Conversations around smart cities usually focus on the tools being implemented, or how these tools can help municipalities to function. What often gets missed, however, is the role the citizen plays in this process of digital innovation. No matter what technology is utilized, smart cities would not be able to exist without their citizens. After all, technology is only as effective as its capacity to engage the user. For municipalities that are considering adopting some smart city strategies, a focus on increasing citizen engagement should be a top priority. When the population feels actively engaged with their municipality, this leads to a thriving community where constituents’ voices are being heard and their needs are being met.
Citizen engagement is a form of interaction between citizens and their governments. It is usually centred around addressing issues of public concern and can take shape in various ways. Whether it is sharing an opinion at a city council meeting, getting updates about new policies, or reporting an adverse event on a 311 line, citizen engagement plays an important role in the civic decision-making process.
Gathering honest feedback from your community around a project can set your municipality up for greater success. However, there is a tendency for citizens to only interact with the city when they are upset about a certain problem. Another common issue is that only a small segment of the population will engage and these are often the same people, in turn narrowing the scope of influence and the ability to affect widespread change. There can also be a set of physical barriers that might come into play such as not having a vehicle or a babysitter to be able to conveniently attend council meetings. Fortunately, the majority of the population has access to technology in one way or another. And this technology has the potential to meaningfully connect citizens with their governments like never before.
Smart cities technology has provided an unprecedented opportunity to engage with citizenry in ways that can greatly benefit both the city and the population. The old model of in-person town hall meetings and keeping citizens at an arm’s length regarding policy had many drawbacks regarding transparency that now can be mitigated by technology. Citizens can now feel more directly connected to decisions being made about their city by accessing virtual town hall meetings or cloud-based public documents. Creating more opportunities for constituents to engage with their government naturally builds a sentiment amongst the population that they are actually able to make a difference within their community.
Technology can play an impressive role in removing physical barriers for government interactions. Citizens can now log onto an online portal to easily pay their utility bills at the click of a button, removing the need to physically go down to city hall and wait in line. This increased convenience leads to an increase in constituent satisfaction, especially in communities where physically going to pay a bill can be difficult. For example, for many young families in Fort. St John, Canada, getting to City Hall during business hours just isn’t possible. So the city decided to move towards a cloud-based platform to increase access to government services and within 10 months since its launch, Fort St. John’s MyCityHall portal was already being used by almost 20 percent of eligible residents.
One way in which Smart Cities technology can increase citizen participation is through apps. Governments that invest in finding ways to make civic engagement exciting and enjoyable typically find that residents are more drawn to participate. Many city apps have been developed in the United States and Canada that allow residents to report potholes, view bus schedules, and also connect with various neighbourhood initiatives. A specific example is New York’s 311 system, which can be accessed via app, text, phone, or web. This system provides the citizen with a multitude of ways to connect with the city on non-emergency matters such as trash collection and traffic concerns.
Crowdfunding is another way that cities can incorporate technology to engage its citizens. In an Embarq Network article called “You too can Build a Sustainable City through Crowdfunding,” it states that “Crowdfunding is a rapidly growing funding model that has recently expanded as a way to support urban improvement projects.” Using incentives such as small cash prizes or parking credits, cities can use technology to encourage its population to participate in crowdfunding initiatives that require only a small monetary contribution by each citizen that can quickly add up to thousands of dollars. The revenues can then go toward funding the improvement of city services while at the same time gathering valuable data from its citizens through the apps. This data can inform the government of citizen trends, preferences, and behaviour patterns – all serving to improve the way the city serves its citizens.
Boosting citizen engagement within a municipality can often lead to clear and measurable benefits for the community such as increased tax compliance and higher tax revenues. The technology that allows for this increased participation also provides valuable data that can help city managers predict future problems, find new efficiencies or improve current services. Citizens also tend to be happier when engaged with city hall, knowing that their opinions are actually being taken into account in creating important changes to their everyday lives.
Smart Cities technologies hold an incredible opportunity to bring citizens together in ways like never before. If a municipality can really cater its use of technology to be widely accepted and adopted by its constituents, participation can skyrocket and create greater success for both city hall and the lives of citizens simultaneously. Happy citizens should remain top of mind and it’s important to remember that Smart Cities technology is there to serve the people, not the other way around. This philosophy has the ability to propel a smart city forward in creating a truly interacting environment between its technology and its citizens.