On wellbeing in a smart city: when I hear the word dashboard…

On Friday, a group of us spent a couple of hours chewing over the question of wellbeing; specifically wellbeing in a smart city; more specifically still wellbeing in a smart city that happens to be coterminous with the Metropolitan Borough of Leeds.

We were talking about this stuff¬†thanks to¬†Tim Straughan and the “Smart Cities ‚Äď Health and Wellbeing Leeds Task and Finish Group” whose¬†draft report¬†bears a lofty ambition to (deep breath!)…

make every asset count, remove certain existing legal barriers and commercial obstacles and develop new financially sustainable business models using a range of possible new institutions engaging a workforce with enhanced skills and empower our citizens and work with our local communities to deliver a shared goals.

Let’s not go into the overall definition of a smart city. I take it as read that most of us prefer some messy, inclusive, people-centred flavour, over the proprietary techno-utopias pushed by¬†na√Įve systems integrator business development teams.

Let’s also not¬†dwell here on the health side of the report, which if anything is too dominant. Jon Beech made a shrewd point about the root causes of frustration with our fragmented health service – and questioned whether more data, better understood and shared, would really address them.

Some fantastic wellbeing ideas came up in our discussion, especially the little oddball things that nevertheless speak of bigger integration challenges Рspecial hat tip to Paul Simkins, what if a GP really could prescribe her patient a tree?

But the session¬†wasn’t easy. As a Brackenist, I found the level of abstraction in the published draft report frustrating. Some of the solutions it contained¬†didn’t seem very¬†well adapted to the questions that were¬†posed.

My hunch, expounded below, is that the response should be made of lots of small, practical experiments, plus a set of qualities, habits and behaviours that would make our city emergently smart. There are no dirigiste, politician-pleasing big ticket prizes to be won on this stall.

I felt we edged forwards, and afterwards I jotted down some thoughts in a personal manifesto. I numbered the points. It goes up to 11.

Manifesto for wellbeing in our smart city

1. Wellbeing is subjective. There is some fascinating work¬†among statisticians in this area but the actual definitions remain more art than science. In the words of¬†National Statistician Jil Matheson, “We must measure what matters – the key elements of national well-being. We want to develop measures based on what people tell us matters most.”

2. Wellbeing is socially constructed.¬†It cannot be sustained in solitude. When two people meet, the first question is invariably¬†“How are you?” More often than not, the answer comes,¬†“I’m fine.” And yet both parties¬†are acutely tuned to minute delays and inflections to know when “I’m fine” does not mean “I’m fine.” Cities – consciously smart or not – are settings where wellbeing is co-created every day.

3. Wellbeing is a¬†moving target. It weaves in and out of work, play, learning and health. It tumbles up and down Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It follows economic cycles and the fortunes of football teams.¬†Wellbeing is a complex system. As W. Edwards Deming revealed, you cannot optimise a system merely by optimising its individual parts. We need a holistic view, but…

4. The word “holistic”¬†begs the question¬†of unit.¬†A¬†whole nation? A whole city region? A whole neighbourhood? A whole family? A whole person? A whole lifetime? A whole lunch-hour? I’m inclined to think we should¬†start with individuals here and now, then work our way outwards, not the other way around.

5. A smart city would broaden its options. Its people would think beyond obvious wellbeing measures and narratives. It would draw in a larger number of actors and create more spaces for them to try new things. The high degree of uncertainty demands collective thinking and action research to better understand the territory.

6. Dashboards don’t¬†do this. In fact they’re¬†a design pattern for narrowing options down. In a car this is great – literally a lifesaver. We know where we’re going and need just a few well-understood metrics – miles per hour, revolutions per minute¬†– to be sure¬†things are working as they should. More than this would be a distraction, and most of the time we want to keep our eyes on the road, not on the dashboard.

7. An asset map is a much¬†better metaphor.¬†On a map, new information can be plotted. Multiple destinations and routes can¬†be considered. There’s a big difference between a map and a dashboard. An asset map would increase the number of actors – so long as it could reach out beyond the usual suspects. The conversations inherent in creating the map would themselves change the territory.

8. New institutions are no sort of solution (though they may be an outcome). Organisational boundaries are what got us into this mess in the first place! If they constrain new approaches, we should set people free to do their best work regardless. New institutions may later emerge, to formalise working practises developed by empowered people. But creating new institutions to make up for the failings of old ones would be putting the cart before the horse.

9. Let’s take a user centred, agile approach. Let’s start with needs* (* – user needs, not government needs!). User needs for wellbeing will¬†be many and varied. Some will be in conflict with others. If they’re not, we’re doing it wrong. Create¬†a multi-disciplinary team (not a steering committee). Give them time and space. Let them try some things. Tell everyone. Iterate wildly.

10. If this is our devolution moment, we are woefully under-prepared.¬†But that’s OK. Taking control of your destiny is not something for which one can plan a great deal. We’ll just¬†have to do it, feel the weight of responsibility, fail fast, raise our game, start to improve. We can’t do much worse that the vacuum of ideas we’re replacing.

11. Cut us some slack. Learning to be a smart city demands that we put¬†diversity ahead of¬†efficiency. People can’t learn unless they can take some risks. There has to be slack in the system. Without that, the stakes will be too high for the iterative process that leads to new learning. One day we may get to a dashboard, but first we¬†need to make the map.

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mattedgar

Product strategy and design leadership in web and mobile media. Before that I was a newspaper journalist and history student

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