Challenges of Stakeholder Engagement for a Truly Connected City

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Finding the time and space for everyone to meet to present, properly understand and then discuss a project can be time-consuming and difficult. Many online collaboration solutions provide for communications within a project team, but few offer solutions for when wider groups of people need to be consulted.

An East London company, Stickyworld, offers a simple solution to this problem. Founded in 2010, the platform gives project managers tools to create visually engaging websites with contextual commenting capabilities - hosting conversations and receiving feedback to increase transparency and reduce project risks. The idea is modelled on group brainstorming with sticky-notes, allowing annotation of digital landscapes (called "rooms") - whether it be a street, maps, a building or a stretch of park land - for quick and easy sharing of ideas, bypassing the usual lengthy and more expensive methods of involving stakeholders.

Michael Kohn, Founder and CEO of Stickyworld, will be speaking at the RE•WORK Connected City Summit on 16-17 March. I caught up with him to hear about Stickyworld, problems in our cities, smart city stakeholders, and more.

What was your motivation behind founding Stickyworld?
When I worked in architectural practice I found it difficult to involve all the different groups of people I needed to comment on the project as it progressed. I knew other disciplines like product design relied heavily on user testing and feedback - it troubled me that I had little or no connection to the actual users of buildings that I was designing for. The internet should make it easy to involve different groups of people to properly understanding and feed into a project’s development in order to make it better. So we started Stickyworld with this aim in mind, and we’ve since tailored applications to work across different kinds of projects at different stages requiring stakeholder participation to help deliver more user-centred outcomes.

How have recent technological developments aided the progress of Stickyworld?
Stickyworld is leveraging a combination of several recent trends. Advances in social media and marketing technology have shown how content and context is key to successful online engagement. In terms of content, the growth in video and virtual reality photography increase the potential for wider groups of people to properly understand any kind of project before it is realised. IoT data enables people to understand the real-time performance of things over time. So we’re focusing on how to bring content, context, data and people together to properly explain projects and invite meaningful dialogue. To date, stakeholder involvement has largely been ignored as a ‘must-have’ software category across the enterprise, whether your stakeholders are departmental colleagues, clients, customers, local communities or citizens. We think this presents us with a huge opportunity.

What elements of the connected city do you feel are ripe for disruption?
The biggest disruption I see right now has happened in the sharing economy in big cities. I use Uberpool for transport and Airbnb for accommodation for most of my business trips at home and abroad. I always chat with my drivers, co-passengers, airbnb hosts and fellow travellers and I have never felt more connected in the city. I guess this is because technology enables those engaged in this economy to connect with different people and places, to share ideas and stories. With new business models emerging for connected cities, there is a similar need for sharing amongst different stakeholder groups to ensure new models will develop to meet people’s real needs. Communications tools that connect these disparate groups and which help demystify and discuss complex ideas will inevitably become more central to delivering any successful city innovation and support a truly connected city.

What new developments in our cities can we expect to see in the next 5 years?
Any significant change in the city can be such an upheaval for everyone, so it’s important to find new ways to remove risks and get it right. I think we will see more project teams, urban designers and architects prototyping and using technology such as VR and simulation technologies, physical pop up interventions and further down the line large 3D printed prototypes in sustainable materials. There also needs to be more investment in design research methods - because capturing end user engagement and feedback is not an automatic skill that every designer knows how to execute straight out of college. Across the UK construction sector from April 2016 we will see the wider adoption of the soft landings process, which will demand increased involvement of clients and end users in the design and handover of their buildings. At Stickyworld we’re excited to be leading a project to test new applications on our stakeholder involvement platform to support this process. This timely legislative milestone will further support the next five year trend in more customer focused, user-centred approaches in planning and designing the buildings and spaces that make up our future connected cities.  

What do you feel are the most urgent challenges connected cities need to address?
As a Londoner and employer, I feel the pain of the growing housing problem. Housing affordability, and to some extent homelessness, is ‘the elephant in the room’ - I don't hear it being discussed so much on the smart cities agenda - and this needs to change. Connected cities should mean trying to connect all the dots , including the inconvenient ones, because without solving a city’s housing problem, it’s going to be super hard for any city to stay relevant as a desirable place of work. In the case of London and cities like London, we need to tie housing policy and the property industry into the smart city agenda, and secure political backing. There are still many powerful commercial stakeholder groups not yet engaged and connected in the wider conversation. The citizen population at large doesn’t yet know why any of this stuff is relevant. Connecting people from currently siloed groups in conversations about change is the most urgent challenge right now for connected cities.

How can these be solved with emerging technology?
Stickyworld is one of a number of emerging technologies which can play a really important role in connecting more people to solve problems together. The potential of IoT, sensors, big data and data analytics is well recited, but what is missing is the small, rich, contextual data to contrast with and de-risk our understanding of the former. The easiest way to capture this small rich data is to ask people and host more meaningful conversations in context of any proposal for change at every stage of the process. Tools which help project leaders, researchers and communications professionals create, manage, analyse and evidence everyone’s involvement in progressing outcomes together will be of enormous benefit. Even if most of the engagement takes place in a face to face context, these technologies exist to help professionals record progress and stakeholder input to their projects in a more efficient, inclusive way and make the process and outcomes more transparent for everyone involved.

What is the role of citizens in creating future cities?
As citizens, we are all the end users of cities. We are inhabitants of urban and suburban spaces. We are individual consumers of services and members of interweaving communities of interest, ownership and locality. We play the number one role in determining whether cities actually work well for us, and whether there is room for improvement or change. Everyone is different in their relationship with change however, in adopting new products and services, loving or loathing new architecture. I love travelling via Boris bike, but I'm not an early adopter of hover-board transport - though I'm sure that's great for some. The point is that as individual citizens, we play an individual role as consumers and end users of new products and services alongside our collective role as members of local communities, and as voting citizens. But whatever the role, if presented with both the opportunity and a clear reasons to get involved, our opinion and insight can contribute to an outcome and de-risk a decision for the better. The inevitable change we all face in growing cities around the globe needs us to play our role.

Do you feel the smart city stakeholders are addressing citizen engagement effectively? What can be improved?
There is so much talk of the need for citizen engagement amongst smart cities leaders and pilot project teams. But do we really understand what is meant by this? For a start, citizens are not one mass identity, just like cities are not all the same. And engagement is not about a one-off survey - it’s a continuous process. Practical improvements can be made when smart cities project teams are better aligned with central communications teams that seek to segment citizens properly in order understand whom they are engaging, in what context, about what subject, when and why - and for what outcome? Citizen engagement should simply be part of a practical communications strategy for every new invention, product or service launch that will significantly affect change in the city. Startups try to do this with natural agile development processes, launch fast, fail fast, learn and repeat. Big tech and tax-payer supported public projects for change in the city can’t do this so easily. So they need to invest more upfront in their initial user research and support roll out of continuous stakeholder engagement and communications, including citizens at large and for the lifetime of the project or venture.

Michael Kohn will be speaking at the 3rd annual RE•WORK Connected City Summit in London on 16-17 March 2016. Other speakers include Julie Alexander, Director of Urban Development, Siemens; Neal Coady, Head of Innovation, British Gas; Bart Remes, Project Manager of the Micro Aerial Vehicle Lab, TU Delft; Andrew Hudson-Smith, Director of The Bartlett Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis (CASA), UCL and more.

Tickets are limited for this event, for more information and to register please visit the event page here.

Big Data Future Cities Smart Cities Mapping 3D-Printing Smart Transport Connected City Summit Smart Citizens Stakeholders


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