Five Innovations Powering Public Participation in Smart Cities

September 4, 2015

By Ryan Erenhouse

A key takeaway of our coverage of India’s smart cities was that people-led development is vital to realizing these cities’ potential for inclusive development. So we were thrilled, when, in response to the piece, a user tweeted an example of how technology can not only be put in the service of city dwellers — it can actually open new venues for participation in city life. Here’s a look at five technologies and trends from around the world that can inspire urban planners, developers and activists:

1) Smart trash bins as WiFi hot spots: This is the example tweeted by @RaviKarkara, an innovation that is literally making change on the ground in India. Taking a page from behavioral economics, partners Prateek Agarwal and Raj Desai have designed the WiFi Trash Bin, which rewards garbage disposal with free Internet access. By targeting public attitudes, the technology aims to discourage littering, making it a distinctly 21st-century form of civic engagement.

2) Crowdsourcing to open safe paths for women: In 2010, in partnership with more than 50 global and local partners, UN-Women launched its Safe Cities Free of Violence against Women and Girls initiative. The program aims to create safe public spaces for women, working in cities around the world — from Quito to New Delhi. As part of the initiative, two engineers, with the help of the nonprofit Jagori, launched Safetipin, a smartphone app that crowdsources the safest travel routes in cities globally. The app uses a mobile phone’s GPS to determine a user’s location and, based on safety ratings input by other users, recommends the safest travel routes to a destination. Consider what it means for gaining access to health resources, education and economic opportunities.

3) Mobility with help from mobile phones: Well-functioning transportation systems are critical to fostering inclusivity, as New City Foundations’ John Rossant succinctly summarized: “ … the key word is ‘mobility’ — both in the sense of getting from point A to point B in a city, but also in the sense of social mobility.” Determining capacity is key to transportation systems’ functioning. During the 2014 World Cup, the Brazilian government collected real-time data from Waze to monitor traffic congestion in Rio de Janeiro. On the public transportation front, South African start-up GoMetro offers real-time and crowdsourced train updates to commuters. The adoption of open data policies by local governments made these opportunities possible. In Athens, mobile payments for the metro implemented in partnership with MasterCard are eliminating the costs associated with handling cash and freeing up resources to invest in infrastructure.

4) Bus stations that track pollution: Combined with sensor technology, infrastructure can provide information about pollution in cities or other environmental factors affecting quality of life. In São Paulo, bus stations are being used to track the effect of traffic on air quality. Using 3G networks, WiFi, and SMS technology, Development Seed and Ground Truth, two of the project’s partners, are able to collect data at a rate that is 1/500th the cost of some government sensors. When environmental data are available on demand, citizens are better equipped to advocate for policies that enhance the health of the city as a whole. This, in turn, helps citizens and policymakers improve the livability of their cities.

5) Open-source government: Of course, the key is making sure that data are, indeed, available on demand — that is why innovations in the open-government movement are key to watch. The open-government movement, which connects modern communications technology with civic processes, recently added a new tool to its arsenal: Democracy OS. Democracy OS is a Silicon Valley-based nonprofit bringing open-source software to local government leaders to help them open government processes to the general public. Already being used in Barcelona, New York, and Buenos Aires, the platform allows cities to engage citizens using 21st-century tools, to seek their help on processes like budgeting, urban planning or referendum voting. This connects both citizens and policymakers to the issues that make democracy thrive and, in turn, helps keep our cities vibrant and inclusive.

 

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