Gaining the interest and engagement of citizens is key to success for smart city projects. To do so, several social and behavioral obstacles need to be tackled.
First of all, it is challenging to get citizens engaged in issues they don’t know anything about. This happens in particular when implementing new technologies such as digital solutions or renewable energy production. Moreover citizens’ age and background and therefore their (technical) knowledge varies immensely. As a result it is challenging to find a common vocabulary when trying to make the topics understandable for a broad audience. This becomes even harder when different languages are spoken within a community.
Another important point of attention is the difference between communities. For example, depending on a community’s vulnerability, priorities are different and the approach to engage them should be tailored. Even within a single community, there could be financially vulnerable target groups requiring additional attention in order to get them engaged. This difference between communities also makes it hard to always utilize local knowledge to the same extent.
Challenges can also be found in technological aspects, such as data collection. Since engagement is not something that can be measured directly, alternative ways of monitoring have to be used. This could result in imperfect or inaccurate data quality, or even misinterpretation of data.
From a governance perspective, the relationship between decision makers and residents/citizens can be challenging. For example the strategic thinking of politicians – locked in election circles of approximately four years – doesn’t help to increase the level of citizen engagement. Engagement is the result of a continuous and sometimes long-term process of creating trust and convincing people. It therefore benefits more from long than short-term strategic thinking.
One commonly encountered governance challenge, is the lack of some structure or a single representing organization when dealing with multi-family buildings, meaning the project should approach every tenant individually. In any case, it is a general challenge in multi-family buildings to obtain sufficient tenant agreement in order to be able to roll-out a project.
All too often, the relevance of looking at the entire picture by taking into account citizens’ activities and interests outside the project and the importance of spending sufficient time identifying the right ways to approach all citizens are forgotten. People are diverse and so are target groups. It is therefore key to tailor the approach specifically for each target group. On the other hand, one should take care not to have too many redundant participation processes. The strategy should be inclusive and accessible, but at the same time clear at any moment.
In order to engage citizens more effectively, pay attention to visualization to make the proposal understandable, personalization to make it tangible and storytelling to make it human. Ask citizens how they want to engage and incentivize them to get buy in and participation.
To facilitate the engagement process, use tools such as social media, applications, engagement workshops, contests and gamification. Start with engaging students and schools. If they like the concept, other citizens will follow. Also, be patient: citizen engagement is a long-term process. Therefore, in order to make sure the necessary budgets are available at all time, it is important to be aware of the process’ long duration and to understand the cost of the engagement process before getting started. And don’t forget to think about the packaging: how will you make your product or solution attractive?
Once the process starts, the first thing to do is to proof citizens the relevance of the solution you want to implement and inform them about the outcomes the product will deliver. For example, when planning a collective renovation of an apartment building, the tenants should be convinced by the improvement in quality of life and comfort resulting from the renovation. This could be done through showing measurement data or testimonials of tenants who’s apartment has been renovated before. If the engagement process starts early enough within the overall project scope, citizen could be involved in product design through a co-creation approach. This results in recognition, empowerment and understanding of the product.
When addressing a heterogeneous group of stakeholders, first make sure to understand the cultural difference, and then try to engage with as many stakeholders as possible. A representative could be assigned for each group.
Along the process, plan regular meetings and give presentations to provide feedback to citizens. Both project managers, engineers and technicians could be answering questions and solving problems. The closer the contact, the better. For example, avoid huge numbers of participants in dissemination activities, since people will be more comfortable to ask questions in smaller groups. Central information sharing spots (physical or virtual) and visibility in the streets help to maintain support for the project. Be creative: a mobile pop-up truck in the project area, or using the “travelling circus” concept could increase visibility. Local engagement enterprises and trusted partners can facilitate the engagement process.
At any moment, be prepared to change the initial idea, be flexible and allow citizens to take the lead. A circular methodology, with regular feedback loops could help in this.
Plan for Implementation: next steps
From a digitalization perspective, more sensors need to be develop that are capable of performing citizen sensing. At the same time, we should think about how and by whom the available data can be used.
Some of the participants to this workshop are planning to offer showcased products to community organizations and offer free use of some products for a predefined time. Some Lighthouse City representatives want to develop a common methodology to identify what is relevant to citizens. Others will continue working on their participation and engagement plans, check the costs of using the recommendations given in the section above and present them to Follower Cities in order to open up their horizon and get them to know how to approach citizens.
To continue sharing lesson learned and to improve the understanding of the principles of decision making processes when engaging stakeholders are identified as important next steps to bring citizen engagement to the next level.