Smart cities require smart citizens

Examples of crowdsourcing, co-creation and self-organisation

Two years ago, the Caribbean were hit by a number of extremely powerful hurricanes. Hurricane Irma hit the island of Sint Maarten, a former Dutch colony. Immediately people in the Netherlands started initiatives in Facebook groups to collect food, clothing and flash lights to send to the people on Sint Maarten that lost their houses and lacked clean water. On national television people were encouraged to donate, but for a large group of citizens this was not enough. They wanted to do more. Facebook groups facilitated them to organize communities and call others to join in.

By empowering citizens and communities through digital technologies, governments can not only respond to crisis better or deliver better services in our cities, they also make citizens feel more engaged, more responsible and more in control. Best practices in this area cover a whole spectrum of ways for citizens to participate in and contribute to their cities: from a more passive involvement by simply installing a mobile app, by playing a simple game or by voting for a given option, to actively sharing information, measuring or investigating something or evaluating a government policy.

STIPO_OUR_CITY_Cover_preview_b90c05a9-d9e7-459a-aff2-2879280e48bf_1024x1024-1This article was published in: ‘OUR CITY? Countering Exclusion in Public Space’ (STIPO/Placemaking Europe, 2019). 

It contains many examples and insights that I developed during a foresight study om ‘the wisdom of crowds’. The outcomes (e.g. earthquakes in Japan, virus outbreak and better governance of cities by citizens) can be read in the book ‘Samen slimmer‘ (Collectively more intelligent).

Download hier het toekomstbeeld Smart cities, smart democracy 2030 uitkomst van een meerjarige toekomstverkenning. [in Dutch]

Empowering citizens

Citizens often feel more at home in their cities when they can help or contribute. Governments are challenged to leverage this willingness and to channel the energy of their inhabitants into constructive and productive activities.

Digital information, data and communication tools together with blockchain and artificial intelligence allow for this collective intelligence to be collected. Many tools are already available that create collective intelligence by collecting and synthesizing individual contributions or by dividing large projects into smaller tasks and distributing these among a network of citizens. Unfortunately we see that most attention nowadays goes to smart city infrastructure projects, built and owned by tech companies. Instead of supporting or empowering citizens the distance between them and their environment is widened. Citizens are monitored instead of being engaged.

Next to the very important ‘offline’ placemaking, digital technologies offer great ways to engage people, give them control and help citizens organise themselves. Further on I will demonstrate how empowering these technologies can be and how cities can truly benefit from focussing on these, often simple and existing digitale technologies. Hereby I distinguish between three stages of participation: crowdsourcing, co- creation and self-organization.

3stages collintell
Three stages of citizen involvement in smart cities, with different levels of citizen participation (horizontal) and level of interaction among citizens (vertical). Source: M. Kreijveld, Samen slimmer, 2012].

Further reading:


1. Crowdsourcing and crowdmapping

One of the most important elements of crowdsourcing is that it enables to gather a lot of data on relatively low cost, or now cost at all. Instead of having inspectors check the air quality, the potholes in the streets, dangerous crossroads or broken lights it can now be done by ordinary citizens on their own phones. Where normally the frequency and width of inspections was a matter of financial and thereby often political priorities, with digital technology it is a low cost and potentially very efficient practice highly increasing the quality and service levels of the civic administration, with the help of its citizens.

Citizens can measure everything that happens in the city by simply installing an app on a smartphone, by searching something on the web, by using a hashtag, by sharing the steps of their fitness tracker and by liking posts on social media. Information and communication technologies facilitate the communication and coordination among the citizens that do not interact with each other at all. That’s why these kind of initiatives are often referred to as ‘citizens as sensors’ of ‘crowd sensing’. Some other examples are discussed below.

Samen slimmer handThrough the apps, websites of social media data is gathered, analysed and processed. This can provide new insights such as the spread of diseases via Google FluTrends. Under certain conditions it is possible to derive a ‘wisdom of crowds’ from the gathered data. More examples of the wisdom of crowds (e.g. prediction markets) can be found here

Measuring earth vibrations in a mining area

People living nearby the gas extraction sites in Groningen, the Netherlands, installed a smartphone app Bevingmeter that measures vibrations by using the smartphone’s sensors. The collective measurements provide an accurate insight in the number and scale of the earthquakes, which they then could use in discussions with government officials. Their data was as accurate as the official measurements, giving them equal footing at the discussion table.

Measuring noise levels around the national airport

Similarly, citizens living around Schiphol installed sensors (microphones) on their rooftops to measure the noise of airplanes when the airport announced new plans for growth. Through Sensornet, they could measure the noise levels constantly and 24 hours a day. The combined measurements of hundreds of sensors provide a detailed 3D map of the noise levels far more accurate than the measurements of the government and airport officials. This put an end to an ongoing debate between national government, local authorities and citizens who did not feel taken serious in the debate.

Measuring air quality in the streets

The open source sensor on air quality, developed in the Smart Citizen project, allowed citizens to measure the air quality in their neighbourhood. This led to constructive and informed discussions between the citizens and the municipalities on fine dust concentrations from traffic and industries and policies to curb the emissions in all the neighbourhoods participating in this project. The measurements also made the citizens more aware about their own behavior and how they themselves contribute to the emissions in their neighbourhood.

2. Co-creation: citizens reporting and solving puzzels

Citizens can do more than take (passive) measurements. There are more and more examples of platforms enabling citizens to witness and report. In this way they are actively contributing and collaborating with NGOs, aid organisations and governments. Some of the platforms were developed in response to crisis situations, but have proven equally instrumental in more regular city activities. Examples of citizen reporting:

Crisis mapping

The open source platform Ushahidi has been used for mapping many large disasters such as the earthquakes in Haiti and Chili and fires in Russia, and also used to map the spread of diseases in certain areas. It was developed by local activists to monitor the elections in Kenya and report about the subsequent spread violence throughout the country. After Japan’s tsunami in 2010 the platform helped to map the spread of radioactive radiation from the nuclear power plants that were damaged and leaking radiation. People were given sensors to measure the radiation and this was collected and visualized by Ushahidi on the map. Not only people living in the area or country where the disaster took place participated, people worldwide contributed. This provides a rich crisis mapping of an area that is hit by a disaster, such as a hurricane or earthquake.
Ushahidi combines low tech like sms, telephone calls, emails with smartphones, sensor data and data from official bodies such as governments, firemen, police and aid organizations (Red Cross). The maps give a real time situational awareness, enabling professionals to direct their aid or assistance to the most needed areas, and provide citizens with practical insights as where to find fresh water, shelter or medical assistance. The platform also gives leverage to citizens posting eye witness reports on local injustice, thereby also enabling them to built their cases and provide international organisations with the proper information to address the national authorities.

Identifying and categorising objects in massive amounts of images

Similarly, people can also been asked to help out. Over the years people have helped to identify tumor tissue in large database samples, search for deforestation in jungle areas on Google Maps, or in the case of the missing Malaysian Airlines plane people all over the world were asked to help search for the plane on satellite images. The website Tomnod provides people with the satellite images and let’s them indicate pictures with a possible wreckage part or ligt raft. More than thousand people participated in this endeavor. Unfortunately the plane still hasn’t been found.

Further reading (in Dutch):

Tools and technologies for active citizens

Ofcourse, also without crisis situations, tools like the ones mentioned can prove very valuable in daily urban life. The last ten years the organization mySociety has developed a set of tools that allow people to be active citizens. The open source platform is used by governments in many countries. The tools cover the social values transparency, community and democracy, for example:

  • Alaveteli makes it easy to run a freedom of information website.
  • Fixmystreet is a tool that makes it easy to set up a website where citizens can report street issues to the authorities.
  • EveryPolitician facilitates websites or apps that monitor elected representatives.
Most popular websites and tools from MySociety

There is a tremendous amount of experience with the use of these types of apps and data gathering sites throughout Europe, especially in the Scandinavian countries, the Netherlands and front runner cities like Barcelona. The technology is out there. It is just a matter of using it.

3. Self-organisation: citizens in the lead

Instead of contributing to activities initiated by companies, governments or scientists, citizens can also take the initiative themselves: they create tools, develop products and provide services to each other. We refer to this third stage as self-organization.

Developing new ideas and collective decision making

There are many tools available that let people work in groups and help them brainstorm for new ideas, selecting and evaluating them and making collective decisions. The city of Barcelona has built Decidim Barcelona (= ‘We Decide’ Barcelona) a website where citizens can participate and decide in topics related to the city.

Sharing cities

Along these, digital platforms that facilitate collaboration among citizens, have fueled the rise of the so-called sharing economy. These platforms provide a marketplace where people can provide services, goods or money to each other. Many cities like Amsterdam, Barcelona, Berlin and Copenhagen have car and bike sharing and energy sharing initiatives that stimulate innovative mobility and make citizens more resilient.

Hacking and Do It Yourself

In the agricultural field, there is an active community of citizens and ProAms (professional amateurs) that work on biology, robotics and Internet of things for farming applications. It is a makers movement around farming, called FarmHack. This movement has helped to develop open source tools and affordable techniques that benefit scientists and farmers. Many more examples of DIY communities can be found in multiple areas and domains.

Also blockchain wil provide new ways for collective actions and inclusive services.

Further reading (in Dutch): 


Instead of striving for a smart city it might be better to built towards smart citizenship. Smart citizens can make smart decisions, resolve conflicts and take impactful actions. As we have seen they do not even have to actively participate, their smart phones can do the job for them and provide data that can lead to valuable insights.

The challenge for administrators is to facilitate citizens to contribute in different ways and with different intensities. It is not a matter of simply outsourcing tasks to citizens.
Projects like The City SDK project have shown that it is possible to create a fully-fledged platform with which citizens and businesses can develop applications and services for the city. The platform ensures that the various technologies and data, such as mobility, energy and buildings, are integrated with each other. This is an alternative to the offerings of commercial providers but its principles could also be incorporated more into the commercial smart cities using more open source software and applications.

By working together with citizens, citizens are not only much more activated, they feel involved, their knowledge is used, their energy and willingness to help deployed positively. Moreover, by giving back information they become wiser.

Active committed citizens are desperately needed in times of major transitions, such as the energy transition. This transition that can only succeed if citizens play an active role and change their behavior. The growing popularity of solar panels on the roofs of houses is a good example of small contributions that citizens make on an ever-increasing scale. Collective street buys and other community initiatives contributed to the fact that now 1 in 8 houses in the Netherlands is equipped with solar panels.

So, let us not complain about the increasing power of tech companies such as Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon, but ensure that the operating systems of the cities of the future are in the hands of citizens and administrators. Let’s have smart citizens make our cities smart.

Download hier het toekomstbeeld Smart cities, smart democracy 2030 uitkomst van een meerjarige toekomstverkenning