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Run, walk, explore and get fit, there’s an app for that

Published on Saturday, 17 Aug 2019

As a keen runner who enjoys exploring the urban landscape whether at home in Singapore or wherever he travels, by integrating the power of technology with experiential urban exploration, serial entrepreneur Ben Pember, CEO and co-founder of District app, has embarked on a large-scale challenge, to encourage more people across the world to explore their cites, and along the way, to get fit and healthy.

Launched in 2018, once the first-of-its-kind fit-tech District app can be installed on either an Android or Apple smartphone. Using the District app, which combines location-based GPS and Bluetooth beacons with augmented reality (AR) to identify virtual checkpoints and landmarks, users can navigate — whether running or walking — a city with ease. “Ultimately, District is about creating an experiential experience by harnessing the joy of discovery and the fun of exploration,” says Pember who explains the District app is designed for anyone ranging from casual running enthusiasts and serious athletes to residents, tourists, and families. “It's a very social thing, people love chatting about the things they discover and sharing tips about the optimisation of the app,” Pember says. In Hong Kong for instance, District fans report they have explored places they have previously taken for granted or overlooked. For the competitively inclined, District organises races which require participants to find checkpoints and complete challenges within a set time, accumulating points along the way. District's Hong Kong tech-powered urban exploration run, which was held in May, attracted more than 6,000 participants. Additional races are so scheduled for Berlin, London and Zurich. “It's great to know that District is encouraging all kinds of explorers to use their city as a playground for active living,” notes Pember, who explains his reply to critics who claim that far too many people already spend too much time looking at their smartphones, is that technology is here to stay — and in the case of District — smartphones are being used to boost health and physical as well as mental well-being. “We call it tech for good,” says Pember, who points out how organisations could use the app to encourage employees to participate in well-being programmes.

As a keen cross-country and trail runner from youth, Pember's journey from studying law in Perth, Western Australia to pioneering sports-orientated entrepreneur began in 2006, when he moved to Singapore as a 22-year-old to take up a marketing position with global sports event organiser IMG Worldwide. “The prospects of a career in the legal profession seemed to be little bit dry,” says Pember. In Singapore, Pember also worked for the Parallel Media Group, where he managed some of the Asia region’s top sports and entertainment events. With his entrepreneurial endorphins picking up pace, after eight years as a corporate employee, in 2014, Pember co-founded Exceed Sports & Entertainment, a sports and entertainment agency that integrates different features of sports, lifestyle and technology into health and wellness events. “It was time to branch out to do my own thing,” recalls Pember, who says it was a case of throwing himself into the deep end, face the harsh reality of running a business, and make it happen. “It was the best decision I ever made,” he stresses.

Having built Exceed into a successful business Pember was ready for a new challenge. However, like a long-distance runner who needs to pace himself, Pember explains how the idea for the District app began as a “slow burner”. “I often thought about how traditional running could be made fun and more challenging, mainly when I was out for a run,” he says. The concept quickly picked up pace as a result of a serendipitous meeting with a tech-savvy acquaintance. “The meeting of two minds brought together tech-knowhow with my events, sponsorship and commercial experience,” says Pember who is responsible for developing commercial partnerships to bring the District experience to life in cities across the globe. Currently, corporate brand partners include AIA, Adidas and MasterCard. In addition, District recently entered into a partnership arrangement with Infront, the global sports marketing company.

Internationally, the District app has been launched in 35 cities mainly in Asia and Europe with North America in the pipeline. In addition, there are plans to launch the app in mainland China. “The beauty of the app technology is that it is adaptable and infinitely scalable,” says Pember. For example, District recently launched a grid-builder platform website, which allows users to create their own route maps and navigation challenges. “It's great to see how quickly people latch on to a whacky idea and use it to connect with their communities, and in the process, make people's lives better,” notes Pember, who explains that in the future, while plans are in the pipeline to launch a paid-for premium version of the District app, there will always be a free version of the app. “We don't want to lose sight of our key aim, which is to offer a fun, gamified experience that motivates people to explore their cities,” says Pember.

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