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Citizen participation throughout the urban planning process can lead to the development of spaces and buildings that encourage happiness. The use of behavior analysis technology and online interactive tools is enabling cities to develop urban environments that truly reflect people’s needs and preferences.
The application of artificial intelligence (AI), big data and other novel technologies to municipal services has been transformational. Today’s smart cities are more resource efficient and less polluting than their conventional peers and deliver public services in a more timely and effective manner. While these technologies have improved the efficiency and safety of municipalities, for them to be truly smart, cities must ensure they also meet the needs of all citizens, and generate city-wide engagement and happiness for all segments of the urban population.
“If technology developed for smart cities does not embrace universal design to ensure use by all (including the disabled and the elderly), its benefits could be controversial,” warned the World Economic Forum in its 2015 Global Risks report i. Ultimately, cities cannot just be smart; they must also be empathic, inclusive and enjoyable.
If a public amenity is disliked or negatively perceived by the public, it will generally be rejected. Likewise, if a service is superfluous to requirements or does not meet the needs of everyone, including groups with specific needs like families, the elderly or physically impaired people, it will be unused. This can result in wastage of public funds, certain groups or demographics feeling excluded or marginalized, and resentment towards authorities.
That is why citizens should be included in the urban planning process. However, public participation in urban projects goes beyond simply ensuring that citizens are content with their local environment and amenities. A study by Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy highlights several other benefits of public involvement ii. Citizen participation throughout the urban planning process leads to the development of spaces and buildings that enhance city livability and create a strong sense of cohesion and community. Having a say in planning decisions also spurs greater ownership of public issues by citizens, which in turn empowers them, and leads to the creation of innovative solutions.
To encourage public participation in the urban development process, municipalities are increasingly leveraging digital technology. While municipalities still make use of conventional tools, such as online surveys and questionnaires, there is increased interest in technologies that monitor human actions and emotions without directly engaging with individuals. In Japan, for example, the government’s Society 5.0 initiative utilizes both methods to better manage economic advancement and resolve social issues.
“In the past information society, the common practice was to collect information via the network and have it analyzed by humans,” explains the Government of Japan’s Cabinet Office, the agency responsible for overseeing the initiative iii. “In Society 5.0, however, people, things and systems are all connected in cyberspace. Optimal results, obtained by AI that exceeds the capabilities of humans, are fed back to the physical space. This process brings new value to industry and society in ways not previously possible.”
To ensure projects are adequately assessed, citizens require in-depth information on pressing city issues, supported by robust decision-making processes. “Fare Fund”—one of several concepts proposed by Hitachi’s Research and Development Division—envisions how this approach may work in future cities. Under the scheme, a city’s rail fare revenues contribute to a developmental fund iv. Citizens then access municipal data to identify public amenities in need of assistance, and vote on where to allocate capital from this fund.
For example, big data highlights that a city’s roads are highly congested. Based on this, a mobile application automatically proposes several practical solutions to tackle this issue. Then, citizens use the app to vote for one of the suggested options, such as investing the Fare Fund revenues in additional bus services to increase transportation capacity, or funding and developing communal office space to allow residents to work closer to home.
With data analysis and interactive applications, not only can each citizen participate in deciding how the fund will be spent, but it also excites and engages people. In turn, this has the power to increase the number of people who are proactively contributing to the community and creates a positive impetus to make changes for the better.
Empowering citizen bodies to participate in the decision-making process is a positive step forward in creating a citizen-centric city. However, urban planning is a complex, multifaceted process. Most citizens of a city will not have the requisite expertise or experience to make these data-driven decisions.
Technology can play a key role in empowering and engaging people, especially younger generations. Block by Block, an international non-profit initiative, uses the world-building computer game Minecraft to involve students around the world in urban design. Using the game’s mechanics, people can create virtual spaces and buildings that reflect their real-life needs and wants v. Leveraging the expertise of UN-Habitat, Mojang (the makers of Minecraft) and Microsoft, the Block by Block initiative has contributed to creating safer streets for teenage girls in Hanoi, Vietnam; greater community cohesion in Beirut, Lebanon; and more family-friendly walkways in São Paulo, Brazil vi.
Ensuring citizens are happy with where they live is crucial to the long-term prosperity of cities. Without public buy-in, residents and business professionals feel disengaged, are dismissive of civic initiative, and typically disrespectful of public amenities. Through the use of advanced digital technologies and data platforms, the public sector can gather demands and needs from citizens in a more timely manner. Combining this feedback with the expertise of government and industry, authorities are able to plan and build people-centric cities.
As part of the Habitat Innovation project, Hitachi and The University of Tokyo Joint Research Laboratory (H-UTokyoLab) optimize the location of public amenities through analysis vii of data gathered from a variety of different sectors, including real estate, transit, and urban planning. With the cooperation of city residents, people-flow analysis technology is used to monitor human movements within the city. Combining a variety of data sources and using a service business simulator developed by Hitachi, city planners are able to build parks, childcare centers and other facilities where residents most need them. Planners must also ensure that such amenities blend with their surrounding environments, create new values that activate the entire community, and improve citizens’ quality of life.
Technology is rapidly changing the working environment in cities, which has a huge impact on urban lifestyles. For example, the deployment of AI is freeing workers from mundane, repetitive tasks, and allows them to conduct higher value and more enjoyable activities viii. However, Hitachi believes that AI in the workplace can do much more than execute monotonous undertakings, and is developing a number of AI-enabled technologies that drive and measure happiness.
Hitachi’s “Happiness Planet” app can increase job satisfaction among workers. With an easy-to-use interface, the app enables employees to set work-related challenges, which can be performed alone or as part of a team. These include prefixed tasks such as “use positive words in conversations” or “stretch during my breaks”. This helps individuals to identify positive changes in how they work and improve their on-the-job satisfaction.
The Happiness Planet app is based on the discovery that people who show flexible movements make others happy. This is called Social Happiness Index. The app also uses motion sensors within the smartphone to measure the Index. Using AI and analytics technology, the app is able to visualize the happiness of entire workforces, and can lead to increased teamwork and productivity levels. The game-like interface makes participation fun and even allows workplace teams to compete. It is also industry agnostic and can be applied to urban planning and community participation exercises. This is just the first step of Hitachi’s endeavor to visualizing happiness as an integral part of big data surrounding the lives of citizens.
To create truly happy cities, the public sector, citizens and industry must together take ownership of pressing civic issues. We can co-create innovative solutions that meet and increase the entire city’s happiness by making use of data analytics and new technology that unravels each of our demands and hopes for a brighter future.