What can engagement people learn from Smart Cities?


I was recently reading an article about Smart Cities; specifically Barcelona, and was struck by some parallels to the type of work we do. I thought I’d share them with you in this week’s newsletter because I like to take inspiration from the outside world and the intersection of society and technology. Back to Barcelona: it is one of the most advanced ‘smart city’ networks in the world, using Internet of Things networks to collect data 24/7 on things like air quality, parking spaces and even waste bins– an amazing advancement from a city management perspective.


The story of one Barcelona square was what struck me; Plaça del Sol. Over the last few years, this once-convivial square gradually became a go-to for late night boozers, somewhere to wind away the hours away until wobble-home time. All this fun comes at an expense – noise. And this noise was getting to people, stopping them sleeping and resting. The residents joke that it’s the only place in the city where they actually hope for rain. Unimpressed by the council’s response to complaints, they took BCN’s smart city principles into their own hands to tackle the problem head on.


The residents teamed up with scientists the measure the noise levels to determine how loud the place actually was (it turned out to be very!). Anyone who was interested could take part – skills and resources were mapped in an inclusive process. They also mapped out the culture of the square, drawing on the knowledge of older residents to understand what had changed over time, and how the situation had developed and where they’d like to be in future. And once they’d collected the data they didn’t stop there – again they grouped into a participatory process that involved the residents (as well as scientists and governors) and planned a tailored response involving artists, city planners, police, expert speakers and events. The projectis still very much alive and generating engagement, actively tackling a complex social issue in a positive, data driven and inclusive manner.


So what can we learn?


  • Each and every data point has a story. Think of Plaça del Sol as a team, department or function. Maybe, in the grand scheme of Barcelona, they weren’t the loudest neighborhood. Maybe they were somewhere near the top end, but out of the ‘red zone’. Looking at an aerial view of the city, they could be easy to ignore – but does that make it matter any less to them? Nope – every situation has a context, and we must remember that good old numbers don’t reveal anything like the full picture, especially when ranked or heat mapped.


  • Participation creates engagement– by involving the residents in the project it crossed a line from a separate, scientific exercise to a cultural phenomenon. Perhaps from a technical standpoint there’s not much benefit to this approach, but by involving the residents it created the opportunity for them to meet, learn, and act. Genuinely empowering people in something like measuring and improving their environment, whether that be where they live or work, has the potential to create engagement with the process.


  • Creative collaboration in problem solving – the range of solutions they created is testament to the power of the creativity of small social groups to come up with solutions to their unique challenges. A bottom up rather than top down approach proved powerful.


For me, the parallels with an employee experience survey process were obvious and interesting. From an organisation’s perspective, wouldn’t it be possible to develop a participatory approach like this – not only allowing people to feedback but also involve them in planning how and when they want to feedback, what they want to do with the results and making sure they have the right information to be able to improve their own working situation? And from my perspective as a supplier the challenge is to provide ever more flexible and smarter ways of gathering data – something we’re always working on!

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