The Secret Sauce of Successful and Inclusive Smart Cities

“A city isn’t smart because it uses technology. A city is smart because it uses accessible technology to build an inclusive culture ensuring ​no one is ​left behind.”  Darren Bates


This post focuses on the “secret sauce” that turns the idea of a smart city into reality.

Question: What’s the secret sauce?

Answer: People, the people who live in the city, who work in the city and the people who have hopes and dreams for the kind of city they will leave for future generations.

A Paradigm Shift

Not so many years ago the idea of a smartwatch you could listen to music on or monitor your heart rate with would have seemed far-fetched. Moreover, using your smartphone to find a parking spot and pay for it? Alternatively, a smart card that means no more waiting in lines for tokens when you ride the subway?

Smart technologies are portrayed as a means to streamline, optimize, integrate, digitalize, systematize, consolidate and otherwise improve infrastructure. The high penetration rate of new technologies in all the activities of everyday life is fostering a destructive practice — namely for any new societal challenge you only need to apply a ICT solution. This approach ignores the universal experiences and diverse needs of — guess who? The people, that’s right, the citizens that reside in smart cities.

Picture: A funny line drawing of two people talking to each other using a can and string.


A new mindset and best practice of successful smart cities is to ensure you’re building two-way communications with their citizens and creating stronger initiatives as a result.

Does your idea of listening to citizens consist of giving people a few minutes to speak during public meetings? And are they invited to speak only after you’ve nearly finalized your plans? If this is how your city “listens,” you probably aren’t hearing what is really important to your constituents — nor are you hearing from a truly broad cross-section of your city’s population.

Question: How can you bring all city stakeholders together to develop a vision for the city they want to live in — and the city they want their children and grandchildren to live in?

Picture: A cartoon with five people are sitting around a conference table discussing city planning and community engagement. The text reads, “How about this slogan, “If you are unhappy for any reason we will feel really bad.”


Answer: It’s about making inclusion, listening and reaching out — and oftentimes it’s about a new mindset at city hall that is more open, more transparent and more focused on accessibility and inclusion for all citizens, including people with disabilities.

The Human Side of Technology

Technology for technology’s sake rarely serves a useful purpose. The magic in technology is how it can transform lives. Consider these examples:

Helping the people who are blind navigate the city. The smart stick enables people with visual disabilities and those that use a white cane to more easily and safely navigate cities. The smart stick is an idea that came from a conversation an engineering student had with her blind uncle about the challenges he faced getting around a city.

Connecting to the Internet of Things, the smart stick guides the people who are blind safely by accessing information from traffic lights, cross walks, buses and construction and weather reports. Sensors at stores let them know if the store is open, what it sells, where the entrance is, etc. The project, backed by Council member Cisco, was developed by a team from the University of Lorraine in France

Making cities more accessible for all.
Accessible Way is an app developed by Council member IBM to enable citizens to report on mobility issues they spot as they go about their daily lives — roads and sidewalks, crosswalks, curbs, traffic and street lights and such in of need repair. Or when there aren’t enough handicapped parking spaces or when road signs are confusing. With just a few taps, people can report the exact location and type of the problem, giving cities detailed information to improve mobility.


“A Smart City is a Connected City. And a Connected City is an Inclusive City”

Author: Darren Bates


Improving the health of people at-risk.
Myanmar, which has an exceptionally high rate of infant mortality, is providing pregnant women with a free app from Council member Ooredoo that provides health alerts with care information and locations of medical services. In China, where the textile workforce is predominantly uneducated young women, a mobile program from Council member Qualcomm provides access to health services and information. Both projects are improving lives for populations that have disproportionately suffered with poor health care.

Helping children learn to read, write and tell stories.
In Australia, children who couldn’t sit still for even a few minutes dramatically improved their language abilities when the lessons were presented in video game form. A project from Council member Microsoft made it easy for teachers to tailor the game technology to teach specific skills and to encourage the youngsters to practice.


Using Open Data to Improve Lives

Smart cities can get more mileage out of their ICT investments when they use analytics to sift the data provided via sensors and other smart devices to surface useful information that can help citizens improve their lives and livelihoods.

Opening or releasing data sets provides an opportunity for cities internally and the developer community externally to use the data to build web-based and smartphone applications. As the open data movement has snowballed, so too has the depth and breadth of apps available today.

Picture: Smart City Infographic


Consider just a few examples of common apps you can find in cities around the globe today:

Interactive crime maps that help citizens see where crimes are occurring so they can take steps to be safer or be more vigilant and report suspicious behavior.

Traffic flow apps help commuters find the fastest route to their destination and by doing helping relieve road congestion.

Air pollution alerts inform people when air quality reaches a worrisome level, allowing them to take steps to stay safe..

Restaurant inspection apps help citizens choose dining establishments that take food safety seriously and stay away from those that don’t. By extension they provide an incentive for restaurants that have been lax with safety to do a better job.


Who Sets the Agenda?

Picture: A school of goldfish is shown on one side and a single goldfish is shown on the other side. The single goldfish has a bullhorn and is “yelling” to the school of goldfish in a failed attempt to tell them how they feel, what they need, and what they should do to feel better living in their fish city.


So where do bright ideas that make cities smarter and citizens’ lives better come from? Should elected officials develop a vision that they sell to residents? Should elected officials just tell the public what they are going to do to improve the city and the lives? Or is there a mechanism that allows citizens announce their needs and set priorities? Smart cities realize the answer is a combination of both.

The traditional top-down approach to city planning and decision-making — the fish with a blow horn strategy — tends to result either in improvements that are more iterative than innovative, or sweeping initiatives that get stuck or fouled-up plans and projects that require costly taxpayer dollars for remediation and compliance.

Ever seen a city lamp post stuck right in the center of a pedestrian path, sidewalk? If you or your grandmother or father uses a wheelchair or walker — I hope the answer is “NO!”

And, if you’re a city planner, how does your resume look — is it up to date? Just a little “smartification” joke .. but get ready!

Plans that are developed using very limited input may miss out on unique viewpoints that can give the effort so much more strength. Further, since the entire project risk is on one person or a small group, these projects tend to avoid risk altogether, and therefore avoid making any dramatic improvement.

Conversely, if the project is truly revolutionary, it may never get off the ground. There’s always resistance to change, and even if the vision is good, some may try to stop it for political reasons if they can’t claim at least part of the success as their own.

A top-down vision may result in a city that few people want to live in. Do you really know what your residents want? Have you asked? An operations management lecturer at the University of Leeds decided to ask Boston residents what they wanted from a smart city, and the answer was a bit surprising. They said they wanted a smarter version of what they already have. Thinking of the place their grandchildren may eventually call home, the workshop participants all wanted something that’s more sustainable and livable, but they also wanted it to be recognizable. They were concerned that only the rich and powerful have a say in shaping the city, and desperately wanted the smart city to enhance — not replace — the city that they know.

A bottom-up approach can be more inclusive. Asked what they wanted from a smart city, workshop participants in Boston all wanted something that’s more sustainable and livable, but they also wanted it to be recognizable.

A bottom-up approach is typically much more innovative and inclusive. As Council member Oracle describes it, this approach turns citizens from end-users to begin-users. It brings together a wide variety of people with different backgrounds working toward a common interest. You will have groups of people trying different ideas. Some ideas will work; others won’t. People adapt and will likely join together to work problems out. Eventually, the better ideas will float to the top, resulting in an imaginative vision that’s not usually possible with centralized decision-making.

While this sounds ideal, it isn’t a perfect model, either. With a large number of people acting spontaneously, this approach can be full of complexity. Their solutions may also miss the mark if the participants aren’t representative of the community as a whole. They may work for themselves instead of for everyone.

That last point demands more attention, as it’s one of the biggest sources of risk and missed opportunities in smart cities projects. People in low-income neighborhoods, people of color, people with disabilities and other equity groups are historically left out of bottom-up planning —and this is a huge mistake.

“People with disabilities, people of color, older citizens, people with low income — live in every community — and they have a smart city vision of their own. Any project or program that seeks to broadly assist members of a community should be inclusive of all equity groups, all citizens — no one should be excluded.” Locating and including equity groups in all development programs is a mandatory step for creating an inclusive society and a successful and sustainable Smart City. Your project, your planning and development — is not complete if people with disabilities and other historically marginalized communities are not included with full participation and decision making authority….”

Darren Bates

When people are left out of the discussion and the solution, they are deprived of the infrastructure and resources they need to succeed. It’s not a case of charity. As cities become increasingly urban, the success of lower-income neighborhoods is the success of the city as a whole.

Public policies, institutional practices, cultural representations, and other systemic barriers can perpetuate inequity in every key opportunity area, from health to education, to employment, to transportation, and to income and wealth. If a city wants to truly be a Smart City — it must take action to develop a targeted and coordinated approach for integrating equity and inclusion strategically across the scope of all municipal government policies, programs, practice, and operations. Got that? Good!

Now, here’s a brain puzzle (courtesy of the City of Ottawa and City for All Women Initiative) that will test your knowledge about equity and inclusion. What is the difference between the three cartoons Left, Middle, Right?

Cartoon A (Left): Three boys of different heights are standing on boxes of the same height to help them look over a wooden fence to watch a ball game, but the shortest boy cannot see over the fence. It is assumed that everyone will benefit from the same supports. They are being treated equally.

Cartoon B: (Middle) In the middle image, the tallest boy has no box, the second tallest boy has one box and the shortest boy has two boxes to stand on, so that they all are able to see over the fence at the same height. They are given different supports to make it possible for them to have equal access to the game. They are being treated equitably.

Cartoon C: (Right) In the third right image, the fence has been changed to a see-through fence. All three can see the game without any supports or accommodations because the cause of the inequity was addressed. The systemic barrier has been removed.


No matter if you solved the puzzle or not, I’D LOVE TO HEAR BACK FROM YOU — about this exercise. What did you learn? Please leave your comments at the end of this blog.

A smart city incorporates all communities and devotes attention to providing the necessary infrastructure in those neighborhoods that are falling behind. With populations swelling, providing equitable access and raising living standards of those typically left behind is the only way cities can become truly livable and sustainable.

An approach that mixes top-down with bottom-up brings together the best of both worlds and avoids common pitfalls. Communities need some governance; they just don’t need heavy-handed “my way or the highway” governance. Under a light governance model, city leaders set guardrails for the citizens to work within.

Rigid rules are replaced with conditional models. Instead of restrictive rules that tell people what they can’t do, leaders enable the community to come up with innovative solutions within certain boundaries while ensuring that everyone has a voice.

Empowering Citizens

Empowering citizens means that they not only have a voice, but they’re regarded as a key stakeholder helping shape a project. For citizens to be empowered, they also have to be engaged, and that may require a different mindset within city hall.

Picture: A cartoon showing 8 diverse individuals with different abilities, ages, assistive technology holding hands in celebration of their inclusive smart city!


The business-as-usual approaches that cities have used for well over a 100 years to involve citizens aren’t typically effective today, if they ever really were. Unless there’s a hot-button issue, citizen participation in public meetings tends to be weak. And cities get little out of them, too.

Public meetings tend be held near the end of the process, so forums on any controversial issue tend to be venting sessions where citizens yell at staff and elected leaders.

When you ask, the public is typically quite clear about why it doesn’t participate in government more. Cary, North Carolina surveys its residents every other year about various topics and the so-called barriers to citizen involvement rarely change. Nearly half of residents say they simply don’t have time to participate. It’s not that they feel it’s a waste of time — the survey shows most people believe they can make a difference in their communities — they just don’t have the time to participate, don’t know about the opportunities, or the meetings are at inconvenient times.

Cary is hardly unique, and if you try to put yourself in your citizens’ shoes, the problem becomes obvious. Most city meetings tend to be scheduled during the middle of the day or in the evening on a weeknight. How many people can afford to take off work to go to a committee meeting? Or if you spend all day working at a job, rush home to make dinner for the family and help the kids with their homework, would you have the energy to go to a council meeting at night and still be refreshed for work the next day?

Use multiple communications tools. Technology has changed the way people communicate in their personal lives and it only makes sense that cities trying to engage citizens should reflect these changing preferences.

Picture:  Bright Colored Letters Blocks spelling: B-O-R-E-D-?


Viewed from the perspective of citizens, it’s pretty easy to see why the traditional public participation model doesn’t work. And smart cities need to understand that if it doesn’t work for their citizens, it won’t work for them either.

Engaging Communities Digitally

The best communication method is one that meets the unique needs of a community. Cities are finding effective ways to connect with citizens, and citizens to connect with each other — many of these best practices involve digital communication — that is accessible and inclusive!

While face-to-face conversation is often preferable, it isn’t always possible. Thankfully, technology is helping make it easier than ever to engage those who don’t have the time or ability to participate in traditional meetings or public events.

But beware..,because social media is so ubiquitous and easy to use, there is a temptation to use it as an only source for engaging the public. That can be short sighted since social media only captures one segment of the population.

In the U.S., for example, Facebook is by far the most popular social media platform. But even there, only 70% of adults who go online have Facebook accounts, according to the Pew Research Center. About a quarter of online adults use Twitter, LinkedIn or Pinterest.


Continuously pursue two-way communication with citizens. When the city of Fort Collins, hampered by budget constraints, took a new approach to long-range planning by reaching out to the community, it struck an interest with groups that had never before participated in city planning.


Another Pew study found that social networks overall attract people who make less than $30,000 annually or more than $75,000; the middle-class is underrepresented.

That’s not to suggest cities shouldn’t use social media in their engagement efforts — it can be quite valuable. But it’s important to remember that the audience you’ll reach is a subset of your community and therefore there are some limitations to the insights you glean.

Digital engagement efforts primarily work in two ways. Digital tools can help you measure what people in your community are thinking and they can help you create an online forum where people can share and debate ideas.

The key is to make sure your marketing strategies are accessible for all people including people that use assistive technology to access the internet.


Listening In on the Social Buzz

Whether or not your city is listening, people are talking about it, from the challenges they face on their morning commutes to encounters with city staff. These conversations are happening on social media. In fact, on Twitter alone, more than a half a billion tweets are sent each day. Enter social sentiment analysis.

Picture: Social Media Infographic: Community, Friends, Sharing, Blog, Follow, Networking

Social media can be a valuable tool for engaging citizens. Social media and social sentiment analysis can help surface what people in your community are thinking, providing insights and alerting you to trends.


Council member IBM has combined natural language capabilities with its data analysis platform to transform online conversations into real-time, instant polls. For example, IBM’s Social Sentiment Index helped Bangalore and Mumbai find their respective sources of traffic headaches.

Sparking Online Discussions

Picture: 5 Lightbulbs but only one is shining brightly with innovation!


Online discussion forums aren’t new, but they are experiencing something of a resurgence in the public sector. Cities are creating their own discussion forums as a way for citizens to post ideas and weigh in on city proposals and to encourage others to join the civic conversation.

The city of Reykjavík, which is home to about two-thirds of Iceland’s residents, has had great success with online forums, which it uses to discuss everything from the budget to neighborhood issues. About 40% of residents use the online forum, and the city council has committed to discussing the top topics each month.

But you may not need an elaborate online discussion forum. Cities may find they get more public feedback simply by making it easier for citizens to contact them. The Sheriff’s Office in Stearns County, Minn., saw a 500% increase in crime tips when it added a simple email contact form to its website. As its site drew more traffic, the number of people downloading crime prevention information more than doubled as well.

For online discussions to thrive, cities must commit to a two-way dialogue. If people ask questions or present ideas, someone from the city should respond. If citizens decide nobody is listening, they’ll quickly lose interest.

Citizen-Centric Accessible Portal for City Services: It’s important for citizens to be involved in the pursuit and realization of a smart city. That’s why it’s crucial that cities create an integrated, comprehensive online portal for people to access their smart city services.

Today websites and mobile applications can recognize individual citizens and deliver personally tailored information to them. Such digital interactions with citizens allow smart cities to enhance their efficiency and effectiveness at the same time they heighten citizen satisfaction.

Until recently, it was far too expensive to personalize service for each resident. Today, however, the technology exists to personalize virtually every interaction. In the Web 1.0 world, digital governmental services typically meant a series of websites. Those sites were typically designed from the point of view of the government. It was up to the citizens to navigate their way around to find what they needed, a chore that was often time-consuming and frustrating.

Now we have the ability to create personalized accessible customer portals and personalized outbound messages. More and more citizens are coming to expect personalization, since they receive it in so many other parts of their lives. And when these portals are designed with mobile in mind, it helps people capitalize on the timeliness of their personalized data

Personalized e-government services increase citizen satisfaction and compliance while reducing mistakes and misunderstandings that can occur when they are forced to dig up information on their own.


The Role of City Leadership

If citizens are empowered to set the agenda and craft solutions:

Question: What is there left for city leaders to do?

Answer: A whole hell of a lot.

To move cities forward, city leaders and staff need to partner with stakeholders —engage in diverse civil partnerships with citizens, diverse equity groups, the business community, academia, nonprofits, other public agencies, etc.

— And with a Smart Cities project, that is likely to involve inspiring stakeholders by educating them on the possibilities and encouraging them to get involved. It also means guiding the project’s implementation to ensure that it is done correctly, on time and at reasonable cost and is accessible and inclusive of all citizens.

Picture: Background is a bright rainbow pattern with text: Civil Partnerships

To fulfill this end of your partnership with your community, you need a comprehensive plan. This plan is by no means static; it should be continually evaluated and updated as you prepare for and travel on your smart cities journey. It also encompasses all work streams in every single responsibility and enabler discussed in this Readiness Guide. The plan organizes city efforts and resources across departments, identifies and articulates city priorities and plans action steps to achieve the recommended targets.

Stay tuned. In a future blog, I’ll discuss supporting practices of the very best Smart Cities.


Darren Bates LLC Banner 1Building a Culture of Access and Inclusion™

Darren Bates is a lifelong champion of equality, inclusion, and social justice for people with disabilities and other diverse, underrepresented, and historically marginalized populations. Darren is internationally recognized as one of the most innovative and knowledgeable Thought Leaders in the field of Global Inclusion.

Darren offers accessibility and inclusion training, strategic consulting, and professional speaking services through Darren Bates, LLC.

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Twitter: @DLBLLC
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Additional Related Information:
“A Smart City is a Connected City, And a Connected City is an Inclusive City” by Darren Bates |


Thank you to The Smart Cities Council:
The content of this blog relied upon the information, material, and original text from “Smart Cities Readiness Guidereproduced here in this format with permission from The Smart Cities Council.

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