Back to Top Mobile Nav

Living PlanIT and the development of the "PlanIT Urban Operating System": the geographies of an innovation

Luís Carvalho

European Institute for Comparative Urban Research (Euricur) & Department of Urban, Port and Transport Economics (RHV b.v.), Erasmus University Rotterdam.

Inês Plácido Santos

Instituto Pedro Nunes (IPN), Coimbra.

Mário Vale

Centre for Geographical Studies & Institute of Geography and Spatial Planning, University of Lisbon

Abstract

This case study explores the development of the PlanIT OS and PlanIT Urban Operating System™ (PlanIT UOS or UOS), a complex middleware platform designed to link a city's sub-systems (e.g. built environment, safety & security, communications, energy, water, waste, mobility), harmonizing resource flows towards manifold efficiency gains thus enabling creation of urban environments that are economically, socially and environmentally sustainable. The chapter explores the spatial and organizational context of the proponent company – the "born global" emerging company Living PlanIT SA, currently headquartered in Switzerland but also based in the North of Portugal, England, the United States and China – paying attention to the geographies underlying their operations. Despite the codification of the core technology, the chapter illustrates how the interaction with different milieus provided (and keeps providing) unique resources for the technology's development, commercialization and societal legitimation.

Introduction

Over the last decades, the emphasis on "green" or "sustainability" has grown in the policy agenda of many cities worldwide (BETSILL and BULKELY, 2007). Beyond the environmental and pollution concerns of the 1980s, the current discourse tends to place a stronger focus on issues such as climate change, energy use, resource waste and the several inefficiencies that could be curbed only if cities used the available resources in a more efficient and integrated way. At a global scale, such concerns proliferated as the world´s urbanization rates increased and urban settlements multiply in fast-growing economies.

Although not a panacea, it has long been recognized that technology solutions can contribute towards more sustainable and resource-efficient cities (CAMAGNI et al., 1998). In line with it, a notion that has gained relevance in policy spheres is the one of "smart city" (e.g. THE ECONOMIST, 2010): places where one or more urban sub-systems (e.g. built environment, safety & security, communications, energy, water, waste, mobility) are coordinated through the use of ICTs, towards better provision and increased efficiency in resource utilization1. City administrations – and their "sustainability" agendas – became increasingly interested in the development of such solutions; and so did transnational IT corporations (e.g. Siemens, Cisco, IBM), that have been developing many (yet partial) IT solutions to tackle urban efficiency challenges, both in old urban environments and in newly built cities and districts "from scratch" (CARVALHO, 2011).

This chapter focuses on a "sustainable innovation", promising to transform the field of urban technology solutions by integrating diverse smart city / Internet of Things innovations into one single platform – the PlanIT Urban Operating System™ (hereupon PlanIT UOSTM or UOS). The UOS processes real-time information collected through sensors embedded in a city's buildings and infrastructure, and additionally data from a myriad of mobile devices and city hardware, then analyzes those data flows, and thereafter actuates reactions accordingly (e.g. adjusting energy supply, distribution and storage according to people flows in a city) towards energy savings and manifold efficiency gains. Moreover, the collected information and data streams can be used to improve infrastructure's features and performance over time. It has been developed by a "born-global"2 emerging company called Living PlanIT SA (hereupon PlanIT), whose proponents are a diverse group of highly experienced entrepreneurs, with long professional careers, originating from different parts of the world.

PlanIT chose the North of Portugal to settle numerous team members and to develop a visionary "city-from-scratch" test-bed called PlanIT Valley™, but other world-scattered milieus have also been essential for the development and scaling up of the PlanIT UOS. This makes this case study an interesting arena to explore the geographies of a sustainability-related innovation, as well as the reasons and mechanisms underlying such geographies in a context of hyper-mobility and transnational organization of innovation. By doing so, we contribute to shedding light on the relations between sustainability, innovation and the territorialization of economic activity.

This case study is based on a large array of secondary data about PlanIT and the PlanIT UOS (reports, press-releases, international media coverage, web discussion forums, and personal communications), collected and analyzed during 2011 and early 2012. Moreover, it also draws from 10 in-depth and semi-structured interviews, conducted during the same period with PlanIT founders and executive managers (face-to-face in Portugal and the Netherlands; one Skype call to London) as well as 4 other involved discussions with partners in the North of Portugal (regional government representatives and consultants) and Lisbon (partner company).

The chapter is organized as follows. Section 2 contextualizes the story of PlanIT, the notion of sustainability associated with the innovation and the company's business model. Section 3 explores the geographies underlying the development of the PlanIT UOS and the operations of PlanIT; to do so it uses an innovation system framework under which different locations and milieus are associated with functions that holistically support the innovation under analysis. Section 4 concludes and provides insight on the hypothesis of the overall research project.

1Naturally, "smart city" is a very large conceptual container, with highly porous boundaries. Here we are referring to a narrower definition more closely related with its initial "IT" formulation, associated with the use of ICTs to improve and optimize service provision and resource utilization in cities, leaving the conceptual discussion out of the scope of this chapter.

2Contrarily to companies that internationalize at later stages of development, a "born global" company is a "[n]ew venture that acts to satisfy a global niche from day one" (TANEV, 2012). Frequent characteristics of born-global companies are their technological drive, reliance of large ecosystems of partner organizations, limited financial and tangible resources, development of differentiated design and distinctive products (small for large firms), superior quality, highly connected and internationally oriented managers and, naturally, high activity in international markets.