In Conversation with SmartCitti’s Architect of Happiness and Director of UX, Dr. Mohammed Al-Husban
7 Jul 2020
Dr. Mohammed Al-Husban is SmartCitti’s UX specialist and architect of happiness. With over 15 years’ experience, Mo is passionate about creating socially impactful use cases for advanced technologies like AI and Digital Twinning, facilitated by accessible and intuitive UIs. His unique skill set combining design strategy, interaction design, user research, user interface design, information architecture and content strategy, have made him an invaluable leader of SmartCitti’s happiness team. Mo is also a Senior Lecturer and Usability Manager at Solent University in the * and has lent his services to governments and businesses alike.
In this interview, Mo discusses what happiness means for SmartCitti and how SmartCitti intends to actualise its vision of creating smart and happy communities.
Q1: Why does happiness matter so much right now?
“Happiness always matters because at a deeply fundamental level, it is what motivates individuals. It impacts almost every aspect of our lives— how we perceive our world, how we perform, how we socialise and interact, how we treat the environment, etc. Happiness significantly impacts how we behave, and this has to do with the connections between emotion and cognition. Happiness, in a way, is a complex composite of thoughts and emotions. Trying to understand how emotions impact our cognitive ability and activities daily has always been a fascinating area of research for me. To sum it up, happiness is important because by influencing our emotions, thoughts, and behaviours, it also impacts our finances, performance, learning, and interactions significantly, and this impact extends from the individual to the community.”
Q2: How would you define happiness?
“We can view happiness from ecological and constructivist perspectives. The ecological exists outside the individual and refers to those outside events which can trigger or somehow influence an individual’s happiness. The events could be something like the news, a social media post, a nice meal with a friend, a walk around your neighbourhood, etc. These are things that can somehow lead to greater or lesser happiness for the individual. However, as I said earlier, happiness is more complex than we often think. It is not one single thing that we can initiate, construct, and experience.
The ecological perspective, which views happiness as the result of what happens outside you as a person, is an objective view of happiness while the constructivist perspective is a subjective view of happiness. From the constructivist view, happiness has to do with how you perceive your life and your world. Now, your attitudes towards life and towards others are built-up through the years as you grow and mature. They also have to do with your beliefs about things like the reason why we are here, your purpose in life, etc. All these self-actualization beliefs are part of the constructivist view of happiness.
At SmartCitti, we want to create smart applications that can objectively enhance happiness for individuals. We’re not trying to change how people think or what they believe about life. We simply want to help individuals find and take advantage of the things that make them happy.”
Q3: Looking at the world today, how do you think we are stumbling when it comes to happiness?
“I think one area where we stumble has to do with awareness. I think we are not always aware of what makes us happy and this is partly because we don’t record happiness and we don’t celebrate or publicize happiness the way we share bad news or negative reviews. The way bad news and events are publicised and spread across all media is clearly adding to people’s frustrations. SmartCitti has gathered more than 5000 happiness impressions over the past 3 months which show that people are becoming more stressed out. In general, people are experiencing more negative emotions and lesser happiness, and this is not a good thing for individuals or their communities. Consider that happiness is a kind of catalyst for meaningful social interactions, good performance at work, and community building. So, whatever can influence our happiness can directly and indirectly influence many other things.
I also think we need to understand the role of technology in all this. At SmartCitti, we believe technology can play a role in helping people recognize, celebrate and share happiness with friends and family. We also view happiness as an important ingredient for community. We believe sharing happiness is especially important for building and strengthening communities.”
Q4: Where does AI fit into all of this? Also, what is the AI component of SmartCitti’s features?
“SmartCitti’s mission is to build smart and happy communities, and we aim to do this by understanding and contributing to people’s happiness, and this is exactly where the AI component comes in. From a physical understanding of the world and going back to the ecological perspective I mentioned earlier, everything happens in a time and place, including happiness. So, what the SmartCitti app does is try to understand happiness within a geospatial context. We have designed an AI engine that employs machine-learning capabilities and digital-twinning to try to understand and predict what makes people happy. SmartCitti’s unique selling point is that it can contribute to your happiness by understanding what makes you happy and then providing real-time insights that can enhance your happiness such as where to go and what to do based on location-specific information.
Within the SmartCitti app, users can see a real-time simulation of everything in their physical world. To show you how it works, let’s assume you had a good experience at a restaurant and you left a happiness review of everything you enjoyed—the meal, the quality of service, spending time with friends and the overall dining experience. Let’s also assume that parking was readily available, the location was secure and you also left reviews about these things within the app. SmartCitti collects all these small details and uses them to create an evolving picture of what makes you happy.”
Q5: A lot of companies are also exploiting AI and machine learning. How do you think SmartCitti fits into this trend, and what sets it apart from others?
“We use AI to process and analyse the large data sets we continuously collect in real time. In this way, we fit into the ‘Big Data’ trend within what you can describe as the AI movement. And, as mentioned earlier, the happiness insights we provide are entirely powered by AI.
SmartCitti has invested heavily in AI and machine learning over the past 5 years, and we have set up a research and enterprise department within the company with the main goal of building bridges with universities. So far, we currently work with 5 different universities and have a growing team of scientists. In fact, I am head of projects with SmartCitti and a senior lecturer in UX and usability management at Solent University.”
Q6: How did you develop use cases for SmartCitti and what use cases do you envisage in the future?
“SmartCitti is built on three main pillars— Happy, Smart and Safe, and we are constantly developing use cases for each of these pillars. The main use case for ‘Happy’ is the emotional review feature. In the digital twin world simulated within the SmartCitti app, users can leave public or private reviews of anything within the community. It could be a sofa, a car, a restaurant, a park, etc. Users can rate anything they want and share their ratings with their community. This is the basic use case for the ‘Happy’ component of SmartCitti.
For the second pillar, ‘Smart’, we are developing multiple use cases with the goal of making daily life as frictionless and stress-free as possible. We are looking at ways of enhancing how we shop, how we drive, and how we communicate using smart technologies in new and innovative ways. On this occasion, I would like to talk about our soon-to-be-released ‘smart shopper’ feature. It provides tools for internal navigation, planning and virtual shopping all in one place. It is designed to help people shop conveniently and safely at malls, especially considering the lingering threat of Covid-19. Though lockdown restrictions on shopping in the UAE have been completely removed, the situation with the coronavirus is still evolving. With growing consensus among epidemiologists that a second wave is likely, there is need for vigilance and preparedness. In such a scenario, the ‘Smart Shopper’ feature would be very useful indeed.
‘Smart Shopper’ is designed to help users with real-time information like which shops are open, how to locate favourite shops, and what items are in stock. And, it is perfect for navigating massive shopping complexes such as the Dubai Mall which has 1200 shops. ‘Smart Shopper’ also has AR and VR capabilities which lets users interact with a shop without touching anything at all.
Finally, our primary use case under the third pillar, which is ‘Safe’, is still in development. I can say that it is intended to provide a very practical solution to users on an on-demand basis. We see many companies today embracing the ‘on-demand’ model because it increases accessibility by lowering barriers to use. We are looking forward to unveiling our primary ‘Safe’ feature in due course.
That said, at a very fundamental level, we recognize that safety is necessary for happiness. The SmartCitti app is built to ensure the safety of users at all times. This is why risk and security assessments have been prioritized within the emotional review feature.”
Q7: We know that the ‘Happy to Help’ feature of SmartCitti’s flagship app is supported by AI. Can you tell us more about how this works?
“Happy to Help is a feature through which we intend to fulfil the community-based aspect of our mission. Our mission, like I earlier said, is to build smart and happy communities. We intend to do this by providing a platform where people can come together to help each other. Since the Covid-19 pandemic started, users in the UAE and the * have been able to request assistance or assist others in their communities through ‘Happy to Help’. There are actually 22 different types of help people can seek or receive through the platform, and it includes emotional support, walking a dog, caring for the elderly, etc. It’s great because everyone gets to be a helper, and with one click, a user can see all the helpers around her in real time. This ‘real-time’ component is where AI comes in. Because ‘Happy to Help’ is powered by AI, people can get notifications as things evolve in real time, and we hope to expand the capabilities of this feature to include notifications based on predicted needs and current availability. For instance, the feature may be able to assess that a user is running out of eggs and eggs are currently available at a particular place, and therefore notify a user to buy eggs while out at lunch from xyz place.
So far, ‘Happy to Help’ has been a game-changer. During this covid-19 crisis, we have seen people interacting with the feature and coming together and sharing lots of things. We have also seen a lot of support for local suppliers and businesses as well, showing how the sense of community captures all stakeholders like businesses, schools, local councils, and parks. It is this connected ecosystem of community that can improve the way we live as a society.
So, ‘Happy to Help’ will remain a core feature of SmartCitti. It is a feature for the community, and this is how we build our shared economy which is not defined in financial terms but in people terms. And to be clear, here at SmartCitti, we place people in the centre of our universe.”
Q8: Would you say that ‘Happy to Help’ is a kind of happiness network?
“Absolutely. It is a happiness network designed to identify different levels and types of support within a community and aggregate this information for community access in one single place in real time. So, users don’t really have to go to different forums, blogs, and websites since all the information they need is in one place. Also, the information is highly localized in a geospatial way. You look on the map and you see exactly who is around you, who can provide you with help, and then you choose the option that suits your needs.”
Q9: How do you see ‘Happy to Help’ evolving in the future?
“In the future, we hope that ‘Happy to Help’ will be able to create what we call an ‘Intelligent Macro Economy’ which will be able to identify local areas’ needs in terms of public services and even businesses. For instance, a local area might need more than one shop to supply a product, an additional traffic light or certain social care services like a GP surgeon. We hope that in the future, we will be able to harness these sorts of insights from the trending topics and requests within the ‘Happy to Help’ community.
So, the next step for us is to identify patterns and trends that could help to grow and build local communities that are smarter, greener, and more supportive of the Third Economy. We understand how important it is to build the community for the future, and our community is different from other social media communities because we are not on social media. SmartCitti is really more than an app or a website. We think of ourselves as a community that uses advanced technologies to enhance the happiness.”
Q10: Shifting our focus back to happiness and looking at the relationship between life at work and life at home, how do you think happiness in the workplace relates to happiness out of the workplace?
“Happiness in the workplace, which is mostly concerned with employees’ wellbeing, has recently been in focus here at SmartCitti. In the last couple of years, we’ve done a lot of research to try to understand and capture the impact of employees’ happiness on three main metrics within the workplace namely productivity, efficiency and effectiveness. In general, our data confirmed the idea that a happy employee is always more productive. We were also able to work out, in financial terms, how much is lost when employees are unhappy and how much is gained when employees are happy. The data we have collected from different workplaces strongly suggests that investing in employees’ happiness can have positive impact on revenue models.
More to your question, there is definitely a relationship between happiness in the workplace and happiness outside of work. It’s no surprise that a happy workplace contributes significantly to a happy life because so much of our lives today revolve around work. Considering the current situation where many people have had to work from home, it has become really important to make sure that your work and your home are happy places because, at the end of the day, they are deeply linked.”
Q11: So how do you think that employers can improve the wellbeing and happiness of their employees?
“This is precisely the reason we developed SafeDistance, a workplace app, in respond to the which enables employers understand their employees’ happiness in real time, as well as physically keep them safe. There are two features that employers can always use. The first is called the happiness score. It aggregates happiness impressions, voluntarily given by employees, to come up with a happiness score that gives a sense of an employee’s emotional state.
The second feature is called the happiness map. It gives employers the ability to gauge overall happiness in their workplace through a real-time map which aggregates employees’ happiness scores. So, for instance, an employer might be able to see that a meeting was successful in boosting morale because soon after, people were generally happier. The happiness map will also show when the immediate impact of an event or incident has been negative and can then decide if they need to take action to restore morale. They could decide to try a conflict resolution approach, introduce a new task, or maybe try doing something just to make employees happy. SafeDistance actually facilitates better communication between employers and their employees.
Again, the real-time capabilities of this workplace app are entirely supported by AI. AI generates and updates the happiness map in real time, delivering the results of complex analyses in such a way that employers can get a sense of the general feeling in their offices in one single glance. I’d like to point out that SafeDistance also protects employees’ anonymity within the emotional review feature.”