The Role of Citizens in Smart City Design

Eric Talley
Smart City Segment Manager for North America

A Smarter City is usually modeled with the intent of providing a better and more connected space for its citizens. In a Smart City you will likely find wifi in public spaces, additional security, efficient lighting with controls, environmental sensors to warn of air pollutions and a notification system that can be key in alerting citizens in the event of a dangerous situation.


A lot of these technologies use data collection to fuel algorithms that in turn shape policy and infrastructure investments for decades to come.


What are we missing in this approach? In our efforts to make cities smarter, a key stakeholder is oftentimes overlooked. Unfortunately, it is the same group of people who are supposed to benefit from the implemented technologies – citizens.


The role of citizens in the smart city process is to be a voice, and hopefully a voice that City officials listen to. In a hurry to advance the technology in our cities, sometimes these are implemented without proper consideration or education of the citizens that will see and utilize this technology every day. Improving the lives of citizens is a moving target at times and smart city projects can be lengthy endeavors. Educating citizens about what kind of technology is implemented can ensure that the money being spent will benefit more people and new sensors, lights, and cameras bring fewer complaints and more excitement over the benefits of a connected city. If you are implementing new parking technology, why not market this to your citizens and let them know how this technology will improve their ability to find parking in these areas? We can’t assume that people will understand the technology or the benefits, and spelling this out clearly in frequent press releases is a key part of technology adoption.  Making cities safer and offering connectivity that has been absent in the past should be a dream for the marketing team, driving interest in the city from both individuals and businesses.


Cities across the globe are adding smart technology to their existing infrastructure. Complaints abound on the kind of tech being added and its appearance. Sections of New York are currently fighting this same battle, as 4/5g poles of significant size are being added to their streets with little to no notice to the citizens. City officials have clearly decided that adding this tech is in the best interest of their citizens, but people in the community disagree and the complaints continue to mount.


The technology being added to smart cities is the first step, and arguably the less important step for most city leaders. The second stage is using these devices to gather data that gives them a more in depth look at how their city operates, shortcomings they may have, or where they need to invest further. This can be as simple as gathering information on how many people are utilizing a section of sidewalk in the morning, or why there is added traffic congestion at an intersection. There are more concerning sides to this technology as well, such as facial recognition software that can analyze the appearance of multiple people at one time. All of this might start sounding far-fetched, but it is a reality in our world and one that is a major concern to citizens. Where do we draw the line? How can they be sure that this data is secure? Did they authorize the use of their daily travel data or their IP address to be sold to other tech companies? The gathering and protection of smart city data is a huge concern and one that must be handled with as much education and communication as possible.


It’s no easy feat to include the voice of the citizen in this process. A city like New York can’t make every decision democratically. We can’t be expected to take a vote every time we need to add something new. Some communities are doing light polling of citizens and using this data in their marketing efforts around smart technology. Instead of deciding behind closed doors, they are asking people in the community for their thoughts. They are taking these thoughts into account and building a strategy that enhances the lives of the people without creating more issues. Community engagement means fewer roadblocks, a better understanding of the desired use of the technology, and ultimately a shorter learning curve when the technology goes live.


I heard a statistic recently that I found surprising. 92% of people in the world have access to a 3g or stronger network. Only 50% of people in the world are connected. Why? In our society where everything is connected and a part of our daily lives, it can be hard to fathom somebody that doesn’t want to connect at all. Cost wasn’t the main issue. Digital literacy was the factor that kept most of these individuals from utilizing the technology. Even when they were aware of it, nobody had helped them understand why they should. They hadn’t been shown the inherent value in being connected to the rest of the world. People will utilize technology and in most cases are willing to pay for it, but it is a value transaction and until they understand the value, it will still be viewed as a luxury. It is not a stretch to apply this to smart city infrastructure as well. When citizens understand the value of technology and are able to weigh it against the risks, they are more likely to not only support these projects but utilize the tech to drive greater ROI for the city.


There are plenty of reasons to forego community engagement. It might slow the process down, or even halt your plans altogether. Ask yourself: if the technology isn’t used or is causing unrest, was it a worthwhile investment? Maximize the reach of your technology by bringing citizens onboard early and often. You might find more applications for your new systems than you originally conceived.

Ask yourself: if the technology isn’t used or is causing unrest, was it a worthwhile investment? Maximize the reach of your technology by bringing citizens onboard early and often. You might find more applications for your new systems than you originally conceived.

Eric Talley
Smart City Segment Manager

About the author

Eric Talley is the Smart City Business Development Manager for Schréder in North America.  A market leader in Smart City technology with expertise in electronic security and network infrastructure, Eric's focus is on bridging the gap between smart technology and digital literacy to better improve the lives of citizens in our communities.

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