What role do citizens play when developing smart city services?

The inspiring light festival GLOW in Eindhoven this November was accompanied with the Smart Lighting Event 2014. Attending professionals by far outnumbered the citizens, and that was exactly the point of discussion that arose in the dialogues about smart city development. Several organisations and cities showcased their smart lighting projects, like the Hoekenrodeplein...

The inspiring light festival GLOW in Eindhoven this November was accompanied with the Smart Lighting Event 2014. Attending professionals by far outnumbered the citizens, and that was exactly the point of discussion that arose in the dialogues about smart city development.

Several organisations and cities showcased their smart lighting projects, like the Hoekenrodeplein in Amsterdam where the lights and cameras are used for crowd influence and are available for booking by citizens. Paco Bunnik shared that the participation by citizens so far had been minimal, and then only in the end-phase. “We certainly want more citizens involved at an earlier step”, he said, and asked the crowd for input. “It’s also a matter of personal responsibility”, Stuart Mckinley said, an elderly citizen with English roots.

Finding the business model

Light festivals and art installations are growing in numbers. Usually it’s local government and companies trying out new innovative technologies in accessible ways for the public. However, these prototypes are more fun than functional. For the next step, finding a business model, they really need to start looking at the crowd’s needs. It’s solutions looking for problems, instead of starting with the customer needs.

Focus on the citizens

When developing a new smart city service, an extreme focus on the customer is needed. Ashwin van Dolder and Wouter van der Wal, young students who won the Smart Lighting Challenge 2013 award with their practical smart lights in a Nijmegen street, had this clearly in mind. “We started with a brainstorm session with the citizens and looked at the problems they had with the current light. For example, one problem was the streetlight shining into their living rooms. With their input we started working on possible solutions and ideas, 40 in total. We chose 5 of those who also had real potential in solving these problems and of course reducing the use of energy.” With their prototype they not only won the Smart Lighting Challenge 2013 award, but also the promise of the alderman to actually place these in the whole Van Nispenstraat.

The role of local government

Most citizens aren’t interested in politics or city development. This doesn’t mean that they don’t have any rights. While a bigger participation is needed, the final responsibility lays at the local government, until chosen otherwise by group decision. This is certainly the case with smart lighting. With the easy option of adding Wi-Fi to the light poles, city councils are faced with the choice to outsource not only the delivery of lights, but also the instalment and maintenance. It sounds ideal: the citizen gets free Wi-Fi and the city council can transfer the lighting tasks to willing companies. They can’t transfer their responsibility for the citizen’s privacy nor tasks like safety and atmosphere on the street, strongly connected with city lighting.

Embrace the change

This puts the local governments in an awkward spot: on one side they have to give space to companies willing to innovate and explore new technologies, and on the other side they have to safeguard citizens’ rights and carry the end responsibility. Citizens need to move forward and embrace the change. “You need to nudge them a little. Take your neighbour by the hand and get them online, get them to use an iPod,” the chairman of the day Theo Verbruggen said, as he shared a personal story of how he helped his own neighbour.

Independent and critical

A thing that I missed on the event: a call for an independent privacy watchdog. The main problems to set one up is finding independent funding and participants with a drive. The Netherlands thrive on volunteers, but the downside is the ease with which a volunteer can opt out, which is a real threat for any longevity. Paid workers will eventually grow to please their paymaster, despite any well-meant declaration or protocol.

The only true way of getting citizens involved in a long term way, it when a connection is made with their intrinsic motivation. An interesting option would be gamification: a serious game designed to give fun and experience on one side, and on the other side to inform, influence and motivate to action. Looking at the current level of interaction at light festivals and installations, that would mean prolonging the action outside a specific location and into the digital realm. Like one long personal experience that connects all the different dots.

Citizens play the key role

The focus of developing smart city services shouldn’t be on technology, but on the personal experience of the citizens: it puts the business case first in a way that connects with intrinsic motivation. The citizens play the key role.

Thomas Lapperre
Bloeise

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