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Smart cities and simpler times

Sarah Wray gets the January blues with ‘digital by default’ services.


Governments and private companies around the world are increasingly funnelling people into ‘digital by default’ services. Many are looking to eventually phase out channels like face-to-face interaction, telephone support and postal options.


The future looks frictionless. Of course, there are huge benefits to digitalisation. such as reduced costs, speed, convenience and many more. Recent experiences have reminded me of the risks too.


Digital rage


This month, because January is notoriously such fun anyway, I decided to up the ante and also tackle the obstacle course of trying to buy my first house, as well as completing my tax return and paying the bill.


All of these processes were digital – and they were all excruciatingly painful, requiring numerous codes, pins and multi-device interactions. I think I am pretty tech-literate but was driven to shouting at the computer and swearing alone in my office. Meanwhile, one in ten adults in the UK have never used the Internet, let alone an app.



For extra laughs, I also recently bought a new mattress for elderly relatives. I mistakenly ordered the wrong size (always measure!) and had to make a last-minute change. Again, I had to blast my way through endless screen choices, automated telephone options (once I eventually rooted out the number through online detective work) and chatbots which timed out or misunderstood. All of this effort was only to find out that my sole option was to cancel the order and start again anyway.


You begin to feel like a character in a mundane video game which gets your blood pumping for all the wrong reasons.


You begin to feel like a character in a mundane video game which gets your blood pumping for all the wrong reasons. My elderly relatives would have been sleeping on the old, broken-springed mattress for a very long time before they ever got through this process.


Keep it simple


There are many things to be excited about in smart cities – mobility-as-a-service (MaaS), for instance, offers great potential and could really simplify our lives, pulling together various mobility services in one place and helping us find the best prices and optimal route at the touch of a button. I can feel the stress lifting at the very idea.


Usability, though, will be critical. I hope cities and transportation authorities, who can be at the heart of initiatives like these, will prioritise simplicity and user-friendliness over launching quickly and having all the whistles and bells.


Further, what about the people who aren’t ‘digital by default’? Everyone talks about user experience these days – let’s make sure we don’t design anyone out in our push for smarter cities.


As ever, I’d love to know if you have interesting initiatives in these areas. Get in touch!

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