Articles examining how smart cities will shape the future seem to be dominating the news these days. Earlier this year, the Wall Street Journal dedicated an entire series to The Rise of the Smart City, which highlighted how city leaders are finding new ways to leverage technology and data to solve major policy problems. Without a doubt, this is the age of the smart city. However, the question of “who” and “what” are we building the smart city for continues to be one of much debate.
In its simplest form, a smart city can be defined as an urban development vision that leverages technology to manage a city’s assets. Within the U.S., according to Black and Veatch’s 2017 Smart City/Smart Utility Report, industry leaders from the private and public sector primarily see reducing operating costs and improving community satisfaction as the main drivers of smart city initiatives. And in a majority of cases, many smart city projects are initiated or led by stakeholders from the top. While this approach is merit worthy, it can’t be the only way cities view smart city development. For cities to truly realize the benefits of smart city initiatives they must embrace a “bottom-up” approach or risk wasting precious resources and expending political capital for limited returns.
A “bottom-up” approach means being intentional about systematically incorporating citizen voice throughout a smart cities project lifecycle. This is needed to help move urban residents from passive consumers to engaged consumers. And this trend will continue to rise as urban dwellers are demanding more flexible, personalized services. Additionally, building an infrastructure to continuously manage and measure what matters most to advance the economic and social well-being of a city can’t happen in a vacuum; it requires broad-based community engagement.
Creating A Model for the Nation
Leveraging citizen voice might sound too abstract, but in practice, it has the opportunity to yield tangible results. This breakthrough came from Gallup’s work with the Center for the Future of Arizona (CFA). In 2007, Arizona leaders – business, public, and nonprofit – had established state-wide goals and an agenda for addressing the influx of new citizens, but priorities had not taken into account the voice of Arizona’s citizens. Because no definitive account of citizens’ voices existed.
Recognizing this problem, we worked in tandem with CFA to identify policy priorities of citizens, assess levels of community engagement, and evaluate the relationship between policy priorities and major citizen concerns. We conducted detailed analytics using surveys, focus groups, and other data science tools leveraging behavioral economics. Using this research intervention, CFA was able to identify 8 major “Citizen Goals” and achieve significant progress towards advancing structural community change in the areas of healthcare reform, public transportation, and higher education. In essence, we helped build a visioning framework to drive sustainable economic growth.
This model of leveraging citizen voice can also be applied to drive “bottom-up” smart city development.
At Gallup, we are seeing first-hand the benefits of deploying a similar strategy through our partnership with Urbanova, a collaboration of Avista, Itron, McKinstry, The University District, Washington State University and the City of Spokane, focused on leveraging smart cities technology to improve social, environmental and economic resiliency and equity.
In support of Urbanova’s primary objective to “Harness data to gain insights, empower people and solve urban challenges in new ways,” we designed and executed a “Phase 0” qualitative study to help build Urbanova’s research capacity to collect community data to support future smart city technology development. In particular, we first sought to identify the key “pain points” within the Spokane community, especially the University District, which Urbanova projects might seek to address. Secondly, after identifying those key “pain points” we identified how systemic they were within the context of the broader community.
Additionally, to supplement this analysis, we are also examining existing sensory data and other publically available community-level data sources. Through our work in measuring citizen voice through the Gallup World Poll in over 165 countries, we have uncovered that analyzing citizen sentiment data alongside existing community data sets and city-based sensors is a relatively understudied and underutilized way to help advance the social and economic well-being of the urban core. So far we have made significant strides in helping Urbanova prioritize their projects to ensure they align with the priorities of the public and moving forward we believe we are in the early stages of truly building a model for the nation on how to be systematic about leveraging the voice of the citizen to drive smart city development.
The Will of the People Is Needed
If cities are the future then it’s essential for local leaders to double-down on finding new and innovative ways to ensure all residents have a voice at the table. Technological progress has immense benefits, but for many, it has created much anxiety about their own economic fortunes. Those anxieties must be addressed and can’t be solved by creating technology in silos.
City leaders from all sectors have the opportunity to change the paradigm of how we create smart city technology that can address a myriad of issues whether it be around closing health disparities or increasing access to affordable transportation. Technology can be a force to help restore the trust between government and the citizens they serve. Our founder, George Gallup, famously once said, “If democracy is about the will of the people than it’s our job to find out what that will is.” The will of the people just might be that missing link for us to make good on the promise of what a smart city can truly be.