Smart cities: engaging citizens and stakeholders for success

Smart city innovation: engaging citizens and other stakeholders
Real world experiences from UTA members

Engaging citizens to ensure smart city success


As part of the Urban Technology Alliance (UTA) outreach program, we recently ran a Smart City Trends virtual conference that gathered a number of global thought leaders to discuss trends in Smart Cities. Since UTA is particularly focused on developing and deploying Smart City services with our member cities, we had several cities talking about their recent activities and the trends and technologies that are shaping their planning. You can see all presentations here.

In this article I explore one of the key trends we discussed:

·      End user and stakeholder driven services and apps survive, others struggle: A number of cities discussed their journey transitioning from a technology/infrastructure driven top-down approach to a citizen and grass roots demand-driven model.

Other trends we explored in discussions include:

·      Cities as innovation platforms: A number of our city members discussed how they were positioning their cities as innovation.

Cities on a journey:

Transitioning from technology led, to stakeholder, end user and citizen driven Smart City services and applications

 3 of our member cities have explicitly journeyed from tech led to citizen led approaches, Busan in Korea, Santander in Spain and Taipei in Taiwan. All three were part of the initial Smart City wave and have been actively developing smart city  programs for over 15 years. Their journey mirrors that of many of the original smart city projects which, in the early days. were characterised by city or government led initiatives, often around capital intensive infrastructure projects.

Jongsung Hwang, master planner at Busan EDC smart City discussed their activities and focused on the Korean experiences with Smart Cities. He describes an early phase of Korean Smart City activities where technology driven projects were designed and delivered into new build, for example the Songdo u-City development which was 600 hectares of new build in Incheon in Korea. Unfortunately, while some aspects of the u-City program delivered real value, overall a number of failures led to what Jongsung describes as a ‘Smart City Winter’. Public disenchantment with Smart City projects which failed to deliver as promised led to a fall-off in new projects dropping from 10 in 2007 to only 1 in the 2010-16 period.

Citizen Participation

He highlights two aspects which led to this failure and to a new mindset in Korean Smart City projects.

–       Product mentality: early smart city projects treated smart city services as a product to be developed and delivered into new builds with little end-user input and no plans for evolution. In essence, they were treated as part of the building fabric, installed and then left.

–       Standalone: these new services, developed in isolation, were never intended to work with other services and technologies, and so were never able to be adapted to user needs as they became apparent after buildings were occupied.

These experiences have led to a rethink in Korea about Smart Cities and a relaunch in 2018 of a new citizen centric approach with ‘the human oriented city’ as the lead goal, focused on end user needs, sustainability and adaptability.

Chen-Yu (Leo) LEE, project manager of the Taipei Smart City office gave a good overview of the journey that Taipei has been on over the last 10 years and in particular its success at generating over 175 POCs and its evolution into a facilitator for PPI activities that are taking PoCs to the next, commercial stage. He highlights the role of the Taipai Project Management Office (PMO), which was deliberately taken out of the existing city management structures and designed to drive innovation and how it has worked to ensure citizen participation in projects. This ranges from soliciting citizen feedback to proposals, running engagement workshops and events, through-to encouraging citizens to create proposals and helping to secure funding for their ideas.

Santander, often viewed as a poster child for European smart cities has gone through a similar journey. Driven in the early years by a technocentric approach that focused on deploying sensors and network infrastructure, Santander has evolved to a more holistic approach. Verónica Gutierrez presented Santander’s experiences discussing their evolution from point solutions, through to a connected platform and now focussing on combining the platform, with a PMO to offer a growth engine for innovation in the city.

Citizens as co-creators

Two European cities that have focused on engaging citizens early in the planning phase of new Smart City initiatives is Grenoble in France and Pilsen in the Czech republic. The Grenoble Alps region in France is home to a thriving metropolis know for its hi-tech cluster centered around the universities.

Grenoble activities

Although a breathtaking location, Grenoble, because of its location in a deep valley surrounded by high mountains, suffers from issues with transportation and mobility and an associated air pollution problem. The city has had a smart city program for over 15 years and is known for its approach which focuses on participatory democracy. Florent Cholat presented some of the Grenoble Alps region activities and stressed the fundamental role of co-creation as part of their programs, highlighting how stakeholders are engaged from day one in co-creating new applications and services in the city.

Pilsen in the Czech Republic has a similar approach with stakeholder engagement as key aspect of all new project. However, it has taken the idea a step further by working hard to empower citizens to take the lead on new smart city projects with a particular focus on enabling students and early career entrepreneurs.

Pilsen – young entrepreneurs

By offering educational workshops to youth groups, as well as developing programs and support infrastructure for young entrepreneurs, the city has attempted to both engage citizens and bootstrap an innovation culture in the younger generation. Tomáš Cholinský presented some of these activities, outlining the pipeline they have created to engage youth and move from idea to startup. He also discussed some of their ongoing smart city activities including work on developing a drone program to facilitate mapping and surveys in the city.

Casablanca in Morocco has also adopted a citizen as co-creator model. Pr. Aawatif HAYAR  presented Casablanca, A frugal, social and sustainable Smart City which, because of the demographics of the city has a strong focus on social inclusion and frugality.

Casablanca citizen participation

Casablanca, one of the original IEEE core Smart Cities, takes a living lab approach, but has worked hard to engage citizens and ensure projects meet citizen needs. She highlighted several projects that focussed on citizens including an interesting experiment to address the needs of semi-urban peripheral towns and villages that border the city itself and aimed to provide growth and services in these border conurbations to reduce the need for citizens to move into the city in search of work and opportunities.


There are no magic bullets when it comes to solving the complex issues that cities face, and therefore no one approach will work for all cities. However, a clear lesson from these presentations is that smart city projects and initiatives that don’t engage with stakeholders and citizens from the start, have a high risk of failure. This failure is not in the project development and deployment phase, but in the adoption and sustainability phase. Projects that have citizen buy-in generally stand a better chance of having an impact and continuing after the initial PoC phase. Cities that build this learning into their processes and planning can ensure a higher success rate and a greater impact on the lives of their citizens.


Rodger Lea, Technical Director, UTA @rodgerlea