Over the past six months, Itron Idea Labs has had discussions with cities to understand their biggest complications when it comes to creating a smart city. Many cities shared the following challenges:

                1. It is challenging to get continual input from citizens unless they are upset.

                2. The cross-section of individuals we hear from is narrow and very specific.

                3. It is difficult to communicate with and educate citizens.

Citizen engagement is obviously an important piece of smart cities. Being able to deeply communicate with a wide swath of citizens is important in good times and bad. Many cities lamented that only a limited set of people knew where their tax dollars were going or how to use existing city programs.

If engaging citizens is the first challenge, utilizing existing data is the second. A truly smart citizen will have access to the city’s data as well as the ability to share their own data with the city. Right now, we are at a unique time in history, where most citizens carry a smart phone (i.e., radio with multiple sensors attached to it). Imagine the power of this collaboration between city and citizens! When the city finds a new and pressing problem, the citizens can provide the data with a little guidance.

Our world is full of unplanned and unprecedented events that cause new and pressing problems. With a two-way communication structure between the city and citizen, there is a way to react actively to gather data and share data to collectively improve these challenging situations. Early on in our discussions, we found that in many cases cities solve a single problem with a single service. While each service was useful in its own right, different locations for each communication with the city was cumbersome. Citizens wanted to be able to do more than one thing with the city app or webapp. The platform needed to have the flexibility to solve many pain points, and not just a single issue.

We also heard from cities that a level of trust is needed between the cities and the citizens to enable any positive interaction. For all the complexity involved, trust seemed to really boil down to two things:

                1. Have frequent, open and clear communication.

                2. Follow-up so they know the city is listening.

But it is difficult to get people to interact consistently! The real-world is messy and things do not always get resolved as desired. We began to discuss how we could create a cycle of engagement that would keep the citizens interacting and helping improve the city. A few items we identified as possible catalysts in this area were gamifying the experience and giving the citizens daily and weekly goals, and then providing feedback based on completion of those goals. Cities with a focus on citizen engagement for more than 10 years noted that even when the feedback is not communicating success, the communication is still vital, and possibly even more so.

From the city perspective, how would a smart city look? This became more apparent as we worked through the citizen side of things. Cities traditionally take a very long time and spend a lot of money to implement a solution, sometimes discovering the solution did not solve the problem. This is where Ecclesia comes in. Ecclesia is a project that explores the challenges around citizen engagement using two-way communication to solve problems for both the city and the citizen. Ecclesia seeks to enable rapid iteration of solutions, adjusting on the fly and pivoting until a good solution is found. The structure Itron Idea Labs has identified for this concept is based around the idea of campaigns and opportunities. A campaign is started by the city to solve a problem. Within that campaign the city can set up different opportunities for the citizens to engage. Engagement examples might be taking a photo of a specific area at a specific time, completing a poll based on happenings in your area or viewing a video posted by the city – always short, easy to complete opportunities. As is continually shown, crowdsourcing is incredibly powerful and applying many minds to the same problem can lead to exciting results.

Imagine your city wants to renovate a rundown section of town. The city may have many theories of what can be done to bring back a buzzing economy and lots of foot traffic, but most of these solutions require months of planning with significant cost. Using Ecclesia, your city can create a campaign based on the desired improvement, starting with an opportunity of a basic poll for the citizens. Asking about the area’s biggest problems, the times you feel unsafe, etc. With that information, the city might choose to increase the smart lighting levels at certain times of day.

Next, the city can try an opportunity based on identifying the “fear hotspots,” by having citizens use the Ecclesia application to identify places they feel safe and places they feel uneasy. Once the fear hotspots have been identified, the city can then look for simple changes to improve that area, such as a temporary light generator or scheduled police presence.

The city could continue the campaign by re-polling to see if public sentiment changes. This iterative approach can continue until a solution is found, at which point a permanent solution can be crafted with a far greater chance of success and public support since citizens were engaged in finding a solution from the start.

This scenario represents a typical use case for the solution being explored by Itron Idea Labs – a solution that expands citizen engagement and magnifies a city’s ability to access and use the data collected. 

To learn more about Itron Idea Labs, visit the Itron Idea Labs website.

Tobias Cain
Associate Design Engineer - Itron
Tobias is a member of the Itron Idea Labs and works as part of a team that tests new technologies for their application in business innovation.

He has a Bachelors degree in Electrical Engineering, and a Masters in Computer Engineering. He joined the Itron Idea Labs team as a new college graduate.