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Technology Has Changed Public Engagement

Cities are becoming smart and public engagement is entering a new era 

In the last year, as the world adapted to the pandemic, technology has been at the forefront of every conversation.

In many ways smart technology has helped community residents stay connected in a time of social distancing. On the other hand, there are objective drawbacks to an entirely digital space. As local governments have navigated this transition, many have joined the  smart cities movement and are using technology for public engagement. 

Many cities and communities across the country are transitioning to what technology game-changers are calling a “smart city.” Smart cities or communities use technology to improve livability, workability, and sustainability. Dr. Jonathan Reichental, CEO of Human Future, led a Professional Certificate Program offered by Pepperdine’s Davenport Institute to open the conversation on the role of technology in the future of cities, and as a result, in public engagement. 

Throughout the pandemic, it has become abundantly clear that local and state governments need to be technologically smart in order to engage with the public, whether the engagement is designed to inform or consult the community.

When the pandemic hit we all became reliant on local public health authorities and elected officials for timely, updated information on the spread of the virus and the associated impact on daily life. There was a strong need for informative public engagement and, in light of the restrictions, this required a strong digital communications strategy. 

As the months passed with cities on lockdown, the demand for technologically smart cities and city services increased exponentially. Most governments and departments responded with workable digital solutions. For example, the Department of Motor Vehicles offered online renewal for a variety of licenses. The city of Mountainview, CA, formed a robust communications team and took to Twitter to keep residents up to date. The Mayor of Sunnyvale, CA, Larry Klein, bolstered the small business industry in his city by having lunch at a different restaurant every day and posting about it on social media. 

Beyond a digital communications strategy, in order for cities to be “smart” they need to be well versed in data analytics that can in turn fine tune future public engagement. Feedback has become digital even in physical spaces with the use of tablets and the three levels of customer satisfaction button responses. That data is valuable in determining community satisfaction with services and can lead to conversations between the local government and their residents on understanding why there may be low levels of satisfaction to determine places of improvement or vice versa. 

On the other hand, highlighted by our increased reliance on technology is the digital divide which may be shrinking overall but is becoming increasingly significant . As cities adopt new technology, they need to be aware that not every resident will have access to digital adaptations. For example, not every resident has a smartphone to show QR codes for feedback surveys or be plugged into social media for COVID-19 updates. Even those with a device may not have access to a data plan. Similarly with the transition schools made to online learning, many students struggled with limited or no access to devices or Wi-Fi. Simultaneously, parents struggled with digital literacy and homeschooling their kids in tandem with online learning. 

These are the challenges that cities face as they seek to become technologically smart cities and augment public engagement and community outreach with technology. Not every community member will have access to technology and even if they do have access, they may not wish to engage digitally. Over the span of dozens of conversations we at the Davenport Institute have had with local government professionals, we are finding that many agree there needs to be a balance. The movement forward toward incorporating digital technology is welcome as long it is mindfully done.