Building Smarter Cities With Social Technologies

[This post was originally published on ZaGarage by Kuliza on September 5th 2011. You can read the original post here.]

Community, crowdsourcing and mobile initiatives to make cities a smarter place to live

People look for great cities to live in. The Economist Intelligence UnitMercer and others help us out with their annual rankings of the best cities to live in based on – amongst other things – recreation, health care, political, social and cultural environment, education, housing and infrastructure. In the future, determining how good a city is to live in will also depend on how smart the city is. So along with healthcare, education and housing people will also look at how the city utilizes physical infrastructure, such as transport and ICT, and the availability and quality of intellectual and social capital to improve living standards and drive urban growth and competitiveness.

There are three defining characteristics of a smart city:

  • A networked infrastructure
  • Community intelligence to improve urban planning, development and innovation management
  • Social and environmental sustainability through the participation of citizens in city processes

The concept of smart cities has been on the agenda of governments and corporations for the last number of years. Investment is also accelerating. A recent report by ABI Research estimates that the market for technologies related to smart cities projects will grow from $8 billion in 2010 to $39 billion in 2016. This will include spending on e-government initiatives, initiatives to reduce carbon footprints, waste and recycling initiatives, intelligent transport systems, and wireless networks. There are a number of reasons why there is so much investment in smart cities:

  • There is a limit to how much people and businesses can be taxed. Budget crises during the recession of the last few years means that city governments have to look at long-term measures to manage and modernize their services and infrastructure
  • Governments need to cut costs without cutting services so they are using analytics to understand and improve operational productivity and efficiency
  • There is competition among cities to attract businesses to maintain growth and development and to attract people to live and work by improving the quality of the urban environment
  • 50% of the world’s population lives in cities. By 2050 the urban population is expected to double, further straining city services and infrastructure
  • Cities are major polluters: they occupy 2% of the world’s geography but account for 75% of the greenhouse gases

Leaving aside the smart city projects that focus on infrastructure and energy management, I want to look at how individuals, communities and governments are using social technologies to harness community intelligence, social capital and improve urban environments and city process. There are lots of projects and initiatives happening around the world and I have included a brief about many others at the end of this post.


There are plenty of enthusiastic people who want to make a difference in their community. SeeClickFix supports hyper-local, community-driven activism to empower citizens, community groups, media organizations and governments to improve their neighbourhoods. Their online platform and mobile apps allow citizens to flag and report non-emergency community issues such as potholes and graffiti, share them on a web-based map for others to view and comment on complaints based on location as well as view the profiles of people who report issues nearby. SeeClickFix also have a Facebook page and an app with game mechanics, giving users Civic Points for performing actions that engage with the app including reporting issues, uploading an image or taking action in order to get an issue resolved.

SeeClickFix doesn’t just crowdsource community intelligence to improve their local environment, but helps to improve city processes by routing complaints to the relevant parties such as local governments and media outlets to resolve them. SeeClickFix provides community groups (neighborhood associations, volunteer groups, business associations) with an online platform to connect and address the needs of their community, governments with a dashboard for tracking and acknowledging issues, and media outlets with a platform to stay up-to-date with events that impact the community. It has been a major success, with over 200,000 users, more than 30 government clients, and 50% of user-reported issues resolved.


In February 2011 BMW created a $100 million venture capital fund to invest in mobile apps that make it easier for people to navigate urban areas by car, bike, public transport or walking. This is part of establishing a new, sustainability-focused sub-brand to integrate the concepts of luxury and sustainability. Non-automotive transport has not been BMW’s interest, but it is to its customers and potential customers, and BMW is branding itself as a solution finder and innovator in making cities smarter and cleaner along with promoting their hybrid and electric cars.

There are three apps that BMW has invested in that use community intelligence and the participation of users to reduce traffic congestion, improve how people navigate their city and life in their cities.


Running only in Munich at the moment, this is a car sharing service that gives users access to a car whenever they need it. After registering with their driver’s license, users can reserve a car online or through a mobile app and use the car at a cost of 29c a minute, including petrol and free parking within Munich city.


It is the largest online parking marketplace connecting owners of parking spaces who want to earn money renting it out to people who need a convenient space to park.


It is a real-time, location-aware suite of mobile apps designed to help users navigate and explore cities. It can be used for connecting with other users, finding a restaurant that allows dogs, locating the nearest wireless hotspot, sharing tips, finding parking ahead of time, and checking live traffic cameras.


Traffic management systems are one of the major features of smart city projects, and are offered by companies like IBM as part of their Intelligent Operations Center. There are plenty of mobile apps that try to improve travel by facilitating carpooling, notifying public transport travel times and connections, or by route planning to avoid traffic jams.

One (future) app that sounds promising is SignalGuru. It was developed by researchers at Princeton and MIT to reduce congestion and fuel consumption in cities. It uses GPS enabled smartphones mounted on car dashboards to estimate traffic light patterns. The app informs the driver how long until the signal turns green and suggests the driving speed to prevent stopping at a red light. So far in early testing in Massachusetts the app has successfully predicted red lights to within 0.66 seconds and reduced petrol use by 20%.

With so many developments in this space, cities need a vision for the type of environment they want to develop and a masterplan of how they will achieve this that incorporates both large scale solutions and community-led initiatives that bring together experts and individuals. As exciting as these projects are, there are some concerns and questions that will need to be debated:

  • Each initiative creates a huge amount of user information and data, which naturally leads to questions about privacy and how governments in some countries choose to use the data to exert control over their citizens
  • Who owns the brains of a city? Is it the community and services like SeeClickFix, or large companies like IBM and Cisco with their ‘smart city in a box’ solutions?
  • What happens when the interests of a large company and the city and residents are no longer aligned?

Further examples of smart city initiatives

There are numerous smart city initiatives and projects underway around the world. I couldn’t cover every one so I’ve listed some others that I find interesting:

  • Songdo in South Korea – the first city to have developed the smart city concept from the ground level up
  • IBM’s Intelligent Operations Center to monitor and manage city services
  • Amsterdam Smart City – a collaboration between people, businesses and government to create sustainable, large-scale programs that reduce CO2 emissions
  • Austin’s budget allocator to determine which urban projects to invest in
  • City Sourced – a mobile civic engagement platform that allows residents to report issues to the local government for resolution
  • San Jose Mobile City Hall – a mobile engagement tool to allow residents to report issues to the San Jose government for resolution
  • Betaville – a collaborative platform for cities in which ideas for new works of public art, architecture, urban design, and development can be shared, discussed, tweaked, and brought to maturity in context by individuals and experts
  • Cooltownbeta – a crowdsourcing consultancy
  • Reset San Francisco – an online community that brings locals together around ideas and solutions to improve San Francisco.

Zombies, Run! A Survival Workout

There are numerous exercise apps that incorporate game elements but Zombies, Run! outdoes all of them. It has already vastly exceeded its funding amount on Kickstarter. The aim is to:

“help rebuild civilisation after a zombie apocalypse. By going out and running in the real world, you can collect medicine, ammo, batteries, and spare parts that you can use to build up and expand your base – all while getting orders, clues, and story through your headphones.”

Definitely more exciting, engaging and well thought out than collecting badges and ascending levels of fitness! Click to watch a video about the app.

How Brands Are Using M-Commerce

[This post was originally written on Social Media Today and was published on June 27th 2011. You can read the original article here.]

Smartphones continue to be increasingly popular with consumers; sales for 2011 are expected to increase from 305 million to 472 million. This presents brands with tremendous potential to leverage smartphones for M-Commerce and personally engage with consumers wherever they are, something that brands have not been able to do before. Brands have the opportunity to be ubiquitous, relevant and individualized to their consumers whenever and wherever the consumer chooses.


Much of the coverage of M-Commerce features FoursquareGroupon and Facebook Places. We wanted to see what else is happening in the space and how brands are engaging consumers. For this report we have considered tablets as part of M-Commerce. Indeed according to a recent Forrester report, tablet-based commerce could be the single biggest inhibitor to the growth of M-Commerce.

There are numerous definitions of M-Commerce, some more restrictive, and others more encompassing. For this report we define M-Commerce into 2 components:

  1. The use of a mobile phone or tablet to conduct financial transactions and payments online
  2. The delivery of information to a mobile phone or tablet that can facilitate a purchase

Growth of M-Commerce

M-Commerce sales have experienced huge growth in the last couple of years, from $1.2 billion to a projected $9 billion in 2011 and are expected to hit $31 billion in 2016. For me the key driver of M-Commerce is convenience. Mobile phones are a part of our daily engagement with our world, whether through calls, text messages, emails or apps. In terms of shopping, the convenience and immediacy comes across clearly when looking at some of the most popular activities for using mobiles from a recent study by Google of US smartphone users:

  • 74% of smartphone users end up making a purchase (76% in-store; 59% online via a computer; 35% via a phone)
  • 70% use a smartphone while in the store
  • 54% use a smartphone to find a retailer
  • 49% use a smartphone to compare prices
  • 48% use a smartphone to get promotions and coupons
  • 44% use a smartphone to read reviews and product info
  • 34% use a smartphone to search in-store inventory

The full results from Google’s study can be viewed on slideshare.

How are brands using M-Commerce?

Driving transactions is an important goal of M-Commerce, but with mobiles and tablets continuously used by consumers irrespective of where they are, they also become important marketing tools for brands. We are interested in what is happening away from the location and deal-based M-Commerce services that Grouponand others provide, and looked at a number of ways that brands are using mobiles and tablets to continuously engage consumers:

1.       Ensuring a mobile-friendly website

With more people accessing websites through their phones it should be a high priority for brands to create a mobile-friendly website. This is what Dunkin’ Donuts have done, adding a trip planner, restaurant locator and information (opening hours, wifi, drive-thru availability), menu, nutrition information, and integration withTwitterFacebook and YouTube. They have also begun to geo-target content (local promotions, new products, news) based on a person’s location.



2.       Engagement and Loyalty

Brands are adopting mobile strategies that go beyond a focus on transactions to also include loyalty, engagement and relationship building activities. This is the strategy that Sunkist has adopted. As mobile shopping is unlikely to work yet for selling fruit, they focus instead on educating people, building loyalty, engaging customers and increasing awareness for their brand and for citrus fruits. They do this in 2 ways:

  1. Sunkist Daily Diet offers ways to track calories and exercise, create a food diary, and search nutritional facts and tips
  2. Their mobile website aims to engage consumers at the point of purchase by providing fruit-based recipes. It also provides nutritional and fruit information, healthy living tips and a shopping list feature.



3.       Product Reviews and Purchase

The experience of shopping online is nothing like walking down the high street, stopping at occasional windows or going inside to browse. There is an opportunity for brands to improve the user experience and design of shopping on mobiles and especially tablets. The closest any brand comes to replicating the traditional shopping experience is Amazon’s fluid Windowshop app. All the usual Amazon features are included: product reviews and features, wish lists, DVD and music previews or trailers, the ability to manage your account and track orders, and integration with Facebook and Twitter. Unfortunately the social element of logging in with Facebook Connect is missing.




4.       Price Comparison


One of the worst parts of shopping online is the range of sites to visit when searching for comparison prices. Thankfully there are a number of apps that does this for consumers. While brands like Target can provide price and stock information across their stores, comparing prices across numerous retailers is something that 3rd party apps are better capable of doing. For travel CheapOair provides comparison and booking features for flights, hotels and car rentals. For retail products two of the leaders are Amazon Mobile and PriceGrabber. Both apps have a similar set of features – search for specific products, read reviews, ratings, compare prices across retails, and the option to share products by email, text, Facebook and Twitter. An advantage that Amazon offers is the ability to scan a barcode, take a photo, type or say the product name and receive comparison prices from Amazon and other retailers.



5.       Point-of-Sale Payment

There are a couple of ways that brands are offering point-of-sale payment options. Pizza Express, the UK restaurant chain, launched an app in June 2011 that allows customers to use a 12 digit code on their receipt to pay for their meal via PayPal, as well as book tables and view menus. Port’s Tea and Coffee Co. pursued an alternative method by using Square’s Card Case. Customers have 2 payment options. They can set-up a virtual tab with their credit card details, pay with the press of a button on their smartphone and receive a receipt by email, or they can swipe their credit card through an iPad accessory and sign with their finger.



What can brands do to take advantage of the M-Commerce trend?

I think there are 3 steps that brands can follow to create take advantage of the M-Commerce trend:

  1. Create great user experience. If brands don’t need an app like Target then at least provide a mobile specific site. Sites optimized for mobiles do not always translate well to a smaller screen
  2. Create great consumer experience. Amazon got this right with Windowshop. It is not only a beautiful app but it covers nearly every feature that consumers expect. I would expect them to add sharing the Price Check feature from their mobile app in future versions.
  3. Incentivize use. Brands want to make sure that they are available and relevant to their consumers at all times. This could be done by engaging daily like Sunkist’s Daily Diet app or ensuring easy purchase options and location-based information and deals.