Telecom shapes the future city
“We shape the things we build. Thereafter, they shape us.” – Winston Churchill
Envisage cities and homes that work smarter, not harder. Envisage communications that are available through everything but a PC. And most importantly, envisage sustainable services hitting the market now that will involve everyone, regardless of background, interests or job.
William J. Mitchell’s book e-topia shows that attitudes towards public and private space are developing alongside communications technologies. From the virtual world of the Internet, e-mail and television, a whole new physical urban infrastructure will emerge, changing the face of our cities and homes as dramatically as railroads, highways, the electric power supply grid, and telephone networks have already done.
And these changes in behavior are happening now at a grass roots level as users adapt existing technology to fulfill their individual needs. Already user behavior is driving the merger of the virtual world with our environment; we are using the spaces we inhabit in fundamentally different ways as we use incorporate new technologies into the way we work, play, shop and love. The operators could quite literally take on the role of being the architects of our future digital cities by offering consumers services that create new scenarios, and thus spaces, in everyday life.
Mitchell lays out clear strategies for the creation of cities that not only will be sustainable but will make economic, social, and cultural sense in an electronically interconnected and global world. Mitchell visualizes the twenty-first century as having new settlement patterns characterized by multi-functional areas such as live/work dwellings, 24-hour pedestrian-scale neighborhoods rich in social relationships, and a dynamic local community life complemented by networks of electronic meeting places, decentralized production, marketing, and distribution systems. Our lives will expand dramatically with new ‘map-coordinates’ of time, place, purpose and emotion: the city will be there to serve human needs and not the other way around, he writes.
Community design addresses how new communications technology and services are used in the contemporary urban setting. Tuomas Toivonen of the Aula Project in Helsinki says: “Community design sounds like a scary idea, but it is about creating new spaces from the bottom up that allows communities to flourish. Today’s city does not really support the idea of community.” There is the home, and the task specific workplace. Public space is becoming increasingly consumer based, where you have to “pay to stay,” and the spaces in between are very often grey and hostile, he says. Genuinely public spaces like museums or religious centers are struggling for survival.
The Aula Project initially aimed to investigate a socially, technologically and organizationally charged space through designing all aspects at once. The Project rapidly grew into an international network of minds from all kinds of disciplines focusing on “making a space for new kinds of encounters to take place.” Toivonen says that Aula’s success has been to bring together diverse people for diverse projects. The only common denominator was the space. Neither lobby nor art center, conference room nor cafe, neither public nor private, Aula grew from word of mouth recommendation and despite the “hardly surprising challenge of funding and hideously expensive space,” and is a glimpse into Mitchell’s e-topian future. With ubiquitous IT the city is an organic entity serving individuals with differing needs. Toivenen believes that it is these desires that will shape the market in the long run because only relevant technology will survive. And it is important, he says, for the operators to ‘get with it,’ to recognize that users are the driving force in broadband and that their needs cannot be dictated to them, whether this be related to content, usability or pricing.
“Interesting phenomenon are already happening. People with specific needs are taking initiative. The user needs are more important than flashy technology. I have even seen groups of people using old-fashioned walkie-talkies, because the cost of just maintaining their existing contacts with a mobile is too high. The walkie-talkie is a spillover from the film, security and courier industries, but now you see groups of skaters and other young people using them,” he adds. “These might be small groups of people now but it shows that there are limits on how much people will pay for communications. In Japan they have cheap and ‘stupid’ phones all connected to an intelligent network. The phones are just affordable shells for services that are also affordable. SMS tells the consumer that distance no longer equals price so consumers are getting conflicting messages,” he says. Exciting services, adds Toivonen, create new scenarios, and it is the success of these cutting edge services that illustrate how users are demanding creative solutions.
I am free now
Our communications expectations change perceptibly with every new tool we adapt to. The old fashioned ‘non-deletable’ paper address book lists people we want to contact, whereas the mobile phone prioritizes who can (or cannot) contact us and when. In the future we will be paying for freedom from superfluous information; personalized two-way information streaming will be a highly valued chargeable service.
Companies like ImaHima are providing simple services now that respond to our new attitudes towards communication and being ‘mobile.’ Launched in Japan to work with i-mode, WAP Java-phone and SMS, “ImaHima” means “I am free now!” or “Are you free now?” It is a mobile, location-integrated, community and instant messaging service that allows its users to share their current personal status (location, activity, mood) publicly or privately with their friends and send pictures and instant messages to them, to meet face to face -or not. There are over 500,000 users in Japan, but it is hitting the European market with its multi-lingual functions; it is available over SMS in Switzerland and is due to expand to Germany and other European countries.
Whether you are feeling sad, just want to see a movie with a friend or meet someone new, ImaHima is a network that aims to just bring people together in those unpredictable spaces in their busy lives, says CEO Neeraj Jhanji. Mobiles can communicate with desktop internet connections with chat functions like ICQ. Jhanji says the idea came to them in a coffee shop when they wondered if any other friends were in the area.
The concept has taken off with people from their mid-teens to their mid-twenties who want to be connected all the time, but ImaHima has found an unexpected market amongst medical practitioners and other busy professionals who use the service in both their private and professional lives. When Toivonen first came across ImaHima he was thrilled: “The city suddenly was open to new possibilities that wouldn’t happen otherwise.”
ImaHima is a concept that envelops public, private physical and virtual space, a “back to basics” idea that in turn fundamentally influences the way we interact in our public/private spaces. The relevance is for services that will create new scenarios to open a platform for further added value, rather than just adding to the ‘noise’ of images and information that is associated with new communications technology.
I am my home
The home, says Toivonen, is becoming a more private personal space offering isolation and contrast to the anonymous and uncontrollable city. It is no longer the meeting place it used to be. The city grows vaguely urban on a macro-scale yet intensely private on a micro-scale; there is a demand to be simultaneously protected and connected within ones castle as one is protected/ connected to and from communication with the mobile phone.
“Broadband is becoming a commodity where operators are competing on price for internet access, and the industry has to break this,” says Uolevi Partanen of The 5th room, a Stockholm based company that boldly offers a 3 year break even business road map for connected home services based on the most pessimistic market scenario.
“When we talk about cable TV, we don’t talk about transmission techniques but channels and content, it is a service-driven business,” he adds. “The connected home is not a futuristic concept,” he emphasizes. “We don’t have to wait.” The home is the place to start with usable smart services that will be the seeds of total connected community web linking public and private virtual spaces with the real world, says Partanen.
As Broadband demands and penetration increases, so will the demand or willingness to adopt new services, but there is no big secret for offering sustainable home services now, says Partanen’s partner Sanjoo Malhotra. The message to the Operators is to start now with what is possible, or be out of the race for the huge potential market that is untouched today. The value, he adds, comes from contextual services bundled to fit family-lifestyles, creating complete new values by a cross-functional integration of different services. Before services will be launched, stakeholders have to be able to identify their role and areas of added value in the value chain, says Malhotra: “Not only will the operators increase the loyalty of their existing customer-base but they will find new markets with the elderly, for example, who are suffering from society’s very real lack of care-workers.”
A revival of the personal
“We are still very PC focused and cannot imagine anything else. The home will consist of different media addressing different mindsets and spaces within the home. And when you start introducing even the most basic home services to the market, and crossing them with other service verticals on the same platform, then you have a sustainable business scenario with a tremendous potential for growth,” says Partanen.
The entertainment and communication sections of a family budget are, to a large part, already addressed, whereas home services and social networking services still remain unaddressed. Malhotra believes that the initial focus in the home will be on kitchen-based household services followed by services relating to energy and security. “Our behavior within the home will probably not change a great deal,” Partanen adds. “In most cultures and across the ages the kitchen is the communication hub of the home; it is the room where a majority of major decisions are made.”
“There is already fierce competition amongst the big players like Sony and Microsoft to dominate different rooms in the home,” he says. But the industry is still very focused on entertainment, only one of all possible service verticals. “The techno-gaming MTV generation whose demands have pushed broadband so far are growing up. They are not going to have the same idea of how a home should function as their parents. The industry has to be aware of the new generation’s potential as Broadband consumers and act fast,” says Malhotra, “and the home is the place to start to develop services that will extend into every aspect of our everyday lives.”
Jhanji and Toivonen also agree that entertainment is just the tip of the iceberg. “The city can be regarded as a layering of personal realities over a public terrain escalating in consumerism,” says Toivonen. What communications technologies can offer us is a revival of the private and the personal, within the home but also in the city. New “spaces” reaffirm identity, whether virtual social networks or physical spaces like cafes. Identity is the intensity of shared values within the target group. “The strength of the social connections is inversely proportional to the perceived publicness of a place,” says Toivonen. In the future, he adds, the city will accommodate layers of the private and the public, and this has to do with new communications behavior.
An Entrepreneurial Spirit
Communications technology is changing perceptions of public and private space, architecting the physical spaces we shall inhabit in the future. Creative services that create new scenarios can shape the market of the future, but the operators have to start somewhere, with innovative pricing and content. “What is needed is an entrepreneurial spirit to make the first step,” says Malholtra. Toivonen adds that looking beyond the mainstream will give the industry ideas of how to utilize existing technology to bring about simple, inexpensive but radical services to the market. Knowledge of society’s ‘fringe’ activities/behavior is fundamental in creating cutting edge services now that are relevant for future market growth, he says.
Jhanji looks forward to bringing Imahima into the next realm, with even easier to use image based communications. What they all agree upon is that usability in its broadest sense is the key issue, and the time to start is now.
- Tanya Grassley