At the Smart Cities Week Conference held in Washington, DC September 15-17, tech companies and urban innovators gathered to discuss and showcase recent developments in the emerging smart city market. One demonstration featured real-time traffic, public safety, and disaster mitigation maps appearing on large flat-screen televisions constantly flashing and cataloging data. The exhibits resembled an all-you-can-eat style menu for cities looking to become more efficient and ultimately—smart.

But how do smart cities interact with their citizens? HUD’s Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Office of Community Planning and Development, Harriet Tregoning, addressed the need for local governments to engage with communities authentically rather than simply checking the “community engagement box.” Tailor engagement with citizens by meeting them in a friendly and local environment, providing child care, transit passes, and holding meetings at different times of the day while constantly asking yourself who is missing, Tregoning advised.

Getting citizens engaged is only the first step to creating plans for the future, however. Barbara Leary, Managing Director at FTI Consulting, uses an engagement technique called “appreciative inquiry.” Leary employs the art of the question to help draw out valuable stories from participants about their experiences, starting with a discovery of the current environment, dreaming of what might be, and finally designing a plan to realize the community’s vision.

Antwi Akom, Executive Director of I-SEEED, is co-founder and CEO of the new mobile application STREETWYZE, which collects local knowledge about how people are experiencing their neighborhoods and services across the U.S.. Community members can enter reviews or knowledge regarding issues such as public safety, access to healthy foods, and childcare. This data is then translated into actionable analytics to help planners and authorities identify and solve problems. 

Akom hopes to use STREETWYZE in marginalized communities where needs and concerns are often misunderstood. Grocery stores may seem plentiful in an internet search, but after collecting local knowledge an otherwise unknown food desert where few stores sell fresh fruits or vegetables can be identified.

Community engagement strategies coupled with the transformative capabilities of technology and big data can help cities visualize and understand the urban landscape in unprecedented ways. In order for cities to be smart, problems need to be clearly identified and understood—a process that starts with authentically collecting information from those the city serves.


(Main Image: Wynnie-Fred Hinds using the STREETWYZE app to map important aspects of her community in Newark, New Jersey. Photocredit: STREETWYZE)


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