D4SC is changing British towns though the power of people

We’re told the city of the future is one full of sensors collecting data. A city that makes automated decisions about the best and most efficient way to operate. While that sounds fantastic, where do the lives of human residents fit into this picture, and why don’t they get a say?

Design for Social Change (or D4SC, as it likes to be known) is a British startup hoping to refocus smart cities on the people that live in them. It’s about giving humans a way to communicate with the machines, systems and individuals running their neighbourhoods.

While the idea behind Design for Social Change is to shift resident-city interactions from frustrating complaints to something more proactive, founder Priya Prakash’s idea started with a grumble.

In 2013, Prakash was cycling down her street when she hit a pothole, causing a serious accident. Her attempts to get the pothole filled – out of civic duty, we’re sure, not revenge – made her realise how difficult it is for people to influence the prioritisation of what needs to be done in cities.

“First-generation citizen-reporting services create a false illusion that all reports are equally urgent, important and can be dealt with [using] limited resources,” she explains to me from the sidelines of a UK Trade and Investment and Innovate UK trade mission in south-east Asia. “This creates dissatisfaction among citizens, whose raised expectations are unmet, who don’t understand why and when their complaint will be dealt with, despite paying taxes, as they have no overview on constraints on city budgets.”

https://youtube.com/watch?v=T3V3cqyIXp0

Using D4SC’s platform, called Changify, that could change. If there’s a problem in your area – a pothole, fly-tipped rubbish, a damaged street light  – you can snap a photo and report it, bringing a human element back into so-called smart cities. (You can also flag up positive sightings, such as a new piece of art or free Wi-Fi, but, this being Britain, we expect it’ll be mostly curmudgeonly complaints.)

Others in your area can vote it up if it’s important. If it’s not the sort of issue the local council needs to fix, users can suggest solutions and even fund them. If it’s a problem to be handed to a specific organisation maintaining infrastructure – be it a private company or a public sector agency – they can acknowledge the issue, say when it will be fixed and upload an image when the work is complete. Yes, that means engineers in yellow vests and helmets get to post selfies to prove they’ve fixed a pothole.

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“Changify answers the question ‘Which problem needs fixing first?’” explains Prakash. That’s better than “basic complaint and reporting apps”, because it helps prioritise what needs to be done first. It also builds trust by empowering local people, and creates transparency by “closing the feedback loop” between citizens, cities and service providers.

In the UK, the idea is being trialled in Plymouth under the name #SmarterStreets. Using the Changify platform to keep watch on its roads, Plymouth council is asking cyclists, pedestrians and drivers to sign up for the app to report problems on their commutes.

Prakash’s platform is being tested and used in five cities globally, and is in talks with more. She advises other startups to step back and test their pitch on someone impartial to see if it truly has value; to work with commercial partners to widen their network and increase their chances of bringing your product to market; to involve potential users and customers in the design process as early as possible; and to find the right people to work with.

“As an entrepreneur, it can be quite lonely when you’re battling out logistics, funding and everything else involved in sharing your work with new audiences,” she says. “It’s often a scramble to find the right team once you have found the financial backing you need, so my advice is: don’t start a project until you do. Having a team in place that believes in the idea and can bring it to life is as important as the idea itself.”

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