Listen to the People (and Their Data)
A smart city senses and responds to the patterns its constituents create as they travel, work, shop, and seek entertainment. Yet no smart city can accomplish this without real-time data about its infrastructure, inhabitants, and activities. “Cities thrived for the past 200 years by having access to great infrastructure—waterways, transportation, jobs,” says Kirk Talbott, CIO of the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority and formerly the deputy CIO and executive director of Smart City, City of Atlanta. “The next 100 years will be marked by access to great information. It will be one of the key deciders of success or failure in the future.”
People wonder why, for example, when Google and Amazon can use predictive modeling to suggest what users want to write or need to buy, the local government can’t proactively fix a pothole. “Cities have been growing without respecting their citizens enough,” says Ivan Caballero, CEO of Citibeats, which helps cities develop citizen engagement and civic analytics platforms and mobile applications. “And now those citizens are asking for more.”
More, according to Caballero and other smart-city advocates, means having an environment that citizens can shape to their benefit with data, whether they are actively contributing their opinions about plans for a new neighborhood development or passively providing their vehicle location data for the city to manage traffic signals. A survey of more than 6,000 citizens from Australia, France, Germany, Singapore, the United Kingdom, and the United States found that people overwhelmingly want digital delivery of public services, greater personalization, and easier, more secure ways to share and access data. The results also suggest an untapped enthusiasm for contributing to digital efforts. For example, 42% said they would willingly use Internet of Things (IoT) devices to share their personal data in exchange for discounts or service improvements, and 45% were willing to participate in focus groups or on committees to improve a service they use.
For the most part, however, cities have not explored ways to involve constituents in smart-city initiatives. “The essential role of citizens in smart-city development is not well-studied,” a team of researchers wrote in the journal Business & Information Systems Engineering in 2018, adding that smart cities are failing to meet their objectives because they do not appropriately involve citizens or take into account the impact of their initiatives on citizens.
There are, however, some smart-city experiments that aim to validate ways to use new technologies, such as virtual reality (VR) and artificial intelligence (AI), as well as a variety of new data sources, to engage citizen participation:
- In the Netherlands, a new law requires that citizens be involved in urban development from the earliest stages. The Dutch government’s website explains a concept it calls “do-ocracy,” which assumes that citizens reject “standard solutions for everything” and want to engage with “authorities that think along with them.” In ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Wouters’ team experimented with mixed reality. “If we’re developing windmills or a new high-rise, we’re exploring ways that the residents can see what it’s going to look like or feel like so that we can better understand their needs and concerns,” he explains. “They can virtually walk around the neighborhood or ride a bike through a new development to experience the changes,” and the city collects feedback from surveys or in-person meetings.
- Citibeats has been working with municipalities around the world to better understand what citizens want and engage them more directly in solutions. Its platform uses AI to analyze text from multiple sources, including social media, transcripts from public helplines or hearings, and chatbots, to discover, categorize, and synthesize local residents’ biggest concerns. In 2017, the Citibeats platform identified mobility as a top issue in Barcelona, Spain, which led the organization to develop a mobile app that individuals can download in order to participate in the solution. The app lets users know if there is gridlock on their chosen route, directs them to the best public transportation instead of a taxi, and rewards them with points—which they can redeem at local businesses—according to how much they contribute to alleviating the problem (the tighter the gridlock, the more points people get for using public transit).
- In New Zealand, the city councils of Christchurch, Auckland, and Wellington have been sharing data and research with each other, as well as with partner companies around the world, to pilot and implement a number of citizen-centric projects. Thus far, Christchurch had transformed the way it delivers 46 services, providing its 380,000 citizens with a choice of options, including apps and websites, for interacting with the city. Auckland has installed sensors to monitor recreational water conditions and offer real-time safety alerts and water-quality information to its citizens as well as provide real-time data on public transportation and traffic congestion. Wellington, meanwhile, has introduced a VR version of the capital city that allows people to interact with city data to understand the issues facing the city and ideas for its future.
- Medellín, Colombia, may trail some of its Latin American peers in the number of its smart-city projects, but it leads in citizen adoption of them, according to a June 2018 report by the McKinsey Global Institute. Medellín Ciudad Inteligente works with government, local universities, and social organizations to promote open data and transparent governance, citizen participation, and innovation and collaboration among individuals and communities. The city has focused on urban regeneration from the bottom up, using crowdsourcing to engage citizens from the city’s most vulnerable neighborhoods in transformative projects, such as a cable car, electric stairs, and technology-enabled schools and libraries. The city’s MiMedellin portal offers one way for citizens to give feedback on and vote for solutions to many issues, including air quality and mass transit.
Seoul, South Korea, is among the most advanced major cities in using technology to involve citizens in setting municipal priorities. The South Korean capital offers the mVoting smartphone app, which enables users to review local policy proposals (searchable by geography or popularity), such as improvements to public libraries, new bus routes, anti-smoking policies, or school curricula; suggest their own proposals; and vote for those they’d like to see enacted. While not an official voting process, this initiative helps shape officials’ decisions. A couple hundred proposals have been implemented so far.
According to Gartner Research Vice President Bettina Tratz-Ryan, Seoul is emerging as a model for other smart cities with its community-driven, bottom-up approach that involves residents in the design and development of the urban experience rather than a top-down effort driven by technology or infrastructure. However, in most places, “Citizens are often considered as users, testers, or consumers rather than producers and sources of creativity and innovation,” according to research by Ignasi Capdevila of the Paris School of Business and Matias I. Zarlenga of the University of Barcelona in the Journal of Strategy and Management.
One reason: the first wave of urban digital innovation was often led by private industry with its own profitability aims. Big tech companies, startups, and researchers have all been clamoring to stake their claim in the smart-city market. Meanwhile, cities have done a poor job of organizing these efforts for their own benefit or creating clear strategies about the futures they want to build.
What’s more, the one-off projects that have predominated only solve one-off problems rather than reimagining how cities can develop differently.
Meanwhile, some smart-city initiatives have created a backlash amid concerns that they have failed to take citizens’ concerns about the privacy and use of their data into account. For example, questions about personal data have prompted an online campaign by Toronto residents to halt development of Quayside, a waterfront property under contract with Sidewalk Labs, a unit of Alphabet, the parent company of Google.
Similar concerns have led some municipalities to define citizens’ digital rights. In June 2018, Amsterdam deputy mayor Touria Meliani began spearheading the development of a digital-city policy framework that describes the values and norms, such as the use of sensors and data in urban public spaces, that the city expects to embody in its digital infrastructure. These principles will cover data collection, availability, and privacy as well as the banning of WiFi tracking. They are based on a manifesto, developed by the Amsterdam Economic Board in cooperation with local citizens, that calls for transparency, accountability, and ethics in smart-city data collection and use. Amsterdam is also pioneering other solutions that make the city and technology providers accountable for data use, such as neutral audits to ensure that machine learning algorithms are not biased toward privileged areas or problems.