strictly enforced – but since it was lifted, bike use has really taken off. In smaller towns they often serve as a status symbol as much as transport, much as cars do for many in the west. The wealthiest now ride electric assisted bikes imported from China, though the Ford of North Korea is the Pyongjin bike company, which has cornered 70% of the market according to the leading North Korea scholar Andrei Lankov.

It is still technically illegal for a woman to ride a bike, but this ban is not strictly enforced. (I know of one woman who used to ride her technically illegal bike to her technically illegal small business, a bicycle repair shop.) Legally, every bike needs a license plate, and each rider needs take a test and get a license – but this too is mostly unenforced.

It is illegal to ride on North Korea’s mostly empty roads. This ban is not enforced in most cities, but is in Pyongyang, where the government has started creating cycle paths on the pavements as well as a bike hire scheme. If you can’t afford a bike yourself, a ‘bicycle carrier’ will give you a lift for about five US cents per kilometre – although, like a land based Ryanair, you have to pay more for bags. Both customers and workers in this sector tend to be very poor.

North Korea’s transport mirrors the North Korean economy. Pyongyang just about manages to present itself as a communist city. Outside the capital, though, secret policeman, state-operated enterprises and sole traders make a living – and sometimes a fortune – keeping the country moving among the remains of a communist economy which never delivered.

With thanks to Michael Spavor of Paektu Cultural Exchange and Rowan Beard of Young Pioneer Tours for helpful conversations.  

Michael Hill wants you to be his third twitter follower so you can see more versions of the Pyongyang transport map.