People power: The smart citizen

Why digital citizens are critical if any smart city project hopes to succeed.

16 March 2017
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Bertha Peters-Scheepers, Johannesburg Roads Agency (Karolina Komendera)

“How do we measure our success?” Bertha Peters-Scheepers, operations manager of marketing & communications at the Johannesburg Roads Agency, ponders this for a second. Then she answers: “Our ROI is citizen happiness.”

The answer sounds more like a soundbite than a legitimate metric. But out of all the aspects that measure the delivery of smart city projects, citizen satisfaction is arguably the most important. It’s a problem highlighted in a TED Talk by Alessandra Orofino, co-founder of Meu Rio, a Brazilian platform to enable citizen activism.

Our cities no longer make us happy, she says, a result of the way we’ve been planning them. The average person is feeling isolated and general participation has decreased. She illustrates this by noting how in Rio de Janeiro, where voting is mandatory, more people chose to pay voting fines than actually cast their ballot for a new mayor. It’s a pattern seen all over the world.

This is key, Orofino says, because cities lie at the root of many global challenges: “So things that you and I might think about as global problems, like climate change, the energy crisis or poverty, are really, in many ways, city problems. They will not be solved unless people who live in cities, like most of us, actually start doing a better job, because right now we are not doing a very good one.”

Enabling the citizen

Orofino wants there to be more citizen participation - beyond voting. But this goes further than citizen voices. Like any project, failure is assured if you do not have the users’ buy-in. Businesses have customers, companies have employees and cities have citizens. Numerous studies have indicated one of the main reasons smart city projects fail is by neglecting to engage the people whose lives would be impacted most. Governments may be enthusiastic about smart cities, but they are particularly lethargic on this point.

“If we talk about the context of technology, on the citizen side in South Africa or Kenya, Ghana and a number of other countries, there are multiple examples of using available cheap communication to gather citizens voices,” says Indra de Lanerolle, visiting researcher at Wits university. “But that’s usually being done by citizen organisations, not governments.”

This may be because on the tree of the smart city, citizens are among the hardest fruits to reach. Widespread participation and redistributing power is logistically challenging, while citizen interest has been worn to a nub through consultation processes that are less about participation than to rubberstamp one of two choices. People are often the last to be engaged in any government process ? and this has bred apathy.

Many state organs even avoid empowering citizens. They are clearly aware of the power of technology and are not keen on it, as blanket bans on social media and other curtailing activities clearly demonstrate. Says De Lanerolle: “On one level, governments have noticed tech citizenry and they’ve responded. But they are curtailing internet traffic or something similar. They are definitely noticing its potential at that level.”

Reaching out

Fortunately, not all governments are autocratically minded or believe the myth that technology can be infinitely restricted. Numerous cities are developing citizen engagement platforms. These turn people into data collectors for the city, pinpointing problems that are normally impossible to quantify.

One such example is the JRA Find&Fix app, through which citizens easily pinpoint problems across the city, from potholes to overgrown pavements.

The municipalities are the places where citizens have some of the closest proximity to power.

Karl Gostner, Primedia

Co-developed by Intervate, the app has been so successful, finance minister Pravin Gordhan even mentioned it by name in a parliamentary speech.

Such apps are helping municipalities modernise their overall thinking. Peters-Scheepers elaborates: “Misreporting is a big problem, which is why the app has been useful. But it has also helped other areas. For example, the city’s call centres are generalised to cover many areas, so this app helps reduce pressure on them. Many ward councillors are also using the app to workflow issues in their areas.”

The app has been used to help other departments, such as pinpointing garbage heaps after a strike allowed litter to pile up. Introducing the app’s impact to the rest of the municipality has actually been a bit harder than getting citizens on board. Peters-Scheepers notes that one has to manage this disruption. But you also need a trailblazing mindset for any of it to stick.

Apps are not the only avenue for this. Several South African cities have been using Twitter to communicate with citizens. The JRA’s own Twitter presence laid the groundwork for its app. All that said, if these solutions are only orchestrated by state organs, it won’t create digital citizens. Everyone needs to be involved...

Beyond municipalities

The previous article in this series touched on the role of open data. Such data enables both citizens and private companies to interact with city development. As Orofino says, the real benchmark for citizen participation can’t stop at potholes: “There is more to be done: the way we allocate our budget, the way we occupy our land, and the way we manage our natural resources.”

These, she says, will bring everyone in touch with the root of city challenges and citizen participation.

A good example is the Municipal Audits Portal, created by Primedia’s media company Eyewitness News (EWN), which makes it easy to see the audit results for any municipality in South Africa. Built using data from the Auditor General, it’s an important first step in making people more aware of their city’s situation.

“We want to enable our listeners to be better informed,” says Karl Gostner, head of strategy at Primedia. “Every time new audit numbers come out, they make headlines and then disappear. I come from an analysis background and could dig into those. But others don’t, for a variety of reasons. So we asked how can we give tools to our audience so they can look beyond the news cycle?”

It’s about democracy, he adds: “How do you enable people to have purchase over the things that are important? The municipalities are the places where citizens have some of the closest proximity to power. We just provide three pieces of basic information, but even that allows them to pick up a phone and demand answers from their councillors.”

The project also revealed a high level of interest and eagerness from top leaders in government. Yet supplying information is the start, but far from the end. Ultimately, the goal is to build trust and communication between municipalities and citizens.

“People get that there is a lot of potential,” says De Lanerolle. “Some governments have done a lot around transparency, such as open data and publishing more data about budgets and procurement. But does that make city government smarter today? I don’t think there is much evidence that it has yet. There is a loop: you can't just create the channels of information. People have to use that information and governments have to respond to people using it.”

Four ways to improve smart citizen engagement

Rio de Janeiro launched a huge smart city project just before the 2014 Football World Cup was hosted there. Christopher Gaffney of the University of Zurich and Cerianne Robertson of Rio-based NGO Catalytic Communities scrutinised the project and noted its lack of citizen engagement. They compiled four points worth considering:

Improve the human experience: Rio’s smart city systems didn’t have a website and even the building was heavily fortified. This ‘keep out’ attitude ended up resonating throughout its operations.

Be inclusive: The vast majority of security cameras for the system focused on affluent areas and created big gaps elsewhere. This did not impress many citizens.

Think long-term: The city’s smart projects were all focused on the short term. For example, data collected was deleted after 90 days and never used for long-term planning.

Respect the nuance: Cookie-cutter solutions didn’t address the nuances of city problems. Solutions need to be more fine-tuned and flexible to really have an impact.

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