Exploring the relations between near future ICTs and prosperity in Nairobi, Kenya

There hasn’t been too much information about the activities in the UN-Habitat partnership on the blog. Fortunately, lack of activities is not the reason for this silence. It has rather been a very busy first year of the research collaboration. Anyhow, it is definitely time to write a few lines about one of the projects we have done together.


Insights Lead at Design and Technology at Ericsson ONE

Insights Lead at Design and Technology at Ericsson ONE

First, a short recap. In 2014, Ericsson and UN-Habitat (United Nations Human Settlements Programme) entered a three-year partnership with the intention to collaborate around Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) and sustainable urbanization. For an introduction to the partnership, have a look at the video with Elaine Weidman, Vice President of Sustainability and Corporate Responsibility at Ericsson, and Dr. Joan Clos, United Nations Under-Secretary-General and UN-Habitat Executive Director.

The research collaboration is one of the joint activities, and should explore selected areas to concretize and exemplify how ICTs can be a driver of urban prosperity. In this case, prosperity refers to UN-Habitat's City Prosperity model. This is a conceptual framework that emphasizes a new sense of balance, a change of pace, a promotion of shared wealth and public commons, and an acknowledgement of the intangible aspects of quality of life. Among key prosperity drivers are effective urban planning, empowered institutions, and civil society participation. Hence, the research activities should recognize and investigate the different roles ICTs can take, not only as a connectivity component but also as an enabler of social change.

A slightly simplified illustration of UN-Habitat's Wheel of Prosperity:

UN-Habitat’s Wheel of Prosperity

One of the first explorations was driven by us in collaboration with our colleagues at Sustainability Research and UN-Habitat. The intention and scope was to develop 3-5 tangible concepts to frame discussions about the relation between future mobile networks (based on the 5G characteristics presented in a previous blog post), prosperity (based on UN-Habitat's City Prosperity framework) and the urban context with a particular focus on Nairobi, Kenya.

While the first two topics are rather obvious given the collaboration partners, Nairobi might need an explanation. To begin with, it is a city in one of the regions where the majority of the urban growth will occur and where much of the urban environment remains to be built. It is also an ICT hub of east Africa, and the progress and activities at innovation centers might be an indication of the future development in nearby countries. And last but not least, through our partners at the UN-Habitat headquarters in Nairobi we had access to crucial local knowledge. All this combined made it suitable for the first exploratory activity.

Nairobi is a city with a number of challenges including inequalities, basic urban services, public safety, transport systems, weak institutions, and health. However, there are also several potential change agents like informality, community collaboration, established mobile payment services (M-Pesa), and the very young population. While understanding the severity of the challenges, we tried to not be overwhelmed by them and instead find ways to build on the possible forces and opportunities that also exist.

people living near the railway track

Outcomes: stimuli material for conversations

A short, intense effort like this only represents one of many probes required to better understand ICTs in relation to urban prosperity. The outcomes should therefore be seen as stimuli material for the continued conversations with UN-Habitat and other partners.

The initial research phase and extensive ideation led up to 21 concept ideas – together covering many of the specific challenges as well as general opportunities identified for Nairobi. As the project progressed the discussions zoomed in on the prosperity dimensions Equity and social inclusion and Quality of life, and although we did not exclude other contexts many of our discussions focused on citizens of the informal settlements. Looking at the six dimensions presented by UN-Habitat, equity and social inclusion generally has a great impact on a city's overall prosperity, and is required to provide the conditions that enable every individual and social group to realize their potential, and at the same time harness the collective opportunities that cities offer. For Nairobi in specific, this is also a dimension that the city really needs to improve on.

Based on a highly qualitative evaluation against defined criteria (prosperity driving potential and future mobile network relevance being two of them), a set of four concepts was selected for further development. These four were Kilimo – collective urban agriculture, mCooPesa – collaborative consumption, JobSwap – finding work close to home, and Citizen Field Engineer – crowdsourced maintenance of connected public infrastructures.

The concepts were all visualized in short scenarios, for example, as in this screenshot from the Citizen Field Engineer animation that illustrates how a member of the community is notified when a nearby, connected infrastructure needs support.

illustration is a derivative of the original image by khym54, used under the CC BY license.
This illustration is a derivative of the original image by khym54, used under the CC BY license.

Or as in this sketch from the series that illustrates the Kilimo concept, showing how an urban farmer can explore what crops that suit both personal needs and the local context with the help of sensors and a cloud (analytics) service.

hand holding phone graphic

Or as in this image from the mCooPesa scenario that shows a hub for connected community items, increasing accessibility for those who cannot keep the shared belongings at their place, or cannot access mCooPesa through a smartphone app or similar.

man standing at a stall

The four concepts are perhaps most interesting when they are presented as a package and the three mutually reinforcing principles that emerged along the way becomes visible.

Principle 1: Collaboration
Cooperation between individuals and groups can strengthen social capital, and by helping people to make use of the power of the crowd, learn from others, and team up many obstacles can be avoided and overcome. This will also present ways to explore opportunities, or to approach governments and businesses as a community rather than as individuals. One example from our concepts is how Kilimo support urban farmers in deciding what to grow to increase the collective value, sharing knowledge, lending and borrowing equipment, accessing available land, or distributing connectivity and information transfer. Another example is the way JobSwap helps people and companies with similar skills to team up and change job locations, significantly reducing their transportation needs.

concept diagram

Principle 2: Micro economics eco system
People have different resources and abilities to contribute and participate, which calls for an eco system that supports different kinds of collaboration currencies, whether it is money, activities, knowledge, or tools. For the same reasons, it should also provide alternatives for service fees and repayment models. The mCooPesa concept illustrates how a micro economic eco system together with connected objects can enable shared ownership, crowd funding, and redistribution of important items and tools. And thereby support possible responses to challenges related to poverty and quality of life that follow with lack of finance and shortage of tangible assets.

Principle 3: Internet of Things, connectivity and cloud
The smartphone is an increasingly important means of access to cloud services and different platforms for interaction. However, other connected objects can also serve as collective probes, contextual indications, or entry points to more information. Key future mobile network characteristics are Aware and responsive to enable off-peak and low-cost connectivity to access valuable (but perhaps not time critical) information. Or Structural diversity to enable things and people to connect directly to each other in ad-hoc networks, and thereby utilize the immediate resources to strengthen collaboration. The Citizen Field Engineer concept exemplifies how various public infrastructures, such as, water pipes, sensors, garbage bins, and streetlights can notify people in the vicinity that has the necessary knowledge and skills to crowdsource maintenance tasks – one way for connectivity to stimulate engagement processes and a mutual responsibility for the public commons.

The Mwelu Foundatio
Image by Julius Mwelu at The Mwelu Foundation.

What happened then?

Well, as planned we had a number of conversations under the larger ICTs + urban prosperity umbrella. Below are a few examples of what kind of topics the concepts triggered.

To begin with, the context of Nairobi, and informal settlements in particular, provided very valuable and complementary insights in relation to Ericsson's vision of a Networked Society. The concepts and the reasoning around them point towards a number of important considerations for the characteristics of future mobile networks in that context. As an example, the set of challenges in combination with resource and governance constraints may necessitate an inclusive, accessible, and collaborative approach to new urban technologies to not cement social and spatial inequalities (for thoughts around the need for perspective and caution, see this post from Jonathan Silver about the rise of Afro-smart cities).

Informal settlements in Nairobi do of course have their share of problems – and no one wants to live in a slum. However, as Greg Lindsay suggests in his keynote for The Purpose City there are things to learn from their dynamics in terms of collaboration, adaptivity, and transaction density. And the responsiveness and serendipity that flexible boundaries and not over-formalized processes can enable. The concepts illustrate a few openings for future mobile networks to strengthen these collective capacities.

holding phone for demo

The scenarios might highlight the citizen perspective, which the many discussions around grassroots innovation and community empowerment also indicate. However, they are not at all limited to this perspective. The services and the technical components that are illustrated could very well be facilitated or coordinated by governments in different ways. And the data and knowledge that is being generated through the services could be part of a city's digital commons platform, available to a range of groups and organizations.

Future mobile networks potential capacity to bridge gaps, for example, between formal and informal structures or between communities and governments, was a recurring theme in the conversations and it is definitely an aspect that we will try to better understand. The need for a balance between the enabling power of (centralized) government structures on one side and the empowerment of (decentralized) community structures on the other side is frequently discussed in many forums, UN-Habitat's latest World Cities Report being one of them. Innovative practices often emerge when citizens and small companies are looking for new, better, more sustainable, and more competitive ways of doing things (these are parts of societies that generally are less interested in maintaining the status quo). However, it is also the governments' responsibility to engage in a dialogue around people's needs to increase scale and impact of good ideas.

Although the perspectives and starting points might differ, the opportunities that ICTs present for new forms of governance is certainly a hot topic. For some inspiring and elaborate material within this domain, Dan Hill's City of Sound blog, the Future everything: smart citizens publication, Rick Robinson's Urban Technologist blog, and the participatory governance prototype Brickstarter are four places to start.

What happens now?

With the concept-stimulated conversations as a starting point, we will continue to explore how future mobile networks can enable new forms of collaborative processes that engages communities, businesses, and governments – in Nairobi, in other cities in the global South, or elsewhere. Here, we will emphasize the opportunities for an increasingly connected society to integrate the voices of marginalised groups, and to enable all citizens to express needs and interests. This line of research is not only related to the prosperity dimension Equity and social inclusion, but also to the possibility for ICTs to support collective knowledge and innovation networks, which is one major type of action that can have a positive impact on several dimensions of prosperity.

As we move forward, it will be necessary to turn the conceptual thinking into plausible hands-on activities and prototypes together with local governments, communities, and other partners. More details to come.

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