Cities are the engines of the world economy and we are seeing them grow at an unprecedented rate. By 2050, nearly 75% of the world's population will live in cities. This growth creates new opportunities but also presents cities with huge economic, environmental and social challenges. As a result many cities are looking to 'Smart' solutions, not just in the form of technology, but also crucially through leadership, innovation and collaboration, to address the current and future problems cities face.
So what do cities need to consider if they are to address an issue as complex as homelessness? Does technology hold the answer? Or do leaders need to work together to gain a greater understanding of the problem?
We spoke with Arvinda Gohil, CSCLeaders alumna and CEO of Emmaus, a UK charity which supports people who have been homeless:
Q: Many 'Smart Cities' initiatives are looking at how cities can work better to improve issues in health, housing and many other areas. What do leaders in cities need to consider about homelessness?
I suppose the danger may be that the different fields you mentioned don't work together. The reason people become homeless is not because they have lost their house - it's not a 'housing' problem - there are a series of issues; drugs, drinking, relationships breaking down, mental health - homelessness is a symptom, not a cause. And so when tackling issues around homelessness, it's all about seeing things in a much broader spectrum, and taking into account a multitude of factors.
Q: So do you think technological innovation has the potential to address issues around homelessness?
Well once you recognize that homelessness is a symptom and not a cause you realize that the intervention of technology is not about dealing with homelessness per se, it's about dealing with support mechanisms. Whether they are tech based or not, it's about reaching people earlier on in that sliding slope.
Many of our companions at Emmaus live with mental health issues. I suppose one potential technological contribution might be a handheld device, which could tell a bipolar patient when it's time to take their medication - that would be a fantastic way of recording somebody's medication usage on a centralized system. Then if you don't take your medication for 2 or 3 days, somebody would be able to contact you and say 'we need to come and see you, are you okay?'
But whether it is through technology or not, the main issue is that mental health services need to be made more available. In London, and in many parts of the UK, mental health services are being dissipated - they are on the decline -people are not getting the support early enough and it becomes a spiralling cycle.
Q: In your opinion, what would a 'Smart City' look like?
The human population is increasingly living in cities, which means that we're all going to be living in environments where we need things to work - to not only get from A to B - but because the environments themselves are meaningful places. And that is the big question in my opinion - how do you get modern cities to work for human beings? How can cities assist people in overcoming isolation and meeting their emotional needs. What we sometimes fail to weave into this is the human needs of people who live in cities. Places to meet, visit, worship, hang-out and simply be.
If you come and meet our companions at Emmaus, they are not with us only because they want a route into housing, they are with us because of a sense of community, a sense of belonging, an opportunity to contribute and a lot of them stay with us for a very long time because they know that if they get a house they will be living in a one-bedroom house or a one bedroom bedsit on their own with no social interaction and engagement; that's not the issue for us - that's not the issue for cities - the issue for us is how do we create housing environments where people feel they have a sense of connection.
We need to address isolation in cities and yes you need housing, but you need housing which provides a space for people to get together, bump into their neighbours and create friendships - and through that process find support and mutual fulfilment. That's what it's about; it's not really just about building houses. If you cannot connect with your city, it becomes very hard to become an engaged citizen.
Tackling the problems around homelessnees and social exclusion at the root, not only provides better environments for us all, but also provides significant savings both today and in future to the public purse.
Arvinda Gohil is the CEO of Emmaus, a UK charity which supports people to work their way out of homelessness, providing meaningful work as well a stable home for as long as someone needs it.