Education and engagement can get residents and local leaders on board with new projects, experts suggest.
State and local governments often turn to technology to better serve their constituents, but they can find themselves stymied by skeptical residents and elected officials, smart city experts said.
To ensure community buy in, it is essential that agencies can communicate the scope and purpose of innovative projects, the public safety or cost benefits and their deployment plans to the community, said Brian Johnson, city manager of Peachtree Corners, Georgia, during the Smart Cities Connect exposition Tuesday.
“If they don’t understand the benefit of trying to be innovative … it’s going to lose momentum,” he said.
Peachtree Corners, established just 10 years ago, is lucky to have a city council open to innovative technologies, Johnson said, but this may not be the case for other municipalities. Some governments may hold on to legacy projects such as maintaining an old golf course, creating a “black hole of money,” he said.
Getting officials to eliminate these extra costs helps free up resources for smart technologies, as is getting a senior official to act as a project champion. “Otherwise things like permitting can get siloed into public works or planning,” Johnson said, which takes up valuable time and effort.
Starting a proposal with the outcome in mind is another way to win over the community and get them thinking creatively, said Hans Hechtman, president of Hechtman Consulting. For instance, if someone’s garbage wasn’t picked up on time, the government is going to hear about it, he said, so presenting a smart technology solution to a common problem is an ideal start.
Furthermore, agencies should remind residents how dynamic their environment is and how flexible they need to be in order to think creatively and allow room for advanced technologies in their communities, Johnson added.
Durham, North Carolina, has seen success in using a public website to outline the city’s food waste collection program, said Wayne Fenton, the city’s assistant director of solid waste management.
Since January 2022, Durham asked volunteers to hold on to their food scraps, which would then be collected with their normal trash and recycling. The program in partnership with Atlas Organics and the Duke Center for Advanced Hindsight aimed to measure the amount of food waste produced by households and curate ways to build the community’s habit to compost.
To alleviate the public’s concern that the participating organizations would reveal too much information about each home’s residents, the city posted on its website information describing the program and its purpose as well as the data collected on each household. Additionally, residents could learn about the program from decals on city-provided trash cans for food scraps.
Social media also became a valuable asset for educating and engaging the public, Fenton said, Durham’s communications department actively addresses questions and criticisms that residents post to Facebook or Twitter to build awareness and trust in the city’s programs. As a result of the city’s outreach efforts, Fenton said there was little opposition to the food waste collection program.
Agencies have to be especially cautious with how they use the information they gather because the public may think it’s nefarious, Fenton said, but that assumption can be lifted “as long as you communicate what you’re doing and why.”
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