Innovation backed by action, for a better society

Gadgets, algorithms, apps and novel architecture can drive innovation to help make society more inclusive and resilient. But technical fixes must be backed by action from policymakers and other decision-makers.

Smart communities are not just about placing sensors all over the neighbourhood. “Having children sleeping in the streets is not about technology but about resources,” said Erin Baumgartner, Assistant Director of the MIT Sensible City Lab, at the Women’s Forum Global Meeting 2017.

Photo credit: Women’s Forum/Sipa Press

Similar sentiments were expressed by panelists speaking about a myriad of topics during the meeting. Addressing low voter turnout by young people and efforts to get them to the polls, Anja Wyden Guelpa, Chancellor of State for the Canton of Geneva, noted, “Technology is a great tool, but it is not enough. They don`t vote because they think it is not for them.” To spur interest in public affairs at an early age, she invites pre-teens to City Hall where they debate real issues just like real council members.

When AccorHotels opened its new Sequana headquarters on the outskirts of Paris, employees found interiors designed to facilitate interaction and teamwork. “It was supposed to be inclusive,” said Maud Bailly, Chief Digital Officer of AccorHotels, describing the open spaces and meeting rooms. “The new workspace was a good first step. But you don’t necessarily work better because you are working more closely. We as managers have to take the responsibility to use new methods and break down the silos.”

Putting the pieces together

Sometimes, creative innovation doesn’t even require new technology. For example, as online shopping and home delivery become more ubiquitous, commuter subways and railways can be used to move goods in urban areas during the early morning hours when most metropolitan transportation systems are closed. Such a system could reduce the need for trucks and drones, said Laurent Troger, President of Bombardier Transportation. “In the mobility sector, the infrastructure is not used 40% of the time,” he noted.

With some 20 bus maintenance sites in the Paris metropolitan region, the public transport company RATP controls some prime real estate. By 2025, they will host multi-use high rises that will include, for example, low-income housing, conventional housing, schools, and roof-top gardens — all atop of the original mechanics’ workshop.

RATP is also working with ride-sharing and carpooling start-ups as part of a “door-to-door” public transportation strategy, said Catherine Guillouard, CEO of the RATP Group.


To encourage innovation and partnerships, both the public and private sector should make available the data that enables ‘smart’ community solutions. “Citizens can make their own solutions,” said Baumgartner. “Data should be democratic, accessible and available.”

This should include universal Internet access, in the view of Amira Yahyaoui, CEO and Founder of Askmos Inc. “Every government that can should provide Internet access at City Hall or in the streets,” she said. Big Internet corporations should pay for extending access to the poor, she added.

Opportunities from expression to employment

The New Museum in New York has launched NEW INC, the world’s first museum-led incubator to promote start-ups that work at the intersections of art, design and technology. Half of the entrepreneurs are women and 40% are people of colour. NEW INC-supported firms have already generated about 200 jobs, according to Karen Wong, Deputy Director of the New Museum.

New technologies are likely to disrupt employment markets. “We agree that to increase mobility, we need to increase capacity. We need more,” said Troger. “And to increase capacity we need automation. There will be change at all levels.” He believes that 80% of today`s jobs will change in the future.

One counterintuitive argument says that the shake-up could create opportunities for previously disadvantaged groups, including women.

“The future of automation will affect jobs, there will be a transfer, but it creates huge opportunities in education,” said Baumgartner. “What should children ages six, seven and eight be learning? We can’t use silos anymore. We need a multidimensional approach.”

Troger will be pleased if schools turn out more women with the technical skills his firm needs.

Yahyaoui called on women to take up coding. “This will be the new literacy,” she said.

When the working day is done, new technologies are helping to make art more accessible — especially to people who may not see themselves in the mirror of art history. With their digital outreach programs, many art and cultural institutions are asking how they can change what they do to include a more diverse public, said Jude Kelly, Artistic Director of the Southbank Centre. “To change we have to give people a way to make the art of tomorrow.” New uses of digital technology can help “change the nature of who owns art,” she said.

This story is drawn from sessions at the Women’s Forum Global Meeting 2017.