Does technology make a city “smart”? You might think so to read most articles and books about smart cities. It would seem that a gigantic, cold paw comes down on a city with its IOT, AI, and assorted other tech to make traffic lights, power, and water run smoothly. Never mind whether the public feels any benefit.

To the degree that we conceive of smart-city projects this way, the more that the public tends to feel that 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 of it. The project was described in a recent webinar produced by the Bay Area 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 even though it’s even more important than in most areas for food shopping and work commutes. This historically underprivileged area has long been the subject of planning and re-planning, all to little effect. Interviewers heard more than once, “What, another study?”

Smart cities need to listen to become ‘smart’

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

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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.” The final report was issued only in early 2020.

It’s easy to imagine the listen-first strategy’s disadvantages and risks. For one, it takes longer. Second, partnerships with community groups or expert vendors risk an 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.