The world exited 2019 together, with hopes of a brighter year ahead; in 2020, a global pandemic – a health crisis of epic proportions that virtually no one saw coming – has forced us all into isolation, fundamentally changing our way of life.
Life as we know it is gone, and even with a vaccine, it is unlikely that things will go back to the way they used to be. Unfortunately, many cities across the planet have suffered as a result of this “new normal”: countless businesses have closed, many city-wide operations have halted, and industries have been brought to a grinding, screeching halt.
Inequalities and Injustices
The pandemic has also drawn attention to social inequalities and injustices we’ve always known about, but have never really considered urgent enough. While the elite classes exercised the option to relocate to greener pastures (literal and otherwise) and middle-class urban professionals have found ways to earn a living online (an “isolation economy,” if you will), the poorest of the poor were left with nowhere to go, forced to come to terms with life in cities that will never be the same again.
The invisible casualty here, of course – unseen, but no less real – is human connection. It’s that sense of belongness, that feeling of being part of something bigger, that binds the denizens of a city together and keeps the urban ecosystem alive and breathing. And if this problem is not addressed quickly enough, it’s the citizens who will undoubtedly suffer; some may opt to leave their locations, while others may remain trapped in a home beyond recognition.
Fortunately, the worldwide lockdowns helped accelerate digitization strategies across entire countries. All of a sudden, the already-important role of the internet significantly increased; everything from grocery shopping to medical consultations went virtual.
Suddenly all the digital strategists around the world jumped with joy! Everything they’ve been preaching about for years has been forced into action.
As vaccine development moves along and quarantine regulations begin to relax, people are starting to go out again – and finding a desperate need to feel any sort of connection with the world around them.
An often-overlooked aspect of city life is the role of the streets within it; more than just public spaces, they serve as venues for information and cultural exchange. After all, at their core, these are the same places where people travel, meet, cultivate experiences, and create memories. And while the pandemic may have changed that, it’s not too late to change things back, at least closer to some semblance of normalcy.
In addition, it falls upon local governments to ensure that the usual public amenities and services can resume operations once more, while still respecting social distancing guidelines and measures for preventing coronavirus transmission. In cities with denser populations, this is of course a challenge.
Once again, the solution is digital: Now is an opportunity to instigate real change, by going phygital: a merging of what we can touch and what we can control with our fingertips.
Going ‘phygital’: What does it mean?
Phygital is a portmanteau of the words “physical” and “digital.” Simply put, it is the integration of digital capabilities into our physical environments: smart solutions operating in a similar fashion to the Internet of Things (IoT), but on a more personal, individual scale that prioritizes connecting people over connecting devices.
The concept of phygital has most often been utilized in marketing. Some examples of phygital in retail are augmented reality (AR) promotions, gamification (or incentivizing users to perform certain actions or install certain apps as part of a larger, immersive experience), artificial intelligence (AI), and special offers according to geographic location.
Other industries have been increasingly exploring and experimenting with different methods of phygital implementation: from banks offering video-conference consultations to coffee shops and restaurants with robotic or automated service solutions. Even educators have started hopping on the phygital trend, with the blending of physical learning implements and materials with digital communication to make learning possible under lockdown.
Thus, cities should be no exception: the physical elements of city streets can be tools for enhancing connections and relationships phygitally. There is perhaps no stronger proof of this concept than Hello Lamp Post, which seamlessly integrates digital communication into ordinary, everyday street objects (lamp posts, mailboxes, and the like).
In a nutshell, Hello Lamp Post allows citizens to:
- directly communicate with said objects
- asking them questions
- learn information from them, and so on
At the bare minimum, these are highly entertaining and novel uses of technology for inquisitive minds; if their potential is maximized, though, they can be extremely effective tools for city officials to directly interact with citizens to get feedback and address concerns with appropriate immediacy.
While Hello Lamp Post is largely associated with SMS, it also utilizes social media messenger functions (such as Facebook’s) and applications like WhatsApp, hence the “digital” aspect to it. This ease of use and accessibility makes Hello Lamp Post a low-barrier experience; in other words, pretty much anyone with a mobile device can get immersed.
Hello Lamp Post covers the three “i’s” that comprise a true phygital experience.
- One, there is immediacy: communication is one-on-one and instantaneous, and a user who sends a message to the street sign in front of them can expect a prompt response.
- Two, there is the aforementioned immersion: as the object is part of the person’s regular environment, it does not stand out in a way that breaks the illusion of the person having a conversation with an inanimate object.
- Lastly, there is interaction: when the user asks, the object responds, and vice versa.
Basically, this powerful amalgamation benefits post-COVID-19 cities in a number of ways:
- With public spaces gaining the ability to “carry” a conversation, they can be used as instruments for feedback collection and information dissemination for the general public.
- Deeper conversations are made possible through these interactions, ensuring honesty and sincerity within the exchanges and forging stronger ties.
- These public elements are easily discoverable, meaning everyone from Generation Z to Baby Boomers can easily find and engage with them; they are also more convenient to use, especially for those who love communicating via their devices.
- Having these “smart” objects in the city means that they are part of a larger puzzle: the city as a living, breathing organism, greater than the sum of its parts.
- The sheer novelty of it all makes the experience so genuine and exciting – because honestly, who can forget having a conversation with a street lamp?
With proper planning and execution, going phygital is a powerful tool to bring communities in the city together. And in a world that is just recovering from a pandemic, this solution is needed, now more than ever.
Organisations interested in incorporating this technology into their cities may send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit their website and fill out their contact form
Liz Azyan is interested in the ways new kinds of social data and technology introduce challenges and opportunities to society. Get involved with Liz’s latest project here.