Maria Vasakou Product Development Director

To address the challenges of the fast-paced urbanization, massive economic constrains, and imminent environmental threats, cities turn to technology to help digitally transform their operations. Smart city solutions contribute to making urban environments more sustainable, and more importantly to improving the quality of life of the people who live there.

With technology increasingly becoming an intrinsic aspect of our lives, the deployment of “responsible” technology in the sphere of urban environment can drastically transform the city as we know it. A smart city strives to optimise infrastructure and responsive governance, using intelligent information and communication technology solutions. Smart cities are designed to make the best use of resources and therefore promote a healthy and sustainable future.

My vast experience in the Energy and Sustainability sector has made me aware of how important smart and informed decision making is for efficient resource management. However, while everyone focuses on how to make a city smart or “smarter” for that matter, there are only a few cities exploring how they can better connect with the people that comprise them. In fact, an emerging concern when discussing about smart cities is how to keep people at the centre of smart city initiatives. Although this would seem to go without saying, since smart city initiatives are undertaken to serve the citizens, a number of interrelated trends are making this more imperative and more challenging than ever.

While many technological advancement solutions are emerging, when not implemented correctly, they might feel imposed, rather than inclusive. This feeling might be exacerbated by a general misconception that cities tackle the “wrong” problems, that the proposed solutions do not resonate with the everyday experience of their users, or that the technology is being used for “technology’s sake”, putting at risk the final product that is being delivered to the citizens. A key factor to the success of every smart city project is getting people to feel part of the changes in their environment. Furthermore, the speed and complexity of technological progress without the proper processes in place can make it difficult for cities to understand the impact on citizens and their relationship with the city. Whether we are talking about public servants or city users, it is their perspective on urban living that drives change.

In fact, what cities should start thinking is how they can actually create the perfect experience for their citizens. This could be along the lines of a citizen app that would render all the information needed to navigate one city available or getting citizens more involved by creating a sense of interaction with the city. Putting citizens first requires cities to reorient institutional thinking and resources to serve their people, not the other way around.

Customer Experience for the Citizens

Citizens as consumers are enjoying today more than ever the convenience of digital service that many private sector companies put at their fingertips. Thus, most people want, and expect, the same level of service from governments that they receive elsewhere. Failing to meet these expectations can be perceived as poor government service and unfortunately, while cities are becoming more digital, there often exists a gap between what citizens want and what they currently get. When designing customer experience, we first try to understand the customers of an organization and more importantly empathise with them. In the same vein, cities should start by researching what their citizens’ needs and desires are, what motivates them and what concerns them the most. Identifying the right technology can be crucial for a successful digital experience, hence cities, like any other organization, must first understand what they are trying to solve before deciding how to proceed and which tools to use. Smart cities should delve into the everyday urban experience of the people living, working or visiting them in order to decipher not only their challenges, aspirations and needs, but also their mode of interaction with their urban settings. It is important to closely consider what information people are looking for, and what is the best way to deliver it.

Think like a Startup

Cities can improve on their residents’ engagement by thinking and operating like startups in order to get things done faster and more efficiently. Using one-week sprints and design workshops for building and deploying the appropriate tools might be the last thing one would expect from a city office, but when designers, developers and product managers come together, far-reaching and challenging digital experience goals can gradually become reality. Keeping departments siloed does not spur innovation in startups and it certainly does not work at the city level. It is all about bringing everyone together, across teams and departments.

Lead and Incentivise

Leadership is a key factor in citizen engagement. When designing smart cities, it is of critical importance to use the appropriate means to empower and accommodate those who are difficult to reach, such as underrepresented, marginalised or socially excluded population groups, migrants and temporary residents, younger and older people, as well as people with disabilities. Another important consideration should be aiming at gender balance and diversity in engagement and participation. Cities should try innovative ways to introduce smart city initiatives, targeting those neighbourhoods where distribution of resources is of particular importance. In addition, cultural and art institutions, and creative industries can become potential allies in this process, since their resources can be leveraged to promote civic participation and dialogue.

Collaborative Platforms

One additional way cities can increase access is by developing and using new and existing models of collaboration, such as co-creation, co-design and co-production of the citizens’ suggested solutions. Developing a multi-stakeholder collaborative platform, using the appropriate technologies, and leveraging digital social innovations, can spike residents’ interest. Furthermore, urban committees comprised by experts and city officials can be trained to outreach, raise awareness on urban issues, and inspire a meaningful engagement by the citizens.

Improvement of Processes

Instituting assessment procedures and mechanisms that include citizens both at the specification and implementation level can assure that the final responsibility for the services provided does not remain only with the elected public authorities. Engaging citizens can ensure the continuity of such initiatives regardless of political change, while a framework for ongoing assessment based on citizen feedback can guarantee their success.

Open Data

Promoting the use of open data, providing access to citizens, start-ups, developers, and applying Open Government practices are also important factors for building and maintaining citizen trust. Trust is of paramount importance for the adoption of smart city projects. To gain trust, cities must ensure privacy by design and respect both individual freedom and the right to privacy when introducing smart city solutions. Citizen consent and data privacy regulations should be always taken into account in the planning of smart city projects.

Open Innovations

Promoting open innovation and information systems can nurture “smart” citizens. Engaging citizens in research and innovation projects and actively supporting ecosystems premised on cooperation between municipalities, universities, businesses, and civil society organizations, can foster the desired anthropocentric design. Building on entrepreneurship, peer learning and replicable concepts, while connecting with other city-based initiatives can further the outcomes of innovative technological projects.

Towards Smart Urban Communities

Although I only outlined the premises of a citizen-based smart city approach, I am convinced that collaboration is the only way to provide more responsible and sustainable urban innovations, greater transparency, and ultimately more inclusive cities. Collaboration will generate engaged, empowered and “smart” citizens that can positively contribute to a more sustainable city and community. The smartest cities should not only be customer-centric, but more importantly, anthropocentric, having a citizen-first mindset while using digital tools to carry out their vision.

ATCOM: From Digital to Purpose