From a 40 billion dollar ‘ubiquitous city’ to buses that run on crowdsourced routes, should the future of our cities be defined by constant digital disruption that lacks context?
Let’s begin with a much hyped and frequently used example of what a Smart City can be. South Korea, which has one of the highest percentages of broadband connectivity in the world, is home to the world’s first purpose built Smart City. Built from scratch over 1,500 acres of reclaimed land, the Songdo International Business District is close to completion. Once finished, it will include schools, offices, apartment blocks, a hospital, arts centre and a 100-acre Central Park modelled after its namesake.
This 40 billion dollar city currently has a population of 67,000, which is about a third of its capacity. It is home to the world’s first integrated waste-management centre — a network of underground pneumatic tubes connected to all buildings that automatically sorts, recycles or burns trash for fuel. In September 2014, The Atlantic reported that this city-wide system was managed by just seven employees.
Will Songdo be a success? It’s too early to tell. The current opinion is divided. Much of the discussion is about technological advances, ROI and concepts the city is based on, such as aerotropolis — an urban plan where the layout of the city is centred around an airport; and ubiquitous city — sensors built into everything and all the data is shared.
But what about all the other cities? The ones that we live in. These cities have inherited infrastructure, which like Songdo, was once built to superlative specifications of past visions. The truth is that most cities aren’t compatible with this data-driven, sensor-heavy, hyper-connected version of the future. Does progress have to be defined by making unnatural links with new and emerging technologies and hoping for the best, or is there an alternative framework?
Our cities need a development framework where technology is incidental and the mental, physical and spiritual well-being of its residents is the primary focus. There are examples emerging from different parts of the world that show this approach does not require a significant conceptual leap, and it can provide simple, sustainable solutions. Before looking at a specific example, let’s first tackle a ubiquitous buzzword, that according to Jill Lepore of the The New Yorker, has created a rhetoric of panic, fear, asymmetry, and disorder.
Disruption is a ‘theory of history founded on a profound anxiety about financial collapse, an apocalyptic fear of global devastation, and shaky evidence,’ states Jill in her powerful critique of the theory of disruptive innovation developed by Harvard professor Clayton M. Christensen.
Consider the services that want to disrupt mass transit. San Francisco based Leap claims to have redesigned the daily commute. These buses run on natural gas, offer WiFi and plenty of space. Great. However, a single ride costs $6 compared to the $2 fare on MUNI, the bus service managed by the San Francisco Municipal Transport Agency. Is Leap offering a genuine alternative or as Emily Badger from the Washington Post argues, creating a transit system that is accessible to a privileged few?
Chariot, another San Francisco start-up is using a data-driven crowdsourcing approach to solve the commute of thousands. But once again, rather than shake up the government stranglehold on bussing it offers a limited solution to a complex problem. Chariot is great if you want a service that runs 6 hours a day, 5 days a week along a profitable route.
So let’s all just stop saying disrupt right this instant, Kevin Roose suggests in this piece in the New York Magazine. How about we repurpose the word to reflect change that is rooted in a meaningful context? Let’s also divorce it from a meaning that lumps all opposition to new technology into the same category — anti-progress Luddites protecting the status quo at the expense of innovation.
In this spirit, there’s a potentially disruptive project being carried out in the Dutch province of Friesland, which is also about public transport. Situated in the northwest of the country, Friesland has one of the lowest population densities of the 12 Dutch provinces. It is also the only province with its own language. Frisian is understood by over 90% of the population.
Bus Fol Ferhalen (Bus Full of Stories) is a mobile library of Frisian books that is available in two bus companies in the region — Arriva and QBuzz. This pilot project began in January, 2015 and will run for 6 months. Passengers can read a book during their journey or take it home for free and return it once they are done. The project has been developed by an alliance of Frisian publishers. Its goals include promoting the language as well as the sales of books.
But there is a third possibility.
In the UK, nearly a third of local authorities have reduced or cancelled their mobile library service even though it plays an important role in rural communities and caters to an elderly population. Bus Fol Ferhalen offers an elegant solution — a mobile library integrated with public transport.
I recently took a bus ride from Sleat (part of the famous 11 cities of Friesland) to Heerenveen. One of the books in the mobile library at the back of the bus was Alde Leafde (Old Love), a collection of humorous and touching love letters written in Frisian from 1948–1975. This publication is the result of a community storytelling project.
A project like Bus Fol Ferhalen could be at the heart of a social inclusion initiative to create an age friendly city such as the one Leeds aspires to be. Situated in West Yorkshire, Leeds is one of the eight largest English cities outside London. According to a 2011 census, nearly a fifth of its population is aged 60 or over. Leeds wants to be the best city to grow old in and one of its priorities is to tackle loneliness and social isolation.
The Black Health Initiative (BHI) is a community engagement organisation in Leeds working towards equality of access to Health and Social Care provision for disadvantaged and marginalised communities. BHI also runs a storytelling project to capture the experiences of older generations of black and minority ethnic communities. What if these stories were shared in mobile libraries in multiple formats — on bookshelves in the back of buses or as free digital downloads for mobile devices. Buses are used by the young and old alike, what if they were re-imagined as mobile centres for social inclusion and community cohesion?
Isn’t that disruptive as well?
Let’s revisit Songdo for moment, whilst the rest of us wait for pneumatic tubes to suck and sort our waste, there’s a interesting project running in Bengaluru, in South India. This project is about waste as well. It is also about using technology to empower a community and engage an entire city.
Hasirudala is a member-based organisation of waster pickers, sorters and itinerant waste buyers, a majority of whom are women. Collectively, this informal sector diverts over a 1000 tonnes of waste from landfills every day, providing considerable savings to the city municipality. However, the unhealthy working conditions mean that waste pickers have a much lower life expectancy. They are also shunned by mainstream society and have poor living standards with limited access to housing, healthcare and education.
Hasirudala has partnered with several social businesses and multinational IT firm Mindtree to launch I Got Garbage (IGG). This project enables waste pickers to offer waste management services that can be procured by households, apartments and offices. IGG aims to mobilise 20,000 waste pickers to create a structured workforce that is connected to the mainstream waste supply chain.
This is a powerful vision of what a Smart City should it. It is about technology, but more importantly, it is about bringing dignity to a marginalised community. The smartness of technology isn’t defined by its ubiquity but the ease with which it provides access and opportunity to those who need it most.
This raises the question, is the future avatar of our cities dependent on constant and unpredictable digital disruption? Should we aspire to the largely unattainable standards set by projects such as Songdo? Will our neighbourhoods be proliferated by well-intentioned services such as Leap and Chariot that cater to the privileged few? I propose we forfeit these technology saturated ideas for inspiration from the complex, vibrant and evolving communities that define our cities.