The vision of City as an Operating System

Last spring, we ran a design challenge for "North Broadband". The idea was to prototype a digital ecosystem that leverages various digital, physical, intellectual and financial resources that are already in place in North Philadelphia to transform the neighborhood. Ninety students in 15 teams, representing five schools and colleges participated in the challenge

The winning idea came from a team with the first-year full-time MBA students at Fox School. Their idea was to leverage digital infrastructure to transform local salons into edges of banking services for local neighbors. Here's how their idea works. During their research, they observed that there were more hair salons than bank offices in the neighbor. They also was told that one of the major challenges of local urban community is the lack of saving culture. Many families live from paycheck to paycheck, without having a bank account. When they receive a paycheck, they often use local payday loan services or other private financial services that charges a hefty service fee. At the same time, students noticed that there are many hair salons where many female members of the community visit on a regular basis (typically every other week).

Combining these two observations, they designed a powerful idea of "a hair salon as a bank office concept". By using broadband infrastructure and owner training (provided through the participating banks), a hair salon can serve as a bank branch where its customers can cash their paychecks and deposit money into their own bank account. In order to encourage saving behavior, the students proposed a "forced saving model" in which a fixed percentage of the price will be automatically saved into the customer's bank account. Therefore, the customers can not only cash their paychecks at a much affordable rate, each they make a visit to the hair salon to do their hair, they end up saving money into their bank account. Using a smart phone app, customers can watch their money growing, serving as a powerful incentive for them to continue to save. This is a win-win-win model. Customers get cheaper check-cashing service, do their hair and build their savings. Salon owners get a free customer relationship management system. Each customer's information will be saved and made available to the salon owners. They will also have locked-in customers. Finally, banks will expand their customer base and being able to penetrate the market that they were not able to access.

This is where the students idea ended. However, their idea serves as a powerful example of the vision of a digital city as a computing platform. Here, a local hair salon with a digital infrastructure can be conceptualized as a platform. The banking service is an app. And we can design other type of apps. Consider the following idea. Many of the salon customers have school-age children. What do their kids do while their moms are doing their hair? What if moms bring their kids to the salon? Temple University's Honors Program require students to serve the community at least 50 hours a semester and some of the students have hard time finding appropriate opportunities. What if we have a set of apps that allow parents to sign up for free tutoring sessions for their kids while they are at the hair salon and another app where Temple students can sign up for tutoring opportunity by indicating subjects and availability? That is another app that can be plugged into the city as an operating system.

We can continue to expand this idea in the domain of public health. Already the idea of using barber shops and hair salons as the community outreach centers for public health education programs. Again, we can use digital tools to provide necessary information and contents to shop owners (all HIPPA compliant). So, that is yet another app.

The idea of a city as an operating system is not just a conceptual idea. It needs to be technically implemented as well. The communication network bandwidth has now exceeded some of the old data bus speed. For example, USB 2.0 transmits data 480 mbps, about half of the speed of gigabit ethernet. We can literally architect an operating system by connecting buildings, sensors, and cars. In order turn a city as operating system where others can build apps, we need to design APIs and SDKs. Again, these are not just idea and metaphors. They need to be actual APIs and SDKs. By doing so, we can build an open, vibrant ecosystem, as opposed to vendor-centric closed system.

There are many digital city initiatives led by many vendors. What we need is a version of an internet for the city — perhaps we can call it "Urbanet". Following the same principles that were used for the design of the Internet, one can begin to sketch out a new infrastructure that connects physical buildings, spaces and objects with digital worlds.

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