How Urban Tech Is Bridging The Digital Divide

Our smart cities won’t be bright unless they are also equitable cities.

These are divisive times for our cities. Whether it is race, religion, language, class, or politics, relations within societies seem to have reached a fracture point. Unfortunately, too often when a solution is introduced to solve a city problem, progress leaves certain people behind.

No longer are urban solutions only about buildings and urban interventions, but increasingly they involve seamless technology.

Panel on People Powered Cities Photo © New Cities Foundation

Panel on People Powered Cities Photo © New Cities Foundation

Recently in Montreal, I attended the 2016 New Cities Summit, a 3-day event where some of the world’s top urban thinkers from both the private and public sector, academics, as well as architects, like Daniel Libeskind, came together to discuss urban innovations. The theme of the summit was ‘The Age of Urban Tech’, which focused on how entrepreneurs, innovators and politicians receptive to technology, are solving serious problems that are challenging our cities.

New Cities Foundation Chairman John Rossant interviewing Architect and Design Critic, Daniel Libeskind. Photo © New Cities Foundation

New Cities Foundation Chairman John Rossant interviewing Architect and Design Critic, Daniel Libeskind. Photo © New Cities Foundation

Throughout the event, there was an acknowledge that though urban tech helps some communities, it doesn’t help them all. It was a refreshing admission, in contrast to the ‘technology will save the world’ ethos of Silicon Valley.

“The best thing that has happened to smart cities is that people are focusing on technology,” says Anil Menon, Cisco’s President of Smart+Connected Communities. “The worst thing that has happened is that people are focusing on technology.” In the euphoria surrounding urban tech, we often ignore what makes each city distinct, imposing solutions not suitable to the context for the sake of scalability. Not all challenges that our cities are dealing with are similar, so why provide the same solutions?

“One thing we have to be careful of is the digital divide that we are creating in many cities, says Alexandre Taillefer, Managing Partner at XPND Capital and Founder of Téo Taxi. In many of our cities, two sets of citizens reside: those who benefit from, and those who are being disrupted by technology. One solution could make a tech company prosperous and get a lot of press, but if it destroys the livelihoods of many of a city’s poorest, it cannot be seen as a success.  “Tech’s fun, but we need to take into account a lot more than technology, efficiency, and productivity,” explains Taillefer. “There is more to it. There is the life of citizens.”

Beyond the panels, round tables and workshops, were inspiring presentations from the New Cities Foundation’s Global Urban Innovators. Ten of the world’s most innovative urban startups, each got a chance to stand in front of the distinguished audience and showcase how their companies are transforming their cities through technology.

Jugnoo Co-founder Chinmay Agarwal_Photo from New Cities Foundation

Jugnoo Co-founder Chinmay Agarwal. Photo: © New Cities Foundation

Jugnoo, an auto-rickshaw app based in Chandigarh, increases the efficiency and earnings of drivers. Similar to Uber, Jugnoo makes it easier and affordable for Indians to take autorickshaws. Co-founder Chinmay Agarwal described India’s commuting problems as overcrowded buses, subway development taking too long or only in certain cities, and a disorganised system of autorickshaws. There are an estimated 5 million autorickshaws in India, servicing 30 million riders every day, in an inefficient manner. After launching in November of 2014, Jugnoo now operates in 30 cities, with approximately 8000 autorickshaw drivers on the platform, connecting them with over 3 million riders.

Co-founder Chinmay Agarwal (centre right) with 3 auto-rickshaw drivers using Jugnoo. Photo © newznew.com

Co-founder Chinmay Agarwal (centre right) with 3 auto-rickshaw drivers using Jugnoo. Photo © newznew.com

Auto Rickshaws in Delhi_Photo © scooterpartsindia

Auto Rickshaws in Delhi_Photo © scooterpartsindia

FoodCloud, a social enterprise launched in Dublin in 2012, helps food businesses redistribute their surplus inventory to those who need it most. From supermarkets and restaurants, to our own homes, about 1.3 billion tonnes of food is wasted globally, which is about 30% of the planet’s food. Niamh Kirwan, Marketing and Communications Manager at FoodCloud, spoke about how their app connects stores with community groups and charities that can’t afford to purchase new food. Not only does it reduce food waste, it also reduces greenhouse gases by decreasing the amount of trips to landfills. FoodCloud is now in 27 counties in Ireland, and has recently expanded to 300 stores in the UK, providing over 2.9 million meals in both countries.

FoodCloud_Photo © worldof.cloud

FoodCloud. Photo © worldof.cloud

Spacehive, the world’s first civic crowdfunding platform, allows anyone to create and fund civic projects. Launched in London in 2012, Spacehive helps democratise city building by operating between the private and public zones, giving average citizens a way to make a physical difference in their built environment. Founder & CEO Chris Gourlay, explained how it can be challenging to navigate a system of grants, applications and permits, and get the right stakeholders on board. Typically, only those who have the wealth and connections can navigate the process seamlessly. With Spacehive, mayors, councils and companies see the platform as a way to invest in projects like small parks, playgrounds, events, markets and museums that they know the community wants because they can see what the public likes. As a result, projects on the platform that reach 10% in crowdfunding, have an 80% chance of being built. The average citizen can invest £2 or a mayor can invest £20,000. To date, Spacehive has funded 161 projects across the UK worth over £4.8 million.

peckham Lido currently seeking crowdfunding using Spacehive Photo © Spacehive

Peckham Lido, currently seeking crowdfunding using Spacehive. Photo © Spacehive

OurCityLove, the world’s first Friendly Restaurant app, connects citizens with disabilities to accessible stores, restaurants, hotels and subway stations. Based in Taipei, the app operates in 11 cities, creating jobs for 400 disabled citizens by working with stores and restaurants to make over 4000 locations accessible.  Founder Chong-Wey Lin explained how accessibility is not just for the disabled, but parents with strollers and the elderly. 

Many of the summit’s attendees were impressed with the innovations presented, and the topics discussed by the panels and workshops. Tiago Correia, Zaha Hadid Architects’ US Director, was very encouraged by the global urban innovators and the overall summit. “(FoodCloud) is an interesting and powerful idea. I loved that,” said Correia. “The panel about transportation was fantastic. About how big data will change the physical reality of the city and how we can use this data to get at the forefront for what these spaces will look like.”

Cisco, one of the summit’s global strategic partners, sees the event as a way to connect their technological expertise to the urban thought leaders, innovators and public officials who are changing the way cities work. Arvind Satyam, the company’s Managing Director of Global Business Development of Smart+Connected Communities, believes that some urban tech innovations in use in the world today, may be too caught up in design aesthetics than actually being useful.  “For this age of urban tech to be more widely accepted, we need to make sure that the solutions are things that people really want, not just things that only their creators like.”

Berlin TXL, Photo © berlintxl.de

Berlin TXL, Photo © berlintxl.de

Philipp Bouteiller, CEO of Tegel Projekt GmbH, a company tasked with turning Berlin’s old airport into a hub for urban technologies, agrees that usability should be the number one concern for innovators. “Normal citizens don’t care about smart cities. They don’t care what makes a city work, they do care if a city works or not,” he says. “The less technology you see the better. It has to be invisible.”

In the past, I’ve been to many events where architects or engineers talk about the future of cities, but the discussion often feels academic. What sets the New Cities Summit above many other events, is that different individuals, from disparate professions, both private and public, come together to share ideas, innovations and strategies that have actually been implemented in cities. More than simply learning about theoretical solutions, professionals heard about successes, failures and learned ways they can improve their respective cities, for all citizens, through urban tech.

The 2017 New Cities Summit will take place in Songdo, South Korea.

Words: Phil Roberts


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