Urban Digital Transformation Starts with Community Education and Engagement

Jason Whittet, Associate Director, Solutions Development and Innovation, 100 Resilient Cities - Pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation
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Jason Whittet, Associate Director, Solutions Development and Innovation, 100 Resilient Cities - Pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation

Jason Whittet, Associate Director, Solutions Development and Innovation, 100 Resilient Cities - Pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation

Right now marks a pivotal juncture and a unique moment as a new combination of forces and influencers– including increased urbanization, an expanded focus on resilience and the evolving capabilities of technologies like big data, the cloud, mobile communications, and all sorts of applications—are coming together to drive the smart cities movement and the digital transformation of cities.

Civic minded entrepreneurs are leveraging this moment to bring a new wave of urban innovation to market. Moreover, they are eagerly encouraging cities to adopt solutions to reposition both the way cities operate internally as well as how they deliver services and proactively connect with their constituents. Many of these products are groundbreaking and hold the promise of altering the urban landscape and changing lives, closing in on the central premise of the smart cities movement: technology provides real solutions for real people. A current example is the use of technology in the response to the Cape Town water crisis from advanced desalinization and reclamation units that increase the supply to leak detectors and irrigation controls that reduce waste, water monitors that help reduce demand and anaerobic generators that turn waste into energy. Together these solutions have helped Cape Town address a major stress in a way that was impossible just years ago.

Yet these advances are only as good as their acceptance and adoption by the public. Too many people consider technology and transformation as things being done to them, not with them or for them. Potentially, the most significant barriers to the deployment of new technologies may rest in a lack of inclusion and meaningful education, unless companies and cities align their efforts. Together, these two entities are positioned to inform citizens about the great possibilities and benefits of smart cities and include communities in the dialogue, as well as the decision-making process from the early stages. Advocacy and education are key to building understanding, fostering acceptance and embracing/welcoming/achieving adoption.

  Civic minded entrepreneurs are eagerly encouraging cities to adopt solutions that reposition the way cities operate and deliver services to proactively connect with community members.  

In a new era of collaboration, companies and cities must partner with each other and with the public on designing and deploying smart cities solutions. Cities can tap into their natural experience with community engagement but even with that, explaining technology can be uncharted territory. Here are some ideas on how to get started:

1.Create a Smart Cities Vision: Comprehensive strategies built with the community have become more and more common and offer a way to establish a shared set of goals and foster discussion. The City of Baltimore’s draft plan released earlier this year and that of the City of West Hollywood, California, are two such examples.

2.Promote Inclusiveness: A key to successful engagement is creating opportunities in all communities—not just downtown. The City of New York has a successful community-based innovation program featuring labs like in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn that allows residents to learn about and experiment with all kinds of technology.

3.Get the kids involved: The City of Philadelphia just wrapped up their latest Philly Student Tech Expo which provides students of all ages the opportunity to learn coding and other digital skills and to put them to use in improving their community. Exposing students to technology turns them into teachers and champions for adoption with friends, family and neighbors.

On the companies’ side, it is easy to get into the rhythm of the smart cities conference circuit as a method for engaging with cities. With a little effort, creativity and refocus, a lot more can be done to advance public participation in the digital transformation.

1. Get out of the bubble and into the community: Design and focus engagement efforts to reach the people who don’t come to tech conferences, meet-ups or hackathons. Hold open public forums like town halls and roundtables not just in the center of town, but out in residential neighborhoods—and partner with local community organizations to build a crowd. Sidewalk Labs’ comprehensive engagement strategy for Quayside in Toronto is great model.

2. Produce online resources: Offer easily accessible and shareable content in multiple languages and formats that educate the public about products, how they work to solve problems and the underlying technology. And for extra points provide a feature for accepting ideas and feedback. The Future of Privacy Forum has an interactive tool that explains smart cities solutions and the potential impacts on people and privacy.

3. Don’t forget to bring the talent: Product managers are often the most qualified to explain the products they’ve built, but they can also benefit the most from direct public feedback about design and functionality. When the City of Atlanta wanted to install Soofa Kiosks the company sent its team down to learn from the community how to make them better.

From severe storms and flooding to earthquakes and longer-term stresses, such as water and food scarcity and violence, technology is now poised and ready to offer real solutions to many of these challenging urban resilience issues. If companies and cities work together to educate and engage the public about smart cities solutions, it will lead to greater acceptance and adoption of the large-scale innovation projects we need to mitigate the greatest threats to a resilient future.

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