Citizen engagement key to successful smart cities
Internet of Things (IoT)

Citizen engagement key to successful smart cities

Improving the lives of citizens is at the heart of the smart city concept. Even so, many city leaders often focus on the technological infrastructure of smart cities, looking at issues such as CO2 emissions, congestion, energy and data integration etc., rather than the end user.

It’s worth taking note, however, that according to an Intel-sponsored study by Juniper Research, smart cities are estimated to have the potential to ‘give back’ 125 hours to a residents every year.

“There tends to be a focus on the technical underpinnings of building a data-centric world, but we can’t overlook the importance of the real human benefits that smart cities have,” says Windsor Holden, head of forecasting and consultancy at Juniper Research. “Connected communities, municipal services and processes have a powerful impact on a citizen’s quality of life.”

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In order to develop a truly successful smart city, analysts believe that citizen engagement is crucial. In her recent report for analyst firm Gartner, research vice president Bettina Tratz-Ryan says the way forward is a community-driven, bottom-up approach. She notes that residents should be involved in the design and development of their smart city from the get-go, rather than city leaders following a top-down policy that focus specifically on the technology platforms.

“A citizen-centric view is much more powerful,” she notes.


Technology is the enabler

“Technology is literally an enabler,” adds Megan Goodwin, joint managing director of digital innovation agency Interactive Rights Management (IRM). “It is a way to get people to connect and can help solve problems around loneliness, mental health and security for example,” she notes.

There are many reasons why a community-driven approach should be taken when developing a smart city. This includes the fact that citizens involved from the beginning of the process will have more of a vested interest and be more likely to embrace the technological changes.

Singapore’s systematic approach to technology is impressive but not easily replicable elsewhere. So What can other cities learn from Singapore’s extensive tech initiatives?

“Citizen engagement is critical to the development and ongoing success of a smart city as the people must be keen to adopt the new technology and incorporate it into their daily lives. To adapt an old phrase, if the development is governed by the people, for the people, the uptake of the technology is likely to be far greater,” notes Tiago Rodrigues, general manager at the Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA).

Furthermore, it is often members of the community itself who have the best understanding of the city’s biggest challenges – be that a need for better facilities for children, more green spaces or where the worst congestion issues can be found.

It’s also important to look at the make-up of the population. If there is a large number of elderly then a big focus will need to be on services aimed at them. Or perhaps if there’s a large international community, more work may be needed in dealing with language barriers.

“It becomes more contextualized with the demographic and that’s a win-win for everybody,” says Tratz-Ryan. “From a social perspective it becomes more cohesive and in turn the GDP and reputation of the city increases, as well as the trust of citizens in the decisions made by the city, as they know the community comes first.”


What does this mean for government CIOs?

With this in mind, governments, councils and city leaders need to change their mindsets and how they work with the community. Tratz-Ryan recommends that CIOs in local government identify and prioritize the problems that directly impact citizens, be mindful of the digital divide – paying equal attention to the issues of citizens with fewer IT skills, develop transparency, and use measurements and KPIs to show the smart city’s progress to all stakeholders.

“CIOs need not be frightened of transparency, if anything it can be used to validate decisions and drive innovation or the next generation of services,” points out Chris Pope, VP innovation at cloud computing firm ServiceNow.

And what of the best ways to engage with the community? Well there are many routes city leaders and CIOs can take, from town hall meetings and design councils through to email lists and mobile apps.

“[You’re looking for ways] which any proposed initiatives can be shared, along with the necessary feedback mechanisms to enable people to respond with their thoughts quickly and easily,” says Goodwin.

“Feedback should be requested on specific subjects, as people tend to respond more readily to these rather than broad topics, and people should be given options where possible to make it easy for them to reply,’ she advises.

“Where relevant, it’s also good to support any surveys you take with data on activity on the ground,” she continues. “This helps to gauge whether there is actual demand for an initiative rather than people ‘talking the talk but not walking the walk’.”


Successful citizen-focused smart city initiatives

Many citizen-focused smart city initiatives have already been successfully undertaken or are currently underway, offering great examples of how such projects can work.

“One early example from Europe comes from Amsterdam, where they have centers where citizens can report environmental performance, pollution, noise etc. Then there’s city states like Hamburg, where citizens have a large say in the budget and how it will be spent,” says Tratz-Ryan.

“Another great example is Imagine Boston, a campaign the city’s undertaken where they’ve asked 15,000 citizens how they’d like Boston to look in 2030, helping them shape the future of the city. There’s a really interesting video, which shows that they’re taking collaboration with citizens very seriously,” she highlights.

In the UK, Manchester City Council is supporting a bottom-up approach, “to ensure boardroom conversations align with the demands and needs of citizens,” says Nick Chrissos, technical lead at CityVerve, Manchester’s smart city demonstrator.

“People share ideas in different ways. At CityVerve we encourage interaction via our website, social media channels and our face-to-face events and community forums. Through these channels, we’re already hearing from citizens on what more can be done to make the Manchester’s Oxford Road Corridor – an innovation district south of the city center, and a benchmark for smart city development worldwide,” he enthuses.


Also read:

Smart Kigali: An IoT project to transform Rwanda
What can other cities learn from Singapore’s extensive tech initiatives?
Smart cities need to be about people but also data, replicable but also bespoke
Nokia helps advance Bristol’s smart city test bed
Smart cities and the internet of (connected) things
Can South Africa deliver on its smart city dreams


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Keri Allan

Keri Allan is a freelance journalist and editor who has been covering the engineering and technology sector for over 15 years, writing for titles including E&T Magazine, The Engineer and Arabian Computer News.

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