Ask not what your city can do for you …
The usual notion of city hall and other aspects of governance is that they “happen to us.” That there is someone “up there” who determines the living conditions of us “down here.” Smart cities are opposed to this top-down approach and try to embrace interactivity and democratic participation –governance 2.0, if you like. Learning from participatory online media, cities have realized that they need to hear their citizens out and let them speak in order to get them more involved. And it does not hurt to inform them how things work or treat them to free services, either.

Along these lines, interactive, involved governance can take two different directions and approaches. On the one hand, communication technology can be a great tool for improving the residents’ quality of life. Take a “bonus card,” similar to the loyalty schemes run by many supermarket chains: Southampton’s Smartcities card gives its citizens easier access to local services. You can use it to pay a bridge toll or taxi, hop on a bus, access library services, frequent the city’s sports clubs and swimming pools, or even play a round of golf – all of this at a discount, too.

The smart card program offers a simple and easy system to "bind" citizens to their city via tangible benefits – just like a supermarket chain loyalty scheme. © City of Southampton
The smart card program offers a simple and easy system to “bind” citizens to their city via tangible benefits – just like a supermarket chain loyalty scheme. © City of Southampton

An equally attractive option, yet one that frustrates many European cities, is the idea of open communications. As part of an EU funded Smart Cities project, thirteen smaller cities have joined forces to improve their overall “smartness.” Heading up their wish list of issues is the development of better systems to deal with resident enquiries, for online services and digital permit issuance. Smaller cities like Groningen (Netherlands), Kristiansand (Norway), and Bremerhaven (Germany) are trying to become more open and communicative through the use of information technology. A trend already put to the test in China’s metropolitan growth areas, spearheaded by the city of Liuzhou: Here, citizens already enjoy digital access to many government services, a figure scheduled to reach 90 % by 2015.

On a more abstract, yet no less vital note, e-governance also enhances virtues like visibility, flexibility, and transparency. Amsterdam, for example, has deregulated and streamlined the smart city policy process, making it much easier and faster to road-test ideas and projects without bureaucratic red tape. At the same time, the EU Smart Cities project has collected and collated data on EU citizens and their living standards, available on an interactive website, while Vienna promotes the idea of “open government”: Any data that does not violate privacy concerns is available to the public online.

The new Smart Cities tool allows citizens to view and access economic data for their region. © Citizen Insight
The new Smart Cities tool allows citizens to view and access economic data for their region. © Citizen Insight

…but what you can do for your city.
Meanwhile, cities have come to realize that they are not necessarily making the best possible use of their biggest resource and asset: their own citizens. Interactive media allows a city to get in touch with its citizens and their ideas. In Liuzhou, for example, city officials have released the WeChat app to encourage and facilitate the interaction and exchange between citizens and policy makers, e. g. to improve crime prevention in their local neighborhood.

In Europe, Amsterdam leads the way with its AmsterdamOpent.nl website. Here, citizens can communicate their own policy suggestions or critique and also represent their views on city development-related issues in regular surveys. An approach flanked by apps that encourage locals to make use of municipal data – right now, there is an open call for ideas. Not to forget the city’s upcoming Nieuw West game to “to show residents the smart solutions already in place and increase the number of bottom-up initiatives by offering them a platform on which to exchange, cultivate, and realize ideas”.

Amsterdam is currently developing a serious game that engages citizens with proposals for their communities and allows them to develop and present their own. © SmartCity Amsterdam
Amsterdam is currently developing a serious game that engages citizens with proposals for their communities and allows them to develop and present their own. © SmartCity Amsterdam

But why stop at ideas: In Santander, citizens can actively engage in city services and submit helpful information. If you happen to spot a pothole, all you need to do is snap a picture with your smart app. Your shot is automatically forwarded to the official responsible for street maintenance, together with GPS data and a request to repair the damage. This day-to-day involvement of its own citizenry makes Santander truly exemplary.

E-governance and communication systems help us to engage with the city we live in and to become an active part of it. No matter the level of involvement and transparency: When it comes down to it, smart cities know that their biggest assets are their citizens.

Text: Lars Schmeink
Header image: Terra<3/ photocase.com