Imagining Smart Cities – Narratives as Currency

Today, around half of the world population lives in cities, a number which is expected to grow to two-thirds by 2050, according to the United Nations.

If cities are so important for the future of the world, we need more attention to city making.

Let’s suppose if a city were a product. A product shaped by the billions of experiences of the millions of its residents.

When we design a product, we are taught to keep the end user at the center, understand their world, and design by putting ourselves in their shoes and walking with those shoes on.

Even if there were a homogenous end user, there are enough variations to create different user personas and track their user journeys. For example, if you are designing a product for mothers, there are single moms, moms with kids, moms without kids, working moms, homemaker moms, and each of these have different set of needs and aspirations.

If designing for a homogenous end user can be so complex, imagine the kind of complexity involved when you are designing for a heterogeneous mix of end users. This is the kind of hyper-complexity which is inherent in cities.

We may be thinking that we live in the same city, but we create our own version of the city through how we interact and experience that city.

Zoom into the daily life of a low-income migrant worker, the place where they live, the food they eat, their mode of travel, their means of recreation. Ask them what a Smart City means, and you will hear a narrative about livelihood, survival and hope. This narrative is uniquely theirs.

Zoom into the lifestyle of a high-skilled expat worker, the clubs they hang out at, the parties they go to, the hobbies they pursue. Ask them about Smart City, and you might hear a narrative about connected devices, intelligent homes, and driverless cars. Their narrative is vastly different from a native resident.

That’s why I am concerned about the arrogance of city making. It is becoming a ‘one size fits all’ approach. It is becoming a top down approach. It is becoming more about technology. It is becoming less about people.

It is becoming more about people who control the narrative. It is becoming less about understanding the different narratives that exist, and including them in city making.

We can’t simply talk about Smart Cities. We have to ask an additional question – from whose point of view.

Governments, real estate developers, think tanks and experts have monopolized the narrative of what a smart city means. Smart City has become synonymous with the dominant narrative, the narrative of the affluent and the influential.

We need to cares about the narratives of low-income migrant workers, senior citizens, students, persons with disabilities.

I believe that narratives are as important as data. How citizens own and share their data, they need to own and share their unique narratives. Narratives can be the new social currency which can be in circulation. This will enable people to get social buy-in for the values they want in their cities, values that make citizens happy.

Social media has made it possible. The power of hashtag has allowed us to crowdsource different narratives from a wide range of people.

For instance, the #MeToo hashtag has allowed women from across the world to share their stories of abuse openly and boldly like never before. Every narrative is different and unique to the person, but the underlying theme is common. It is a narrative for change.

Likewise, you can create hashtags for your favorite city – #MySingaporeStory #MyChennaiStory #MyNewYorkStory #MyLondonStory #MyShanghaiStory.

The collective weight of these narratives has the power to balance, outgrow and outlive the dominant narrative of the so-called influential sections.

That’s why each narrative is important for city making. Each narrative is like a social currency – a currency of change. The more the number of narratives, more the power of the currency to buy change, to buy transformation.

Think of your favorite city. What is the change you want to see? What is your unique narrative you have? Go ahead. Share it.


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