Simply asking people what they want through consultations, surveys and focus groups isn’t enough – cities have to reach a much broader range of people and move towards true ‘co-creation’.
This article is published in partnership with Ferrovial Services.
Citizen engagement isn’t a new concern but there’s a growing focus on its importance as more technology – much of it invisible – is deployed in cities to tackle urban challenges.
A clear takeaway from our recent Whose City Is It Anyway? event, held in partnership with Amey, the UK subsidiary of Ferrovial Services, and its Centre of Excellence for Cities, was that simply asking people what they want through consultations, surveys and focus groups isn’t enough – cities have to reach a much broader range of people and move towards true ‘co-creation’.
Konstantinos Champidis, Chief Digital Officer, City of Athens, shared a useful analogy. “The choices are not about asking people what kind of food they want or even inviting them to watch their food being made. We have to invite people to cook together with us in order to trust the quality of the food,” he said. “Involvement is the key thing.”
This has been central to Athens’ approach to digital transformation. Champidis was appointed as Athens’ first Chief Digital Officer in 2017 and he noted that at the time, Athens was facing a “perfect storm”. The city had substantial debt, a staffing cut and a freeze in hiring, high unemployment and a refugee crisis. Between 2010 and 2014, votes for the far right party, Golden Dawn, rose from five per cent to sixteen per cent in Athens.
We have to invite people to cook together with us, in order to trust the quality of the food...Involvement is the key thing.”
Against this backdrop, Athens focused on trust as a foundation of its digital transformation. The City appointed its first Chief Digital Officer (Champidis), formed a Digital Council with the private sector and academia, demonstrating transparency in the way these discussions were conducted, and created a Digital Roadmap for Athens, with targets going out just one year at a time to spur action and show results.
“We have to seek solutions for real people and real problems,” Champidis said, noting that technology such as “hyperloops and flying cars” isn’t important for the people of Athens – right now, they need connectivity infrastructure and digital skills to adapt to the changing world, he said.
Initiatives included the first co-creation FabLab in Greece, online training through Cisco Academy, work with schools and a citizen engagement app. Through partnerships with the private sector, 10,000 people in Athens have already benefited from access to digital skills training. The city purposely opened one of its digital skills centres in the same building where the Golden Dawn party met in Athens to underline the need for change.
Athens’ approach is already showing results. In November 2018, the European Commission named Athens as the European Capital of Innovation. Further, in the last European elections in May, support for the far right party in Athens fell to five per cent.
“We are very proud,” Champidis said. “We tried to bring people closer to the city, [rather than focusing] on technology and platforms. We tried to bring together civil society, the private sector, and the city.”
A key theme throughout the event was finding new ways to engage with citizens, beyond traditional methods.
As Priya Prakash, Founder at Design for Social Change (D4SC), put it, “I don’t think people are waiting around, dying to be engaged. Let’s face it, people have busy lives, kids to take to school; they want to live their lives.”
“I don’t think people are waiting around, dying to be engaged."
Tiernan Mines, CEO, Hello Lamp Post, shared how his company’s technology allows citizens to interact with the physical world around them – they can have text-message-based conversations with post boxes, bus stops, lamp posts, heritage works and more. The playful platform can be used for applications such as public consultation, way-finding and cultural storytelling. The data from these interactions, analysed through natural language processing and other artificial intelligence (AI) methods, can provide continuous rich insights back to cities and help them to make more informed decisions.
“We want to democratise the decisions that are made about communities,” said Mines.
He noted: “The more people we allow to interact and feed back to the city, the more we’re getting closer to cities being truly co-created.“
Ben Edmonds, IT Programme and Change Manager, London Legacy Development Corporation (London 2012 Olympics), led on the deployment of Hello Lamp Post at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, to understand what people wanted from the Park as well as to gauge their feelings around issues such as autonomous vehicles being used in the Park and beyond in the future.
“We found that people were a lot more honest and open than they might have been [if it was a member of staff] approaching them with a clipboard," Edmonds said.
With more citizen feedback mechanisms than ever going digital (such as online debate platforms, apps, participatory budgeting and more), attendees also highlighted the importance of digital inclusion.
Suzanne Jameson, Head of Creative Economy, City of Liverpool, said: “Digital poverty is a huge issue. If you’re a single parent living on a council estate – anywhere in the UK – you probably have a pay-as-you-go mobile contract with a limited data package. Your child may not have access to the internet.”
"Digital poverty is a huge issue."
“We can talk about government provision around the digital skills agenda but there are people that might not have the [means] to respond to your digital platform,” Jameson said. “So let’s get realistic as well around where we need to invest the funding.”
She also highlighted the importance of working with existing community groups to reach a far broader range of citizens. For example, in the Kensington area of Liverpool, trials are ongoing around how 5G can benefit citizens with long-term health conditions such as diabetes and epilepsy, as well as how the technology could help combat loneliness and social isolation.
An important part of this work is partnering with existing networks connected to the primary care trust, Jameson said.
This is an approach being pioneered by the Knowle West Media Centre (KWMC) in Bristol which works closely with the City Council, among others, to use technology and the arts to “come up with creative solutions to problems and explore new ways of doing things” – using a co-creation process it calls ‘The Bristol Approach’.
Zoe Banks Gross, Community Engagement Manager, KWMC, said: “You have to actually be working with people; you can’t do this from the top-down level. You can’t say ‘We’ve got these problems, here’s how the city’s going to solve them’. Actually, we need to identify the problems with people.”
As part of the European REPLICATE project, KWMC talked to the community in East Bristol about the issues that mattered to them. Many people in this area live in Victorian terraced housing and suffer from damp in their homes.
Working with technologists, citizens created a basic damp sensor fitted with a Raspberry Pi. The sensor looked like a frog and an air quality sensor was later developed which looked like a ladybird.
Banks Gross noted that a lot of technology is “mystical and uninterpretable for people. So whatever we can do to make things more understandable and accessible for normal people, the better.”
The frog sensor was used alongside a written data diary. “The sensor [collects] data but we also like to stress the importance of actually collecting data as a human being,” said Banks Gross.
KWMC has also collaborated with citizens around smart homes. This included local ambassadors trialling smart home technology, such as connected washing machines, and reporting back to their neighbours honestly about the experience.
According to Priya Prakash, co-creation will be achieved in stages.
She noted that although cities may want to engage with citizens around issues such as how to tackle air pollution, they also have to accept that: “That’s not what really matters to citizens in day-to-day life.”
Their immediate concerns are matters such as finding a parking space, understanding when the next train will arrive, or finding a place to connect to wi-fi, she said.
Prakash noted there are many good examples of engagement through playful approaches and art, for instance, but commented: “It creates social capital, but still doesn’t solve the problem of who’s going to take my garbage.”
"What really matters when you’re designing a smart city service is a path to participation."
“What really matters when you’re designing a smart city service is a path to participation,” she commented, noting that once people have access to the basics, they are more likely to be comfortable paying taxes or rent online. After this they could be more open to co-creation, sharing their data and eventually becoming active change-makers themselves.
Felicity Algate, Director, Behavioural Insights Team UK: North, also argued for the importance of making choices as easy as possible for citizens, drawing on the use of behavioural science.
Our brains have these two systems, Algate explained: system one uses automatic processing.
“These things happen without you being aware of them. System one is really efficient and doesn’t use a lot of energy,” Algate said, giving the example of simple calculations and regular daily commutes.
System two is much slower and more analytical. Algate cited research which finds that if you ask people a hard multiplication question while they’re walking, almost everybody immediately stops because they are trying to do two hard things at once.
If you ask people a hard multiplication question while they’re walking, almost everybody immediately stops because they are trying to do two hard things at once.
“Generally, we still design systems and processes, [such as] community engagement, on the basis that we are using our system two,” Algate said. “We ask people: ‘what do you think of this?’. But there’s lots of evidence that system one [running in the background] actually has an enormous impact.”
She urged cities aiming to boost citizen participation to “go with the grain of human behaviour”.
For example, the city of Portland in the US wanted to increase uptake of its community bike scheme and engaged the Behavioural Insights Team. They sent out postcards to encourage people to use the bike service. One postcard variant advertised signing up for free, the second promoted $12 off (the equivalent of a free sign-up).
The free rides postcard was three times as effective as the money off promotion.
It’s easier to process automatically via system one, Algate said, urging cities to think EAST: make choices or transactions Easy, Attractive, Social and Timely
The experiment showed the importance of context, too. The promotions were also divided between people who lived near a newly installed bike station and people who had recently moved. New movers were almost four times as likely to sign up to the bike service.
“Timing matters,” Algate said, adding that behavioural science, including context, could boost citizen engagement.
Ferrovial Services is calling for a shift from “smart cities” to “responsive cities” with citizens at the heart as the key decision-makers.
David Ogden, Business Director, Amey – subsidiary of Ferrovial Services-, who was keynote speaker at the event, said that central to this shift is reaching as many citizens as possible, not just the “vocal minority”. He appealed for the deployment of new approaches to citizen engagement, including better translation of available data into insights, an openness to difficult conversations and decisions, and closer collaboration between the public and private sector to enable co-creation.
"If we collaborate, we can open up interesting new ways of operating moving forward."
Using data and alternative forms of behavioural engagement, will provide insights into citizens’ experiences and associated outcomes of a greater number of people, Ogden said. These views, opinions, experiences and preferences could reshape the procurement and delivery of public services, he noted.
Ogden called for a collaborative shift in procurement processes to focus on outcomes, rather than outputs.
Ferrovial Services is already showing the benefits of this in action. In its Citizentrica project in Madrid, Ferrovial Services worked directly with the city council and citizens, as well as using data analytics, to improve street cleaning services. Citizen satisfaction with services increased from 44 per cent to 77 per cent and complaints fell significantly, while the cost of delivery remained the same.
In the Londoners’ Lab initiative, the company increased organic recycling by 40 per cent through co-designing the service with citizens and the city council.
Ogden said: “I believe that as citizens, we want a voice: as individuals and collectively. As decision-makers, we need a mechanism to achieve that. If we collaborate, we can open up interesting new ways of operating moving forward.”
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