Smart Cities: A chat with someone who understands the subject

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In an interview with Open Innovation newsletter this month, Sérgio Borger, leader in human systems and technical strategy for IBM’s research lab in Brazil, speaks on urban mobility, accessibility, citizen engagement through social technology and the power of communities to build a better quality of life for all.

Wenovate - How has technology helped or may help regarding the issue of urban mobility? How is it accessible to citizens?

Sérgio Borger - Urban mobility affects everyone and is one of 3 factors focus on quality of life in a city, the other two are health and education. If you ask people about what most bothered them, they will indicate this as the main factor, because it is directly linked to their quality of life. The great difficulty that we got is to define the concept of urban mobility, because for every person you ask what it is, you will find a different answer.  For some people it can be take the driving and get to work without problems, for other is to get in the car and take the children to school, without taking traffic. For others it is not to find holes in their path and for CEAGESP’s driver is transport food and deliver it on time before it spoil. Thus, the urban mobility is something essential and multifaceted, especially in big cities like Sao Paulo. Is linked to environmental conditions and the urgency of each function. The physically handicapped, the blind, the sportsman, the mother who carries the child in the park, all have some kind of need, which makes the debate around this topic quite broad. We also have a great difficulty of identifying clear metrics to say whether improved or not, because there are many demands to monitor. The difficulty is not in running meter, but to know what is the need of the citizen in every moment, since these demands are always changing. Here citizen participation through technology enters strongly, because it is what will give us the mapping of the major areas of urban mobility, and knowing what is most important, we prioritize corrective actions. Resources, usually limited, will always be destined for local users that has more activities that impact the life of society as a whole. The driver’s case we mentioned will affect feeding city, then we need to prioritize. The engagement of citizens using mobile technology (such as the www.rotaacessivel.org) is very important in this regard. A great bigdata system can generate an optimized plan to create the infrastructure necessary to increase the quality of urban life.

Wenovate - Although there is a law that governs the accessibility, we see numerous irregularities in the Brazilian urban spaces, whether in small towns or in big cities like São Paulo. How to pressure authorities regarding surveillance?

Sérgio Borger - There are plenty of available legislation on accessibility, related to sidewalks, simple maintenance and inspection. What happens is that we not have a sufficient number of inspectors and, even if we had resources we could not fix everything immediately and simultaneously. Take for example the university town: is 140 km of roads. In the upper left corner of the USP today where nobody goes, should I make an undercut saw there? We should give priority to the front of the USP residential center? Wich places need repaving? What are the priorities? That’s where we open for the public identify local needs.  With these answers, we can create better public management plans and can adapt its processes and systems. The whole process we have today is still very reactive. We must go beyond the occasional complaint, with tax giving penalties or not. In this sense, it is critical citizenship to identify the areas that we would have had more visibility for greater use. And while social technologies are still a relatively new phenomenon, especially mobile, we can see an increasing number of people using them to report all sorts of trouble. I believe that in some years the most modern cities will be those that know how to prioritize resources from this contact with the citizen, who will become the supervisor of his/her space.

Wenovate - Being a researcher on innovative cities, how do you see the issue of the citizen’s engagement with regard to the fight for improvements in their environment? Has it increased? Is it effective?

Sérgio Borger - I still miss seeing people taking more pictures, more reporting on your space, not only on problems but also about positive things happening in town. We are all a mega community and to make it work we have to do our part, complaining, interfering and demanding our rights. There is a pool of collective tasks that we need to understand how our responsibility. If you participate, you will be heard, even if none projects are present in your city yet. I see that even in smaller cities there is still some resistance to the systems or the opening thereof.

A beautiful example of community participation has happened recently in Porto Alegre. The legislature held a public poll with use of mobile. It was awesome to see everyone participating with their phones. People of the committee that would make decisions turned to the audience and gave voting rights, and the system collected the information at the same time. We know there is still a process of inclusion of citizens and exercise their citizenship that does not happen overnight. But the number of systems and its acceptance is growing and soon big cities will assume its role of connecting directly with the citizen. Finally we will know where to invest and our master plans will reflect these needs.

Wenovate - Some political and social trends believe on the empowerment of communities as a way of developing their surroundings. Do you agree with this model? If so, could you cite successful stories?

Sérgio Borger - Undoubtedly, the community organized using the tools available has a great power to transform its space. I can cite a case that is the AACD in Vila Mariana, which annually serves hundreds of thousands of people carrying some type of disability. These people need to come daily to the AACD. It is necessary to predict, so where are the bus stops, car spaces and everything that gives access to the institution. That’s because it is a community with great difficulty to get around. If you climb up to Santa Cruz, Domingos de Moraes region,  you will find on your way the Green Cross, APAE, GRAAC, Paulista School of Medicine, among others with great need for access. Based on this, these volunteers have joined authorities, talked with us and created over a weekend, with a single campaign, a mapping (through mobile tecnhology) of 10 factors of importance to the community. They decided what map, generated reports and their leaders are discussing with government agencies. Did the homework and exercised citizenship. Entering the www.rotaacessivel.org with your smartphone, you can access all this information.

Sergio leads the team of human systems and technical strategy for IBM’s research lab in Brazil. He has more than 20 years of experience in innovation, including dozens of projects with clients from different segments of the industry, including distribution, retail, health and education. His creative approach in the area of network management has received the 1st Award of Innovation from Alcatel and UNESCO. His current research project is focused on sentient cities.

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