Making the Public ‘Smart City Savvy’ – Tackling Low Levels of Perception & Support

A recent ATG Access Study aimed to gauge levels of both awareness and support from the British public for investment in Smart infrastructure, and of the ‘Smart City’ vision more broadly. First, the good news for those in our sector: the research found an increasing level of support for UK taxes to fund various aspects of Smart City infrastructure – Smart Traffic measures, amongst others. However, the study also drew the conclusion that 68 per cent of UK respondents don’t know what a smart city is, or how the concept can benefit citizens of urban areas. Furthermore, 26 of responders declared they found the concept of a Smart City worrying.

In light of these findings, perhaps it is high time we considered how we can better get the public to understand and support the ambitious projects with so much potential to improve their lives. After all, with sustainability, efficiency, and significant time-saving benefits set to be reaped, it really shouldn’t be a hard sell – should it?

To decide the best strategy for engaging the public in the future, it is worth considering the aspects of the Smart City vision for which they currently display at least some degree of advocacy, or at least, awareness. The report showed that the most positive attitudes were displayed towards solutions with direct, tangible benefits, such as those that would reduce congestion. It is easy to foresee why: regular city commuters are able to directly imagine a better traffic system benefitting their everyday lives, thus saving them time. 54% of those surveyed said they’d be in favour of the taxes they paid going towards smart traffic lights, while 44% could get behind ‘smart signs’, which would deliver real-time updates on traffic issues.

Smart Traffic is one thing. On average, however, citizens are less able to see the potential of technology such as smart vermin control, or IoT-enabled waste management sensors. The challenge, therefore, is to make the potential benefits of these equally promising – if slightly more esoteric – technologies tangible for the public. 

Smart Cities Are Sustainable Cities

So, how should the industry go about delivering that message? A pertinent starting point would be to link current social trends of public concern, such as environmentalism, to the direct results the Smart City could achieve in this field. There is a growing public awareness of – and support for – more sustainable ways of living; a cause that is particularly important to the millennial generation. It is difficult to think of one area where technology would not bring improvements to this end. Phrased in the simplest terms, the efficiency gains from powerful sensor technology mean that, in fields as varied as waste management, emergency services, or the disarming of pest traps, far fewer municipal vehicles need to be on the road, and that when they are, it will only be when necessary. Another example would be the use of sensors to only brighten street lamps when a passer-by is in close proximity, leading to further energy savings.

A Sticky Wicket? Talking about Cybersecurity

A pertinent starting point would be to reassure the public about recurring concerns about technology data breaches. These concerns have been especially heightened following the recent and groundbreaking General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) legislation, and high-profile cases of data privacy breaches such as the Facebook – Cambridge Analytica scandal of early 2018.

Given all that, a comprehensive plan designed to safeguard future critical infrastructure is surely needed, and, as far as possible, made public. This would go a great way to assuage common – and not entirely unfounded – fears about an ever-broadening virtual infrastructure, which could bring its own access points for malicious interests.

Fortunately, the pressing need for top-of-the-line cybersecurity has not passed industry bodies by. The European Union Agency for Network and Information Security (ENISA), has taken encouraging steps to this end, introducing Baseline Security Recommendations for IoT1, with the aim of ensuring common understanding and interoperability for cybersecurity. The effects of such legislation and the conclusions of these experts need to be publicised much more effectively. 

Connected devices can also be audited according to the authority’s best practice – ENISA published an online interactive tool which allows users to do their own risk assessment, highlighting recommended security best practice for Smart Cities. Following these guidelines – and talking about doing so – would surely help build trust in Smart City projects.  

Democratising the Process

The idea of democracy is part of the social fabric of many Western countries, and citizens expect to have a voice on issues or developments concerning them, particularly where their tax spend is concerned. So it perhaps shouldn’t be too surprising if some citizens are wary about technological infrastructure developments which, rightly or wrongly, might be seen to be happening ‘above their heads’.  In the age of the Internet, where everybody with an opinion has a pulpit from which to speak, being seen as operating behind closed doors on IoT technology could easily result in unpopularity and mistrust. With that said, local authorities and industry organisations alike should look to democratise the process.

Those who have followed the drawn-out political drama of Brexit might be a bit hot under the collar at hearing that, but, in this case at least, gaining insight as to the way forward really doesn’t need to be all that difficult. Citizens must be engaged as early as possible in a given area’s Smart City project – even if there is nothing tangible in place.

By involving members of the public in the earliest stages – that is, project planning – key concerns could be addressed in person and the project forged to meet the unique challenges of the area. As the most concerned members of the public have their doubts assuaged, they may tell others, leading to a better overall public image. Furthermore, having an outside perspective from members of the public who will eventually be using the Smart City as part of their day-to-day lives is invaluable to planners.

As ever, a key consideration will be to ensure different public views are heard, from a variety of social and economic backgrounds. Insight gained through this process will lead to an important understanding of varied demographics, and where their most pressing concerns are respectively likely to fall. This, in turn, will help present the project to different members of the public in future.

The Collaborative Smart City Process

For people in our industry, sitting at the forefront of the Internet of Things rollout, it may seem self-explanatory that a Smart City project can bring extraordinary benefits to a town or city, not just for urban managers but of the broader public as well. However, as has been clearly outlined, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that not everybody is as informed on what these projects actually mean. Public support is vital to the implementation of a successful urban development project, especially one as technical, far-reaching, and long-term as that of implementing Smart technologies. By involving members of the local community from the get-go, town and city authorities will harness unique insights and overcome potential pitfalls and pushbacks. They will then be able to proactively address concerns and implement new ideas, thus making the Smart City process a truly collaborative one – and all the more successful for it.

Get In Touch

Whether you’re a local authority looking to provide public WiFi or seeking a connectivity solution for Smart Cities, the IoT or 5G / Small Cells in your town or city, or if you are interested in partnering with us around the Connected City Platform in any of our forthcoming town and city roll-outs, we’d love to explain more about who we are and what we do.

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