Alumni Stories – Urban technology designed to transform city environments

How can we best use technology to improve our lives?
Steven Bai uses new technology to make urban environments more engaging and people friendly. He says the modern city is like a huge operating system that needs an upgrade, and he’s already working on it.

Not many of us have a literal lightbulb moment when we realise our calling in life, but Steven Bai (BDesComp ’15) does. “When I was a kid in China,” says Bai, “I used to run around the town we lived in with my father, playing around with firecrackers. It made me so happy – seeing the sparks, watching the sky become bright. And I knew that’s what I wanted to do: make our environment a happier place.”

Bai doesn’t often have the chance to play with fireworks these days, while he works between Sydney, Beijing and New York. But true to his word, his work is about making the world a better place. He does it as the co-founder of Sencity, a company that uses what are called persuasive technologies.

Persuasive technologies in the digital realm are well known. Using our past choices, apps and websites prioritise the information they offer, to keep us online longer so we see more ads and buy more products. However, Bai’s company has a different goal. It creates persuasive technologies in the real world, where people live and work, to subtly encourage them to make better choices and have better experiences.

On paper, this makes Bai an ‘anti-disciplinary designer and interaction design researcher’. Which leads to asking, “But what do you actually do?” Bai pauses, and then he laughs.

“Well,” he says. “That’s a tough one. I think it’s easier to say that in my work, I’m trying to answer a question: what does the next generation of public infrastructure look like?

“Our city hardware – things like lighting poles, bus shelters, public bathrooms, even rubbish bins – are all really old. We want to figure out how to make infrastructure and city hardware that actually improves people’s lives. Basically, we want to reimagine cities as operating systems,” he says.

One of Bai’s first projects, as a Sydney student, was the TetraBIN at Sydney’s Vivid festival of light and ideas in 2014. Here he reimagined the humble street rubbish bin as a Tetris-style game. Each time a piece of rubbish was put in the bin, it was detected and a Tetris-like shape was generated in LED lights, which played to the previous piece that was generated. This ‘gamification’ element engaged people, and hundreds of children queued up to use it at Vivid. But the persuasion element was there as well.

“You probably use a rubbish bin 10 times a day, but you rarely think about it,” says Bai. “But I wondered if we could turn something very mundane into something exciting? And by making it exciting, could we entice people to think about the rubbish they produce and care more about the environment around them?”

In the same vein, Bai is aware of one city that installed an interactive game on the pedestrian button at traffic lights. It dramatically reduced the incidence of jaywalking. Less successful was an initiative in New York that put free internet kiosks on the street. They were discontinued because they were mostly being used to access adult-content websites.

As ideas evolve, smaller and cheaper technology is making more possible. Bai now travels to cities internationally, transforming everyday places, objects and surfaces into visual and interactive experiences that add an element of play to otherwise dreary city environments.

His greater goal is to reinvent the places where we live so they become ‘smart cities’. In the same way that smart homes have connected ‘helpers’ like Google Home and Amazon’s Alexa, Bai imagines the day when our cities will have infrastructure elements that connect with each other to make life easier for the people who use them.

Bai’s urban ambition is underpinned by what was a singular university career. Completing a Bachelor of Design Computing with First Class Honours, his research into persuasive technology earned him the University Medal. He also took home the prestigious John C Harsanyi Medal, which is awarded to outstanding international students. So it is a formidable mind that is now set on solving some of the world’s problems.

There are challenges, of course – big ones. The biggest problem, as Bai sees it, is that until now, cities have been making piecemeal changes. “It’s really hard,” he says, “because essentially the way we run cities has to change completely. A place like New York City is run in such an outdated, old-fashioned way – it won’t cope with big changes to its population, and we need to fix that.”

Bai’s interest in public environments grew from both his Chinese childhood and his education in Australia. At 15, he participated in an exchange program with a high school in Hobart and loved it so much he decided to stay on. “I thought, ‘Wow, you can do computer science in high school? And art? And choreography? That’s amazing.”

(That’s right: in addition to his day job, Bai is an accomplished illustrator and dancer. As a youngster, he was also a competitive swimmer.)

He stayed with a Tasmanian family for the remaining three-and-a-half years of high school and then enrolled at the University of Sydney, living on campus at Sydney University Village. “I was very inspired by the alumni who came before me, particularly Craig Barratt (BSc ’83 BE(Elec) ’85), who has done great things at Google, and by the way the uni approaches learning,” he says. “I didn’t want to just graduate with a degree. Sydney is all about the whole person, and that really excited me.”

Mainly, though, Bai credits the University with fostering his love of collaborative learning. “I couldn’t do what I do now without learning to work with teams,” he says. “And the University certainly encouraged that. It’s a very collaborative place. When you reach out to lecturers and tutors and alumni, they’re always happy to help.

“I didn’t realise it until just now, but that sense of reaching out and helping each other – that’s what smart cities are all about. Connecting. Helping. Making every day a little bit easier.”

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