Getting it right: Community Engagement and Data Management for Smarter Cities

The delivery of smart city outcomes is a collaborative process. Without community engagement, a culture of innovation, data management, financing and funding systems, cities face an uphill battle.

Diving into these themes with international and local experts, our latest series of webinars addressed the challenges and opportunities facing Local Government across the Australia.

Community Engagement and Customer Service

How smart cities can engage their communities was top of the list in our survey of Australian cities. Diane Miller from US-based organisation Civic Collaboration joined local academic Joel Fredericks of the University of Sydney in emphasizing the need to shift government and community mindsets.

Problematic is the “vending machine” view of government in which citizens are engaged in a transactional model rather than a meaningful dialogue about actions that affect their lives. Putting the citizen first, according to Miller, not only creates more durable decisions but gives purpose to smart city initiatives.

Governments can go a step further by letting go of control rather than pushing for a particular response. A hands-off approach has the power to unleash creativity and build long term trust in decision-makers.

For Fredericks, a variety of top down and bottom up stakeholders should be involved in the process from start to finish, and tools should include a mix of the physical and digital with a focus on place.

Urban intervention Vote As You Go is a case in point. Installed in a busy concourse, the pop-up allowed pedestrians to use body movements to answer questions about a local topic that were registered by sensors or a tablet device. The engagement was localized and interactive, and allowed citizens to meaningfully provide feedback about their community.

Urban Data and Governance

Conversations about smart cities cannot avoid the crucial topic of data and governance.

Smart cities run on data but without a goal in mind and good governance in place the benefits are limited. Neil Temperley, Data61 (CSRIO) believes strongly in guiding data collection and analysis with a clear set of outcomes, whether that’s reducing CO2, increasing safety or enhancing citizens participation in the decision-making process.

He adds that “it’s not government at the top; it’s not citizens at the bottom. It’s a goal at the top. Ideally it’s a citizen-focused goal. At the bottom, we have data and information infrastructure.” We often fail to think through data infrastructure adequately resulting in poor integration and fragmentation that reduces efficacy in the long term.

Issues such as privacy need to be considered early on in the process as sometimes there is no turning back with open-data.

An alternative “bottom up” smart city approach focuses on open-source innovation. Releasing data to the public, for example, can result in relevant, meaningful apps that improve city services at a fraction of the cost. For Temperley, however, this strategic gamble is best matched when combined with a set of goals that complement rather than hinder citizen discovery.

Amsterdam’s smart city journey illustrates the mixed approach well. There the smart city work is led by the non-profit Amsterdam Smart City (ASC), an open innovation platform at arm’s length from the government with the flexibility to run regular pilots and avoid lengthy procurement processes.

The city shares data not only with citizens but between government departments, the private sector and universities. It began releasing data sets incrementally, with clear goals in mind, to reduce CO2 and congestion, but has recently shifted more towards social justice concerns. Visualising this data is an important part of the process.

Frans-Anton Vermast of ASC reflects on his city’s journey and the imperative to take brave measures adding that “sometimes, people don’t want to open up data because they have something to hide.”

Key take outs from our next two webinars on developing a culture of innovation and financing and funding systems will be posted soon. Catch up on recordings and presentations from each session here.

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Level 23, 45 Clarence Street

Sydney, NSW 2000, Australia

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