How user experience is instrumental to developing sustainable smart cities
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How user experience is instrumental to developing sustainable smart cities

How user experience is instrumental to developing sustainable smart cities

Cities are complex, networked, and continuously changing social ecosystems, shaped and transformed through different technologies and human interests

In March 2021, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai unveiled the Dubai 2040 Urban Master Plan, which aims to transform Dubai by making it an interconnected, people-led city that balances community with tourism and modernity with heritage and nature. This initiative reflects the need to build people-centric, urban smart cities for a sustainable future.

Cities are complex, networked, and continuously changing social ecosystems, shaped and transformed through different technologies and human interests. The global smart city market size is expected to grow from an estimated $410.8bn in 2020 to over $820bn in 2025.

For residents and tourists, experiencing places involves more than just beautiful architecture. Metropolitan cities develop vertically to accommodate a growing population, thereby increasing high rises in most cities globally is a common sight. Cities are also cramped, with little space left for other public establishments such as parks, walking and biking tracks, as expanding the city limit means going away from the main hubs. Urban cities that are planned to keep the well-being of residents and visitors in mind will thrive and prosper.

The basic infrastructure of a smart city, such as water and power supply, sanitation, transportation, solid waste management, robust digitisation, IT infrastructure, proper governance, recreational centres, healthcare, and education, are all conceived to keep user friendly smart sustainability in mind.

In order to keep sustainability and user experience at the core of developing smart cities, governments and nations will need to fine-tune the balance between technology and human needs.

The different ways in which smart city elements can elevate user experience include:

· Efficient Mobility and Smart Public Transportation:
Interconnectivity of a city is dependent on its public transportation system. The need for efficient mobility and smart public transportation is even more evident with growing population in cities. Whether the existing digital and physical infrastructure is upgraded or modernised, the goal of a city is to provide a functional environment to thrive.

Technological innovations such as smart parking apps that guide motorists to available parking spaces, advanced google maps that showcase traffic updates and effectively manages alternative routes and applications that chart public transport travel routes all support efficient mobility.

Decongesting city centres, easing traffic flow, creating easy road signs, connecting cities via intelligent public transportation systems are critical to a city’s growth. Smart mobility enables people – residents and visitors – commute faster, safer, sustainably and efficiently than ever before. With governments investing heavily in building smart cities, they are looking for advanced technologies and solutions to optimise their cities.

Autonomous vehicles, next-generation navigation systems, multi-level road infrastructure systems will all play an important role in the future of efficient city transportation systems for the optimum human and transport connectedness.

· Living Laboratories:
As world urbanisation continues to grow, with the total population living in cities around the world is predicted to increase by 75 per cent by 2050, there is an increased demand for intelligent, sustainable environments that offer citizens a high quality of life.

One concept that has gained prominence over the years is the introduction of living laboratories. Living Laboratories are ecosystems in which end-users and other stakeholders are involved in the development of innovative concepts over a longer period of time, in a real-life environment, and by using a multi-mode approach.

In these settings, individuals are tasked with playing different roles during a regular day, and which usually require the use and support of various technologies. Contrasted with conventional test-beds, where users are not generally involved, and the laboratory setting is regulated or controlled, Living Laboratories position people at the core of the innovation development; thereby, innovation becomes human-centric, in contrast to technology-driven.

Therefore, its purpose is to enhance the innovation, usefulness, and usability of ICT applications in society. In addition, creating these laboratories will support a healthier interaction between technology and residents, supporting a thriving smart city concept.

· Smart Energy:
One of the essential needs of a smart city is to evaluate its energy needs and consumption. Energy requirements are increasing consistently and are expected to grow even more.

Currently, the annual global energy consumption is estimated to 580 million terajoules. In an ideal smart city, all facilities should use energy-efficient lighting systems, including digital communications enabled LED lighting – for example, lights that switch off and on depending on the movement in the space and remotely control the brightness of the fixtures.

Additionally, according to studies by the United States Department of Energy, LED fixtures on average use up to 75 per cent less energy than traditional lighting. Another important aspect is to rely on renewable energy sources, and one of the most important renewable energy readily available in this part of the world is solar energy.

Using solar power to generate electricity should be one of the primary sources of energy generation in a smart city as it leads to less burning of fossil fuels, thereby lowering the pollution levels. Furthermore, fitting in solar power systems in residential and commercial buildings can positively impact a city’s carbon footprint, helping citizens create a fully renewable energy system. Furthermore, participating in sustainability programmes of the city they reside in provides residents with an elevated sense of belonging and communal well-being.

· Open Space and Recreational Facilities:
While cities continue to include more and more high-rises in urban areas, there is an urgent need for open space and recreational facilities within city limits as they play a vital role in sustainable living. Recreational centres, fitness clubs, parks and open spaces, playgrounds, and running tracks are essential for providing the city residents with a healthy life, especially in light of the increasing cases of lifestyle diseases.

They form a fundamental part of residents’ mental and physical well-being and the workforce of a smart city. Achieving a balance between living infrastructure and open spaces should be a goal that is set right at the beginning of planning a smart city. Additionally, many global cities have built concepts of placemaking or branding, which means these open spaces and recreational facilities tell a story that resonates with the populace and provides the city with an unique identity.

Urbanisation and recreation both identify with each other to build a holistic environment for its inhabitants. From adding landscape architecture, to merging active and passive recreation uses, building green corridors and vertical gardens, these can add to the charm of a city while also providing open and recreational spaces. Enhancing active lifestyles, building a sense of community and human interaction – recreational activities support the health and well-being of city dwellers.

Underpinning the above is the need to create a more sustainable and user-friendly future for the population of smart cities. From residents to visitors, cities thrive when people residing experience affinity to the place. With investment in developing and deploying the most efficient technologies to build and cater to smart cities, we must also pay close attention to user experience and elevate it through unique and sustainable offerings.

Smart cities should be – digital yet user-friendly, integrated yet experiential, relevant yet liveable.

Dr. Harpreet Seth is an associate professor, head of architecture and director of studies at the School of Energy, Geoscience, Infrastructure and Society (EGIS) at Heriot-Watt University Dubai

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