Smart City: is technology in step with the culture?

Do we really need an App to enjoy the Seychelles Islands? Credit: Seychelles Tourist Office

Citizens will be more and more a crucial infrastructure in the Smart Cities landscape. Credit: Ericsson

There is no doubt that we have amazing technologies available today that are or might increase the liveability of our cities. And yet, sometimes one has to wonder if they are really a good fit on our way of life.

There are several analyses showing that the well being / happiness of a community, like the one of a city, does not relate to the availability of technology and clearly this begs the question if we are deploying the right technology, since the final goal should be to improve the well being of people.

I am reminded of a vacation I took in the islands of Seychelles, in the middle of the Indian ocean.
 Once I landed at the tiny airport of Mahe and lining up for passport control among fragrant flowers I saw several ads on the beauties of the islands awaiting for me. There was also an ad of the Seychelles tourist office inviting to download an app on my phone to have all information in the palm of my hand (QR code provided). Wow! An isolated spot like that had an app for my phone. ICT (Information and Communications Technologies) have reached this heavenly place.

Next morning our party went to the bus stop after having checked the timetable on the phone. We were not alone waiting for the bus. Other tourists were there basking in the sun under palm trees with the waves slapping the white sand just few meters away.

The time was right, according to the info provided on our smart phones, but the bus was not there. No problem, a bit of delay, not a big deal. Time passed, and the bus was still nowhere to be seen. 

We were not the only ones waiting. A few local people were there as well. And you could see that as time went by the tourists became restless, the locals remained completely at ease. We kept checking our phones they kept talking one another.

After a while, that is half a hour waiting and no bus on the horizon, I turned to one of the local in my French and asked what was going on and if I had the right bus schedule on the phone to go the the beach on the other side of the island. 

The answer was somewhat enlightening: “Yes, you got the right schedule but the bus does not run according to a schedule. May be the bus driver found a friend and stopped to chat with him, or he might have felt hungry and went to have lunch.” And then he added: “You are already on a beach, enjoying the nice weather and surrounding. There’s no need to be in a hurry. The bus will come eventually. What is the problem?”

The problem, as an Australian aboriginal once told, is that we, Westerners, have the watch, they have the time.

This little personal experience made me reflect that a technology is not good per sé, it is good only to the extent that it mingles seamlessly with the way of living of the people that are supposed to use it. 

There is of course also another twist: the use of technology is bound to change the way people interact and step by step lead to a change in expectation and culture. 

Most of the times, these changes are not uniformly distributed among a population, that is the adoption rate varies, and frictions are likely to arise because of these differences. Frictions may turn out to be positive factors (oh, how I wish I can use it!) or a negative one (I am bothered by being forced to use it, it bothers me that others are using it).

Seldom these aspects are taken into account by planners and even less by engineers. This may explain why the diagrams representing the penetration of technologies in a city do not necessarily match with diagrams representing the perception of happiness in living there by its citizens.

Of course this is not good. The ultimate goal of technology, as I stated in the beginning, should be to increase the well being and happiness of the citizens. It might be a direct consequence of the adoption of a technology (like something decreasing the experiencing of traffic jams) or an indirect consequence (decreasing the cost of road maintenance is leading to better road maintenance).

This is becoming even more important as the trends in smart cities is towards a greater involvement of citizens that become one of the key city infrastructures. As an example, citizens can become sensors to report anomalies thus feeding the overall city monitoring. 

In this sense it is interesting the report prepared by Ericsson, “Networked Society Index 2014” where one of the points made is about the use of technology to create a networked Society, where the  the citizens (and aware sensors) are the network nodes.

In this report it is stated that collaboration will change the way organisations (like a city) work and to a certain extent this also changes the organisations as such. ICT provides new means to support communication, share information and in the process it leads to behavioural changes. In that report, however, it is not clarified how such a behavioural change might clash with the prevailing culture and the fall out from differences induced by uneven adoption of technology use.

Personally I have no doubt that technology can improve our well being and the overall city behavioural landscape but city planners have to solve the big challenge of managing the transition and making sure local culture is taken into account.

I am looking forward to my next trip to Seychelles and hope to see they have removed all QR pointers to apps with just one line saying: “relax, no wrist watch in Paradise!”

Author - Roberto Saracco

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