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Smart cities won’t work if people aren’t motivated to change

By Megan Goodwin, Joint Managing Director, IRM.

Smart Cities sound like a great idea -- on paper. But the problem is that most of the people working on creating them are focusing on individual elements of city problems and developing technology-based solutions to address them.

But cities are human hives, not ‘machines for living’ (to paraphrase Le Corbusier). People have to live in them and this careful balance between increased urbanisation (United Nations have warned that 65% of humans will live in a city by 2050) and the social isolation that technology can create means that any design for a Smart City that fails to take into account human behaviour is doomed to fail.

Every conference I’ve attended over the last few months has centred on the technological infrastructure of Smart Cities: sustainability, CO2 emissions, congestion, parking, driverless cars, city lights, energy, data integration, and so on and so forth.

While, of course, they were all very interesting and valid discussions delivered by people who are experts in their field, I can’t help but feel that these meetings are missing a key factor -- the human/psychological element of Smart Cities. After all, the whole point behind Smart Cities must be about creating an efficient, sustainable, healthy space where people are happy and involved in their city because their environment is only going to become more and more densely populated. The density is not what causes the problem, according to the UN, but the planning of infrastructure.

Cities are getting bigger. The United Nations predicts that by 2030, 662 cities around the world will have at least one million residents, up from 512 in 2016. But as cities grow, so does the tendency for people to become more socially isolated.

Technology, which should be a facilitator of communications and community, is compounding the problem for far too many -- social media, for example, can increase and reinforce feelings of worthlessness, cyberbullying is on the rise and ‘fake news’ being transmitted on a global scale is undermining people’s trust in big brands, organisations and government bodies.

Are we surprised? We don’t pop down to the high street to do our shopping anymore -- we shop online, pay digitally and have it delivered… It was bad enough when the car became ubiquitous and we all drove everywhere -- but at least we left the house. Smart Cities mustn’t be allowed to create a nation of ‘shut ins’.

Instead, technology should be incorporated into city design in a way that makes it easier for us to tackle issues such as loneliness, mental health problems, personal security, eating disorders and drug addiction.

It might be less sexy as a political headline, but how can we use Big Data, technology and start-ups to address these problems should be a key question in any plans for a Smart City.

Let’s use technology to make people happier, encourage them to become healthier and create social structures that support those who need support. Technology should be about transforming people’s lives for the better, not reducing them to bytes of data in the interests of ‘efficiency’.

Smart city advisory committees are made up of everyone from anthropologists to developers, accountants to designers, but where are the psychologists? Where are the poets? Where are the game makers and the game changers? Where does the human angle and understanding coming from?

Technology is literally an enabler; it can do whatever you want it to do. So why aren’t cities using it as a way to get people to connect and to take positive steps to improve their lives?

There is some hope for the future of Smart Cities, though: Millennials have a totally different attitude to life than the generations that came before them. These citizens value sharing, spontaneity, meaningful experiences and collaboration. And that’s exactly why ‘sharing economy’ pioneers like Airbnb and Uber are leading the charge.

Smart technology needs to be about connecting people - bringing people together and giving them a feeling of community. A giant leap towards this has been taken by AccorHotel with the launch of its Jo&Joe brand - disrupting the traditional hotel format with more flexible space and designing community hubs for both local residents (dubbed “Townsters”) as well as hotel guests/travellers (“Tripsters”) so encouraging integration which appeals to the Millennial generation.

Getting people involved in the vision of the smart city is key. UN-Habitat is already making waves in this area through its Block by Block project with Minecraft, which uses the world-building computer game as a participation tool for local communities to design their own public spaces. What’s great about this is that after building projects in Minecraft, presentations are put forward to stakeholders from local government, the mayor’s office, planners and architects for future urban design.

Having worked in the games industry myself for more than 15 years, I’ve seen first hand how technology can be used as an enabler to bring people together, as well as isolate them. For Smart Cities to be truly “smart”, the integration of human needs is a fundamental requirement for any Smart City planning.

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