The most resilient cities are the ones that listen

A couple wearing a face mask rides an electric scooter along a Navigli canal in Milan on May 8, 2020. (Miguel Medina/AFP via Getty Images)

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.

 
 
 
 

Coming soon: CityMetric will relaunch as City Monitor, a new publication dedicated to the future of cities

Coming soon!

Later this month, CityMetric will be relaunching with an entirely new look and identity, as well as an expanded editorial mission. We’ll become City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications coming soon from New Statesman Media Group. We can’t wait to share the new website with you, but in the meantime, here’s what CityMetric readers should know about what to expect from this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is going to be a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission will be to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we’ll cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing, and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications this fall, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

City Monitor will go live later this month. In the meantime, please visit citymonitor.ai to sign up for our forthcoming email newsletter.


As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our forthcoming digs. You can already follow City Monitor on LinkedIn, and on Twitter, sign up or keep following our existing account, which will switch over to our new name shortly. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

In the meantime, stay tuned, and thank you from all of us for being a loyal CityMetric reader. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.