Citizen Engagement: The Secret Sauce for Future Cities?

Citizens are key to future city development

There is much discussion around the topic of future cities. We now have government agencies, consultancy firms and environmental specialists all offering their perspectives on how cities of the future might look compared to cities of today.

The time-scale for future cities, of course, is rarely defined. Look at a short-term time horizon and cities of the future will be quite like cities of the present. The thing about cities is that they tend to develop incrementally (unless we build them from scratch). It’s very difficult to radically alter city infrastructure very, very rapidly. In most cities a great deal of the built environment is in private hands. Even the public infrastructure that sustains cities tends to evolve as city populations wax and wane – or the demographics of the population changes.

That’s not to say, of course, that cities can’t be improved (or made worse) quite markedly as a result of quite modest short-term change. For example a slight degradation of air quality can make city living near intolerable. Lawlessness in certain parts of cities can degrade property values and put off investment.

Successful cities are often successful because the factors that can work to undermine quality of life in cities tend to be carefully monitored. Successful cities tend to be those that can manage their success (or failure). New York is a better place to live in 2015 because the crime that blighted certain neighbourhoods within it has been substantially reduced. London has been successful, despite its population growth, because it has created better transportation systems and urban living processes to support its growth. It has also grown and embraced more suburbs to support housing need.

But it’s not just these individual things that make cities work. It’s also about people themselves making cities work. People tend to make parts of cities popular – they add to the built environment, employment, culture.  No amount of planning by city authorities can make cities exactly as they are today or will be in the future.

But initiatives that make the process of city-citizen engagement better tend to create outcomes that tend to work (in ways that are impossible to predict). Some of the engagement processes are about people talking to people. It’s not just about people talking to city authorities. The best city authorities tend to create the environment or platforms that help people do stuff: create companies, create employment, create art, create events, create buildings, create conversation.

José Quádrio Alves is the Global Government Director, Future Cities Lead, at CGI. He recently wrote a post called ‘Citizen engagement is a key to future cities.’ His view is that young people, in particular, are often excluded from some of the big decisions as to how cities should or could develop:

“Beyond voting, citizen engagement in major decisions at the local level, by proposing or even building solutions themselves, can be a powerful source of innovation and ideas. Since innovation is strongly related to economic development, creating conditions that make it easier for citizens to participate in community life may result in better decision making, stronger economic development and a better life for all citizens.” José Quádrio Alves

Alves recommends creating city social media platforms that allow people to focus on problems or issues or initiatives that interest them.  He provides links to initiatives in France, Estonia and the Netherlands that have been successful in this respect.

But there is a clear need for cities to experiment with such initiatives. Many major cities are major contributors to national economic success. The City of London, for example, generates some 22% of UK GDP.  Therefore it’s important that citizens play their part in making cities work better. That’s why cities are actively embracing open data initiatives to allow citizen to build services that other citizens use. It’s why city focused technologists are often avid supporters of government as a platform. It’s why the units that make up cities are getting smaller because they allow more people to feel part of their communities – by influencing how those communities develop (within a much bigger city ecosystem).

The successful cities of the future are those that recognise that they can’t do or plan everything. Government has to serve communities and citizens rather than try to predict how those communities might look in the future (or what future citizens might want). Ultimately the best cities are those that allow individuals to flourish together.

Tweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInShare on FacebookEmail this to someone

About the Author

Jeffrey Peel
Editor, Citizen20Series and MD, Quadriga Consulting.I am responsible for all site content and have overall responsibility for site editorial, as well as site membership.