Citizen engagement: a key enabler of smart cities?

Enlighten • Pulse #1 • 11 min
By Pascal Beria By Francis Pisani Journalist, writer, teacher and conference speaker By Éric Chareyron Director of the Keoscopie Observatory of Mobility Trends


What’s the role of citizens in the development of smart cities? It’s a crucial question, so we asked two experts to shed some light. Francis Pisani is a journalist, lecturer and conference speaker specialising in urban innovation. Éric Chareyron is CEO of Keoscopie Observatory of Mobility Trends.

There’s a lot of talk about smart cities, but what do they look like in practive?

Francis Pisani: There’s no really satisfactory definition of a smart city. Or rather, we have so many definitions it’s hard to know which one to use. In reality, there are no ‘smart cities’ as such — just projects, initiatives and ways of addressing issues to help make our urban centres smarter. There are basically two kinds. There’s the data-driven model, where you gather, combine and analyse data to gain insights. Then there’s the approach based on citizen participation. I’d also say that a smart city should reflect three key principles. First, it must be inclusive. You can’t say a city is ‘smart’ if it creates insecurity and inequality. Second, it must be sustainable.

In other words, part of a virtuous dynamic, where it can develop and support itself, without compromising its ability to meet requirements in the future. And third, it must be resilient.

I don’t think you can protect a city from everything that might happen.
But you can put mechanisms in place so it can recover quickly from a disruption and return to normal. If we take public transport, for example, it means knowing how quickly you can get the infrastructure back into service. All this calls for a shift in attitudes.

Éric Chareyron: There are two key enablers. First, unlocking the power of data and new tools to make public policies more efficient. And second, responding to the need for cities to be more harmonious, where citizens across the spectrum of diversity are involved in the transformation process.

When we talk about smart cities today, we tend to think of the major urban centres like San Francisco, Amsterdam, Songdo, Barcelona, Paris or Lyon. Yet in France, 30 million people, over 40% of the population, live in small or medium-sized towns, or in rural areas. So, I think it’s important to talk in terms of ‘smart regions’. Plus, there’s a lot more overlap and interconnection among geographic areas today. People are increasingly moving between places, which are closely interlinked. In a typical family, one person might work at home, the other in the city, while the children attend school in a nearby town.

At the same time, they have leisure and social activities spread across various other locations. So, it’s actually more meaningful to talk about networks of smart geographic areas.

When discussing smart approaches to mobility, for example, it’s important to take account of all people travelling in a region — who they are, why they come here, and so on. After all, a smart city isn’t just for the benefit of the people who live there. All these perpetual interactions need to be factored into our thinking. Analysis of data from mobile operators shows that the number of people visiting a city in the course of a month is two or three times more than the number of people living there. That’s hugely significant!

Francis, you mentioned citizen participation. Increasingly, we’re seeing citizens taking power in the design of their cities, aided in particular by new communication technologies. But is this taking power away from policymakers?

F.P.: I think citizens are being incredibly creative, which doesn’t need permission from anyone. But they’re not taking power, they’re simply exercising the power they have. We want to see more democracy, not stifling the democracy that already exists. And just because citizens are getting involved, it doesn’t mean local authorities are losing power.

For the authorities, it’s no longer enough to say they’ve done this or that study to legitimise their decisions on urban planning or infrastructure projects. To justify a project, they need to work with citizens in a participative approach. The rise of participatory (or participative) democracy through networked collaboration is valuable for critiquing and scrutinising political decisions.

However, it raises the issue of how you avoid any one group monopolising the process and having too much say, when they don’t represent all citizens. So, the challenge for the authorities is to ensure that everyone’s voice is heard.

É. C : I don’t see any contradiction. I also think citizen participation is vital to the development of smart cities. Increasingly today, people want to voice their opinions.

With that in mind, it’s clearly in the interests of the authorities to take these opinions into account, rather than risking more serious issues down the line, since it’s the whole of society that’s changing.

Citizen participation is about people having a say in the way their cities are designed and managed. It’s most effective when the widest diversity of opinions, lifestyles and vulnerabilities are reflected, giving legitimacy to the proposals put forward and making them more likely to be heard.

Since it’s so important, how can the authorities invite citizen participation in new urban projects, for example?

É. C.: That’s the real question. How can we get citizens involved when we need their input, such as for new public transport services? There are several levers we can use, though it’s often the public who take the initiative. There are digital tools, of course, which make it easier to gather opinions. But we mustn’t overlook all those people who don’t use those tools or aren’t really comfortable with them — which is half of France in 2017, according to one figure. So, we need to find other ways for people to participate as well, such as public meetings.

These must be led by a facilitator, so everyone has a fair say. They have their limitations though, because they’re mostly attended by the discontented. It’s sometimes necessary to conduct opinion polls to gauge whether a project is viewed positively or negatively across a more representative sample of the population.

At Keolis, we’ve also invited people from diverse backgrounds to take part in roundtable sessions, led by a sociologist, providing an opportunity for more considered and constructive debate. Another solution is citizen forums, where larger groups can discuss particular issues related to their city with experts and decisionmakers. These are a great way to gather ideas and opinions from the public and at the same time give them more detailed information. I’m one of those who think that citizens in a smart city need information and clarity, so they can make informed decisions, both for themselves and the wider community.

F.P.: I agree, but it can be tricky to initiate citizen participation in new cities or neighbourhoods. Let me give you an example. A while back I visited Songdo, South Korea. The city was designed with highspeed cables laid underground, then buildings constructed on top. Overall, the urban planners have managed to create a real business dynamic. But as a city, I noticed a real lack of dynamic. The pace of urban expansion is such that the creation of new districts is inevitable. So, the question is how to involve people when they don’t actually live there yet, because it hasn’t been built. There’s an obvious dimension to all this, which hasn’t yet been resolved: how do you create an urban political, social and economic dynamic that’s different from what’s been done before.

Wich cities are innovating in the right direction?

F.P.: Mark Zuckerberg once said that you don’t start communities, you give them the tools they need for “elegant organisation”. So, the question is how to provide citizens with tools that are simple and effective. Let me take the example of Santiago, Chile, which provided cyclists with an app that lets them plot their journeys, progressively building a map of the best routes across the city, which can be viewed by everyone.

É.C.: To promote greater mobility, we’re pushing for digital solutions to be as intuitive as possible for users, which is often far from the case. Today, we have super-powerful algorithms, but the basic design principles of robustness, clarity and usability are often overlooked. 

On the issue of citizen participation, I’d cite the example of Orléans, France, where we introduced a new bus network. In partnership with the city authorities, we committed to incorporating 70% of the requests put forward by local citizens at the consultation meetings. We also did the same thing in Bordeaux. The question was  how we transition from our position as experts in mobility solutions, which is a role we must continue to play, to being experts in incorporating citizen requests into those solutions. It takes humility to admit that what we do as experts can be improved by listening to citizens and involving them in the development process. It’s important to recognise that behind all the workstreams and dataflows, there’s human behaviour.

The task is to discern the individuals behind the statistics, which is at the heart of what we do at our Keoscopie observatory.

Are citizen-led initiatives compatible witch policies to boost economies and make regions more attractive, or could there be a conflict?

É.C.: It’s still the elected politicians who make the decisions. How those decisions are put into practice can always be amended. But the overall roadmap must remain in the hands of the authorities. That’s why we need to find ways to ensure that people understand the thinking behind projects and are given the opportunity to discuss them and propose changes.

F.P.: Cities are a social construct, and societies are defined around the notion of conflict. There’s no society without conflict. So, it’s not about avoiding disagreements, but finding ways forward. I think a community that’s happy and feels good about itself is more attractive. If citizen participation makes people feel more positive, then I reckon a participatory city is a more attractive city. But if you asked me whether people live better in a smart city, I honestly wouldn’t know what to say.

On that point, does citizen participation guarantee the success of a smart city?

F.P.: Of course not, but it reminds me of Churchill’s famous remark: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others”. Citizen participation doesn’t come with any guarantees, but it underpins the notion of responsibility. If people are part of the process, if they engage, it hopefully gives them a sense of responsibility. I don’t know if it makes a city wiser or smarter, but it creates a very different kind of political and social space.

É. C.: I disagree. I think it’s one of the keys to the success of smart regions – provided, of course, that participation is genuinely representative of the diversity of opinions and that time is allowed for dialogue and mediation between experts and citizens. But I think we have everything to gain by putting citizen participation at the heart of the process of developing networks of smart regions.

Jakarta : l’œil citoyen


The Indonesian capital is one of the most congested places in the world. In 2009, Henry Soelistyo, aged just 20 at the time, created, a website offering aerial views of the city’s busiest roads and junctions. Citizens found the site useful, and it was soon expanded so they can upload information on traffic conditions as they travel. Businesses are also involved, helping fund the infrastructure by advertising on the site. A citizen-led initiative that’s enabling the authorities of one of the world’s most crowded conurbations to address the issue of mobility.

Songdo : recherche citoyens désespérément


The South Korean city of Songdo is the prototype for a technology-driven vision of cities. Built from scratch on land reclaimed from the sea, it’s created to be a ‘ubiquitous city’, with sensors everywhere and all buildings connected and reachable within 15 minutes by bicycle. With its modern architecture, wide roads and green spaces, it’s a perfect place to live. Except it lacks one thing — life. Most of the city’s infrastructure remains deserted. Proof that it’s hard for a city, however cleverly conceived, to develop without the support of a pre-existing local community.

Lausanne, le temps de la démocratie


Swiss democracy involves a greater degree of citizen participation than most places. In Lausanne, it was going to take 12 years to redevelop an area of the city, with plans for two eco-neighbourhoods and relocation of a stadium. The local authority initiated the debate, but it was discussion between citizens that got the project off the ground. Proof that citizen-led democracy operates on a totally different timeframe!

Hyderabad, cartographier les transports


Until recently, taking the bus in the Indian megacity was quite a feat. With no transport map, no one really knew which route to take, or if they needed to change buses to get where they wanted to go. Providing route information via mobile phone or online didn’t work, because so few people had phones or web access.
So, a group of students decided to map the bus network. The printed maps were then given to the ubiquitous street-corner cigarette sellers, who ensure they’re widely available to the public, while earning a bit of extra cash in the process. An initiative by citizens for citizens in a low-technology context.

Francis Pisani

is a journalist specialising in information and communication technologies. He travelled the world looking at examples of smart cities, publishing his findings in numerous countries. In 2015, he brought out a book entitled “A journey through smart cities: between datapolis and participolis”.

Éric Chareyron

is director of prospective, lifestyles and mobilities at Keolis. He set up the company’s Keoscopie observatory, which studies lifestyles and mobility practices. He also supports local authorities in their thinking about the cities of tomorrow.


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