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Technology's greatest potential in cities is enhancing citizens' experiences in various contexts, says IBM's Ravi Bhat.

A hundred years ago, your typical city contained a few hundred-thousand people, had yet to see a modern car, and the industrial age was just beginning to stimulate growth and migration, as society moved from being primarily rural to increasingly urban.

Fast forward to 2012, and growth has skyrocketed. Urbanisation, especially in developing countries, is happening at a staggering rate, with populations growing by 7 500 people per hour, according to Ericsson. Technology changes are happening just as rapidly, and the concept of a smart city has emerged as information becomes the modern currency of choice. The advent of cities where networks of sensors, management systems and citizen data are integrated is providing more efficient urban services, at the same time as energy, water, waste, and transport facilities come under increasing strain, with urban populations stretching into the multiple millions.

As essential as these services are, however, they are not the heartbeat of a city. The social structures, behaviours and cultures that characterise a city's streets are no less vital to its health than utilities. As a result, an increasing number of initiatives have begun looking at using technology not only to make cities smarter, but more social as well.

A recent report by Ericsson Consumer Lab on satisfaction with urban living shows connectivity is strongly linked to quality of life. The report, which surveyed residents in 13 major cities, representing 100 million people, found around 40% use smartphones and rely on mobile information to solve day-to-day issues.

Instant gratification

It's made it much faster and easier to get to the heart of what you desire.

It's no surprise then that one of the factors rated most highly in terms of satisfaction is the city's mobile network. Mwambu Wanendeya, VP and head of communications Africa at Ericsson, notes that mobile connectivity and Internet access are considered basic rights in cities.

“City dwellers expect to have a good mobile connection and the ability to go online wherever they are – at home, in the office, or on the move.” While 30% of citizens in mega cities such as Johannesburg or London do not have a fixed-line phone at home, almost 95% have access to a mobile phone, he adds.

As smartphones become more widespread, so mobile solutions around cities will become more prevalent, says Ravi Bhat, director, software group, IBM SA. “By 2020, there will be an estimated 15 billion smartphones in the world – that's two to three smartphones per person.”

According to Bhat, this will result in mobile services being increasingly integrated with city dwellers' needs, including services like weather apps, WiFi networks that transform retail experiences, and mobile mapping applications that provide more timely information about congestion and traffic.

For many commuters, the only way to improve their transport situation is by accessing timely information on their phones.

The latter is a particularly bothersome issue for urbanites, as traffic and parking were two of the top three areas citizens reported being most dissatisfied with.

City dwellers spend an average of two hours and 20 minutes each day travelling across the city, according to Ericsson. Out of all 13 cities surveyed, Johannesburg had the highest percentage of respondents who commute by car as the driver.

Many commuters believe the only way to improve their transport situation is through access to flexible information on their mobile phones, notes Ericsson. “In some cities, authorities are already working to improve the availability of real-time traffic data and public information to mobile devices. The information can then be incorporated into applications which help people to navigate the cities during busy periods,” states the report.

One example is a solution developed by the University of California, called Biketastic, which helps cyclists find safe and efficient routes in their area. Good routes are often discovered by trial and error, as well as exchanging information with members of a biking community. Biketastic aims to improve this route-sharing through visual and collaboration tools. Using a mobile phone app and online map visualisation, cyclists are able to document and share routes, ride statistics, send information indicating roughness and noisiness, and media capturing the ride experience.

In solutions like these, notes Ericsson's Wanendeya, mobile solutions can often tackle more than one priority for urbanites.

“When asked 'If you could have more of one thing in your life, which would you choose to have: more time or more money?', most people in the world would choose more money over more time. Citizens of mega cities, however, chose time to a greater extent than others. Mobile connection enables city dwellers to have more time by enabling them to quickly find out what is happening and therefore optimise their time.”

Collective ownership

Time has also become an important element of social interaction, says Bhat, noting that social networks are connecting people from various fields and allowing them to find like-minded individuals far more quickly. “It's made it much faster and easier to get to the heart of what you desire.”

For city dwellers, time is often a more coveted asset than money, reveals Ericsson's Mwambu Wanendeya.

The Ericsson survey makes it clear that people living in big city centres spend much more time socialising than those living elsewhere. The average city dweller spends two hours and 30 minutes socialising on a given weekday, 45 minutes of which are spent online. They also have many more online friends than their suburban counterparts and access social networks three to five times a day on average.

While most people still use these networks to connect with family and friends, it emerged that the third most common activity is meeting and exchanging ideas with others. This turns cities into hubs for socially networked creativity, says Ericsson. “As people become increasingly connected to each other and to machines, they're using those connections to work together simultaneously,” explains Wanendeya.

Social computing is making waves in work environments as well, adds Bhat, as it allows customers, partners and employees to connect in an informal way. This process of “culture eating strategy”, as Bhat describes it, is speeding the ability to do business, as previous social barriers fall away.

Lungile Mginqi, Accenture's executive director of resources, says technology has become an important component of what's considered trendy and cutting-edge by urbanites. “Cities with sophisticated physical, electronic and social architectures are thus encouraging innovation and initiating new trends,” he explains.

Collaborative consumption, for example, builds on trends of collaboration and doing more with less to create initiatives where city residents share everything from lifts to work, to tools and cooking equipment, as seen on neighbourhood borrowing site Share some sugar.

Basic right

City dwellers expect to have a good mobile connection and the ability to go online wherever they are.

Digital technologies can also enable citizens to act collectively on shared issues and create a feeling of 'ownership' of their environments. In Mumbai's largest slum Dharavi, for example, a site called Urb.im was set up to map communities in informal settlements, as some governments don't even recognise their existence. Urb.im aims to build links between informal communities in various parts of the world which share similar circumstances, allowing them to share experiences and lessons with one another.

In another initiative, the Swedish city of Malmö is running a pilot organised around three collaborating living labs, called 'The Stage', 'The Neighbourhood' and 'The Factory'. The Stage is situated in the musical and theatrical hub of the city and focuses on cultural production and cross-media. The Neighbourhood is located in multi-ethnic suburbs and looks at urban planning, and digital tools for user participation and collaboration. The Factory resides in the city's new media cluster and serves as a testing lab where ideas originating from the Stage and Neighbourhood sites can be prototyped.

These demonstrate just some ways technology is being used to facilitate inclusion for all members of city society – a vital element as social interaction and belonging has a major impact on people's sense of wellbeing. Often, a lack of space leaves little room for spontaneous encounters in public settings, leading to isolation. To help combat this, Netherlands-based site Transitiekaart.nl provides a map of premises that have been abandoned due to urban transformations, so they can potentially be used for cultural and other social purposes. It also provides information about owners and involved parties to ease the planning and implementation of new projects.

In these and other instances, notes Mgingi, technology is giving citizens the control to govern their own lives, as well as make a positive impact in their community and environment.

Social services

Another major component in the quality of urban living is, of course, the availability and efficiency of municipal services. “As more people flock into cities there is increased demand for services and resources such as water, electricity, and space, and this demand is increasing faster than scarce resources can be increased,” notes Wanendeya. “This means the cities require a new technical infrastructure to connect the populations and cope with urbanisation as well as climate change.”

Mobile applications can play a powerful role in the functioning of municipal services, says Bhat, such as connecting a smart meter and smartphone so home owners can monitor water and energy consumption on-demand. “Or when a pipe bursts, for example, the municipality can send job cards to technicians based in nearby areas for a faster, better experience.”

Mgingi emphasises that social networks have made sharing of information easier, which will keep service providers on their toes. “Customers now have the ultimate power as they can speak to a CEO or city manager via Twitter, and broadcast their grievances to a wide audience as their expectations for good service grow.

Technology has become an important component of what's considered trendy and cutting-edge in cities, says Accenture's Lungile Mginqi.

“Social media has become a great tool to assess the extent of the crisis as well as for quick confirmation once the problem has been resolved.”

There are challenges on this front, however, and Bhat notes the availability of these kinds of apps varies widely from city to city, while many solutions aren't accessible on all mobile operating systems. Another hurdle is that these apps need to be offered at a low cost or for free, with the costs borne by government.

Bhat believes utility consumption and citizen services will ultimately become more automated, and urbanites will want these at their fingertips rather than having to physically go somewhere. “The major thing technology can achieve in cities is enhancing the experiences of citizens in various contexts.”

He believes this comes down to two elements – citizens' satisfaction and citizens' expectations. “People don't want to stand in queues these days, they want ease of access. They want the ability to see dashboards versus pages and pages of information.”

In this way, decision-making is being passed from governments to citizens, and city dwellers have more say than ever in how they want their urban environment to be run. The big challenge for cities now, says Bhat, is how to create experiences that will attract citizens to their specific city, and keep them happy – on all levels, once they're there.

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