Community Engagement in Smart City Development

BY KAMYA JAGADISH • March 7, 2022

The idea of a “smart city” often feels abstract, with a definition that morphs and stretches depending on who you ask. So how can residents be expected to knowledgeably engage on smart city topics with their local governments when it feels like no one can really agree on what smart cities are? Right now, many governments are grappling with this increasingly prevalent challenge; how can they effectively engage residents in conversations about this complicated topic area?

What makes smart cities topics more challenging to discuss with community members than many other local government issues? It’s not just the complexity of the topics at hand, but also the fear that many communities hold in regards to new technology and data collection. Addressing these information deficits and concerns will take thoughtful engagement and creative strategizing, plus transparent conversations about new public technology.

Despite these challenges, community engagement on this one topic is one of the most important aspects of government today. In an interview with Hollie Russon Gilman, political scientist and author of the book “Civic Power”, she explained that “engaging residents on what we’re doing with smart technology is not just about a one-off security grid or chatbot that helps you with services; it’s about an integrated approach of what it means to be a resident in the 21st century and about how we want to deal with our government on all topics.” Learning how to engage communities on smart city topics empowers them to shape their lives in the modernizing public sphere and participate in decisions that impact them personally.

1) The Smart City Information Gap

Long Beach, California has a “Smart City Initiative”  that aims to grapple with these specific issues. To kick-off their community engagement, they sent out a survey in which the first question was “have you heard of the term smart cities before?”. Of the 450 respondents, 60% had never heard of the term “smart city” before. Ryan Kurtzman, program manager for the Smart City Initiative said that this survey result “really reinforced that we need to lead from a community-centered place rather than one that is sort of technocratic. Communication and education need to be a really vital piece of this work.”

Before engaging residents in smart city topics, Kurtzman and his team define a list of relevant terms (such as Internet of Things and machine learning) to ensure people have equal footing and more comfortability with the topic areas before diving into the meat of the survey or engagement. Smart city technologies lend themselves well to demos and other experiential learning opportunities. Kurtzman also sees technology pilots as a great opportunity to engage with community members by explaining what the technology is, what it is doing, and why.

Gilman also mentioned the seeming invisibility of these changes. This invisibility — which can also lend to a lack of transparency — increases the necessity to be extremely thoughtful in communication and be proactive about reaching out into the community. Residents are less likely to be aware of the invisible changes happening around them, so it is city officials’ job to not just position themselves for feedback, but also to communicate openly and early on in the technology adoption process.

2) Fears of Futuristic Cities

Beyond the information deficit, there are many concerns about technology adoption and potential futuristic cities where people’s every movement is tracked. It is important to educate people on not just the topics of smart cities but to do it in a way that can assuage their fears and allow them to critique and provide feedback.

For starters, it can be helpful to explain the ways in which cities already use technology and make data-driven decisions. GPS and traffic data collection help ambulances reach patients in record times; water level sensors help cities save money and conserve water; 311 apps have improved the experience of reporting non-emergencies to the city. In Long Beach, the Smart City Initiative team conducts “data walks,” during which they tour residents around a neighborhood and point out smart city technology and infrastructure that can be seen from the sidewalk, such as traffic cameras and induction loops. This allows community members to gain awareness of the technology that is already in use while also providing them a space to share their input on the appropriateness of these solutions in the public realm.

Kurtzman emphasized the need to have these conversations because data privacy is a real concern in his community. His team published a set of data privacy guidelines that transparently explain which data is collected in Long Beach and their future vision is to give people access to that data, even allowing them to delete it if they choose. This opens a channel of communication between city officials and community members about important topic areas which need co-created solutions. Gilman also mentioned the importance of maintaining the trusted intermediaries that already exist in communities. These intermediaries already know how things work and how to get things done in their community, so it is important to invest in them and fortify trusting relationships.

Lastly, and importantly, is the fear of being left behind as cities modernize – or that of the digital divide.  Most cities recognize this very real issue and try to mitigate it by proactive outreach efforts, ensuring non-digital outreach, and even thinking through potential digital literacy programs. Sam Quinney, director of The Lab @ DC, which is an evidence-based lab that provides scientific insights to improve the lives of D.C. residents, adds that engagement on these topics must be as low a burden as possible so that people don’t have to be particularly educated or even specifically connected to government to provide input. Gilman also notes that this is where those trusted intermediaries can be especially valuable – facilitating intergenerational structured engagement around technology and policy decisions. “I think [engagement] is going to require meeting people where they’re at, so if it’s a community center, a local charity, nonprofit, faith-based organization, or community colleges, Black anchor institutions, parks, rec centers, libraries—these all play a robust role in bringing people together across generations, across geographies, and across economic status.”

Moving Forward

While smart city development can create more work for community engagement professionals, technology can actually be a solution to enhancing community engagement and making it more agile and inclusive. Quinney mentions how some aspects of polling and surveys have raced online, making them easier to do than before. “It holds a lot of promise for governments to do that sort of [digital] engagement” he said. Gilman also noted that technology can be used to create a more collaborative governance that actually strengthens our civic muscles and fosters more inclusive and equitable engagement. Furthermore, cities can adopt tools that are inclusive of English language learners by incorporating real time translation services.

While cities need to close the smart city information gap and ease community concerns, at the end of the day, the goal of the community engagement is still to hear residents and empower them to shape their public life. Technology is just a tool that cities are using to attain their pre-existing goals of creating more efficient, equitable, and resilient cities. It is important that this message doesn’t get lost in the process.

About the Author

Kamya Jagadish

Kamya Jagadish is a writer for Data-Smart City Solutions while she pursues a Master of Public Policy and Master of Business Administration at Harvard. Before coming to graduate school, she worked as a data scientist and product manager in the tech sector and as an innovation specialist within the US Department of Transportation. At school she is focused on determining pathways to leverage private capital and partnerships for the public sector.