Winning Public Support For Smart City Projects: What, Why, and How

Cities are the future of the world’s economy. By 2030, 60% of the world’s population will be residing in these ever-growing metropolises, and these urban powerhouses will be responsible for 70% of global GDP. By that point, we will also have a large number of what might be called ‘megacities’ – urban areas with populations in excess of ten million. Needless to say, with such exponential growth, the challenges of urban management are only expected to become more difficult for municipal authorities. It’s for that very reason that Smart technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT), Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning are going to be pivotal in providing intelligent assistance for effective operations in future.

With this being said, it’s one thing to know that modern technologies have the power to improve citizens’ day-to-day lives and the ways in which they interact with their city, but quite another to attain popular support for implementation of such digital infrastructure.

The Challenge: Overcoming Public Suspicion of Smart Technology

We live in a world in which data privacy and protection is paramount in our minds – a concern which has had a high-profile demonstration recently, with the fallout from the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica case. The response to public concerns of this type is also reflected in the recently adopted GDPR (General Data Protection Regulations), a significant revision of privacy laws for our increasingly digital age.

People can be suspicious of new technological advancements, worrying about their privacy and the type of data that may be collected. As an example, citizens noticing smart sensors being installed on street lighting units to intelligently manage energy consumption might assume that these meters are in fact there to spy on them in some capacity. This is why winning public trust is essential for projects of this nature; failing to do so before enacting these kinds of installations could irreparably break down public confidence in a local authority and its partner.

For those of us working within the Smart Cities sphere, and for municipalities currently beginning to prepare for or use the technologies in question, it’s fair to say that we realise the enormous potential for positive and transformative change they offer. But it can be a challenge to win over public understanding and support, particularly as not everyone has a strong understanding of the technical terms and technologies employed in Smart City projects. According to a nationwide survey carried out by the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) in April 2016, only around 18% (or two in ten) of the UK’s population had heard of the term Smart City – fewer still could define what it actually means. This knowledge gap is one of the biggest challenges urban authorities must address to truly be successful in implementing the digital infrastructure of the future.

So, how should this gap be narrowed? One of the best ways to begin raising public awareness of these issues could be to engage citizens as early as possible in a given area’s Smart City project. By involving members of the local community in the earliest stages – that is, project planning – key concerns could be addressed and the project forged to meet the unique challenges of the area. By doing this, local authorities may find themselves better prepared for the changes to come. Having an outside perspective from members of the public who will eventually be using the Smart City as part of their day-to-day lives is invaluable.

From this key first step, winning further public support can naturally follow. City planners would be able to communicate the project’s benefits to the public collaborators, which will not only help them identify and address key areas of public concern at the earliest stages of the project, but if they are successful in winning these individuals over, will lead to further support through word-of-mouth advocacy. Engagement of this type can frequently yield surprising findings about public priorities, and important considerations that would otherwise have been overlooked can be brought to the forefront of the minds of city planners.

It is also important to ensure many different public views are heard, from a variety of social and economic backgrounds. By using a varied cross-section of the public in these initial planning meetings, authorities can learn which benefits are most likely to appeal to different demographics, and where their most pressing concerns are respectively likely to fall. This, in turn, will help refine the ways in which they present the project to different members of the public in future, ensuring they can effectively win over more citizens to the benefits on offer, who in turn may become Smart City advocates and help spread the word.

Data: A Public Commodity

To return to my earlier point about citizens’ concerns about data privacy, it’s clear that management of data is another key facet of the Smart City paradigm that can make – or break – the project. Data must be transparent and accessible for AI technologies to intelligently use it to guide city management, for example. But members of the public have every right to see such data, too. Making such information public will help foster the common understanding that the data being used in Smart City projects is not used to pry, but key information which can improve all key city services to the benefits of its citizens.

What’s more, giving the public access to this kind of data may lead to innovation from local entrepreneurs, businesses, or even talented members of the public. True data transparency creates an ecosystem particularly favourable to start-ups who would see a valuable opportunity to innovate in problem areas facing a local authority. That, in turn, could see the influx of talented jobseekers to an area, improving the local economy. And the sharing of data could also foster a democratic trust between the local authority and its citizens, enabling an ongoing dialogue based on shared information, which can quickly identify problems as well as mutually agreed and beneficial solutions.

On this topic, it’s also worth briefly touching upon how transparent use of digitally-harnessed data can also improve the workings of local democracy. Smart Cities across the globe, including Seoul, have already begun to use published data and geolocalisation technology to ask residents about local issues pertinent to them via mobile apps. In the innovative South Korean capital, citizens are able to vote on such issues, suggest new developments and ideas, and complain about areas of concern. As cities are set to expand so rapidly in the 21st century, political power will be increasingly concentrated in these spaces, and digital voting and communications technologies look set to put the power firmly in citizens’ hands.

Building A Smart City Strategy – With The Public On Board

We’re frequently evangelising on this blog about the myriad improvements a Smart City project can bring to a town or city, to the benefit not just of urban managers but of the broader public as well. However, as has been clearly outlined, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that not everybody is as informed on what these projects actually mean. Public support is vital to the implementation of a successful urban development project, especially one as technical, far-reaching, and long-term as that of implementing Smart technologies. By involving members of the local community from the get-go, town and city authorities will harness unique insights and overcome potential pitfalls and pushbacks by proactively addressing concerns and implementing new ideas.

IntechnologyWiFi’s integrated connectivity, data, communications and engagement platform for towns and cities provides a safe digital infrastructure upon which a bespoke strategy for tech-driven economic growth can be based. Our Connected City Platform is fully compatible with modern examples of ‘UrbanTech’ such as 5G and the Internet of Things. Our platform also hosts a robust information analytics engine which can guide further optimisations and improvements. To find out more about how citizens will benefit from the adoption of Smart City technology, or to learn more specifically about the unique benefits of our Connected City Platform, please get in touch.

Natalie Duffield

Natalie has spent 20 years working in the IT and Telecommunications industries alongside leading tech entrepreneur Peter Wilkinson. A confident, tactical, strategic thinker, and a dynamic CEO, Natalie has experience in a wealth of areas, including managed services, cloud computing, hosted services and outsourced infrastructure, data centre space, virtual server storage environments, telephony and networks.

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