Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Megapolis2026, Cities of the Future

The theme for this year's Megapolis2026 event was "Energetic cities", aiming to look at the urban low-carbon innovations and solutions related to energy consumption issues. The day consisted of three parts: the first one focusing on energy-smart everyday living, second one on global energy issues and third one was about the cities of the future. As not being able to make full day event, I chose to attend the third session, which I find most interesting.

The Future of Cities part was very inspiring as a wide variety of speakers from different backgrounds presented their insights on how to co-create low-carbon, energy-smart cities that enable sustainable lifestyles. A wide range of ideas and projects were introduced - from urban bee-keeping to transforming highways to boulevards and from social living solutions (Malta project in Jätkäsaari) to spontaneously organized urban social events such as Ravintolapäivä (The Restaurant Day) or Helsinki Night Bike Riders. 

Photo from Nice
 Perhaps the most inspiring presentation to me was one by Irene Cassarino, who talked about Low2No project. It is a joint project organized by Demos Helsinki and Sitra.

"Low2No is a model of design and construction which delivers a more sustainable, built environment, and lays a foundation for ecological urban living. Low2No engages the existing city and aims to balance economy, ecology and society through strategic investments and interventions. " (Low2No website)
The stream from the event is available here.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Building a relevant dialogue - facilitating serendipity

The concept of serendipity has been discussed a lot recently in the context of social media usage. It is an inspiring platform for social media strategy creation and innovation, for instance, as the joy of unexpected positive discovery has always been one of the major drivers behind human behavior - from hunter-gatherers to urban flea market addicts, we as humans have been motivated by the desire to search and find things. Although the motivations can vary from a rational need or benefit to more aspirational ones such as search for self-fulfillment or meaning, the serendipitous discovery of something unexpected but positive surprise always tends to turn into feelings of joy and happiness.

In the context of social media, the probability of the unexpected has became part of the user experience. As Ana Silva puts it in her great presentation on serendipity in the social web, in social networks and the web everything - any link, post, page of search results, comment or connection - can lead to serendipitous discoveries. It is driven by the power of networks, #hashtags and sharing. Futurist Ross Dawson sees serendipity at the heart of the emerging society: "That is where the action is, that is where the excitement is, that is where new things are bubbling forth. You must experience it to know it. And it is a delightful place to be", he writes.

Within the social web, networks and connections play an important role in facilitating serendipitous discoveries. The latest Trendwatching.com briefing is talking about F-discovery: consumers are increasingly turning to their social networks to find out what to buy, wear, eat, drive, do, like - or not. This discovery, often first driven by curiosity, is enabling users and consumers to "accidentally" find new ideas, lifestyles and brands. In real life, our lifestyle and consumption choices have traditionally been the presentation of ourselves in everyday life. Within the virtual context, it is also about our likes, comments, stuff we choose to follow - our actions and relationships create a foundation for social capital, as I wrote in my earlier post on virtual identity and social currency..

Playfulness, spontaneity and randomness are always present in a networked virtual world where the probability for serendipity is continuous. It is what companies, brands and communities aiming to build a relevant dialogue with their followers need to pursue: to enable, enhance and facilitate serendipity,  to make "happy accidents" and positive surprises likely to happen. It is much about the design and user interface of services, but increasingly about the content too. Are you listening carefully enough, and more importantly, understanding what you hear and see? Is the message clear and simple enough, bringing users, consumers or followers something new and inspiring to think about? Is it bringing them unexpected added value? Is it leading them towards the joy of unexpected positive discovery?

Users, consumers and followers are a diverse group of humans with different needs, motivations, values and attitudes. The ability to understand your target audience and to create discovery possibilities meaningful for them is a necessary prerequisite for a relevant and successful dialogue.

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Flow of Information and Context Specific Needs

A couple of weeks ago Mothering, a leading-edge natural parenting magazine for 35 years, announced a stratetegic decision to cease publishing of both print and digital versions of the magazine. While the three years' steep decline in magazine subscriptions, advertising sales, and loss of print advertisers play a key role behind the decision, there are also other aspects indicating a significant shift in ways how we access content traditionally consumed via print media.

MotheringDotCom web community has grown from 1,000 members in 2001 to 160,000 members today and has been ranked by Big Boards as the most active community for parents.  Mothering also has a strong social-media community, with 35,000 Facebook fans and 75,000 followers on Twitter. When print magazine subscribers were asked why they did not renew, 35 percent said they are too busy to read.

Peggy O'Mara, editor-in-chiel of Mothering, summarized the main reasons for this transition into social media in her editorial "How we Become a Web Company": 

"While this change is a crisis for those of us who love the print edition of Mothering, it is also an opportunity. It forces me to ask myself, “Am I in the magazine business or the information business?” If I am in the business of providing information and inspiration to parents, then does it ultimately really matter what forms that information and inspiration take? If I am serious about providing this information and inspiration, then is it not my responsibility to go where my community goes?" 

At the same time, MG Siegler wrote on TechCrunch how there is no role for the newspaper any more. When people wake up in the morning and open the paper, they got information that is so old that it is now totally inaccurate. The hectic flood of information absorbed via social media is constantly keeping us in synch with what is currently happening in the world - and as the case of Egypt, for instance, has shown, the print newspapers were the last ones to write about what was already known.

New York Times reported about the death of blogs a couple of weeks ago. The article was based on recent Pew Internet study which pointed out that youth is increasingly preferring Facebook and Twitter to traditional blogs. The study found out that from 2006 to 2009, blogging among children ages 12 to 17 fell by half; now 14 percent of children those ages who use the Internet have blogs. Among 18-to-33-year-olds, blogging dropped two percentage points in 2010 from two years earlier. According to the study, former bloggers said they were too busy to write lengthy posts and were uninspired by a lack of readers. Others said they had no interest in creating a blog because social networking did a good enough job keeping them in touch with friends and family.

Mark Evans takes a different point of view in his essay published in The Globe and Mail.  He points out that the Pew report downplays the fact that older people are becoming more engaged: blogging by all online adults over the age of 18 climbed to 14 per cent in 2010 from 11 per cent in late 2008. Evans mentions that blogs are still a valuable part of the social media landscape, offering companies - especially startups - the ability to establish domain expertise and thought leadership. He emphasizes that a blog works as effective communication, marketing and sales medium as the content created can be repurposed marketing purposes or leveraged to provide content to social media.

The flow of content and information we consume is distributed via many different channels. The majority of users seem to use many multiple channels at the same time: accessing an interesting blog post or newspaper article via tweet, retweet or a link shared by a friend or colleague via Facebook or Linkedin, and perhaps retweeting or sharing it to one's followers or connections as well. Insted of just consuming the content, we are increasingly becoming the curators, broadcasters, commentors and conversationalists, as described by the Behaviorgraphics model by Brian Solis. 

In addition to Behaviorgraphics, also the other behavioral segmentation models I have seen on online behaviour and social media usage patterns are clearly showing that users are a fairly diverse group with different needs and preferences. However, the most important point is that the categories or segments are never mutually exclusive. In addition to the context, also the devices and tools available define our online behaviour. The tools that are optimized for content consumption, are not necessarily enough for production. During the day, users have different occasions with different intentions and needs to receive, share and produce content, and also the availability of tools may vary.

While it seems obvious that different channels to receive, share and leverage content are still needed and blogs are not dead yet, the point mentioned by Peggy O'Mara is today's reality: the print business is being replaced by information business. In terms of adoption curve, however, even the late majority is not there yet. The cancelling of Mothering, for instance, has provoken a lot of anger and disappointment amongst subscribers who miss the look and feel of high-quality, tangible print magazine received monthly. In the comments following the announcement, many readers complain about not wanting to spend more time online and getting headache when trying to read from the screen.

Are these readers just technology laggards who need to change their attitudes and behaviour patterns? Or can we already identify that there is a need for multiple devices, platforms and forms of media - even when talking about leading edge users? The print magazine still may have its place in our lives - a specific context, occasion, or a moment of time. However, despite of this, the industry has already changed and will continue to change radically. The main challenge during this transition is to bridge the gap between old and new usage patterns. Engaging and encouraging readers in a gentle way to make the mental shift is key - one example of this could be facilitating the transition from emotional attachments to tangible objects towards the creation of emotional attachments to digital objects.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Under construction: virtual identity, social currency and brand relationships in social networks

A recent "The Social Break-Up" study conducted by Cotweet and ExactTarget aimed to find out reasons for people disliking and disconnecting with brands on social media. The conclusion was that 90 percent of consumers have “broken up” with at least one brand on Facebook, email or Twitter because of irrelevant, too frequent or boring marketing messages. Personal wall becoming too crowded with marketing messages, lack of real value in company's posts and repetitiveness of the content were amongst the main reasons for disconnecting with a brand. Also, according to the study, almost a third (26 percent) of users liking a brand on Facebook have liked it just in order to take advantage of promotions offered for FB fans only, disconnecting after the promotion has ended.

In addition to these rational reasons, the desire and motivation to connect and disconnect, to like and dislike can be understood through the concepts of social currency and virtual identity. A digital analyst, sociologist, and futurist Brian Solis has been talking about the importance of social currency, which is represented by the social objects that we exchange in the social media: what we share, what we say, the smallest of actions from "likes" to Retweets to the simplest of updates form a digital representation of what we are. According to Solis, everything we do and say in social networks equates to "social capital" and the time has come to be mindful of the value we create in networks such as Facebook, Twitter, for ourselves.

The concept of "virtual identity" is today a very different one than it was at the dawn of the Internet boom in late 1990s. In our times, the notion of virtual identity is primarily not associated with something unrealistic or imaginary any more, neither it is seen as a tool just to "escape from reality" with imaginative avatars or nicknames. Although this is still definitely one significant definition of virtual identity, the concept of virtual identity has expanded and came closer to the mundane - closer to our everyday life and who we really are in real life. As Chris Heathcote mentioned in his presentation at Lift11 about invisible communities, people have multiple digital identities and do not necessarily want those identities tied together. The identity we represent to the world via Facebook and LinkedIn, for example, is not imaginary of fictional - it is a manifestation of ourselves, an extension or perhaps even an enhanced version of our true self.  Iin terms of Goffman's "presentation of self in everyday life" theory, social media is a front stage where we, with a clear intention, control and define what to share and with whom. It expresses a "realisation of the interpersonal self that individuals through "impression management" activity generate and present and that others expect".

The key is that virtual identities are always actively constructed and modified by individuals. In terms of social currency, perhaps the most important asset and form of capital in our era, even the simplest and smallest of our actions in social networks are meaningful. Our virtual identity and social capital are not only consisting of what we post or update, but also of who we are connected to and what we like. As Solis has put it, when combined, both our actions and relationships create a foundation for social capital.

A recent Pew Research about reputation management and social media found that in terms of representing one's indentity in social media, many young adults report having made mistakes that they regret. For instance, 56% of social networking users have “unfriended” contacts in their network and 52% have kept some people from seeing certain updates. 

As consumers, we are telling the world who we are via the brands we love, like and engage with. Our values, aspirations and dreams are manifested by what we choose to wear, eat, drive, buy - or just simply "like" on Facebook, as part of building our virtual identity and social currency. We are living in the middle of a rapidly changing brandscape and increasingly see communities dominating brands. In the context of social media, our relationships with brands are also becoming more transparent. Brands come and go, and social media has made this even more public - we can today publicly connect with a brand we just fell in love with and disconnect with another brand that we loved yesterday, telling it not only for the brand but also to our selected network. As a part of our virtual identity, the page listing our "likes" is not just an useful list of shopping places or brands for us, but a representation for our values, preferences, visions and dreams to the rest of the world - a piece of our identity that is always under construction.

Friday, February 4, 2011

The age of panopticon or a village community?

Year 2010 has already been named the year that privacy died. During the past couple of days, I have read a couple of interesting articles which look at this statement from two different perspectives. I would agree with both - however, the topic is such an interesting and complex one that there are definitely no simple answers to be found.

First, Josh Rose wrote on Mashable about social media bringing back our grandparents' values. He points out that with the usage of tools such as Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Flickr , blogs etc. we are pretty much going back into an era where previous generations lived, sharing their stories and experiences in a small village community. Everybody was aware of what was happening in other peoples' lives, and caring for others was an essential part of interaction in close-knit communities. Rose mentions how updating his Facebook status made even a local coffee shop owner aware that he was planning for a trip to Las Vegas. "Some may find this intimacy alarming. I found it oddly comforting.", he writes and continues: "I bet this is what it was like for my grandparents, in a time when communities were close-knit; when someone knew if you were going on a trip or noticed if you didn’t show up somewhere."

Rose also points out that in-between us and out grandparents, there has been a different generation. According to Rose, the culture of our parents’ generation became somewhat more escapist; focusing more to individualism than sharing. He emphasizes that the explosion of social media has increased transparency between different generations, and also made expression of emotions more accepted.

Andrew Keen takes a different point of view in his article published in March 2011 issue of Wired.
He uses the concept of panopticon, invented by Jeremy Benthan at the dawn of the industrial age, to describe the transparent digital world where we live, share and communicate openly. The idea of Bentham was to create a physical network of small rooms, where there would be nowhere for anyone to hide, to improve the management of social institutions such as prisons. The person observed would constantly be observed, even when he does not notice that.

Keen argues that what makes our digital panopticon different from Bentham's vision is that what we once saw as a prison is now considered a playground; what was considered pain is today viewed as pleasure. The age of the great exhibition is being replaced by the age of great exhibitionism. We are doing all this voluntarily, as social media visionaires put it: we are constantly willing to share more and more of ourselves.

"The result is a panopticon in which privacy is relegated like an historical artefact", Keen writes. "Today's digital social network is a trap. Today's cult of the social, peddled by an unholy alliance of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and communitarian idealists, is rooted in a misunderstanding of the human condition. The truth is that we aren't naturally social beings. Instead, as Vermeer reminds us in The Woman in Blue, human happiness is really about being left alone."

It is easy to agree with both of these contradictory viewpoints. Yes, we are definitely living in a huge, virtual panopticon. One of the main characteristics of this panopticon is voluntarity: in most cases, users are willingly sharing their experiences, memories, emotions and dreams. As humans, we need understanding and an audience for our existence. We need listeners, readers, comments, reactions, likes, retweets, understanding - we need some response. And in order to get that, most of us have made a conscious choice to give up some privacy, assuming the positives to outweigh negatives.

Social media is quickly becoming the most dominant and important source of socio-cultural data in our times. Researchers such as Dan Zarrella have already done a great work to explore e.g. the science of retweets  and to invent a tool called TweetPsych to generate psychological profiles of Twitter users or lists based on the contents of their tweets. By sharing content, we tell the world who we are, and what matters for us. As Brian Solis  puts it, everything we post into social media is building our social currency.

The last sentence of Keen's essay is interesting and thought-provoking. Is it really true that we aren't naturally social beings? Is human happiness really about being left alone? From a sociological point of view, I would dare to question that. The history of mankind shows us that humans really are social animals - we need each others to share, communicate, encourage, engage and take care of others. The challenge of our digital panopticon era is: can we find the balance between transparency and privacy, between sharing and losing? Not easily, I would suppose. There will definitely be many compromises where we need to go the hard way - both as individuals and virtual communities. Still, it is the only way to go.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Innovations to nourish the planet

Worldwatch Institute's State of the World 2011 report "Innovations that Nourish The Planet" was recently launched in NY. The topic is more crucial than ever in an era where innovations in sustainable agriculture are increasingly needed to feed the world's population.

A couple of important remarks from the report that caught my attention:
  • The potential of urban agriculture in improving urban food security and alleviating global hunger and poverty - especially in rapidly urbanizing parts of the world such as Africa.
  • A huge proportion of the food produced today - approximately 40% of the food produced worldwide - is wasted, while 1 in 6 remains hungry.
  •  The current economic crisis offers a window of opportunity for refocusing the world’s attention on food, agriculture, and rural areas and for reestablishing food security as a global priority.
  • Eliminating hunger will not depend on the world’s ability to produce more food.
  • For many communities, the solution lies in making better use of the food that is already produced.
  • Agriculture is emerging as a solution to mitigating climate change, reducing public health problems, making cities more livable, and creating jobs in a stagnant global economy.

According to the report, ecoagriculture aims to satisfy multiple social, ecological, and economic objectives. This is definitely true and applies to many solutions designed to solve problems related to food production and distribution. The greatest innovations in sustainability are those that are able tackle multiple problems at once: most probably problems that are closely intertwined already, but perhaps even problems that no not have any correlation between them.

FoodCycle from UK is a great innovation benchmark that successfully tackles problems such as youth employment, wasted food and poverty at once, they empower local communities to set up groups of volunteers to collect surplus produce locally and prepare nutritious meals in unused professional kitchen spaces. These delicious meals are then served to those in need in the community.

There is a plenty of room for groundbreaking innovations regarding both local and global production and distribution of food. As the Worldwatch report puts it, the solution lies in making better use of the food that is already produced, which, as Foodcycle example shows us, could at the same time tackle other social problems such as unemployment.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Towards sustainable cities

Urbanization is a big and growing mega trend on a global scale. By 2025, the majority of world's population will be living in big cities. The growth of mega cities is triggered by many factors and has many consequences. One of the most significant aspect is the environmental impact and sustainability of urban living, which is also a complex topic that can be addressed from many different angles.

It is estimated that cities produce almost 80% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions and account for 75% of energy consumption. Therefore, they play a crucial role in global attempts to slow down the climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Megapolis 2025 conference that was recently held at Helsinki provided many interesting insights on this topic. One of the key messages from the conference was positive: urbanisation is a also hopeful process, as cities are places of innovation.

Shibuya, Tokyo

Big cities have traditionally worked as platforms for new ideas and innovations. The diversity of people, capabilities and expertise combined with the amount of possibilities available have created numerous breakthrough ideas during the history of urban living. In the world where growth is the key word describing the future of megacities, we can also see the positive potential of this growth: the growth and increase of possibilities, ideas, and solutions for a greener urban lifestyle.

An interesting project related to this topic was recently conducted by Institute for the Future: The Future of Cities, Information, and Inclusion. The project provides a ten-year forecast map which charts the important intersections between urbanization and digitalization that will shape this global urban experiment, and the key tensions that will arise.

Food production is one issue that has recently being discussed a lot in the context of urbanization. There are urban farming experiments going on in many big cities, e.g. in London and also in Helsinki. Urban agriculture is a sustainable practice as the food is produced locally and made easily available for urban consumers. The roof-tops, window boxes, balconies and allotments provide lots of opportunities for urban farming experiments, especially in a cities with optimal climate conditions. There are lots of business opportunities to provide solutions for urban cultivation projects: Zengrow tabletop garden, a Finnish innovation, is a good example of responding to this growing consumer demand.

Viikki, Helsinki, Finland

The demographic structure of the population living in big cities is one important topic that needs to be taken into account in discussions about making urban life more sustainable. In many urban cities there has been a tendency that families with small kids move to suburban areas, away from the city centers. However, during the past years a modest counter trend for this has been recognized. Geographer Johanna Lilius has researched urban living from the viewpoint of families with small children. In her Master's thesis she looked at the recent development in Stockholm and Helsinki and found out that more and more families are now choosing to live in the city center with small children instead of moving to suburbs. Main drivers for this decision are practical:  access to public transportation and closeness of services. However, also the social aspect plays a very critical role. The social life of the neighbourhood, tolerant atmosphere, diversity and also the safety and aesthetics aspects are often mentioned. However, parents are often concerned about traffic safety.

One of the most interesting presentations at Megapolis was held by researcher Marketta Kyttä from Aalto University. She has studied child-friendly environments and found that in the 1950s, children had more possibilities and freedom to explore the city life. Today, the fears of adults tend to limit childrens' independent mobility in the urban environment. Kyttä has created a model for evaluating the child-friendliness of different living environments. According to that model, the best possible environment has both high degree of independent mobility as well as high degree of affordances. Another key message from the presentation was that families have different preferences regarding their living environments. According to recent research by Kyttä and other researchers from the Aalto University School of Science and Technologypeople living in urban environment also are more satisfied to their living conditions than previous studies have shown.

 Copenhagen, Denmark

There is an increasing amount of people - also families with small children - who see the benefits and opportunities of urban living and prefer urban environment to the traditional family living areas such as suburbs and small towns. This growing trend provides a lot of opportunities for urban planning to make cities greener.

The more people will be living in cities, the more small space living solutions are required. LifeEdited is
a crowdsourcing design contest that aims to design an actual apartment that the TreeHugger founder Graham Hill will inhabit. Hill is trying to live happily with less space, less stuff and less waste on less money, but with more design. He claimed that 80% of the average footprint is related to the buildings we live in.While the goal is to reduce the footprint in every possible way, a greener, more efficient apartment can help cut down in significant ways.

In Finland, there is a similar project going on as well. Minimikoti is a joint project between Tampere University of Technology's School of Architecture and the Finnish Housing Fair. The main objective of the project was to explore and develop new small-space forms of housing, and the end-result is eight interesting minimum house concepts created by architecture students.

There is no doubt that when moving towards sustainable cities and greener urban living, the current living standards regarding housing need to be re-evaluated. More and more consumers are already choosing voluntary simplicity and small space living options, and the societal structures and urban planning should support there choices by making urban environments affordable, comfortable and appealing places to live for people in different life stages and needs. The same applies to the public transport and bicycle infrastructure - a sustainable long-term plan is to invest in creating an infrastructure that supports low-carbon ways of transport.