Government Of, For and With the People: The Smartest Cities are Those that Listen to their Citizens

By Beth Simone Noveck, Dane Gambrell, and Sam DeJohn

A version of this piece appeared in German in The Taggespiegel, March 2, 2021, here.

On February 22nd, the leaders in five cities in Africa — Accra (Ghana), Bahir Dar (Ethiopia), Kampala (Uganda), Kano (Nigeria), and Mutare (Zimbabwe) — announced the 12 winners to the Africa Multi-City Challenge. These cities with support of the United Nations Development Programme and The Governance Lab (our organization) turned to their collective citizens for help in tackling three big challenges: improving waste generation and management, building urban resilience in slums and informal settlements, and growing and supporting their informal economies. Those winners, selected from almost 300 detailed and practical proposals for solving these problems, such as the “Zero Bola Project,” which seeks to eliminate waste dumps in Kano over a span of five years, using engineered landfills designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50%.

Just a few months prior, five cities in northern Mexico (Hermosillo, Reynosa, San Nicolás, San Pedro, and Torreón) rolled out a similar challenge. More than 5,600 participants comprising citizens, students, NGOs, and other civil society organizations registered to participate, contributing a total of 237 proposals.

With the majority of the world’s population predicted to live in urban metropolises by 2050 according to the United Nations, the smartest cities are those who are using their most valuable resource for tackling urban challenges: their residents. Often it is their own civil servants and the residents of their community who can evaluate where problems are actually occurring and come up with the most effective solutions. Done right, citizen engagement helps to tap into that collective experience and expertise, and mobilize it to design and implement workable solutions.

There are a growing number of global examples of cities leveraging new technologies to connect with their own residents and ordinary people around the world to co-create solutions to problems. In Helsinki, the Mayor’s Office created the Climate Watch process and a website to enable citizens and city leaders to co-create their community’s Carbon Neutral Helsinki 2035 Action Plan. Citizens now hold public officials accountable for meeting the Climate Watch plan’s 147 target goals. In Santiago de Chile, city officials are working with researchers from local and international universities to use data from the public and private sector, such as satellite and telecom data, to look at the impact of gender on commuting patterns and help the city create gender-responsive transportation options. The Cities of Antwerp and Barcelona distribute straw- berry plants to residents. People test the leaves as a way to gather data about air quality. In Athens, Greece, the synAthina platform serves as a central portal for civic participation where any non-profit, business or group of people can come to showcase their work on community-oriented projects.

In Lakewood, Colorado, a midsized suburb of Denver, the urban planner Jonathan Wachtel has created a 30,000-person-strong sustainability “workforce.” Previously, the city worked with residents in the usual way. Residents could go to a planning meeting to complain about plans that had already been made, but this left them frustrated and Wachtel — the town’s single urban planner — overwhelmed. He created the Sustainable Neighborhoods Program to encourage residents with passion, ideas, and know-how to propose projects that they will develop and implement with their neighbors. Now eight neighborhoods covering a fifth of the city’s population have joined the Sustainable Neighborhoods Program. More than 500 resident-led events, workshops, and projects have reduced waste, conserved water, and improved energy efficiency.

But knowing how to make effective and respectful use of citizens’ brainpower to solve problems requires careful planning to execute. The Africa Multi-City Challenge was not simply a free-for-all. Nor was it simply a competition, where residents were asked for their good ideas. In order to produce implementable proposals, city officials underwent eight training sessions in order to define the problems they wanted residents to solve specifically and with reference to data and the insight of citizens about why those problems are occurring. The competition asked citizens to do more than simply propose an idea. They were asked specific questions about how to implement those ideas. Further coaching is planned to help transform proposals into action.

The most successful cases of citizen engagement are those where the project’s leaders have articulated a concrete and specific task. They have identified a set of participants whose expertise is well-matched to the task at hand. They have a clear process and workflow and they use what the group creates. For instance, San Francisco’s Civic Bridge initiative — a program where volunteers from Silicon Valley tech companies work with City departments to co-create improved city services — has a 50-page guide for how to run an engagement and match participants’ expertise to the city’s needs.

To solve problems with citizens demands knowing how to design an effective collective intelligence project. This requires being able to articulate a project’s goal and why participation will help; identifying the right participants with the necessary skills to collaborate; developing mechanisms to reach those participants, taking pains to attract diverse participants from underrepresented groups. Institutions and participants need to decide who is the right “owner” for a cocreation project: government might have the right convening power and budget but citizens might be more responsive to a civic group. Designing a project well ensures identifying incentives for engagement, the roles and tasks for participants, a plan for evaluating inputs and, finally, ensuring ahead of time that the institution will use what the group creates.

To create a truly smart city — one that takes advantage of the wisdom of those who live there — we must start with learning how to listen. Careful and deliberative design can help a city organize public participation that leads to real solutions to hard problems and is efficient to run within its own budgetary constraints and unique circumstances.

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