I have spent the better part of the past 10 years working with cities across the world, helping them to become more resilient – in many cases to the impacts of climate change, but also to other disruptions such as earthquakes, financial crises or disease outbreak – by analysing the underlying causes to their most pressing challenges, and developing strategies to tackle them. A common thread throughout my experience is that cities can only succeed in achieving their goals of becoming more sustainable, resilient or inclusive if they listen and respond to their citizens’ needs and have a trusted relationship with them.
Covid-19 has forced local governments to quickly shift the way they use data and technology. Technology will form a critical part of the recovery process, but this doesn’t just involve investing in more smart city solutions or technological capabilities – the process of involving citizens in this effort is arguably more important. Creating a trusted environment and embracing bottom-up approaches will enable cities to harness the power of citizens’ ambition to drive change and allow governments to better serve their needs.
We have seen how quickly local innovators and entrepreneurs have stepped up in the crisis and mobilised to contribute their resources and ideas to address all areas of the pandemic. From making face masks and delivering groceries and medical supplies to vulnerable citizens, to developing creative solutions to address loneliness and connectivity during self-isolation, crowd-sourced and open-sourced solutions have been co-created by communities around the world. Innovators within local communities and from across universities and industry have been quick to pool their knowledge and create useful resources and tools to respond to the most pressing needs emerging from the crisis. Plenty of this has happened without government support or coordination.
Local governments need to understand, encourage, and work alongside communities so that we can not only recover from this major crisis, but also become more resilient, no matter what disruptions occur in the future.
Since 2015, we at the Greater London Authority have been leading Sharing Cities, a collaborative European project of 34 partners across the public, private, and academic sectors, including the local municipalities of Lisbon, Milan, and the Royal Borough of Greenwich in London. The project demonstrates how thoughtfully designed, integrated, open source solutions can be developed to improve the wellbeing of citizens and reduce our collective impact on climate change. The programme is built on the three principles of People, Place, and Platform: engaging effectively with citizens to implement sustainable, low-carbon technologies in local neighbourhoods, using shared platforms to manage data-driven solutions. From designing electric and shared mobility schemes, to conducting building retrofit works, Sharing Cities developed and applied co-design approaches to ensure that citizens have been engaged from the very beginning of the design process.
So, what can cities do to fully harness citizens’ ambitions and mobilise local action? Here’s what we’ve learned:
Democratize data and enable collaboration
Data is a city’s greatest asset when it comes to planning for the future. Sharing data through open data platforms empowers local communities to take solution development in their own hands and has been done successfully for years now. Citymapper is one of the most well-known examples, using data from the London Datastore, London’s pioneering open-data platform which turns 10 this year. Citizens want to contribute, and many governments have realised this potential and have taken co-creation with communities to the next level during the pandemic, with Hack the Crisis-type events being held all over the world – Estonia, Tel Aviv, New Zealand, just to name a few.
One-time events like Hackathons and Challenges are valuable in establishing a connection with citizens, but in order to have sustained impact, locally driven solutions need to be supported with tangible action and investment, and this requires local governments to maintain a trusted relationship with citizens.
(Re-)Build and maintain public trust
It is important for local governments to listen to citizens before taking action. Citizens experience the impact of disruptions in different ways – this has been made painfully obvious by Covid-19. The pandemic has shown that those already disadvantaged are disadvantaged further during times of crisis. But cities have been using tools and technologies at their disposal to actively engage with communities, to understand their lived experience in a way that informs the development solutions and policies and to maintain trusted connections with citizens.
Milan’s SharingMi is a citizen engagement platform that seeks to encourage residents to adopt sustainable behaviours in exchange for rewards that can be spent in their local communities. Connections on the online platform are rooted in the real physical community, established when the platform was launched last year, with residents from the neighbourhood of Porta Romana. SharingMi was co-designed with residents, and the municipality partnered with local organisations to hold events and challenges such as #MilanoPlasticFree and My Food Revolution, to challenge people to actions such as reducing waste and supporting sustainable food ecosystems. As the pandemic took hold of Northern Italy in early March, the city quickly pivoted and used the platform to help residents maintain their connections to their local community, while at the same time not losing sight of the tool’s foundational aims of encouraging people to adopt sustainable behaviours, all while staying at home.
In Belfast, the city council quickly established Covidconnect.ni, an easy-to-use platform, working with government, universities, and the third sector to support a coordinated contribution by the innovator community to solve local Covid-19 challenges. With this platform, they have been able to mobilise their local civic and business community to donate and match resources and specialist skills. Technical infrastructure and hardware, such as laptops, have been requested by local charities to enable those who don’t have access to technology to work remotely. Data analysts and software developers have been matched to develop digital solutions to help solve challenges such as managing the distribution of food packages to vulnerable individuals.
Good listening needs to be followed by tangible action and clear communication. In a design sprint recently run by the London Office of Technology and Innovation and Sharing Cities, one of the key challenges experienced by participants from industry and local government alike was that they often found it difficult to explain how smart cities technologies, such as the internet of things (IoT), 5G, and artificial intelligence, could benefit citizens in a simple way. The instinct to hide behind jargon and technical language is tempting, but can be harmful, placing a barrier between the solutions and the people that stand to benefit from them, ultimately leading to distrust between communities, industry, and government. The answer is straightforward, although by no means easy: local governments need to explain what they are doing, how they are doing it, and why, plainly and simply, in ways that are relevant and accessible to citizens. In a recent webinar hosted by Reuters, London’s Chief Digital Officer Theo Blackwell described how citizens were more willing to share their data “provided that you spoke clearly to people about it, told them what it was for and instituted some governance around how it is used”.
Building and maintaining a trusted relationship with citizens is a difficult task, and one that requires continual investment from the start. Smart cities aren’t smart if people are left out of the process. The recent news that Sidewalk Labs is pulling out of Toronto’s Quayside project demonstrates the importance of trusted relationships with communities and the need for local governments and developers to listen and respond to the needs of their citizens. While some have reacted more quickly than others in dealing with Covid-19, the reality is, some local governments have lost some degree of trust with the public. However, things need not remain this way – times of crisis often brings out the best in people, and this has held true during this difficult time. We have also seen really positive examples of local governments working together with communities, and making the best of the technology we have to co-create solutions and support those most in need, and ensure that we all recover together.
Sandy Tung is based at the Greater London Authority and is the Programme Manager for Sharing Cities, a pan-European programme that tests out innovative smart city solutions across major European cities, replicating and scaling what works through new business and investment models.