In my recent international travels, I’ve made an effort to ask common citizens why they think their cities deserve the recognition of being among the smartest in the world.
Residents of Barcelona, Amsterdam and Dublin were perplexed that their city was even given such recognition, and most had no idea what a smart city was in the first place. The thought of a “resilient” city was in most cases totally off the radar.
After informally surveying citizens, I found that my findings were not an anomaly. I returned home to read a recent report from the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) in the UK showing that many Brits who live in smart cities such as Glasgow, Bristol or London don’t really know or care!
I’ve written in the past that what many cities think of as VERY smart initiatives are to many segments of the population the equivalent of a “dial tone.” The mayor and city council may be giving themselves high fives about upgrading to 5 gigabyte wireless, but the people surfing the Web on their smartphone in Central Park have no clue there has been an upgrade at all.
The challenge for tax-sensitive cities is that the initial hype about certain smart city initiatives (even when not labeled as such) must be greater than or equivalent to the value residents perceive. In order to build this critical citizen awareness, I offer the following checklist with ideas for improving palpability.
√ Aggregate communication channels
Many smart city initiatives tend to occur in a highly decentralized environment. Transportation, education and housing may have no clue what other departments are doing and whether there are synergies between them. As such, cities tend to have a scattershot approach to informing citizens of new deployments.
This “dribble” approach may be fine, but a la carte messaging tends to get lost in the clutter of day-to-day noise. Consider communicating multiple projects in one big splash.
√ Don’t ask the witness a question unless you already know the answer
In the exhilaration of getting projects onto the streets, some cities forgo gathering feedback on how citizens have reacted to the beta or soft launch. History tells me that one of the best ways to fire up usually dormant conversations on a city portal is to launch a half-baked, over-hyped technology initiative. Sometimes it’s better that citizens not know their city is smart than to be underwhelmed by a poor delivery.
√ Balance no-tech and high-tech initiatives
While technocrats tend to view smart as being analogous with tech, the citizen view largely relates to increases in quality of life, with or without a technological component. City officials need to keep digital immigrants as well as digital natives in mind when designing solutions. Ignoring this diversity has been shown to increase the digital divides and further frustrate important groups of residents (for example low-income and elderly).
While arguably not as sexy as a mobile app or open-data portal, no-tech projects might in fact make a greater impact — and thus be perceived as having a higher return-on-taxes.
√ Publicize success from the periphery
The smartest cities nurture innovation from the periphery. This means tapping into smart ideas and deliverables from neighborhoods, business or citizens outside the government. This feral approach requires eyes and ears on the ground.
The advantages are twofold: First these initiatives have been pre-vetted by the people or neighborhood using them. Second, when incorporated into the overall city strategy, these early adopters can serve to accelerate innovation, unencumbered by typical government bureaucracy.
√ Leverage the “makers’ culture”
Over the past 10 years, the makers’ movement has converged with smart cities innovation. This movement seems to have a more entrepreneurial spirit, especially when related to urban technologies.
By hosting Maker Faires, trademark events that celebrate invention, creativity and resourcefulness, cities can communicate their support for “smartness” generated from the outside-in. More important, these fairs permit entrepreneurs to meet and cross-fertilize ideas to build even more powerful urban technology solutions.
Cities like Pittsburgh, Atlanta and San Diego use these fairs as key elements in their communications plans to highlight smart cities innovation that have direct and palpable applications.
What has your city or enterprise done to promote “palpable smartness” and to reinforce the return on taxpayer investment and quality of life?