Smart Cities, Intelligent Homes, And The Pursuit Of Innovation

Youth driven innovation and the city of the future

Henk Korevaar, founder of F-fectis and facilitator of innovation, shared with D/SRUPTION his thoughts on harnessing the creativity of young people to create impactful change, and how we can improve our built environments.

At the time of the Brexit referendum, an interesting debate was raised about who has the right to make decisions about their country. Is it older generations, many of whom would not live through the consequences of the choice they made? Or young people – 15, 16 and 17 year olds – whose lives would be irrevocably shaped by the vote, but who were not given the chance to have their say?

The same point applies to innovation projects, particularly in large scale, urban developments and so called ‘smart’, ‘intelligent’ or ‘connected’ cities. If these projects truly want to serve the needs of future citizens, there is a strong argument for making them part of the process. Youth driven innovation

Korevaar has been facilitating innovation and helping people to come up with new ideas since the 1980s. When it comes to creating innovative projects – including the much touted ‘smart’ designs for cities and infrastructure – he makes no claims to expertise. What he does do is bring people together. This involves helping organisations to make the best use of their knowledge, often with an injection of youthful energy.

“What I have been focusing on over the last two decades,” he says, “is what I call youth driven innovation. For example, I recently hosted a week long programme with a UK based housing association, their young professionals and a group of students from the University of East Anglia. We provided all of them with a number of challenging statements on Monday morning and saw what kind of innovative ideas they came up with by Friday afternoon.”

“During that week we provided them with all kinds of input, inspiration and ways of working to get their train of thought going. We want the students to present us with ideas that people that work within the organisation may themselves have never come up with because they may be a little bit narrow focused, or too biased, or too filled with the history of their own company.”

Sidewalk Toronto

Seeking answers from students is a major aspect of another project that Korevaar is involved in – Sidewalk Toronto. A Canadian government initiative in partnership with Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs, the project represents the full regeneration of the Eastern Waterside in Toronto. With around 800 acres of land to transform, this is one of North America’s largest underdeveloped urban areas.

“What I like about the Sidewalk project,” says Korevaar, “is the fact that from the onset, they started the project with the involvement of young people in the city area. They challenged those people – who may well be potential future residents – to come up with as many ideas as possible, for the whole area and its infrastructure. Things like heated sidewalks, systems for garbage disposal, intelligent lighting, heating systems, sensing air quality or noise… So in their laboratory and visitor centre they’ve got all kinds of examples that they’ve collected regarding a lot of different aspects, things that you could focus on if you started building a city from scratch.”

Technology and our homes

Drawing down to the level of individual buildings, current demographic and lifestyle changes place clear demands on the design of our homes. With people in the developed world living longer, houses must be designed to support the independence of elderly residents. This is one area where technology and innovative design solutions can provide a helping hand.

“One of the focus points for our future homes,” says Korevaar, “is how technology can enable people that are getting older to live longer in the comfort of their own home. Many years ago, they would have gone to some sort of care institute. Now people want to stay and live in their own house.”

“What I’m working on with students and young professionals is to come up with all kinds of innovative ideas for the elderly that could be implemented in innovative houses. For instance, things that can be built or installed in a home when it is renovated and that can be switched on if needed. So you’d have a house full of sensors and other techniques and technologies. But, if you’re younger, maybe only 25 per cent of all these functionalities will be turned on. Then the older you get, the more functionalities will be switched on so that your house enables you to stay there and live in a safe and secure environment.”

According to Korevaar, housing associations in the Netherlands are now considering these kinds of ideas. With integrated sensor technology, houses themselves could monitor the behaviour of their residents. Any deviations from normal patterns – such as failing to move for long periods of time – could trigger automatic alerts to family, friends or caregivers that something may be wrong. Although this raises pertinent questions around privacy, it is easy to see how such technology could help the elderly live in their own homes for longer – and at a much lower cost than our current solutions.

An innovator’s dilemma: what do we want?

When considering new innovations and technologies for people’s homes, city infrastructures and urban areas in general, it can be difficult knowing which options to choose. The same applies to the wider business environment, where both business to consumer and business to business organisations have to decide how to optimise their offerings. Companies don’t always know which courses of action will work best, and working out what clients want can be a difficult task…

For Korevaar, attempting to give people what they want is not always the right way to approach innovation. This is because while we might know that we want things to work in a different way, or to ‘be better’, we don’t always know what that looks like.

“In many instances,” he says, “people don’t know exactly what they want. I didn’t know I wanted a smartphone 25 years ago, and if Apple had invited me over and said, ‘Okay Henk, what is it that you want?’ I’m sure that I would not have mentioned an iPhone.”

“So in my innovation projects and in my facilitation, I challenge people to come up with things that they want to improve or things that they don’t want, instead of coming up with completely new ideas for systems or technologies that they would like to have in their built environment 20 years from now. There are very few people who can come up with those ideas. If they are there, I’m very interested in meeting them…”

Brave enough to fail

Very few people, then, have the vision to conceive fully formed, revolutionary ideas in flashes of genius. As a result, it may be better for us to think of disruption as an incremental process. To ask ourselves how certain aspects of a design could be improved, and what innovations – technological or otherwise – could help to achieve this.

Crucial to this rather more modest take on innovation is giving equal weight to those ideas and projects which did not work out. Working with a large group of housing associations and students in the Netherlands, one of Korevaar’s current projects aims to take a very frank and supportive look at failure.

“Nobody’s eager to tell you what went wrong,” he says, “everybody’s always interested in their success stories. But maybe we can learn even more from why things did go wrong or why people didn’t use some technology or some functionality that you thought was fantastic.”

“We want to make sure that people share their successes and failures with us, so during the project it is important to treat them well and to create a trustworthy environment.”

Measuring the impact

One aspect of dissecting the success or failure of innovation projects revolves around metrics – the way you measure your results. For Korevaar, this should never come down to economic factors alone, as it is equally important to consider how innovation impacts upon the people it was designed for.

“That’s why my company is called F-fectis,” he notes. “Effect is the Dutch word for impact. I’m not that interested in the final result of a project being a building or a street that has been created. That’s the job and responsibility of the project manager and the project team. I’m much more interested in the impact that a completed project has on the community or on its inhabitants.”

Unfortunately, too often projects fail to deliver on their objectives, and demonstrate that positive change has been made. Korevaar cites the common practice of adding more lanes to road systems to reduce traffic jams, without finding out if the finished result has really made a difference.

“Once the project is finished nobody measures the length of the traffic jams any longer – they are just happy with X kilometres of extra asphalt. Nobody bothers trying to find out if it really diminished the time that people spent travelling from A to B. And in the Netherlands most of the time the lesson is, it didn’t.”

“It’s the same with housing associations. They spend a lot of money on a variety of IT systems and IT based solutions, and maybe sometimes they identify why they do it in terms of being better, faster, cheaper, and more economic. But in the end when the project’s finished, nobody is measuring it.”

Underpinning even the grandest of innovations, then, it is important to consider the tangible impact of the changes that are made. This forces urban developers to take a hard look at their projects, even if they will bring much needed money and regeneration to an area.

“If you’re building new infrastructures in new areas, that’s great,” says Korevaar. “But my focus is ‘Okay, how does that for instance improve the safety in your environment?’ The reply might be, ‘well, we didn’t measure safety when we started it, but now that we have intelligent lighting, we are positive that safety in that area has improved.’ I say, ‘Great. Can you prove that?’ The answer? ‘No, no we can’t, but we think it has’.”

“I hope and expect that’s exactly my contribution, when I’m involved in a project,” Korevaar adds, “it is to keep on hammering on… To say I understand what you mean when you say it’s finished – that we started using it or started obtaining the benefits from it… But please identify to me what those benefits are so that you can explain to me how successful your innovation is.”

The kids are all right

When it comes to innovation, Korevaar’s support for young people stems not only from their future as prospective consumers whose needs should be met, but also from their ability to think creatively and to produce unfiltered ideas.

“There are a number of skills that we are sure young people have automatically after they’re born,” he says, “and that the education system gradually kicks out of them, like creativity, playing, visualising, collaborating.”

“We need to make sure that future generations keep hold of those creative skills that are needed to become successful, innovative people. At the moment we have to put a lot of time and energy into making older people innovative because they’ve unlearned to be creative and to be enthusiastic – to jump in the air, to play act and to do all the things that young people are able to do when you challenge them to pitch their idea.”

Moving forward, the education system may have to adapt if we are to secure the problem solvers of tomorrow. But businesses face these issues too. How can they cultivate and inspire innovation? As Korevaar’s experience shows, creating people focussed projects, a culture of openness, and the freedom to fail is no bad place to start.

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