Listen First: The Smarter Way to Build a Smart City

Ted Cuzzillo,
Principal Analyst – Data Analytics

Summary Bullets:

  • A truly smart city brings out the public’s ‘inner smartness.’  That starts with listening, not technology.
  • A recent San Francisco project offers a strong example of a listen-first approach.

Ask almost anyone to describe a smart city and you hear about technology.  IoT, AI, and assorted other tech orchestrate lights, power and water, and buses for optimal performance.  One thing you almost never hear about, however, is the people who would benefit.

To the degree that we conceive of smart city projects this way, the more the public tends to feel the outcome is one more thing done by the enigmatic planners, the great ‘they.’  This is no way to bring out the public’s ‘inner smartness,’ as GlobalData’s Tony Cripps put it in May 2020.

A better approach is to listen to the public first.  No matter if the project involves advanced technology or none at all, this strategy’s value is universal.  One recent project in the Bayview neighborhood in southeastern San Francisco, California offers a good demonstration.  Several participants described it in a recent webinar produced by Bay Area-based smart city organization Meeting of the Minds.

City planners, along with a local data analytics vendor and a local public interest group, approached residents of this historically forgotten and isolated neighborhood to find out what they needed to improve everyday life. 

There, public transit is notoriously inadequate, though it’s more important than in most areas for food shopping and commuting to work.  This chronically underprivileged area has long been the subject of planning and re-planning, to little effect.  More than once, interviewers heard: “What, another study?”

Outreach workers with the project started by approaching community leaders and, through them, a wider group of everyday residents and business people.

They took care to ensure that the demographics of the sample group – ever growing – reflected that of the community.  Over 13 months, they interviewed 14 community leaders, held 56 community events, gathered 2,300 responses, and heard in person from 4,010 people among the area’s roughly 32,000 constituents.

Eventually, they echoed what they heard to the community to help show that what they said mattered.  Their final report, “The Bayview Community-Based Transportation Plan,” released in early 2020, recommended a variety of transportation improvements.  These included, for example, greater frequency and reliability of city buses and streetcar service, a community shuttle to reach food stores and regional transit, and a “non-police safety presence.”

It’s easy to imagine the listen-first strategy’s disadvantages and risks.  For one, it takes longer.  In addition, partnerships with community groups or expert vendors risk the insidious influence of a vendor’s political dogma that obscures the community’s actual interests.

Whatever the risks, the listen-first approach is not new and shiny, but it is wise.

Advice for Project Leaders:

  • Listen first; then decide on appropriate technology.
  • Validate neighborhood viewpoints and history.
  • Choose partners with whom you have good rapport.  Watch for strong agendas.
  • Work for replicability.
  • Don’t overpromise.

What do you think?

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