Leveraging The "Normal" In Smart City Communications

April 14, 2017

A memorable cartoon shows a store with two tables, one labeled “Toys for Normal Children,” the other labeled “Toys for Gifted Children.” The former had no customers; the latter was three deep.

Apply that analogy to smart cities. Can you imagine an elected official shopping at the “normal city” table? I would argue that so many city officials are consumed with transforming their city into a “smartest city” nominee, they lose sight of doing normal really well.

Having researched and written about the smart cities sector over the past few years, I am well aware that there is a “new normal” in urban strategies. What might have been considered “back to basics” 10 years ago may in some cases be unrecognizable in today’s world of ubiquitous mobile devices and IoT.

But there are ageless basics that, in my observation, can get steamrolled in the sugar rush of adopting smart city technologies and strategies. (I’ve observed the same in the world of marketing when an infatuation with marketing technologies creates the illusion that there is no need for old-fashioned marketing skills. Many old marketing dogs like myself have been called in to bridge the gap between the gifted table and the normal table!)

In far too many cases, there’s an illusion that technology alone moves the needle on successful smart city initiatives. This can be especially problematic in the area of citizen engagement.

A recent survey from Government Technology shows that, overall, 58 percent of citizens are satisfied with the digital services they receive from their governments — more than double the 27 percent of citizens reporting satisfaction in 2014.

There is no argument that adding digital tools to citizen engagement produces results. But to what extent is that increase due to the technology? In the best case scenario, technology should simply be amplifying excellence in traditional government engagement.

In my communications work, I warn that certain technologies, like webcasts, can actually magnify really bad content. We’ve all seen this in commercial videos that would have been better served as a white paper. But marketers gravitate to trendy content-delivery platforms at the expense of getting the message or imagery right.

The same is true of smart city technology. If grassroots and community engagement is weak, the digital output will be too… or even worse due to the amplification created by the tool.  On the other hand, if the principles of civic engagement are strong, technology can amplify that excellence.

History tells me there is one way to ensure your digital strategy has the desired effect.

First, survey the high-ranking city officials who have the least proficiency in technology. They’re usually not hard to find; they will probably be the ones still carrying a flip phone to meetings. Do these same interviews with community leaders who have a skill for old-fashioned, face-to-face communications.

Not only do these people give you a lens into optimum communications strategies, they also represent the constituency or demographic where digital civic engagement will be the least effective. In many cases, come election time, this could be a very important segment, so you will need to make sure your digital strategy makes sense for this group, too.

Frank Cutitta is the Editor-at-Large of Smart & Resilient Cities.

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