From COVID-19 to Smart Human City

30 Apr 2020

COVID-19 is testing our resilience and ability to navigate uncertainty. For smart city development in Hong Kong, a fresh approach in leadership with forward-thinking mindset and governance is warranted. Strategy needs to embrace both human and technology perspectives.

Be Better Prepared. Is COVID-19 a black swan? It carries attributes like rarity, extreme impact and retrospective predictability. According to Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the author of Black Swan, it is not. The humankind has witnessed more than one pandemic and COVID-19 cannot possibly be the last one. In developing future scenarios, will we embrace TUNA (a term from Oxford Saïd Business School on Scenario Planning for turbulence, uncertainty, novelty and ambiguity) or VUCA (which have been published for years priming leadership for vulnerability, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity)? COVID-19 has led us to re-assess relationships and social contracts. It has catalyzed the rapid adoption of digital technologies to keep businesses going, information flowing and peoples connected. While we step up business continuity planning, what will be the “new normal”?

Grow with Creative Confidence. “It is time to unleash the creativity that lies within each and every one of us,” said David and Tom Kelley, authors of the book on ‘Creative Confidence’. Facing challenges, we need to be resourceful and agile - mentally, physically, tactically and strategically. Perhaps we can learn from the military and from Carol Dweck’s growth mindset for insights. How awe-inspiring it is when the special force trained with broad and specialist skills could go into a hostile territory on fluid intelligence to dissolve conflicts. Apart from having intensive drills to build capability, team members need perseverance, courage, seamless team work and heightened sensibility to the broader environments. They also need critical and agile thinking, and versatility to react, improvise and adapt. Contrary to the people with fixed mindset and deterministic world views, Carol Dweck’s growth mindset creates a powerful passion for learning and allows people with humility to thrive in challenging times. The power of “yet” gives people a greater sense of free will and allows them to attain ever-higher levels of achievement. Design bridges creativity and innovation, and it needs serious learning and practice.

Embrace Good Design & Tech. Let’s recall those cities and places we enjoyed visiting; those solutions, systems, services and products we endeared; and those captured moments we shared with friends online. Let’s imagine a future where there will be flexible, productive and profitable work arrangements; and where people will enjoy seamless travelling experience. How about increased autonomy on choices of services based on one’s lifestyle and ways of managing one’s work, family commitment, health, finance, learning and social needs? Will we cherish a future where there will be system-level assurance to promote compliance and increase security with a digital audit trail, hence safeguarding data integrity and privacy? They are all wonderfully realizable prospects. Designing trust needs shared narratives, though. In the new economy, smart city will benefit from user-centric design where the aspirations, wellbeing and needs of people are attended to. Even the poor, the sick, the aged, the disabled and the underprivileged deserve to live with self-esteem and dignity. When design thinking is integrated into policymaking, the city will be creatively-primed for endearing experiences. 

Be a Future Leader and a Design Thinker. Leaders need vision, foresight and courage. In navigating complexity, we need system leadership to convene great minds, rally diverse stakeholders and motivate change for positive behavioral outcomes. Design thinkers are creative leaders who are able to connect dots and sense broader contexts for better framing of issues. Co-design will unravel actionable insights for innovative ideas that could be further developed, prototyped and refined for implementation. Smart cities have to be human cities after all. Some people argue that the Administration need not be creative, as long as it can provide efficient services. With widespread dissatisfaction of people and ever-growing demands, co-designing is one effective way to manage expectations, obtain deep insights, build trust and achieve progress even in baby steps. Amidst coopetition, leaders need to be proactive and forward-thinking. There are regulations (or parts thereof), systems and services that require updating or redesign. As revealed by Chris Ferguson of the UK Government Digital Service and Rama Gheerawo of Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design, Royal College of Art in the UK, good design is people-centric, not administration-centric. The tide on the design movement is turning.

Be Smart with Empathy. The world with hi-tech could be both exciting and worrying. With an ever-expanding array of 5G, AI, blockchain, IoT, edge computing, mixed reality technologies, the power of tech could be both transformational and lifesaving. However, mistrust will prevail when tech is used irresponsibly, privacy not protected, security not assured or when people do not perceive its benefits. Carlo Ratti, Director of MIT Senseable City Lab, advises that “technology” is the last word to talk about in smart city development. Technology and human centricity towards crafting the future are interweaved and profoundly strategic and people-based. It is hardly surprising that more of our neighboring economies and Governments have placed design high up the policymaking level. Firms that value design consistently have outperformed others in value outputs. The power of empathy helps to build caring and coherent communities. The design culture will boost the city branding, stimulate enterprising creativity, enrich life and bring forth public services and innovations cherished by people. Design is not an addendum. It is vital to integrate design into leadership, strategy and non-design disciplines.

RESET. What will the new normal be like in the post COVID-19 era? Will we be smarter with forward-thinking mindset and governance? No matter what ambiguities we face, let us start from the position of empathy. A smart human city is one that fosters health, liveability, performance, inclusive growth, sustainability and diversity. Going forward needs shared narratives, enterprising creativity, collaborative synergy and public-private partnerships. The human lens of Design will help us to make sense of the challenges. It will enable us to build rapport, strategise and innovate for purpose and impact. Re-imagining our future requires ingenious and integrated thinking. We need an open strategy to embrace diverse and conflicting views. We also need cognitive power to harmonise distinct perspectives. With Mainland China as our hinterland, Hong Kong is a land blessed with talents, resources and opportunities. Like what COVID-19 has primed all Hongkongers and people from around the world, we should work together to co-create a bright future. 

Dr Edmund Lee
Executive Director
Hong Kong Design Centre