What can the Milan Design Week app teach us about smart city solutions for tourists and residents?

La Statale University, during this year's Milan Design Week. Image: Getty.

This post is brought to you by global IT business solutions provider Comarch.

The Brera Smart District mobile app was created in cooperation between Comarch, a global services provider, and Studiolabo, the agency behind the Brera Design District project. Initially, it helped visitors to navigate through the myriad of events during last April’s Milan Design Week.

The Comarch Smart City Platform proved to be a comprehensive tool, which could become popular in many cities all over Europe and the world. In the meantime, both people living in Milan and those who are just visiting Brera District can benefit from the location-based services it provides.

Although the system was created to drive the biggest design event in Europe, it is a complete tool which will be evolving over the next years as a solution for other areas of Milan, and possibly other Italian cities.

A brief history of the app highlights quite why so many cities are now investing in such smart technologies. 

Brera district and Milan Design Week

Brera is the creative and cultural heart of the Milan, and the main arena of last spring's Design Week.

The Fuorisalone, to give the event its proper name, started spontaneously in the 1980s thanks to Italian designers and creators of furniture. Nowadays, it is open also to many sectors including automotive, technology, telecommunications, fashion, food and art.

The Fuorisalone is not a traditional fair, and it is not organised centrally: instead, it's composed of more than 138 smaller events, attended by over 200,000 people. Nevertheless, it is institutionally recognised, and supported by Milan's city council and the local public transportation company (ATM). Today it is one of the most important events of its kind in the world.

Festivals, Apps, and the Internet of Things

Nowadays, a festival app is a must, and organisations all over the world propose special applications to enhance the experience associated with any big event.

One app of this kind is “Glascovery”, which helps attendees at Glastonbury to navigate through the event's lineup. There are also more generic applications that enable you to buy all the equipment in one place (Festival Ready), or accurately estimate how much longer your phone will last (Battery Saver).

Most of these do not fully exploit the potential of the IoT – but there are those that do.

What does the Brera Smart District app do?

The heart of the app is the “Nearby Now” section, where one can find numerous exclusive offers or promotions. For example, a user may get unlimited fried doughnuts – a free treat for gourmet appetites.

In “Journeys”, there’s a convenient trip planner with interactive map. The app also offers easy access to the agenda of Fuorisalone 2016, and its “Tourism” tab is a guide to Milan’s main attractions.

Additional functions such as “Transactions”, “Cart”, “Favorites”, make the app a comprehensive solution for both those participating in Milan Design Week and those simply visiting Brera district.

Speaking of the app, Kamila Niekraszewicz, country manager at Comarch Italy, says:

"The app is a first step for us. It was designed for a small but very important part of Milan, the vibrant Brera District and it is focused on the Milan Design Week. It benefits from the most important elements of Comarch Smart City Platform – beacons, location based services, interactive maps and offers engine.

"We are planning to implement more versatile solutions soon. They are dedicated to whole cities and give users brand new possibilities. Smart City is a future. We’re glad it all started in Milan, a cradle of design and technology."

The launch of Comarch's first European Smart City application makes the company more reliable in the eyes of potential clients – organisations that buy solutions which are similar from technical and business point of view. The app means the firm has joined the list of suppliers of advanced solutions. Today, Comarch doesn't only only IT, but also consulting and working with the client.

The app's second life

The application has already achieved very good results – in just its first few days, it received hundreds of downloads, and 73 commercial partners placed their offers on the platform. The team also received a number of positive comments from local stores, restaurants and other places.

Just as with any project focused on a specific event, there are questions about the future of Smart Brera District application. In this case, however, there is no concern that the work will be in vain. The system has been prepared for Europe’s biggest design event, but it is a complete program  to implement its Smart City systems in other cities, in Southern Europe and in the United States.

For more information on Comarch Pointshub, please click here, or follow us on LinkedIn. The application is available on iTunes and Google Play. 


In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.