Can technology change the consciousness of a city? Here’s an answer developed through a series of experiments run in eight cities

Abhay Adhikari
7 min readSep 30, 2016

(This is a transcript of a talk I gave at Agenda Festival in Aarhus, Denmark in September, 2016)

Every city I have lived or worked in has a certain reputation. As a child, I was blissfully unaware that Calcutta was a Black Hole. Years later, I wore the badge of loud northerner from Delhi with pride. These days I travel between progressive Stockholm, aggressive London and hipster Berlin.

Every city comes with more than one label, which suggests there is room for everyone.

Every city comes with more than one label. I recognize and accept some of them, and I distance myself from others. But I think this is what makes cities great: they mean different things to people. They are a bit messy and chaotic and there is room for everyone. But can the same be said for their latest incarnation: the Smart City? So much of the smart city rhetoric is focused on technology, with policy constantly playing catch-up. There are examples emerging from the east and the west that illustrate how smart solutions can create barriers, especially for the most vulnerable members of a community.

The race is on, to develop algorithms that will create new efficiencies in every aspect of our day-to-day lives: healthcare, workplace and transport to name a few. What is the digital identity of this smart city? Will it still have room for everyone? How will the emerging technology, which is ubiquitous and often intrusive, change the collective consciousness of the city? Here’s a brief record of my effort to answer these questions, based on the results of three experiments that span a decade.

The first experiment: find a problem, develop a solution with and without technology and then test it in a real-life setting

The first experiment has slightly esoteric origins inspired by my high-school, which is run by an ashram trust, in Delhi. Our Friday mornings began with a half-hour meditation session. Years later, I was curious to see how such a practice could work in the secular environment of a British primary school. Whilst pursuing my PhD, I developed and tested biofeedback games based on the principles of Pranayama, Alexander Technique and respiratory physiotherapy. These games enabled the user to become aware of their breathing by allowing them to control immersive audio-visual environments by changing their inhale and exhale duration. It was algorithmic magic.

Running mindfulness sessions in the UK, an effort to design a no-tech solution inspired by my research and high-school

You can get a lot of people to perform a fairly complex task if you give them clear instructions and accessible technology. Things got interesting when I set out to achieve a similar goal without technology. This meant running mindfulness sessions in classrooms. The set of standard instructions I had developed were interpreted differently in each cultural setting. In Japan, where the norm is to respect those senior to you, the children did their best to follow them. In India, students participated in the sessions out of a sense of obedience. Whereas in the UK, the workshops were a transaction: what could I offer to the students so that they would follow my instructions?

Chaos before the mindfulness workshop with primary school children in Uji, Japan

This was quite a revelation: in the presence of diversity, you cannot offer everyone the same solution. It has to be context-driven. So how do we create a technology-led process for an inclusive smart city in order to solve complex ideas, especially in cities where dozens of languages are spoken and communities represent eclectic life experiences?

The second experiment: what happens when you want to achieve a complex goal and you begin with the smallest unit of change?

Many local and national governments are setting up techno-laden smart cities to try and achieve complex goals: community cohesion, climate change strategies, efficient waste management and so on. The objective of this next experiment was to understand what happens when one person, the smallest unit of change, sets out to achieve a complex goal using only social media.

Complex ideas coupled with the smallest unit of change — one person. What impact can they have using social media?

This time, I had three collaborators: a museum curator from Stockholm, an editor from a regional broadcaster in Eindhoven, and a writer from Portsmouth. Their goals were addressing climate change, food-banks and domestic violence. Each individual followed their own timeline.

Within a year, the curator and her colleagues used Instagram to develop an urban gardening project that was opened to 60,000 enthusiasts. It took the editor three months to develop a Facebook strategy that enabled the broadcaster to collect 50,000 items more than the previous year. The writer ran a five-day Twitter campaign, as a result of which the local authority reversed its decision to cut the budget of the domestic violence service by £180,000.

When technology is used to mediate relationships you achieve impact

Each idea developed a formidable digital identity on social media that led to impact. Despite the different themes and platforms, each instigator followed a similar path to success. They began by seeking a technological answer to achieve their goals. During this period they focussed on the transaction between themselves and everyone else (the vast unknown). When their focus shifted to finding people who could help them achieve the goal, the process became less intimidating. Technology helped them discover new and in some cases unexpected relationships.

Are you the Bambi in the boardroom?

Still from Come to Daddy by Aphex Twin / directed by Chris Cunningham

Armed with this insight: technology has to safeguard diversity and mediate relationships to help cities develop an inclusive digital identity, I set out to convince decision makers in private and public sector organisations that we must re-think our approach to smart cities.

The problem with this narrative is that it sounds too idealistic. I was often perceived as the gullible Bambi in the boardroom. ‘But what is the business case for working this way?’ This question would inevitably come up and I didn’t have the answer, which led to the third experiment.

The third experiment: How can technology create multiple values?

It was with this intention and support from the progressive local authority in the city of Leeds (UK) that we setup an urban innovation lab in 2015. The lab uses a 6-month pathway that has all the elements I’ve described so far: a complex goal, a mix of stakeholders and cutting-edge technology.

In this pathway, residents, employees from the local authority, voluntary sector organisations and a team of technologists develop and test solutions in real-life settings. Through these pilot projects we discover the potential value of an idea and then decide to scale or ditch it. In the last two years we have covered themes such as climate change, energy consumption, school admissions and domestic violence.

Earlier this year we worked on a project, the results of which illustrate just what can be achieved when you balance all the elements. The Public Health team from the local authority got in touch with us. They wanted a solution that would help them engage with residents who live in the most deprived areas of the city. This roughly equates to 14,600 people. They would need at least one hundred and forty staff to achieve this goal. Could a technological solution help?

CareView allows frontline staff from different organisations report a location where one or more houses feature a characteristic of social isolation: untidy garden, mailing piling up, etc.

Following the 6-month pathway we developed a solution that allows users to report a location (a street) where one or more houses feature a characteristic of social isolation: untidy garden, mail piling up, etc. Just like the instigators from the previous experiment, the Public Health team are using this social tool to build relationships. In the pilot, they managed to recruit seventy front-line staff from several organisations to sign up and use the solution. This group is gradually crowdsourcing a map of social isolation across the city.

This solution isn’t necessarily groundbreaking. Crowdsourcing has been around for a quite a while. But the success lies in the multiple values it creates. The solution is easy to use. It is being used by frontline staff from different organisations, each representing one unit of change, to drive social impact at a city scale. The Public Health team are using this intelligence to focus their efforts in areas highlighted by the heat map. The beneficiaries are older residents across the city, some of whom are accessing support services for the first time. The enhanced ability of the Public Health team to deliver targeted services also creates the business case: potential savings of nearly a quarter of a million pounds.

At this point I believe I have an answer to the question I posed at the beginning of this post: the digital identity of an inclusive smart city is where people come first, technology plays a crucial role to help us share the responsibility to achieve complex goals. In the process it creates multiple values. Can this idea become a robust blueprint for an inclusive smart city? That remains to be seen. On to the next experiment!

Abhay Adhikari / contact[@] digitalidentities [.] info

The Urban Sustainable Development Lab (USDL)
Abhay Adhikari

I am interested in the context & values of our Digital Identities.