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Tackling Poverty – Building Social Smart Cities in Scotland

While it is excting to see Scotland embracing Smart Cities, it’s important not to become purely technology-driven but instead first define the social outcomes we want these investments to achieve.

Poverty in Scotland

Although cities pack millions of people closely together into small geographic areas, they still live in entirely separated worlds.

Many drive along their streets, travelling from their homes to their work, to the gym and to the supermarket and back again, but live in a bubble elevated from the realities of those who live on them.

So while technology advances like AI are flavour of the month, smart traffic lights or autonomous driving cars aren’t really transformative, they’re only small, incremental improvements of a technological nature only. The well off will simply get to the supermarket/gym and back again slightly quicker, still oblivious and uncaring to the hardship and suffering that rushes past them out the window.

With a devastating rise in child poverty in Scotland it’s clear the current government approaches to tackling social inequalities simply aren’t working, and a new way is needed. I suggest a key idea is “Social Business Computing”.

Social Smart Cities

Therefore to identify transformative change we need to look more at these human dynamics, ie. what would bridge these isolated worlds, what would help encourage the people in cities to better connect with and help one another? What can bridge these digital and social divides?

Technology advances of that nature will truly transform our societies as they will transform the lives of the individuals who live there. In his presentation to the Smart City track at the TM Forum industry conference, Dr Jonathan Reichental, CIO for the City of Palo Alto, described:

Creating a New Operating System for Cities

He also explores the topic in this blog for TMF Inform, highlighting that in addition to the automation of operations, like smart traffic lights and refuse collection, the vision of a Digital City is one much broader and deeper in scope, also encompassing civic engagement and innovation.

Other keynote presentations captured this critical design goal, ensuring that they include and meet the social innovation needs of cities too, making them ‘Social Operating Systems’. In the Power of Social Innovation the team from the Smart Social City initiative demonstrated how this can be accomplished, and how it can be repeated through their model:

Social Business

Social Smart Cities can be seen as one component part of an overall movement towards ‘Social Business’, a trend that Scotland is ideal for pioneering.

While the business world and our current form of capitalism gives rise to the “1%”, it doesn’t have to be that way. Social Business offers a new path that blends the best of entrepreneurial drive and organizational structures with civic socialism that benefits all, the poor and business people alike, a rising tide that floats all boats.

it is driven by entrepreneurs who are Motivated By Impact. and includes best practices such as ‘Social Impact Investing‘, where we broaden this ideal to society as a whole, that we will all be better off when we’re all better off, the rising tide. This is a field that spans from Social Impact Bonds through to emerging ‘Social Stock Markets’, like the Social Stock Exchange, the same principle as any other stock market except all the companies that are listed are also socially active in some way.

The core ideal is to find business models that generate profits from social good. For example mobile food markets offer a great idea for tackling food scarcity for the poor but faced the challenge of financial sustainability. With progress such as the Social Stock Exchange opening up in Scotland and the growing support for a Universal Basic Income it’s clear we’re being presented with the tools that can be used to reverse the trend that is seeing extreme poverty becoming the accepted norm.

Social Computing

Hand in hand with Social Business is the equivalent evolution of technology, ‘Social Computing’.

It’s one part ‘Social Tech’, technology used for social good, such as the NY Times suggesting how it could help tackle income inequality. There are small pockets of innovation, like utilizing mobile tech, chatbots or the blockchain to help the homeless, and the opportunity is to collaborate globally to scale these ideas like commercial startups, the ‘unicorn’ ventures like Uber Taxis funded with $ billions and operating globally.

Digital Storytelling

It’s also leveraging social media, tapping into the deeper meaning and purpose at the heart of the trend, the ability to bridge social divides through a storytelling mode of communication made possible by easily accessible tools.

The NY Times ‘Invisible Child‘ article/ book, which tells the story of homeless children in New York highlights a critical point, that it isn’t the latest, super sophisticated technologies that can have a big impact, this approach can be achieved via very simple, widely available free apps like WordPress.

Traditionally technology design always views solutions through a ‘transactional’ lens, seeking to always record information into a structured database so that reports can be generated, but human challenges lose all meaning when reduced this way. Social publishing technologies instead utilize a free form narrative to share information in a natural human to human mode.

It can be combined with a goal of engaging more volunteers to become actively involved in a way that boosts the efforts. For example in Canada a teen photographer set out to capture the photos and life stories of the homeless around cities in North America, such as the man from Winnipeg who lost his three year old daughter and whose wife committed suicide, published into a book Nowhere to Call Home with a goal of encouraging others to see the homeless as people not stereotypes.

Tackling that dynamic will do more than anything to transform our societies, and Scotland’s youth could be central in leading the change.

Social Mapping

These begin to provide the technical building blocks atop which transformative social impact can be designed and achieved, especially when combined with other tech innovations, for example Google Maps.

The Verge asks ‘Is Google Maps trying to become a social network?‘ and Business Insider describes that it is becoming a social platform, innovations that could be used to better help groups like the homeless.

This potential for social impact can be illustrated through the knowledge that one of the biggest challenges the homeless face, especially those finding themselves there for the first time, is simply knowing what nearby help is available to them.

From organized church groups to small volunteer teams who drive around handing out meals, to Toronto Lawyers Feeding the Hungry, there is an additional ‘social layer’ that augments the local government and non-profit sector who provide the core shelter services. Imagine if all of them were visibly displayed on a map, so you could see which were nearby to you?

To answer the question of how they would access this you might be surprised to learn that many homeless also have smart phones. Rent and food are the two big costs that are unaffordable, but technology is now so ubiquitous and cheap as to be accessible to all, the core principle we’re seeking to better leverage here.

These innovations could be made available to social projects like streets maps created by the homeless in Newcastle, facilitating this type of very useful resource, useful because it is ‘peer to peer’, data provided by the homeless for the homeless.

Finally imagine YOU could identify yourself on this map, as someone willing to volunteer a couple of hours a week, simply buying a coffee for a homeless person and talking with them. Facilitating that connection is the simplest of social technology functions but in many cases could be the most beneficial outcome it can make possible, given social isolation is the most emotionally hurtful impact for those on the streets.

The City of York set themselves an ambition of becoming the first poverty free city, and if we rise to Alastair Davis’ challenge and be bold, Scotland can set themselves an ambition of eliminating poverty from every Scottish town and city, helping all to thrive not just survive.

One thought on “Tackling Poverty – Building Social Smart Cities in Scotland

  1. Neil,
    Thanks – an important perspective – “it’s important not to become purely technology-driven but instead first define the social outcomes we want these investments to achieve.” For the UK, the debate about the true purpose of ‘smart technologies’ has often been lost in the enthusiasm to create new and clever ways to churn out more and more data. Your focus highlights the need for local leadership and development frameworks attuned to local priorities.

    The UK’s national economy is just the aggregate of many diverse local economies each with its own needs, constraints and opportunities. Local business, citizen and public services needs cannot be adequately addressed by top-down central policies – they need local translation and moderation. And that needs leadership with sustainable strategies.

    This is not a UK-specific challenge – but maybe more keenly felt on account of being ‘the most centralised of all western economies’. Even Whitehall now recognises the need for local empowerment (evidenced by BEIS adoption of Place Making as a strand of their Strategy) but real devolution of power and restoration of authority is stymied – for example by withdrawal of proposed changes to allow Local Authorities to keep ahold of business rate revenues.

    But there ways around the log-jams for those leaders who are inspired. There are countless initiatives – e.g. Rockefeller Foundations Resilient Cities and SCC’s Compassionate Cities – but all these have an exclusively Urban orientation. yes, we know cities are growing but the issues of local governance are felt across communities of all shapes and sizes. That is why I’m attracted to the Intelligent Community Forum.

    That is also why I campaigned for ICF to leave the safety of its US base and hold (for the first time) its annual global summit in London. It’s a meeting of mayors and civic leaders from around the world and provides huge doses of inspiration and connections for local leaders. The event (5-7 June 2018) will be a great chance for local communities in the UK to grasp a bigger agenda and find purpose beyond creating new markets for clever technology.

    Tackling poverty and all other aspects of societal wellbeing – as well as creating employment and attracting inward investment – needs local leaders who can see a bigger picture and are determined to deliver solutions attuned to local needs.

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