Published On : Mon, Sep 14th, 2015

Smart cities should derive pleasure of life, not panic of technology

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More technology should mean more ease and more convenience, but not in terms of smart cities which are planned to be! You crawl through almost choked traffic and went home by spending more time commuting than you ought to spend with your family! Is it we call smart city? Truly smart cities may need to consider a more human-centred design approach, one that answers questions such as how do the denizens of a smart city prefer to go about their daily lives, and what can make their work more productive and their life more satisfying.

Let us consider the expanding armies of middle-class office workers who are central to the vision of the smart city. Traditionally, the office worker may spend more than two hours a day commuting. This is not smart. It wastes time and energy that could be spent more productively.

A smart city would provide a smarter work experience that is more dependent on the virtual than the physical work environment. Compact computing and communication devices mean that we are now more connected than ever before, and using this technology one could do work without actually having to go to work.

Does the smart city really need offices? Perhaps, but not in the traditional sense. Smart workers may still want to separate work from life—it’s nice to get out of the house, but wouldn’t a 5 minute stroll to the neighbourhood smart working centre be better than an hour’s commute to the business park? This smart working centre will have all the facilities of the office—a printer, coffee, ergonomic work points, wireless broadband, and perhaps even a bean bag as a sop to the Google generation. A sort of Starbucks on steroids.

Smart workers can conduct all their work activities from here: phone calls, meetings, downward staff management, upward reporting and peer collaboration. They could take lunch at home, and at the end of the day there will be no mad dash to the Metro or crawling home on those aspirationally-named expressways.

What stands in the way of this vision? A smart worker is only as smart as their dumbest collaborator. If the smart worker has smart peers, a smart manager and smart clients, then there may be little real need to go to work. If these collaborators are not yet ready to work smart, then a handbrake will be applied on the smart working superhighway.
If smart workers are central to the idea of a smart city, what do they need to be effective? Obviously, they must have the tools and technological infrastructure (connectivity and bandwidth). Secondly, they must know instinctively how to use these tools, and when to use the most appropriate of the many channels now available for fluid communication (phone, instant messangers, video conferencing, Webex, etc.).

Thirdly, smart workers must trust themselves to work remotely. For this to work, they must be comfortable that their absence from the physical office will not compromise their career and promotion prospects. Lastly, the smart worker must have an intrinsic sense of when they really need to be physically present in the office. This is the lesson from Yahoo’s Marissa Meyer, who famously insisted that everyone get back to the office. This intrinsic responsibility was not there, and so an extrinsic trust was lost.

Extrinsic trust for the smart worker comes from the smart manager. For many, this will mean a considerable shift in mindset and relearning management skills that will have taken years to cultivate in an analog age. They will now need to have greater trust in their teams and manage by output rather than by physical presence. They will also need to know when to bring their team together in order to have better collaboration and innovation sessions, or simply to reinforce their psychological association with each other and the organization they work for.
Our initial idea of the smart city may not be so smart after all. Business parks, glitzy office buildings and mass transit systems are yesterday’s idea. The smart city is one of neighbourhoods, with pop-up offices and business lounges, where teams of e-connected people occasionally, seemingly spontaneously, converge for business-jamming sessions to collaborate or re-establish psychological bonds.

Smart workers will be more productive, working longer by colonizing the commute time, and they will also be more satisfied, spending more time with family and friends at the pointy end of Maslow’s pyramid. But here’s the challenge: for the city to be smart, people need to change.

Marc Emile Shamma is strategy and workplace director at property consultancy Cushman and Wakefield.