Connecting cities: an interview with Sascha Haselmayer

Thursday, October 21, 2010 14:41

Interview by Marcia Caines

version pdf

Connected Cities: Your 256 Billion Euro Dividend’ is a comprehensive handbook by Aida Esteban Millat, Sascha Haslemayer and Jakob H Rasmussen that illustrates through a selection of handpicked case studies how innovation in services and mobility can contribute to improving the economical, environmental and social values of our cities and questions ‘why‘ their uptake is still relatively slow respect the opportunities they present. Sascha Haselmayer co-author of the book and general director of Living Labs Global, spoke to Cluster about how harnessing the power and potential of the new digital platforms may impact cities in the future.

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Graphics from Connected Cities: Your 256 Billion Dividend

MC: ‘Connected Cities’ suggests that cities need to reinvent ways of delivering services in the future to enable clean and economical growth, the examples presented in your book confirm that the tools required to engage in this process already exist, such as Broad brand technologies, ICTs and smart technologies. Could you briefly outline the main factors currently impeding cities to make this transition?
SH: Firstly, cities are held back by institutional inertia, i.e. their difficulty to adapt their organisational structure to new ways of service delivery. Cities are not managed like companies, but are political and departmental organisations with a mission to serve the common good. Technology increasingly allows cities to integrate information in real-time, exponentially growing their ability to deliver new types of services. Yet, they find it hard to respond. Take the example of E-Adept, a solution that allows blind people in Stockholm to wander the city freely. It is made-up entirely of available technologies, generates a big return on investment for the city and changes the lives of those affected. The revolutionary element is the collaboration across departments and participation of visually impaired citizens to make it happen. Most cities today would not have a person to even spot the opportunity, never mind having the ability to implement such a cross-departmental solution that shakes up existing structures.

Secondly, engineers that are concerned about data architectures and IT systems often manage technologies in cities. Those that deal with citizens and real problems on a day-to-day basis do not play a significant role in connecting new technologies, and ways of delivering services. The result is that many cities have municipal WiFi networks but few have innovative services.

Data protection policy has become such a complex and fast-moving field that almost no government in the world, local or central, can keep up and deliver good policies. Cities should learn to be pioneers in exploring the possibilities simply by asking sensible questions

Thirdly, and maybe most importantly, cities may not recognise the real challenges but rather treat the symptoms, thereby creating few real breakthroughs. Take the example of the cost of using data services to foreign visitors in roaming. We have seen more than 200 projects to invent digital tourism services, which offer many advantages to cities in managing crowds and maximising returns, and to the tourist in being well informed. Only two of them (a little project in Stockholm and Les Suites hotel in Taiwan) tried to find a new business model to eliminate the horrendous costs of roaming.

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Graphics from Connected Cities: Your 256 Billion Dividend

MC: How can successful service innovation and mobility projects be replicated across cities that have different needs, cultural knowledge and infrastructures? How can cities preserve their identities in a digital era?
Whenever I visit a city, I am told that inefficiencies exist “… because you have to understand things work differently here”. If that were the case, how many differences can there be between the 557,000 communities in the world? Often, what is described as ‘unique conditions’ are in fact structures of vested interests that stifle innovation or the best solutions from reaching the citizens. The challenge is that chambers of commerce, technology clusters, and existing service providers have much stronger lobbies than the citizen who would ask for costs to be cut or services to be improved. Local media can play a big role, but is usually not investigative enough to reveal what is possible. With nobody asking, why change it?

Hence, our view is that the identity of cities will be less affected by technologies and much more by the development of generic shopping malls or letting tourists take over whole city centres. Ideally the opposite should hold true, that using technology effectively can save money, create value and thereby allow identities to flourish through additional resources. If tourists could explore the city, with customised real-time guidance through their mobile phone, they might discover smaller but more specialised offerings rather than the conventional sightseeing and commercial hotspots. Cities like Venice or Barcelona might be able to disperse the crowds and distribute tourist spending more evenly rather than see their historic city centres overrun by crowds.

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image via Itespresso.it

MC: How can citizen privacy be respected/protected in a data driven world? What developments are being made in this sense?
SH: This is a big question mark. Many cities, like Helsinki, now follow the lead of Washington by implementing open data policies with the goal of letting anyone build Apps in the city. This will drive innovation in services, but may also raise concerns. Few citizens complained against Google Street View being rolled out across Europe, but in Hamburg, a city where citizens are concerned they found out that Google also mapped the Wifi networks and started a wave that forced Google to remove photographs of hundreds of thousands of houses from their service.

Data protection policy has become such a complex and fast-moving field that almost no government in the world, local or central, can keep up and deliver good policies. Cities should learn to be pioneers in exploring the possibilities like Salzburg did in regulating electro-magnetic radiation (which resulted in 82% less radiation and energy-use) simply by asking sensible questions.

Identity protection is not just a local phenomenon but driven by unregulated, global platforms like Facebook as well as the local resistance that may emerge. We lack standards to protect citizen’s data from service contractors that might operate roads, public transport or parking services, which are probably not as high up on the agenda as securing the investment these companies may bring.

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Graphics from Connected Cities: Your 256 Billion Dividend

MC: In theory the digital tools required to bring people and information closer – in and across cities – while moving them less are already available and point to a paradigm shift from urban transport to sustainable urban mobility, projects presented in your book exemplify this. In practice though new technologies aren’t deterring people to move less, in reality people and things move around more and faster than ever, indicating that reducing the distance between people and information through digital interaction and connections in reality increases the possibilities of mobility and enhances the desire to move around. Do you agree?
SH: That may well be the case, although there are big variations. In Europe we have tried to use technology as a way to overcome the reluctance of the workforce to relocate, which has traditionally been a great advantage of America leading to a better use of the workforce where it was needed. It is not just a matter of technology, but also a matter of trust and respect. Companies like HP or IBM in Germany let their employees work from home as much as 4-5 days a week. In Spain those same companies insist that all employees are present – partly because they are not concerned about the employee saving 2 hours or more a day commuting, and partly because the trust isn’t there to let them work unsupervised.

Further, have we really got all it takes to make full use of the technology in place? When I take a bus in Sweden, it still looks like a bus even though it should be my office also, given that I have high-speed internet access, and can make phone calls anywhere. I cannot book a compartment to work or hold meeting (very nicely offered by the Swiss Railway, though), nor can I reserve my public bicycle at my destination to get to work on time.

What makes some of the solutions we present in our book stand out is that they try to embed the technologies in complete solutions, such as the Park & Ride station in Sickla that deals with your shopping and haircut while you change from car to metro. Or the ‘meaningful transport’ promoted by RATP in Paris, to actually stop reducing travelling time and instead make it useful by offering the spaces and services that people need to do useful things and perceive transport as a destination in its own right.

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Graphics from Connected Cities: Your 256 Billion Dividend

MC. The Internet has given rise to very complex phenomena within networked communities: alongside the global community linked by specific and sectoral interests exist virtual networks of relationships, which are based on proximity. A large percentage of the sent e-mails are destined to recipients just a few tens of metres away. When we talk about ‘local communities’ what scale are we referring to, what is the ideal size of a local networked community?
I really would not know. We work with one of the most dynamic communities in the field of food, the village of Grythyttan in Sweden with only 916 inhabitants but an excellent environment for the 500 students at the School of Hospitality, Culinary Arts & Meal Science experimenting with new technologies, accessing the largest library of recipes in the world by walking down the street, and receiving visits from around the world for their annual conference. Yet, there are villages of the same size in California or Taiwan that have none of the infrastructures, companies and learning resources to work as a networked community or attract talent in the same way.

Clearly, there is a degree of specialisation that comes with globalisation and in some fields this requires advanced infrastructures (like cooking in Grythyttan) that have to be shared by sufficient users. In other fields infrastructures may not matter and be entirely virtual and the global community may not require any physical interaction because their professions are highly encoded.

What holds this degree of creativity back in Europe is the existence of regulations, contractual arrangements (like parking), a very active public sector, and telecoms operators with long-term agendas on issues such as the cost of mobile payments that stifle short-term innovations

MC: On a recent visit to London I was astonished by the mass diffusion of smart phones amongst citizens. Travelling by Tube is the best way to comprehend the scale of distribution I’m referring to. In a carriage where everyone, but me, was glued to a mobile device it occurred to me while these devices facilitate diverse aspects of urban life and improve efficiency in terms of mobility, they also minimise human interaction to a fair extent as little things like asking a stranger in the street and for directions are replaced with leaner technological solutions. Do you not think the increased reliance on new technologies and hand devices risks to have a dehumanizing affect on cities?
In certain areas it will certainly reduce the degree of interaction, for example by eliminating the need for asking directions. But in many ways, especially through climate change and cities now putting the fight against obesity and other lifestyle diseases on their agenda we are looking at transport and other services that will actually make the citizen do more in public space (e.g. share a bike, a car or use the 207 new outdoor gyms for the elderly to be built in Barcelona) rather than less. Technology merely acts as an enabler to share these bikes or synchronise services in those cases.

I find the scenario of cities becoming shells in which people glued to the screens of their Blackberries as they commute from A to B less likely. We must not forget the difference between consumer applications to pass times and solutions that will change our everyday lives. Whole new groups of citizens like the 15,000 visually impaired citizens of Stockholm (or the 630,000 in Tokyo!) will start to become active stakeholders in public space, enabled by mobile devices in their pocket to use the city freely, drawing on a historic convergence of data infrastructures, devices and satellite positioning. They no longer need to ask relatives to take them out, no longer need to be friendly to a social-worker on a special transport service, but instead gain independence. As a result, we will find ourselves communicating at work or over lunch with groups of people previously completely excluded from our day-to-day lives.

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image via Treehugger

MC: What impact do you think the new generation of technologies – like those described in your book – will have on the physical form of the city?
SH: Clearly the trend towards inter-modal transport will grow, integrating public bicycles and shared cars into the transport system as we know it. In the future we may exert ourselves more physically but in more predictable ways, meaning that we can jump into a shared car when it rains or pick up a shared bike when it doesn’t. This in turn will create an increase in the modal infrastructure that may follow more integrated design strategies in which the bus-stop serves as a number of other things.

In line with this, we also see logistics changing and already now programmes in cities are under-way to create social logistics systems for small packages that people take along for journeys through the city in return for money, reward points, or goods. So overall, previously purely provider-based activities may become more participatory which in return means that new types of transaction points, maybe on every street corner will emerge.

Lighting will possibly be the most visible rapid change purely because of the economics that motivate change to LED lighting. Eindhoven is implementing a district lighting system under its City of Light programme that will darken the city and allow lighting to be used more sparingly, adapting itself to the use of space but also becoming more interactive, and more open to new designs.

MC: Do you think that innovation in services and mobility can eventually improve the life of people living in rural areas enough to lessen the surge of migration from villages or small townships to overpopulated urban centres?
SH: Yes, absolutely. We have worked with 26 rural or semi-rural communities to identify strategies for retaining talent and attracting new types of entrepreneurial activities. We started by listing all the services a relatively ambitious family would need, how they measure the quality of these services, and how we could provide them without them having to use the car, which we assumed was the aspiration of people moving to a beautiful village.

We found that the territorial service models were often designed around the car, in contradiction to the lifestyle aspirations of 60% of the citizens. The challenge is that several things have to be changed in parallel to solve packages of problems rather than installing isolated infrastructures. As a result, we devised a strategy that combines the decentralisation of some services such as education and healthcare to make them more easily accessible in part by involving village pharmacies, shops and other stakeholders to extend services. In addition we identified dozens of mobile services that could help bring down the need to travel to the doctor, allow people to share cars or take-along goods for others.

It is a promising start, but with every innovative service we need to re-think how it is delivered, whether it is public or private, and how it can be sustained.
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image via Rutgers School of Communication and information

MC: In Africa the growing and widespread use of mobile technology as a crucial link to important services like healthcare, financial management and citizen safety is particularly significant when looking at how technology and society interact on a granular level. At large these innovations were generated by people who adapted the technology to their needs as opposed to being developed by organizations for a specific marketplace. In this sense the successful grassroots developments in Africa defy the complex and arduous task of defining successful models as illustrated in your book, and suggest that existing technologies can empower people to create their own uses and purposes for tools regardless of business models. What are your thoughts on this?
SH: I agree entirely, although we shouldn’t romanticize the reason for this burst of creativity in Africa. What holds this degree of creativity back in Europe is the existence of regulations, contractual arrangements (like parking), a very active public sector, and telecoms operators with long-term agendas on issues such as the cost of mobile payments that stifle short-term innovations. It is depressing, but our sophistication holds us back from getting the services that will be common-place in Africa soon.

As an example, if I wanted to launch a service to pay for your parking by mobile phone, in Africa I would just go ahead. In Europe I would find 27 different interpretations on the regulation of billing for non-digital services on your phone bill, plus the commonly 10% fee charged by operators for paying a service through your mobile phone bill. The 10% fee keeps people from using the phone for parking, but they park using another mode of payment, the old parking meter. And finally, just when I have all this figured out, it turns out that the city I want to go to next just copied my service with a local company, or prefers to ignore the benefits of my solutions altogether to keep an existing parking consortium happy.

In short, in Africa it is the user that choses whether a solution adds value and makes sense. In Europe and most other parts of the developed and developing world we have created a rich microcosm of regulators, corporate giants and interests that have been designed not to enable mobile services but protect strategic industrial interests, often against foreign competitors. The user, sadly, is not at the centre of these developments and can only act up by not accepting a proposition but has little power to shape something new.

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Graphics from Connected Cities: Your 256 Billion Dividend

MC: Do you think focusing on the overall financial benefits of these innovations may distance them from their original social impact goals?
We have thought long and hard about this. In the end, we are dealing with one of the most complex marketplaces about which even corporate leaders say it is a nightmare due to its complexity of local interests, in transparency, protectionism, politics, election cycles, infrastructures, regulation and fragmented stakeholders.

We identified eight actors that we believe are elemental in these processes and all have different objectives – some financial, others not. Yet, we also understand that often the non-financial measures are used to divert arguments about efficiency, public spending and equal access to markets. If the best solutions would spread across cities like Facebook grows, we would not have to address these issues.

After nine years of working with practically all these stakeholder groups in cities around the world and trying different ways of communicating the issues, we resorted to numbers and the simple economics that an entrepreneur, an engineer, a mayor and even a citizen can understand. Knowing that London has annual revenues of EUR 300 million in parking fines alone, or that Hamburg’s outdoor advertising is valued at EUR 500 million is important as it allows us to put this into perspective as to how we wish to invest into new services, or even reduce taxes.

Economics also remind us of the scale of the challenges, efficiencies and markets we can generate. We start the book by saying that only 1,5% more efficiency in local government in developed economies is enough to solve the world’s basic problems in healthcare, education, sanitation and drinking water. Would it not be great if every city had a plan to deliver their part?

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Graphics from Connected Cities: Your 256 Billion Dividend

MC: What in your opinion is the takeaway for Connected Cities: Your 256 Billion Euro Dividend?
SH: I think there are three original takeaways in the book that should give us food for thought. Firstly, the time is right. We need to understand that there is a convergence of a broad availability of technologies and the competitive pressure on cities (as well as the economic crisis) that is favouring innovation to deliver better services at lower costs and focus on the impact services will have. We should think about solutions which add great value to users rather than the historic tendency to focus on system architecture or infrastructures like fibre-optics or Wifi networks.

Secondly, the market must work. We are looking at an innovation process that can be triggered by anyone with an idea to improve something, and we need to open our markets accordingly to let these ideas unfold. Information has to be available about what is possible and decision-making needs to be accountable. Cities are market-islands today which through protectionism, in transparency and lack of information undermine any entrepreneurial effort to deliver solutions across cities – regardless of their impact. Unless we deliver successes for innovators that improve our cities, we stifle the ability of anyone but the largest corporations to take risk to meet the challenges of our cities. There is a fair amount of evidence that large companies are unable to respond creatively to user challenges that are outside their standard product lines.

Thirdly, we need to communicate and experiment. Service innovation in cities is not a new type of infrastructure, but a dynamic process that requires more agile development and a greater deal of interaction with users, companies, different departments in cities. Technology in cities has for too long been excluded from much of the public debate and media discourse and unless we begin to develop the language and methodology to exchange ideas and try things out, we are likely to see backlashes for fear of privacy, security or wastage of public funds.

Connected Cities: Your 256 Billion Euro Dividend is now available in Spanish too. Tu dividendo de 256.516 millones.

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23 Responses to “Connecting cities: an interview with Sascha Haselmayer”

  1. Living Labs Global says:

    October 21st, 2010 at %I:%M %p

    Cluster.eu asked some hard questions about our book, and the state of technologies in cities in this interview http://bit.ly/9cSiKp

  2. Connecting cities: a Cluster.eu interview with Sascha Haselmayer : The Living Labs Global Mobility Report says:

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  3. Jane's Walk Phoenix says:

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    Connecting #cities in a digital world: innovation in services & mobility http://ow.ly/2XlaB (Sascha Haselmayer itw by @MCaines)

  6. Kai Rudat says:

    October 22nd, 2010 at %I:%M %p

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  8. Alexandre Enkerli says:

    October 23rd, 2010 at %I:%M %p

    RT @LivingLabsEvent: Cluster.eu asked some hard questions about our book, and the state of technologies in cities in this interview http://bit.ly/9cSiKp

  9. Sophia Sengsuriya says:

    October 24th, 2010 at %I:%M %p

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  10. Core77 says:

    October 24th, 2010 at %I:%M %p

    Connecting cities: an interview with Sascha Haselmayer…

    ‘Connected Cities: Your 256 Billion Euro Dividend’ is a comprehensive handbook by Aida Esteban Millat, Sascha Haslemayer and Jakob H Rasmussen that illustrates through a selection of handpicked case studies how innovation in services and mobility ca…

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  14. Nicholas Paredes says:

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    Mobile technologies connect users to services. That connection is going to be incredibly valuable for everybody. http://lnkd.in/t-6s3j

  15. Axelle TESSANDIER says:

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  19. World Landscape Arch says:

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  22. Sebastian Garn says:

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  23. UX Feeder says:

    November 2nd, 2010 at %I:%M %p

    Delicious: Cluster | City – Design – Innovation » Connecting cities: an interview with Sascha Haselmayer: http://bit.ly/9F7gVT [innovation]

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