9 Ways to Engage Citizens in Your Smart City Initiatives

The cities we live and work in are increasingly “smart.” The definition coined in an Intel-sponsored study by Juniper Research says that a smart city places emphasis on the use of digital technology, shared knowledge, and cohesive processes to underpin citizen benefits in vectors such as mobility, public safety, health, and productivity.

That’s quite a mouthful. To paraphrase a bit, a smart city is adept at using technology to improve its citizens’ lives. So, when you’re waiting for a bus in Champaign, Illinois, you can consult an app on your smartphone that shows you a local map online that displays vehicles graphically so you know exactly where the next bus is, and the time—to the minute—when it will reach your stop. Copenhagen takes this a step further: 81% of its traffic lights are centrally managed, and half of those lights have sensors to give rights of ways to buses, so public transit riders are never stuck in traffic. Singapore, recently named the smartest city in the world, is installing sensors across the island to protect the health and cleanliness of cities. Among other things, the city detects if people are smoking in unauthorized zones and even which residents are littering the streets.

But it’s not just about the technology, cool as it might be to leverage such innovations as artificial intelligence (AI), smart machines, and the Internet of Things (IoT). Citizen engagement is critical to the success of smart cities, says Gartner. Because successful smart cities require participation, citizens themselves must be excited about what you are doing and collaborate in the brainstorming, designing, and building of smart initiatives.

Your smart city “to do” list

Here are nine tips on how technology can be leveraged to get your citizens engaged in your smart city initiatives.

  1. Use a bottom-up rather than top-down approach when developing new digital services. Rather than a chief information officer (CIO) or even city council dictating what should happen from the top of the government structure, listen to your people. Open up town hall meetings. Encourage voting on key initiatives. Be open to new ideas suggested by neighborhood groups or even individuals. In Paris, the “Madame Mayor, I have an idea” program has experienced a flood of more than 5,000 citizen proposals to spend €500 million before 2020 on citizen-initiated smart projects. The most popular proposal so far, with more than 21,000 votes, is an idea to develop 41 vertical gardens across the city.
  2. Develop key performance indicators (KPIs) that measure how you’re doing. If you don’t measure it, you’ll never know if a smart project is achieving what you want. Set quantitative goals and follow through to make sure they are met. According to Gartner, by 2020, two-thirds of all smart city strategies will include KPIs as measurements of success. For example, the Government of Dubai is measuring the success of its 2021 Smart City plan in terms of how much it reduces CO2emissions, average emergency response times, and number of road fatalities over specified time periods.
  3. Be aware of the “digital divide.” You will inevitably have people who own and are proficient in technology, and those who either lack the digital products—PCs, smartphones, etc.—or the skills to use them. Pay equal attention to the needs of citizens with fewer IT skills. Incorporating technologies such as natural-language-powered virtual personal assistants is a step in this direction. Another early initiative to address the divide should be to provide internet connectivity to everyone. Philadelphia is attempting to advance digital literacy and inclusion across its community through its Broadband Technology Opportunities Program.
  4. Bring the town hall online. Rather than having everyone attempt to crowd physically into a room, engage citizens via social media outlets such as Twitter or Facebook. To do this, you schedule a time and allow users to ask questions from the comfort of their homes or offices and get instant feedback regarding important issues. The town of Davidson, North Carolina, has been holding online “Open Town Halls” since October 2017. It also records each meeting and posts them online for people to watch.
  5. Provide access to city services via smartphones. Today, your citizens depend on smartphone apps for everything from checking the weather to shopping for groceries. Cities are already beginning to make city services available the same way—allowing people to find and pay for parking, apply for permits, and pay utility bills from their phones, for example. It’s important to have a “mobile friendly” website, too, as the Pew Research Center recently found that one in 10 U.S. adults are “smartphone-only” Internet users. That means, if your municipal website is not mobile optimized, or if you do not offer a separate downloadable mobile app for your local government, you are likely not providing all citizens with accessible content. Many of the cities in the North Carolina Triangle area are doing this. In Cary, sensors on water meters can detect if there is a leak to let homeowners know via smartphone texts. Chapel Hill is tracing empty parking lot spaces to let drivers know where parking is available in real time via their smartphones.
  6. Get input from other than the usual suspects. In any municipality, you have a group of hyper-engaged and very vocal citizens—who may not represent the majority of citizens—who tend to dominate. To get broader involvement, Metro Vancouver cities like Vancouver, Richmond, and Surrey use online consultation platforms that allow citizens to provide opinions—online or in person—on important civic issues as they arise. They participate in surveys, discussions, forums, and quick polls on various topics, providing government officials with a better idea of what their entire constituency is thinking.
  7. Be transparent and generous with your data. You should provide government data of all types to all interested parties to do whatever they want with it. Wonderful things can happen when data is released to industry, universities, and the general public. In New York, the Mayor’s Office for Economic Opportunity used publicly available data from a variety of public sources to build the “Poverty in NYC” map. You can drill down into specific neighborhoods on an interactive map to see patterns and problem areas within the city. It is helping NYC government as well as community groups create anti-poverty programs that actually work.
  8. Use social media. If your community is not already using social media to connect to citizens and share timely news and information, it’s time to start. Social media is not a passing trend. It is the new normal for how your citizens engage with their worlds. So, put up a Facebook site, use Twitter, and have a presence on LinkedIn. For example, the city of Banff, in Canada, is known for its breathtaking beauty and opportunities for outdoor sports. Banff city officials, understanding the appeal of images, created a Pinterest community that encourages both citizens and tourists to post their photographs of the area online for the world to see. The community simultaneously promotes tourism, community events, and even economic development using the popular visual social platform.
  9. Make use of “collective intelligence.” Your citizens are also eager to work with each other to crowdsource answers to government problems. You can easily make them your eyes and ears for helping with everything from traffic congestion, to air quality, to city infrastructure problems. Buenos Aires has created mobile apps to report such issues. For example, if a resident sees debris in the road, he or she can tweet a photo along with geolocation information to the city, which can then forward it to the appropriate department to fix it. When the problem is taken care of, the citizen who reported it gets a follow-up tweet along with a photo showing that the trash has been picked up.

Build a network capable of supporting it all

Thanks to the immediacy of social media, the proliferation of mobile technology, and the convenience of wi-fi, today’s citizens can engage with their governments in many new ways. In fact, citizen engagement is critical to the success of smart city initiatives. And underlying all of this, you need an intelligent network infrastructure that provides fast, secure, and reliable connectivity to all the applications and resources you’re putting into place.

For more advice on how to turn your city into a smart city, visit Centurylink.com