Citizens: Smart Cities Best Partners
Cities at their core are about citizens — the intermingling of diverse sets of people who live, work, visit and play there. Together they create a rich social fabric that transcends buildings, streets and services to form a culture, an identity.
All city leaders understand the need to maintain strong connections between citizens, neighborhood networks, government officials and private companies. Yet, all too often, Smart City efforts focus on systems and technologies designed for top-down efficiency without fully integrating the perspectives of the people whose lives will be impacted.
The bottom line is, when we talk about Smart Cities, we aren’t smart if we’re not all involved.
Early examples we can learn from include Songdo, South Korea and Masdar City in Abu Dhabi – both very ambitious built-from-scratch community reinventions. The main focus for those Smart Cities was adopting innovative technology to drive efficiency, environmental sustainability, and economic development – not so much engaging the citizen. Partnerships consisted of high tech companies, innovative financing banks, university consortiums and such, with less emphasis on meeting ordinary citizens’ needs. Some of these state-led top-down city developments are being criticized for being “so digitally wired, they lose the essence of sociability.”
It all comes back to this – smart city efforts need to address the fundamental question – smart for whom? As Kanter & Litow describe, that means understanding that the most important connectors across city systems are the people who turn it from “a mechanistic bundle of infrastructure elements into a set of vibrant human communities”.
We are now realizing that if we don’t involve citizens, and actually empower them with the ability to both access and provide data, even if they don’t always know they are doing it, then we are missing a very substantial step, not to mention a lot of big data opportunities that are advantageous to the city itself. We need to design technology offerings to better enable the citizen, to empower them with what is meaningful, making them part of the solution.
When we look at these city partnerships and involving citizens, a good example is Waze, the private navigation startup acquired by Google. This navigation pioneer’s success stems from its ability to design a navigation app that is based primarily on the give-and-take of crowdsourcing. Every opt-in individual with a digital device essentially becomes a sensor, merging with other sensors to create a real-time understanding of what’s happening on the roadways. Waze also launched a Connected Citizens Program that unites cities and citizens to understand not only what’s happening on the roads right now, but also how cities can improve incident response times and make better infrastructure decisions to benefit travelers. The Connected Citizens Program has many committed partners already – Rio de Janeiro, Los Angeles County, the State of Florida and the New York Police Department to name a few.
Similarly, the City of Oakland is using crowdsourcing to identify potholes in the City. Potholes are serious business – in fact I saw a quote recently that said “reporting potholes is the gateway drug to civic empowerment”! Washington DC is one City that’s being overloaded with conventional 311 calls to report potholes. It’s now using Waze data crowdsourced from users as part of their “potholeaplooza” campaign to combat the “war on potholes”.
I also like the Rio de Janeiro example of using crowdsourcing to help citizens avoid garbage truck delays. Have you ever tried to circumnavigate a garbage truck or sweeper on a narrow street? Well, citizens in Rio know that this is nearly impossible. The city is loading GPS trackers in the garbage trucks and conveying data to the system where citizens can track the truck’s route and understand how to best avoid congestion and long wait times. Again, realizing real citizen problems and solving them by getting everyone involve is really making an impact.
Another cool way that cities are engaging with citizens via multi-tasking technology is through lighting. Smart streetlights are getting a lot of attention because LED retrofits can yield 60%+ energy savings while providing a host of other benefits when automation and sensors are added. But beyond that, cities are using lighting to draw people to parts of the city and engage with residents and visitors alike. For instance San Jose is using light art to engage and educate the public with an LED art project that citizens use as a meeting point and communication hub. Education and community art are being combined to creatively illuminate and stimulate an urban landscape. Here light graffiti defines a local attraction that citizens identify as an energetic, appealing and safe haven to interact (and in this case they enjoy the added amusement of being able to change the performance of the artscape with your smart phone).This kind of interaction with the public is central to a city’s mission to nurture desirable spaces and reinforce a sense of place and community.
These are REAL examples of partnerships that engage citizens by getting them involved to become part of civic problem solving. Citizen collaboration is becoming the new smart. Smart City challenges are substantial, and no single party can meet all the needs alone. Partnering with technology companies, solution providers, universities are key but it is essential to have the citizens involved to make the smart city a reality.
For more insight into smart city trends, review Black & Veatch’s Strategic Directions Smart City/Smart Utility Report (2016).
This blog post is part of a series. Read the next post: The Heart and Soul of Smart Cities