We Can Design Cities for the Segment of One

In today’s data-rich cities, urban planners are now able to build detailed resident profiles to design experiences for a segment of one

By Xische Editorial, February 23, 2019

Source: ARTamstera/ Shutterstock

Source: ARTamstera/Shutterstock

Early in 2018, the popular fitness tracking application Strava released a global heat map showing popular running routes around the world. In big cities such as New York and London, bursts of orange and deep red highlighted well-trafficked running routes in parks and along rivers. Only after the map was released to the public did Strava engineers realise they made an incredible mistake: the heat map showed the activity of American soldiers at secret military bases around the world. Deep in Syria, for example, isolated routes popped up on the map out of nowhere. Using Google Maps, journalists were able to compare the routes with maps to show the exact location of secret military encampments.

Strava quickly fixed the problem and the US military issued a directive that its soldiers shouldn’t upload workouts to public fitness platforms like Strava. But the episode highlighted something profound about the intersection of technology, wearables, and the physical environment. With the popularity of wearable devices and geolocation services connected to smartphones, there is more data than ever detailing how we move through our environments each and every day. Looking at public Strava data, as an example, we can see when residents of Paris choose to take a run and where. Imagine if that was used by city officials to ensure that traffic flowed smoothly during peak hours or that public infrastructure was kept in top form along busy routes.

In the hands of savvy urban planners and city authorities, this new wave of data can dramatically improve the urban landscape. By harnessing the power of data, we can better tailor the urban experience for residents. This fits nicely with the growing trend of human-centric urbanism around the world. Urban theorists are embracing the idea that residents and their needs need to be the central focus of contemporary urbanism. By putting the needs of people at their core, cities can improve experiences, make residents happier, and help organize human society in a more perfect manner.

Traditional human-centric design relied on the practice of segmentation to evaluate the needs of different population groups. In today’s data-rich cities, urban planners are now able to build detailed resident profiles to design experiences for a segment of one. Instead of immovable city environments that increase isolation and give residents a feeling of dread, urbanists can design for individuals by creating models based on hyper-personalised needs and requests of residents, such as preferred running routes. From this vantage point, the wellbeing of one represents the overall health of the city project.

This is a dramatic shift from how cities and urbanism have developed over the centuries. Starting in ancient times, cities were primarily organised around defence and commerce. With the early industrial revolutions, challenges to a city’s economic efficiency – such as the general health of the urban population – influenced decisions. With the wide scale embrace of the car in the mid-20th century, urban infrastructure projects shifted their focus away from small-scale communal neighbourhoods to large-scale infrastructure projects such as highways.

We are in the midst of the fourth industrial revolution, which is predicated on advances in technology and data that can transform society. From artificial intelligence to 3D printing, technological innovation is rapidly changing how we live, think, and interact with each other. At the same time, more people live in cities than at any point in human history and urban populations are predicted to explode in the coming decades.

And that brings us back to the example of Strava and their mapping blunder. We need to ensure that the massive amounts of data being collected, analyzed, and stored about people is put to the appropriate use in the urban context. We have the power to see how each of us interacts with the city and thus make radically informed decisions about the allocation of resources and how urban infrastructure can improve society.

By focusing on the wellbeing of one through the smart use of data, we can make the collective city happier, healthier, and more productive. The best part is that this transformation is already taking place. From Dubai to Hong Kong, emerging cities are experimenting with revolutionary concepts to make cities more liveable, happy, and productive. The easiest place to start is the individual.