From COVID-19 to Smart Human Futures

12 May 2020

Technology and human-centric design need to be interweaved when city leaders and stakeholders co-craft the future which is profoundly strategic and people-based.

In advancing the smart city development in Hong Kong, the city needs to embrace both human and technology perspectives. The pandemic has primed us with the need to stay agile, be creative and make progress in challenging times. Navigating uncertainty and ambiguity is of such importance that executives are embracing TUNA (short for Turbulence, Uncertainty, Novelty and Ambiguity) or VUCA (short for Vulnerability, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity) in exploration of future scenarios. Whether COVID-19 is a black swan or not, leaders need to step up business continuity planning and re-assess communications, relationships and social contracts. The pandemic has catalysed the rapid adoption of digital technologies to keep businesses going, information flowing and peoples connected.  The wider use of AI, robotics, tech and digital platforms will undoubtedly be part of the “new normal”.

The Smart City Development Blueprint for the city has outlined the ample opportunities which the wide array of technologies could be deployed. Smart city benefits span across the public good and monetised application continuum.  Cities need effective narratives from attracting inward investment to tapping into the purchasing power of millennials and GenZ, and from building trust in emerging technological areas such as AI, blockchain, autonomous vehicles and biotechnology to assuring data privacy. Smart city is beyond infrastructure and technology. It needs sense making and design at a human scale. Barcelona is a good case in point where urban design from Ildefons Cerdà in the early days on city as an adaptive ecology and the current deployment of smart technologies have placed the wellbeing and growing needs of the city and people at the core. It is a liveable city well loved by its citizens and tourists from afar.

Good designs resonate with human’s feelings, such as those cities and places we enjoyed visiting; those solutions, systems, services and products we endeared; and those captured moments we shared with friends online. It is plausible to imagine a future where there will be flexible, productive and profitable work arrangements; and where people will enjoy seamless travelling experience. With increased autonomy, there will be more choices of services based on one’s lifestyle and ways of managing one’s work, family commitment, health, finance, learning and social needs.  People will cherish a digital future with safeguards on data integrity and privacy. In the new economy, smart cities should be ones that foster equitable and inclusive growth. Even the underprivileged should be able to prosper and live with self-esteem and dignity. When design is truly regarded as an investment of our future, and when design thinking is integrated into policymaking across policy domains, the city will be primed for growth with creative vibe and endearing experiences.  

In navigating complexity and solving complex issues, the city needs system leadership to convene great minds, rally diverse stakeholders and motivate change for positive behavioral outcomes. The cities need more creative leaders who are able to connect dots and sense broader contexts for better framing of issues. City procurement will play an increasingly strategic role in stimulating entrepreneurship and creating more opportunities for human-centric design. Actionable behavioral insights will lead to 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 governments need not be creative, as long as it can provide efficient services. With ever-growing demands and expectations of people, co-designing is one effective way to craft shared narratives, build trust and achieve progress even in baby steps. The new economy will require a governance system and a mindset that accepts innovation will embrace a degree of chaos and failures. There will also be accompanying needs to update regulations (or parts thereof) and re-design certain systems and services that have become outdated. As enlightened 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.

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, primes city leaders, innovators and entrepreneurs that “technology” should be 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.  More 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 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.  Apart from championing STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) development, it makes good sense to integrate human-centric design into leadership, strategy, education and the making of future talents.

What will the new normal be like in the post COVID-19 era? “It is time to unleash the creativity that lies within us,” said David and Tom Kelley, authors of the book on ‘Creative Confidence’. Going forward the city needs forward thinking mindset and governance system, shared narratives, enterprising creativity, collaborative synergy and public-private partnerships. Re-imagining our future requires creative and integrative thinking. We need design mindfulness and an open frame to embrace diverse and conflicting views. We also need cognitive power to harmonize 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