“The citizen voice can be pivotal in providing the demand-side pressure on government, service providers and organizations… …to encourage full and swift response to citizen needs” (Jim Yong Kim, World Bank President)
Cities are engines for economic growth, innovation, and change. Throughout human history, the greatest civilizations were centered around cities rather than nations, facilitating the flourishing of trade, sciences and the arts- things which have come to shape entire national identities today. It’s for these opportunities of economic, cultural, intellectual and social development that urban societies have boomed in the developed world and people continue to leave their agrarian rural life to move to settle in cities across the developing world, even today.
The greatest advantage cities provide is the efficient utilization of resources- human, capital, land, water, and others- to achieve liveability objectives and also monetize the resources. The essence of the smart city concept is to achieve ‘more for less’. The proliferation of technology in the form of smartphones and super-fast wireless connectivity over the past decade has made it possible to give a technological angle to normal urban products and services.
While across the developing world, cities still face basic requirements in the nature of increased or improved water and electricity supply, roads and transportation options, cities in the developed world are using modern information and communication technologies to give existing infrastructure and services a ‘shot in the arm’ by bringing about improved accountability, flexibility, and real-time management. So, developments in smart cities can be viewed as using technology for either improvising the functioning of existing infrastructure and services as in the developed world or for development of new infrastructure and services, with technology and efficiency incorporated into the design aspects itself, as is possible now in the developing world.
Technology also provides a new dimension to urban development, which has often been overlooked by government, businesses and municipal bodies- the engagement and participation of citizens. As cities grow, they tend to cluster into districts with each having its own identity, cultural dimension, and character. These factors play a big part in the provision and appreciation of infrastructure and services. For example, if the majority of citizens in a city district oppose the development of overhead electricity transmission lines for safety or aesthetic reasons, and reach consensus on a solution to share a private land with the government to construct underground electricity cables, then it makes perfect sense to take those perceptions and consensus into account. While citizen groups in city districts have always existed and together voiced their opinions to the municipal body or mayor, it has often been the prerogative of a select group of mostly elderly men, who handled those issues. Technology today provides the opportunity to connect citizens of all age groups and gender in a particular district or the entire urban area for that matter, to voice their opinions on proposed development projects through the medium of citywide or district-wide apps or web-based portals. This gives a democratic legitimacy and sense of ownership to citizens in their respective neighborhoods- a feeling that often culminates into pride and responsibility.
Citizen engagement through virtual interaction, dialogue, and discussion is, therefore, central to urban development in the age of smartphones and digital technology. The need for active, engaged citizens can be felt when considered from the following viewpoints:
Empowerment: Citizen groups know best what their respective communities need. If they feel that through technology, their voices will be heard and taken into consideration as an important aspect in the development planning stage, then they will be encouraged to proactively use such media to bring to attention local issues and provide suggestions for solutions. More importantly, it will make sure that the economically, socially or physically disadvantaged citizens get a voice and development projects are inclusive of these disadvantaged sections.
Collaborative Development: Social media and city-wide apps provide opportunities for collective brainstorming and innovation to achieve development objectives. A robust ICT framework and an active and receptive civil society or municipal body can encourage talented citizens (who normally wouldn’t care to get involved) to ideate and come up with out-of-the-box propositions. Also, procurement and resource utilization will involve local supply chains and validated by citizens. All such efforts will lead to creating a buzz around development projects among the citizenry, leading to an investment of ‘social capital’ into urban development.
Awareness Creation: While citizens being encouraged to participate in the development of their localities is one of the objectives of smart development, technology can also work the other way around to make citizens more informative about developmental aspects and global trends and best practices. This can be enabled through regular feeds of snippets of information to citizens who subscribe to a city-wide app or social media pages of the city or localities. The benefits of smart cities need to be understood by citizens to be appreciated and foster collaboration between them and the municipal bodies.
Open Data: Citizens need to be able to access data about facilities and planned developments in their localities to validate or contribute to the same or simply to cater to their ‘right to know’. This calls for robust data collection and management systems working on a real-time basis. Data needs to be shared unhindered between city-wide organizations and departments (public and private) for a more holistic and justifiable open data framework, which provides actionable data. However, care must be taken to incorporate privacy into the setup so that data can be accessed safely and integrity of the system is not compromised. After all, the government/municipal body is the custodian of the data and they are responsible for regulating its access and usage.
Service Provisions: Normal urban services like paying electricity, water and cellphone bills, parking fees, finding directions or information about history or restaurants etc. in a particular locality can be enabled through digital kiosks. These can be designed by taking into account locality-based or pan-city suggestions for features to be incorporated, including RFID smart cards or card-based payment facilities.
In practice, citizen engagement can be responsible for facilities like:
1. Geospatial and photographic reporting on the cleanliness of roads, parks, and public toilets. Also, community-wide weekly, bi-weekly or monthly plans to jointly clean up local communities.
2. Encouraging maximum use of public transport over private commuting.
3. Ensuring government entitlements reach the people and grievances are addressed within hours and not days.
4. Engage people to use apps to report incidents of corruption in the government and private sector.
5. Inculcate the idea of ownership among citizens for their environment, green cover and public spaces to discourage littering, vandalism, and encroachment and encourage protection of historical and cultural spaces.
6. Motivate the public to become citizen police and take on the responsibility of making their city safer.
Stories by Swapnil Dhoke