Stop focusing on technology
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Stop focusing on technology

Wim Rampen
  • Wim Rampen
  • Director

Over the last couple of weeks, I finally had some time to read through several timelines. Unsurprisingly there were quite a few articles related to smart cities. I'm a bit underwhelmed because all of them seem to be focused on one thing: Technology.

A tech-first approach

See for example “Imagining the smart cities of 2050” from Peter Diamandis on SingularityHub. Or “The public-private imperative in urban mobility” from McKinsey.

The first article by Diamandis clearly shows that technology-driven innovation is based on thinking about what could be done with, or is a consequence of the technology. Diamandis fails to consider the needs or problems of users, consumers, citizens or humans in general. And he’s not alone in this.

The second article is more grounded in practice and real-world problem-solving. It tells us about a future mobility programme in Canada to solve 21st-century city congestion, air-pollution and meet climate goals. The intersection of urban mobility and global warming/sustainability is also on our priority list of challenges to tackle. See our positioning paper on Service Innovation for 21st-century cities

When reading the McKinsey article,  it becomes clear again that the programme is taking a tech-first approach. Take for example this paragraph:

Download paper here

That kind of bureaucratic division of duty is killing the advancement of low-carbon smart mobility. Because not only does it mean decision makers are separated from each other, but you’re asking bureaucrats and government staffers to do jobs they were not trained to do. You’re asking people who are used to funding diesel buses and building basic cement highways to now think about autonomous-vehicle integration from a tech perspective.

McKinsey

Who's to blame?

It’s clear they’re blaming bureaucratic mechanisms (silo’s if you will), for their failure to implement a viable service.

Now, I’m not saying that silo’d thinking and bureaucracy are not part of the challenges that we face when trying to solve these kinds of 21st-century city problems. It’s easy to blame though. I think there’s a better chance of success when smart city programmes would adopt a service design mindset and its practices when attacking the challenges they face.

Adopting a service design mindset

There are four core elements of Service Design that make all the difference:

  1. Human centred
    Service Design is dedicated to fully understanding human needs, expectations and hurdles. Service Designers not only look at the user level but also see people in their different roles as customers, consumers, citizens, parents, teachers, law enforcers and what have you. To solve these complex city challenges you cannot start from the technology and push it down people’s throats. You need to start from the human perspective and include them in the design process.
  2. Co-creative & collaborative
    Co-creation, facilitation and stakeholder engagement enables alignment around a vision and ensures commitment and seamless delivery from all parties involved. Service Designers start from an understanding of all stakeholders involved from the very beginning of a programme and seeks to involve anyone with a relevant stake. Trying to start with a limited group so that you can go faster? Think again. The likelihood that you didn’t take important needs into account is huge and a roadblock could be put in front of your effort.
  3. Holistic, horizontally & vertically
    Service Design seeks to understand the full end-to-end service model across all touch points. At the same time, it seeks full stack organisational (vertical) alignment. It’s this holistic, systemic view and a zoom-in and zoom-out approach to problem-solving that’s really powerful and provides a valuable different perspective from other widespread process and organisational optimisation & innovation methodologies and techniques.
  4. Experiment, prototype & iterate
    The best solutions are the result of experimentation, trial, failure and learning. Service design is all about iterating by exposing idea concepts, low fidelity (paper) service prototypes and MVP’s to current and future service users, customers, citizens and civil servants alike. This approach de-risks innovation investments and increases the chances of adoption.

Transformative power

We need to transform the way 21st-century cities function. The aim is to create much-desired outcomes as a cleaner, healthier more sustainable ways of living that are aligned with the needs of its citizens, organisations and governments.

To do this, we not only need to focus on (smart) technology. Most of all we need to understand what the city’s users need and design solutions with the end experience of all relevant stakeholders in mind, before we work our way back to technology and how it enables the desired outcomes.

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