Cities are one of humanities greatest collective designs. Originally they came together as a random hodgepodge of buildings but in the middle of the 18th century the birth of modern democracy brought about the debate on the role of governments and civic responsibility. One of the most notable city reorganizations took place in Paris, the capital of the newly formed democracy after the French Revolution, when Napoleon gave ‘carte blanch’ to city designer Georges-Eugene Haussmann. His aggressive demolition and construction projects were designed to combat overcrowding and disease and gave Paris the layout and architectural uniformity that it is now famous for.
Obviously, without a royal decree from an all-powerful emperor like Napoleon, most modern city managers have fewer levers that they can pull in order to change their cities for the better. One of the go-to change agents has been technology. Cities all over the world are gathering data and using it to make cleaner, more environmentally friendly and more efficient cities. But gathering this data and putting in front of a small group of city officials might just be the first step in the smartening of cities.
If cities are collective designs then we should look to design principles in other realms to determine possible improvements. Much of the design world is now keenly interested in user experience (or UX to the cool kids) a discipline that looks at the human factor of all design decisions. UX experts are turning to behavioral economics to find ways to increase the user experience in ways that the user might not even be conscious of.
Behavior economics applies psychological insights into human behavior to understand decision making. It uses traits inherent in human nature like competition and greed to subtly persuade people into doing or not doing something. It uses things called ‘nudges’ which can elicit a response. An example would be a mirror installed in a grocery store that reportedly increases healthier purchases by shoppers. There is also the concept of ‘gamification’ that creates competition between participants through a reward system, even if the reward is just bragging rights.
Now, it seems that these concepts are being adopted on the city-wide level by both policymakers and tech companies. Google has rolled out their Environmental Insights Explorer that overlays emissions and efficiency analyses on top of their map for five cities around the world. The goal is not only to put this information into the hands of city planners but also to spark competition between cities to spur them to improve their sustainability practices. Uber has also added some behavior economics to their platform. They are now showing traffic estimates for proposed rides in hopes that it might incentivize other modes of transportation. They have also been sharing data with city government since early last year to help inform traffic-related decisions.
Creating a smart city data initiative isn’t just about providing more evidence to city officials. In order for cities to be their smartest the information also must make its way to the general population. That way citizens can better understand what data is being collected and why and other cities can use the information for comparison. One of the most open cities to date has been Los Angeles. They created their DataLA initiative which gives information as granular as when trash bins have been emptied. They are poised to become even more open. AT&T just announced plans to deploy their IoT solutions throughout the city. They, along with Cisco, plan on using a sensor network to provide information on things like available parking spaces, traffic patterns and emergency readiness.
Adding sensor hardware and advanced analytical software is a must for creating a smart city. But for a city to be designed for the best user experience, they may need to give their citizens a friendly nudge now and again.