The participation of citizens in the development of a Smart City: a necessity as much as a trap

The Smart Cities have an intrinsic intelligence associated with the smart systems that are deployed for a greater security, a better resilience after natural disasters, a more efficient management of transport and many other fields.

Many also feel the need to develop the City governance, sometimes inefficient and aging: the different fractures, including social, affecting cities can not continue without serious consequences for the cohesion of the human society and the urban ecosystem.

The Smart Cities are also made smart by changing their governance, through a new relationship established with and among citizens. This form of “intelligence” is certainly very promising in terms of results. But how many cities feel comfortable with this issue? How many of them have set a clear direction to reposition the citizen in his city?

Only few of them, apparently, have a global vision of the question. But many of them are trying occasional advances.

They try to build on the participatory processes. Several short-term goals animate them:

– They expect a better appropriation of changes and innovations; the lack of adoption of innovations by the population may cause significant expenses that cities can no longer afford.

– They expect an impact on the cohesion of the population through the development of a dialogue between the people and the city.

– They hope to detect citizens who can act as intermediaries in different neighbourhoods to complete or sustain the adoption process.

– They aspire to better capture and understand the fears and needs of the inhabitants.

These participatory processes are numerous in the field of energy: to help citizens understand and accept the smart meters or to accompany the residents in saving energy.

They bring undeniable benefits. Each time the process is conducted honestly, that citizens do not feel themselves manipulated, the adoption rate of changes and innovations is much higher than the observed average. In many cases, the development of solutions can be shared with future users or beneficiaries.

Individual leaders emerge in different neighbourhoods, become great champions of energy efficiency and get beautiful results.

Citizens’ needs are expressed by ways not previously available. Nevertheless, we have to be careful to treat them because people who express themselves most easily are not always the most representative and expressed needs should not be hidden demands.

Against these benefits, participatory processes observed in the field can also fall in dramatic pitfalls.

Citizens are often consulted on all subjects without prior consideration, including those on which they are not competent to answer. I see some cities organizing widespread consultations of citizens to try to compensate for their own lack of skills and understanding.

The effects are disastrous: either the authorities are forced to ignore the advice, though given in good faith by citizens or they are implementing inadequate solutions. In both cases, the frustration of citizens is important; it impacts negatively the participation of citizens or even turn them into active opposition to these participative processes.

It is therefore essential to explain the choices that are not debatable because they emanate from a reasoning that citizens can not have in order to guide their participation on issues that really matter: conditions of use and deployment of new applications, factors of acceptance or rejection …

Citizen participation should under no circumstances try to compensate missing competence at the City level.

The involvement of the inhabitants of a city in a participatory project is double-edged: a Smart City will never really be Smart without citizen involvement but a failed engagement of citizens may mark the end of a Smart City.

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