The Sustainable Development Lab has been named as one of 2016’s New Radicals by Nesta and the Observer! We are one of 50 radical-thinking individuals and organisations changing the UK for the better. I am thrilled for the team, our partners and the city of Leeds. Let me take this opportunity to explain how we are creating an age-friendly smart city by being playful, pragmatic and focussed.
A playful approach to solving real problems creates empathy
Our backgrounds range from ethical hacking to game-design, from the arts to information governance. We have settled in the UK from Singapore, India, Poland and Germany. We recognise that a one-size-fits-all approach to smart cities is simply not possible in our multicultural society. There are many routes to solve a complex problem.
This is how the idea of the Mesh Network was conceived in our social isolation lab. An older participant explained why using Skype is really hard. My colleague could relate to this. Connecting a tablet to a Wi-Fi router and installing Skype is not that easy. It would take her grandmother in Singapore at least half an hour to log on and use Skype to make a call.
So she accepted the challenge from the older gentleman to create an easy to use network that can connect communities. The Mesh Network does not need a router or an internet connection. We tested the early prototype in a sheltered care home and it was a big hit with the residents. We are now developing a 5-node network that can run in tower blocks, care homes and a row of houses. If you would like to take part to test and support the development of the Mesh please drop us a line!
Let’s be pragmatic. It can work, but why should people use it?
Technology is ubiquitous. Sensors are growing smaller and they can generate a mountain of data. What was once science fiction is reality. It is very tempting to design solutions using clever, creative and unusual combinations of tech. But is the end-result usable? Especially by the most vulnerable residents in our city?
Thanks to the backing from Leeds City Council we work closely with frontline staff and residents in our labs. This reminds us that we must take a pragmatic approach to developing services. For instance, as we discovered, a digital-first approach is not suitable to address some of the other themes we work on, such as social housing and domestic violence. The homeless still rely on paper maps for listings. The use of technology by victims of domestic violence is severely restricted by perpetrators.
A age-friendly smart city cannot pit residents against technology. We followed this principle to develop CareView – a community powered safety resource. CareView allows frontline staff to log signs of social isolation across a city. This data is gathered by staff from Leeds City Council, PCSOs and health workers. The resulting heat-map is used to leaflet specific properties with information about local events and services.
Three months into the pilot, we have started to see the benefits of this digital-physical process driven by the experience and insight of frontline staff. An older lady who has lived in an area of the city all her life attended a local festival for the first time. An 83 year old who had suffered a fall was able to access the Neighbourhood Network Scheme. Another gentleman, in his 70s is taking his first steps to join different social groups.
So why do some ideas have legs?
Empathy and usability have helped us conceive and test many solutions over the past eighteen months. Some ideas flourish and others quickly come to an end. We don’t see this as failure. Every step is a learning process.
But why do some ideas succeed? For any solution to be sustainable it needs a business case. It needs to achieve efficiencies and savings. For example, CareView will help local authorities use their resources to deliver targeted interventions at a time when they are stretched to the limit.
It is tempting to come up with an over-engineered solution to a complex problem. Ideas that do one thing and do it well show the most potential to be scaled. Focus is important. A good first step creates the foundation for further iteration. For example, LeedsBins tells residents when their Green, Brown and Black bins are due to be collected. It was launched last week as a prototype. We already have a couple of thousand users. Their feedback is helping us refine and improve the features that can help 350,000 households. You can download the app for iPhone and Android devices.
Think big, start small and bring people onboard
Creating an age-friendly smart city is not about the technology! It’s about understanding the context, nuance and complexities of day-to-day life. It’s been quite an adventure to develop this insight. This time last year we were running game workshops to understand how families perceived death and funeral arrangements. We’ve worked with older people to design wearable devices using Raspberry Pis and Unicorn Hats. We’ve been testing beacons that use a traffic light system to let you know when your bus will arrive at the nearest bus stop. The team and I are grateful to everyone who has taken the time to move each idea forward.
We invite you to join us! Some of our services can now be shared for implementation in your town, city or neighbourhood. If you would like to take part, please get in touch. If you are a charity, a public or private sector organisation and want to create positive social impact, drop us a line and let’s have a conversation!
And finally, congratulations to all the other new radicals! It feels absolutely fantastic to be part of this group.
– Abhay Adhikari and the team
Email: contact (at) sustainabledevelopmentlab (dot) come