Making cities smarter through citizen engagement

Policymakers and technology experts at the World Cities Summit 2014 agreed that while technology is a powerful tool to help improve urban infrastructure, citizen engagement is essential to make cities truly sustainable and liveable.

smart citizen
Social media, globalisation, big data and mobility are the four main technological trends that will shape the cities of the future, bringing new opportunities for citizens and policymakers to create smarter, better cities. Image: Kostenko Maxim/Shutterstock

Rapidly progressing information communications technology (ICT) is giving rise to an almost infinite range of innovations that can be implemented in cities to make them more efficient and better connected. However, in order for technology to yield sustainable solutions, planners must prioritise citizen engagement and strong leadership.

This was the consensus on Tuesday at the World Cities Summit 2014, where representatives from city and national governments, technology firms and private sector organisations gathered in Singapore to discuss strategies and challenges to achieving sustainable cities in the future.

Laura Ipsen, Microsoft corporate vice president for worldwide public sector, identified globalisation, social media, big data, and mobility as the four major technological trends prevailing in cities today, as she spoke at the plenary session with a theme on “The next urban decade: critical challenges and opportunities”.

Despite these increasing trends, she cautioned, “technology does not build infrastructure, but it does help better engage citizens and businesses through public-private partnerships”.

For example, “LoveCleanStreets”, an online tool developed by Microsoft and partners, enables London residents to report infrastructure problems such as damaged roads or signs, shared Ipsen.

“By engaging citizens through this application, cities can fix problems early, before they get worse,” she said.

In Singapore, the ‘MyWaters’ app of PUB, Singapore’s national water agency, is also a key tool for the government to keep citizens up-to-date of water quality and safety issues in the country, she added.

Even if governments did not actively develop solutions themselves, simply making the immense amounts of data collected by the city open to businesses and citizens could make a big difference to urban liveability, Mark Chandler, director of the San Francisco Mayor’s Office of International Trade and Commerce, pointed out.

Opening up all of the data collected by San Francisco, for instance, yielded 60 free mobile applications that allow residents to access urban solutions related to public transport, parking, and electricity, among others, he explained. This easy and convenient access to infrastructure and amenities, which are a daily necessity, is integral to “a quality of life that keeps the talented workforce in the city,” Chandler said.

Cities which invest in IT infrastructure, the adoption of Open Data and deployment of various intelligent systems can actually harness public opinions, and promote the co-ownership of problems, and co-creation of solutions.

Lee Yi Shyan, senior minister of state, Ministry of National Development, Singapore

Citizen engagement also helps governments negotiate the uncharted territory that social media and big data pose to regulatory frameworks, he added.

“The effects of disruptive technology are being felt very quickly,” he explained. “Uber (an on-demand taxi service), for example, has taken away the regulatory system of taxis. AirBnB (a peer-to-peer accommodation booking service) has undermined the regulatory systems of hotels.”

“This is a new governance challenge that must be adapted to in consultation with citizens,” he advised.

Citizen engagement was acknowledged as a key political priority by Singapore’s leadership at the summit.

In the four-day summit’s closing remark, Lee Yi Shyan, Singapore’s senior minister of state for national development, reaffirmed the challenges that a digitised and global world posed to leaders, but pointed out that “cities which invest in IT infrastructure, the adoption of open data and deployment of various intelligent systems can actually harness public opinions, and promote the co-ownership of problems, and co-creation of solutions”.

“There is potential for greater creative capacity in the people and private sector in devising solutions to help city residents deal with day-to-day problems such as mobility, safety, learning, healthcare and municipal services,” he added.

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