The Human Factor Revalued: Empowered by Closed Loops
A balancing act
Society today is modeled after the same principles established centuries ago. The scale of our activities is certainly different but the underlying mechanisms are similar. Instruments have changed and the impact of human behavior is larger. The context that people can relate to follow the basic rules that society has always been based upon. Whether we live in an open economy or a top-down society,– there is a common notion that we now refer to as ‘Quality of Life’.
It is also true that most societies granted the right to safeguard this ‘greater cause of quality of life’ to a higher level, in whatever political form or power structure. They became the cities, councils, counties, municipalities, districts – the local governments as we know them today.
What dramatically changed is the connection between those that we ‘delegated’ the power to and the constituents that allowed for this shift in power. The gap between those who govern and those that represent society is larger now than ever before. Cities became bureaucracies to serve themselves rather than take care of their citizens.
By giving away responsibilities, constituents seem to have lost control.
But the pendulum always swings back. Connected urban society finds ways to narrow the gap that impacts so many of our day to day activities – running a business, traveling from A to B, attending school, and finding a secure place to live. The urge to return to the human dimension and to a scale at which people feel in control, appreciated and recognized is on top of the urban agenda. Proof of this is all around us — from roof gardening to peer-to-peer car sharing, to the rise of entrepreneurship in closed societies, and the increasing acceptance for social responsibility.
Studies and models confirm
Modeling the participation of citizen engagement has been the focus of many studies around the world. One comes to mind that continues to be relevant even twenty years since its publication date. It assumes the continuous interest of residents to take ownership and act responsibly and models it against the facilitating role local governments are expected to play. It concedes that:
- Residents that inquire need to be reached out to,
- City volunteers expect inclusion in the process,
- Citizens that assume responsibilities need to be empowered to be successful;
This structure shows a continuous cross fertilization in which consultation facilitates the expression of opinions and a collaborative approach allows citizens to take part in civic society. Keywords here include trust, openness, transparency, facilitation, and sharing responsibilities. These are elements that are lacking in many societies yet so important to the overall citizen experience. It is about the connections that are reestablished, about closing the gap, and allowing ‘the crowd’ to play the role they originally owned.
Enjoy both worlds
Technology can serve as a facilitator. Connected city infrastructures allow cities to engage citizens and enable them to participate in the role they demand and deserve. City management can recalibrate return to a facilitating role. The dynamics of the public can be left in the ‘safe’ hands of the citizens themselves. After all, it’s impossible to organize and structure all the elements that determine quality of life. It’s the deviation from rigid structures that is the recipe for change and the basis for progress and innovation. Local governments that empower its constituents to take ownership of their own progress reap the benefits of a flourishing, incubating, innovative and job-creating society. The separation of central responsibilities from the dynamics of society is key. Connectivity, technology, communication serve as the instruments towards this end.
Engagement around the globe
- Let’s take Singapore as an example. Singapore is known for its clarity in rules, its cleanliness, and its economic growth – all governed in a very structured way. The land registry serves as the master repository of assets in the city. It is the central backbone for entities that need spatially organized data to run the city’s processes. Where is the role for the citizen here? The Singapore Land Authority decided to open their geo-data to allow citizens to complement the data and create an even richer set of information. The Spatial Challenge invites citizens to add location tagged information that they find useful to city maps. Government and citizens are working together to populate One Map of Singapore, combining formal and informal data thereby addressing the needs of the public.
- Another great example is SFpark – the San Francisco parking initiative. The city provided the open data for third parties to create applications which enable citizens to navigate to the cheapest and closest parking place, thereby reducing circling and pollution, increasing parking convenience and revenue. The city incorporates parking data from sensors, analyzes parking behavior and opens up the results to empower the commuter.
- A similar sustainability initiative is found in Portugal – the MOBI.E consortium. Based on a connected network of stakeholders in energy production, distribution, retailers and charging stations, the network is empowering and encouraging citizens to choose electric vehicles. With charging stations across the country and a single fare payment system, it is a convincing example of a combined effort, resulting in facilities that offer choice to citizens.
The common factor in initiatives like these is the willingness of local authorities to focus on their core responsibilities, while opening opportunities for citizens and businesses to build upon a shared infrastructure. There is much more potential for room for government administrations to create the foundations upon which citizens can innovate and creatively engage. It’s all about giving back responsibility to the citizens.
The finishing touch is about closing the loops. Feed what you learn from M2M communication back to business, ensure governments take citizen perspectives into account in their decision-making, reach out to citizens proactively by analyzing IoT data, and use citizen feedback to target inspections. We may refer to M2M, H2H, B2G, G2G etcetera – but it’s the combined and creative use of information, the openness of data, and the cross fertilization that empowers all stakeholders.
Sustainability in people’s lives is measured against the human experience – the day to day experience of citizens. Maintaining a healthy balance between applying technology and having an eye for the human factor is key. It’s where technology can facilitate and the dynamics of society begin to flourish. A great deal of positive realism and relativism is welcome and it lies in the joint responsibility of public administrations and constituents alike.
Leave your comment below, or reply to others.
Please note that this comment section is for thoughtful, on-topic discussions. Admin approval is required for all comments. Your comment may be edited if it contains grammatical errors. Low effort, self-promotional, or impolite comments will be deleted.
Read more from MeetingoftheMinds.org
Spotlighting innovations in urban sustainability and connected technology
The best nature-based solutions on urban industrial lands are those that are part of a corporate citizenship or conservation strategy like DTE’s or Phillips66. By integrating efforts such as tree plantings, restorations, or pollinator gardens into a larger strategy, companies begin to mainstream biodiversity into their operations. When they crosswalk the effort to other CSR goals like employee engagement, community relations, and/or workforce development, like the CommuniTree initiative, the projects become more resilient.
Air quality in urban residential communities near industrial facilities will not be improved by nature alone. But nature can contribute to the solution, and while doing so, bring benefits including recreation, education, and an increased sense of community pride. As one tool to combat disparate societal outcomes, nature is accessible, affordable and has few, if any, downsides.
I spoke last week to Adrian Benepe, former commissioner for the NYC Parks Department and currently the Senior Vice President and Director of National Programs at The Trust for Public Land.
We discussed a lot of things – the increased use of parks in the era of COVID-19, the role parks have historically played – and currently play – in citizens’ first amendment right to free speech and protests, access & equity for underserved communities, the coming budget shortfalls and how they might play out in park systems.
I wanted to pull out the discussion we had about funding for parks and share Adrian’s thoughts with all of you, as I think it will be most timely and valuable as we move forward with new budgets and new realities.
There is a risk of further widening the gap between so-called ‘knowledge workers’ able to do their jobs remotely and afford to move, and those with place-based employment who cannot. Beyond that, retreating residents might take the very identity and uniqueness of the places they abandon with them.
Nurturing the community-resident bond could be an antidote to these dismaying departures, and new research sheds light on how. A recent report by the Urban Institute and commissioned by the Knight Foundation surveyed 11,000 residents of 26 U.S. metro areas to uncover what amenities created a “sense of attachment and connection to their city or community.” Three key recommendations emerged in Smart Cities Dive’s synopsis of the results.