In a previous smart city article, we pointed out that open technologies and open data platforms like DataBroker DAO play an important role in moving towards truly smart cities. Broadband internet, data sensor networks, and Internet of Things (IoT) platforms are key components of any smart city implementation. However, technology is just the tip of the iceberg. There is more to it than rolling out technology to make a city smart.

Technology, when properly used, is essential to help solve the numerous challenges cities are facing today. But technology alone is never the answer. No matter how smart technology becomes and how cleverly it is used in a city context, there are other essential aspects which need to be addressed to really create a smart city. And these aspects are predominantly human.Connected communities and engaged citizens are at least as important as technology.

Citizens are crucial

The success of a smart city largely depends on the level of involvement of its citizens. That’s why the best place to start a smart city project are the applications that residents find most useful. If you fail to do this, you run the risk of developing cities that people don’t recognize or appreciate. Smart urban planning has to focus on the causes of problems, in order to design an environment that motivates people. A smart city is a city where people behave smartly automatically as a result of the way the city is being exploited.

Smart cities should aim to engage their citizens, by offering them a place where they want to live, love, grow, learn and care. And in doing so giving them the will to change and the will to act. Because seeing challenges and having solutions to tackle them is one thing, acting is something completely different. What is the use of monitoring air quality to prevent pollution for example if the will to change behavior as a consequence is not there?

Involvement is key

In many cities, citizens don’t feel included nor asked for participation, which is even more so in specific population groups and in countries where the focus on technology to improve the citizen experience is high but the attention for basic human rights is low. Smart city projects should be inclusive, participatory, and social. Residents of a smart city deserve a voice in the design process.

A smart city listens to its citizens in order to arrive at better decision-making, either by submitting proposals to its residents or by letting them formulate their own suggestions. And there are many more things a smart city can do to engage its citizens: launch digital equality initiatives and organize end-user education, let locals participate in technology and field trials, get their feedback through surveys and group sessions, connect with citizens via community portals and social platforms, keep them informed about progress through communication sessions and social media, and recognize collective achievements and celebrate successes, however small.

In the end, it is citizens’ acceptance and engagement that will determine the success or failure of any smart city initiative. That’s why ‘happy citizens’ should be on top of any city’s list of evaluation criteria. The essence is that smart cities are there for the people; not the other way around.

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