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Bringing smart cities to life, with a little help from citizens

May 19, 2016

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Nigel Jacob is the founder of New Urban Mechanics, an innovation incubator within the Boston Mayor’s office that focuses on running pilot experiments to improve civic life. The views expressed are the author’s own, and do not necessarily represent the views of Qualcomm.

At the heart of the smart city is the idea that technology can make cities better. Historically, however, that vision has been limited. “Better” has often simply meant using tech to optimize infrastructure. In this mindset — where cities are primarily systems of systems — it's difficult to tell where people fit in the picture, but it's crucial that they do. 

As cities work to transform themselves into the efficient, connected metropolises of the future — filled with smart traffic lights and connected fire hydrants — citizens should be a key part of accelerating that success. Those who are living with technology, relying on it, and interacting with it on a daily basis are the best barometer of what’s working, what’s not, and, most importantly, what’s missing. Ultimately, technology has the power to transform city life to make it safer, cleaner, greener, and more efficient. Part of making that happen means governments need to figure out how to listen.

Over the past several years, so-called “civic tech” has shown us the value of creating a feedback loop with citizens. Software and apps from developers like SeeClickFix, OpenCounter, and The Engagement Lab have improved access to government services and, in the process, boosted how people perceive government-sponsored tech. If scaled intelligently from these relatively basic apps and services, smart-city innovations could address the most-challenging problems that cities face such as poverty, crime, and the profound lack of public trust in government. 

Eradicating all these issues is possible, but again, with a caveat: We need to be much, much smarter about how we roll out smart-city efforts. So, the question becomes: How do we take a wiser (not simply smarter) approach to using technology to tackle pervasive urban problems? The answer is to approach technology deployments as experiments and include citizens in the testing process.

Creating a Network
Of course, the word “experiment” is nuanced. Governments aren’t experimenting on people or communities but with them. This concept, known as participatory action research in academic circles, focuses on creating collaborative change. It provides us with a framework for effectively and respectively engaging a community in a project. 

To get started, cities can tap into the expertise of universities, design firms, and other institutions to scope, plan, and run experiments. Many such collaborations are already netting positive results. The University of Chicago, for instance, worked with the city to develop and deploy a novel sensing network called the Array of Things, which captures a wide variety of neighborhood-level data such as localized noise and pollution levels. At the Boston Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, we work with the Boston Area Research Initiative (BARI), and we have an inter-university research partnership based at Harvard.

Our partnership, in particular, explores how 311 apps can influence behavior. We’ve run the BOS311 app (formerly Citizens Connect), which allows people to report minor issues like cracked sidewalks, since 2008. All along, we’ve held that building tools city residents enjoy using (i.e. that focus heavily on the in-app user experience) would encourage “civic” behavior. We’ve seen that theory borne out; over time, users have broadened their area of concern from their immediate surroundings (the sidewalk in front of my stoop) to the wider community (trash piled up in front of the bodega down the block). BARI collaborator Dan O’Brien calls this phenomenon “custodianship.”

One of the most interesting aspects of systems like BOS311 is that they give us a clear sense of what residents are concerned about (e.g. is an overflowing trash can somehow more annoying than a broken walk signal?), which can differ greatly from what might be top-of-mind for most government administrators. In effect, citizens are helping us set our smart-city agenda for the future. 

To make these learnings actionable, cities need to establish research agendas and hire Chief Research Officers. These officials would ensure that cities are aligning their tech deployment strategy around data-backed insights about citizens and their needs, while, at the same time, creating quality user experiences. CodeForAmerica, for example, is a great model for this idea; the organization brings laser focus to merging human-centered design with government technology to make activities like navigating welfare systems less onerous. 

The ultimate goal is to integrate all the insights apps and other programs have garnered — say, what citizens like or what they want to see improved — into a sophisticated, outcomes-oriented approach to urban development. Organizations like Living Cities, a multi-city cooperative focused on helping evolve communities, can help turn the knowledge gleaned from apps like BOS311 into actionable plans for improving neighborhoods and infrastructure. Eventually, the efforts will help plan and develop walkable, livable communities that improve life for all urban dwellers.

Technology is integral to achieving this goal, but governments can’t approach tech solutions as plug-and-play answers to tough civic problems. Not all programs are perfect right out of the box, so the only way that we’ll be able to make headway is to focus just as much on the process of testing and learning as we do on the technology itself.

Opinions expressed in the content posted here are the personal opinions of the original authors, and do not necessarily reflect those of Qualcomm Incorporated or its subsidiaries ("Qualcomm"). Qualcomm products mentioned within this post are offered by Qualcomm Technologies, Inc. and/or its subsidiaries. The content is provided for informational purposes only and is not meant to be an endorsement or representation by Qualcomm or any other party. This site may also provide links or references to non-Qualcomm sites and resources. Qualcomm makes no representations, warranties, or other commitments whatsoever about any non-Qualcomm sites or third-party resources that may be referenced, accessible from, or linked to this site.

Nigel Jacob

Founder of New Urban Mechanics

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