Citizen Engagement in and Beyond ‘Smart Cities’




How would you rate the air quality in the room you’re sitting in now—poor, fair, or excellent? If you think it’s poor, does that matter? Is there anything you could do to improve it?

Citizen sensing and engagement tools or platforms are becoming increasingly popular ways to engage everyday people in city problems, such as air pollution, noise, traffic congestion, and broken infrastructure.

Unlike the ‘top-down’ smart city solutions offered by big technology corporations, these ‘bottom-up’ applications are intended to be initiated and run by members of the public, on the premise that citizen involvement will lead to better awareness and positive actions.

In relation to environmental pollutants, it’s widely suggested that citizen sensing tools give citizens the awareness they need to effect change.

However, while these tools do have the potential to help citizens make more informed decisions, citizen sensing and engagement alone are arguably not enough for systemic change. Many of these tools are built on the false premise that more information automatically leads to behaviour change and some oversimplify the complexity of these problems altogether.

In this article, I will explore some of the strengths and weaknesses of the citizen engagement movement in the context of making cities more ‘legible.’ I will introduce projects that broaden the current discussion on citizen sensing, engagement and behaviour change along with several ideas that may offer cities and citizens a more holistic and creative approach to participation. To provide some context to the rise of the citizen engagement movement, I will first give an overview of the smart city perspective.


Over the last 20 years, the use of certain narratives has dominated our understanding of cities. One of the most significant phenomena in contemporary urbanism and discussion of cities is the rise of the notion of ‘smart cities’ (Minton, 2014). As defined by  Siemens, for example, smart cities are cities that “will have countless autonomous, intelligently functioning IT systems that will have perfect knowledge of users’ habits and energy consumption, and provide optimum service… The goal of such a city is to optimally regulate and control resources by means of autonomous IT systems.”

The writer and urbanist Adam Greenfield (2013) argues against this simplistic narrative, questioning how this approach could be put in practice:

On the corporate and government level especially, we hardly see any questions raised around how these technologies and solutions actually mesh with local practices, activities and cultural norms. How these systems are given meaning and change by being situated in a specific cultural or human context.

It is claimed that smart city systems will give their leaders (and planning authorities) perfect knowledge of their citizens: for example, people’s energy consumption, travel, etc.; and in return for these insights, the smart city will provide them ‘optimised’ services. In smart city statements there is often only one, universally correct solution to each individual, or even to a collective human need. And this solution is expected to be scalable and repeatable in most cultures and locations.

It is also important to mention that each of these technologies was designed, and therefore they reflect something about their designer, and the designer’s particular worldview. As the architect and designer Usman Haque (2016) puts it:

Somebody somewhere decided on a definition for optimisation, or a definition of efficiency, or a definition of safety, of risk, of certainty. They decided how to evaluate progress towards a goal. They also decided precisely how goals would get encoded into algorithms – the set of rules used to derive solutions, or make decisions.

The timeframe in which these perfect scenarios are supposed to happen is unknown. These ideas operate in a generic future, occupying a generic space in a generic time (Greenfield, 2013). Perhaps it is then easier to avoid accountability for any failure of a vision and an impact that is still yet to come. Or perhaps we have always lived in cities that were ‘smart’—or at least smart enough? Some argue that ‘smartness’ is relational (Fantini van Ditmar and Lockton, 2016)—that an interaction with a city (or a person) is only ‘smart’ if the people involved perceive that interaction as smart; it cannot be a static quality of a system.

Maybe in this context there is something to learn from Buckminster Fuller’s maxim that, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” In line with this thinking, what if people who want to challenge top-down visions stop fighting them, and instead aim to make them ‘smarter’ from the perspective of citizens themselves?

In opposition to the ‘top down’ smart city approach, the last few years have seen a rise in citizen sensing movements, and citizen engagement platforms, which aim to involve the public more directly into various political and environmental processes.


As cities and citizens become increasingly disillusioned with the current premises (and promises) of smart cities, new initiatives and citizen-engagement platforms have started to evolve. Their aim is to encourage citizens to participate more in decisions affecting their city, and better understand complex environmental and political processes. We are observing a rise of projects and conferences that investigate the relationship between technologies, citizen engagement and practices of environmental sensing.

The upcoming conference Design & the City (2016), for example, will examine the potential of these platforms to shape society itself:

A variety of mobile sensors (air pollutants, humidity, noise, temperature, etc.) and their resulting (big) data have provided us with yet another new range of opportunities and promises for the future of our cities. The network society, heralded by scholars and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs alike, is slowly turning into a platform society: a society in which personal, social and political relations are organised through the interfaces and algorithms of digital media platforms.

The event will discuss emerging projects and collaborations that are introducing “new modes of social organisation, economic production and political decision-making.” In other words, it will explore how these platforms are forming new relationships between citizens, businesses and policymakers.

The designer John Lynch (2016) gives an example of this type of project from the city of Aarhus Denmark, in which “citizens have voluntarily allowed their bikes to be radio tagged—enabling them to be tracked as they pass important intersections in the city. By doing this, they aim to directly increase the likelihood that when they reach an intersection they will get a green signal.”


While environmental citizenship and citizen science are established areas of research, citizen sensing is an environmental practice that has not yet been analysed in detail. Citizen sensing is not just made up of observations of environmental change, but also involves technical and political practices that form a complex ecology of sensing. In order to establish environmental engagement, citizen-sensing initiatives often depend on forms of monitoring, reporting, managing and even self-managing (Citizen Sense, 2015).

As the principal investigator of the project, “Citizen Sensing and Environmental Practice”, Jennifer Gabrys (2013) points out:

Practices of monitoring and sensing environments have migrated to a number of everyday participatory applications, where users of smart phones and networked devices are able to engage with similar modes of environmental observation and data collection. These citizen sensing projects intend to democratise the collection and use of environmental data, and in the process enable public engagement with environmental issues, such as air pollution.

Gabrys (2013) goes on to ask, whether such sensing can lead to “new modes of environmental awareness and practice?” In addition to this question, I would also ask what happens with people who are either less or not technologically literate? And, what happens with people who are simply not interested in these issues at all?


Why does environmental sensing matter at all? Current evidence indicates that environmental factors are important contributors to chronic diseases and developmental disabilities, which in some cases have reached epidemic proportions. These pollutants have become widespread in our air, water, soil, food, homes, schools, and workplaces, and thus also in our bodies (Health Effects Institute, 2013). Emphasizing the importance of health through minimizing environmental exposures to invisible hazards in our environment is critical for effective and better-informed decision making by both policy makers and the public. Yet so far this serious issue has not been critically and adequately addressed through design research and practice.

UNESCO’s (1997) ‘Educating for a sustainable future’ explains:

There are several sorts of challenges in communication: the influence of vested interests—the efforts of industry and government to manipulate the visibility of contaminants, the neglect or inadequacy of communication strategies, the complexity of the messages and the unfortunate tendency of some of the messengers to spend more time squabbling with one another than communicating with the public.

One of the most interesting examples to describe this challenge is the case of Belarus. As a result of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986, nearly a quarter of Belarus was covered with long-lasting radionuclides. The damage from this disaster, however, was largely imperceptible; it could only be known only through constructed representations. In The Politics of Invisibility, Olga Kuchinskaya (2014) describes the politics of manufactured invisibility and in particular the production of the invisibility of Chernobyl’s consequences in Belarus. She explains the practices that limited public attention to radiation and that made its health effects impossible to observe or address.


In this collection of essays, we have heard a lot about legibility, of which visibility is a significant component. But would ‘making the invisible visible’ actually lead to more engaged citizens? What could be the difference between legible, tangible and visible in an environmental sense? Environmental impacts that can be seen, smelled, or perceived by individuals and recognized as an environmental or health problem tend to get more attention than those which are less readily detectable, and those that are not directly associated with an environmental problem, such as neurological disorders caused by eating mercury-contaminated-fish over many years (Isaacson and Jensen, 1992). It is often suggested that there is lack of civic action and grassroots social movements around these imperceptible pollutants for the very reason that they are invisible.

In their public messaging various health organizations suggest that, “awareness is a prelude to informed action.” Even if there are a number of seemingly intuitive relationships between the visibility and awareness of environmental contaminants and public responses to those problems, they may prove to be misleading. The common perception is that the more visible pollution is, then the more likely people will be to do something about it. But sociological research reveals that what often appears to be most obvious or intuitive might be false (Gould, 1993; Vila, 2003; Steinberg and VanDeveer, 2012).

Looking at shocking examples of manmade environmental disasters—including the toxic waste contamination of the Love Canal, the dioxin pollution of Times Beach, and the poisoned soil of New Orleans and Silicon Valley—the visibility and tangibility of contaminants were not always enough to raise wider and sustained public discussion or civic and political action. This all begs the question, do visibility and awareness actually make a difference?

How could legibility mean more than just seeing and understanding? How could it lead to action that would make a difference? This process, which Dan Lockton calls ‘progression from understanding to action’, would mean real and sustained change. Legibility could mean a situation in which citizens have gained a real change in perception; a better understanding of possible impacts of their decisions; and also a broader understanding of the political and economic motivations, behind companies, polluters and governments. Change may require something visceral, such as rage, fear, passion, or a burning sense of (un)fairness. It will certainly something more than just data.


The rhetoric and language we choose (and use) is important. In thinking through these issues, we need to consider how we can challenge and expand on the simplifying rhetoric of citizen engagement.

It is hard to think of something more engaging than a natural disaster, such as earthquakes or hurricanes. They have immediate and tangible impacts on our safety and well-being, while the health effects of invisible hazards such as radiological fallout and air pollution are often delayed in time and difficult to perceive. As Kuchinskaya (2014) describes:

The imperceptibility of these hazards means that [how an] individual experiences them is always highly mediated by ways of visualization, maps and measuring equipment, and also through the narratives of people. How these representations and technologies are produced matters; therefore analysing the current ways in which politically-driven invisibility are constructed is also crucial.

As the result of this simplifying rhetoric around citizen engagement, city authorities all around the world often share the strong belief that if only they could deploy a sensor-infrastructure, then they could measure and define the whole city: as if they could somehow find a sort of ultimate truth in the data that could be used to engage and ‘nudge’ citizens into becoming ‘better citizens’.

From a personal perspective, as a designer and researcher working in this field, seeing some of the current critiques, advantages and challenges of previously deployed sensing infrastructures (e.g., Air Quality Egg, Safecast), I am a bit skeptical about this logic. In many cases, these applications and technologies did not necessarily help people to better understand the complexity of the context in which the data was gathered, nor the trend, over time or space, in relation to all other data points. Instead, they seem to distract or even pacify us. In some ways they remind me of the ancient Roman maxim: “Panem et circenses” or in English “bread and circuses,” supposedly coined by Juvenal and describing the cynical formula of the Roman emperors for keeping the masses content with ample food and entertainment.

My hope for all of these widely deployed, inflexible and sometimes very expensive infrastructures and technologies is that they will be more than a tool for creating the false belief or feeling that we are directly participating in democracy. My next question, therefore, is what else do we have, beyond sensing infrastructures to affect real change?


In developing new citizen engagement platforms, it will be critical for all companies and cities to look at existing or past examples (such as Participatory City, Urban Data School, Commonplace, OpenIDEO, Changify, Neighborland, CITIVIVA, to name a few) to analyse the ones that actually managed to engage citizens and learn from the ones that ‘failed’.

Beyond informatics and sensor data, one of the very inspiring examples of this shift towards citizen engagement is the project Democracy OS, launched in Argentina in 2014. “After a disappointing brush with traditional political parties”, the platform’s founder, Pia Mancini (2014), “realized that the existing democracy was disconnected from its citizens—and that no one was likely to fix it. In response, she helped launch Democracy OS, an open-source mobile platform aimed at providing Argentinian citi- 68 zens with immediate input into the legislative process (TED, 2014). To promote it, she helped found the Partido de la Red, a new party running candidates committed to legislate only as directed by constituents using online tools for participation.”

Another very promising, ‘citizen co-creation’ projects in this field, run by Corporación Ruta N Medellín in Colombia, is the global platform, Cities for Life. As the creators explain:

Using this platform, we process specific issues for cities and define concrete urban challenges that must be met. We then receive solution proposals from the global community participating in the platform, as well as from a bank of successful innovative experiences that are a part of the ecosystem. With these proposals, we create guidelines to design action plans for cities.

Looking back to earlier examples, we could also learn from how Pachube (now Xively)—a platform for connecting sensors and other Internet of Things devices—enabled a huge public discussion after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in March 2011, by aiding the crowdsourcing of real-time radiation data (Haque, 2012). We could also look at the crowdsourced emergency response platform created in the wake of wildfires that struck western Russia in 2010. What grew out of Russian-fires.ru was Virtual Rynda: an Atlas of Help, which was an online project to support and facilitate mutual aid and crowdsourced solutions to different types of problems, not only in emergencies but in everyday life (Asmolov, 2010).


Much of this work, around engagement and action, is about behaviour change—not only on the part of citizens, but also city authorities. The architect and designer Usman Haque (2012) argues that having access to data, and monitoring one’s behaviour or environment doesn’t necessarily lead to civic and/or political action; but the public visibility of relevant data can lead to discussion, and reach a broad variety of disciplines and people.

Haque believes that the idea of extreme connectivity is not about efficiency and smartness—or as he says more succinctly, “[it’s] not about connected bloody fridges.” Instead, connectivity is about enabling people to make sense of a situation collectively and then do something about it. He rejects the notion of simplicity and encourages people to embrace the notion of ‘complexity’; he believes that connectivity could allow us to collaboratively coming up with ways of making sense of the world and then taking action. Haque’s last point relates well to a point from the UCL ICRI Cities PhD, Mara Balestrini (2013) who questions whether being connected to the community could lead to personal behaviour change and instead calls for empathy: “Within the field of Personal Informatics much research pursues the design of applications for self-tracking to motivate behaviour change. Such tools usually follow an ‘egocentric’ approach where the user is expected to reflect on and change her behaviour by visualizing her own collected data.”

In her paper, she goes on to suggest that “a system where the data of a user is mapped into the wellbeing of an external entity or a community, with which the user establishes an affective bond, could lead to an alternative approach towards self-awareness, based on empathy and vicarious emotions such as altruism and compassion.”

There is also the question, as Dan Lockton (2014) asks, whether instead of starting at the level of ‘behaviour’, we rather work on “designing ways which help change people’s understandings of the world and the systems they’re in.” Understanding the contexts in which people make decisions is also important. In his paper, ‘As we may understand’, Lockton argues that “the common approach [to behaviour change] assumes that differences in outcome will result from changes to people—‘if only we can make people more motivated’; ‘if only we can persuade people to do this’; ‘if only people would stop doing that’—overcoming cognitive biases, being more attentive, caring about things, being more thoughtful, and so on… considering questions of attitude, beliefs or motivations in isolation rather than in context—the person and the social or environmental situation in which someone acts.”

It is important here to look not only at people who have changed their behaviour, but the ones who haven’t changed at all—and understand why. One suggestion is the idea that—similarly to Timothy Morton’s concept of ‘Hyperobjects’ (2013)—phenomena such as climate change are so massively distributed in space and time as to transcend localization. They become “invisible forces” over which we feel little agency, and so little capacity to change. It’s a lack of “response-ability” and agency that we feel. For instance, as artist and engineer Natalie Jeremijenko (2015) reflects further on the need for agency in the face of climate crisis: “I think you draw on whatever resources you have to make sense of an issue – if it’s question driven, it doesn’t matter if it’s cultural, historical, scientific or biochemical. So the question is about how to figure out what makes sense for you as a citizen, the questions that are compelling to you.”

There are many popular campaigns that aim to change our relationship with natural systems, but they rarely draw on the creative imagination and autonomy that each of us has to design and manage our own lives. Content tends to focus on either grand policies, such as tax incentives for solar energy; or cookie-cutter actions, such as changing light bulbs, buying local, or reusing shopping bags. And, while the content of these messages is very important, the way these ideas are communicated tends to be uninteresting or even confusing.

As the writer and professor, Richard Sennett (2006) argues in his talk on the Open City: “We have more resources to use than in the past, but resources we don’t use very creatively.”


While citizen engagement platforms are not enough to inspire systemic change on their own, they can be powerful tools for change: they can help challenge our assumptions and build a more informed understanding of our surroundings.

There is, however, still a lack of platforms, measuring devices and sensors that somehow provoke people to think deeper about what is actually going on in our world and bring about meaningful change.

As Buckminster Fuller put it in 1966, in an interview with The New Yorker:

In the universe, everything is always in motion, and everything is always moving in the directions of least resistance. That’s basic. So I said, ‘If that’s the case, then it should be possible to modify the shapes of things so that they follow preferred directions of least resistance.’ I made up my mind at this point that I would never try to reform man—that’s much too difficult. What I would do was to try to modify the environment in such a way as to get man moving in preferred directions.

How could we redefine what we mean by environmental sensing and participation, and open up this very narrowly focused discussion? How could we design tools that would encourage citizens to participate in re-designing our collective relationship to complex urban systems?

In cases when people are not engaged, is it because they don’t care? Is it that simple? There is an implicit faith in citizens as the ‘agents of change.’ But one of the dangers of this faith is that it shifts responsibility from those with real power to those with only limited power. A city government, for example, could point to the apathy of its own citizens, rather than evaluating the failings of its own policies.

As I go forward with my own practice and research, I am left asking the following questions:

• What practices are available beyond citizen-sensing and engagement that could lead to lasting change?

• What is the ideal balance of transparency? How much do people need to know about the world?

• Who has the power to act?





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“I think you draw on whatever resources you have to make sense of an issue – if it’s question driven, it doesn’t matter if it’s cultural, historical, scientific or biochemical. So the question is about how to figure out what makes sense for you as a citizen, the questions that are compelling to you.” Lim, E. (2015) The Science of Citizens: Natalie Jeremijenko [online publication.] Assemble Papers. Available at: http://assemblepapers.com.au/2015/03/17/the-science-of-citizens-natalie-jeremijenko/

“The art of designing cities declined drastically in the middle of the 20th century. That’s a paradox because today’s planner has an arsenal of technological tools — from lighting to bridging and tunneling to materials for buildings — which urbanists even a hundred years ago could not begin to imagine: we have more resources to use than in the past, but resources we don’t use very creatively.” Sennett, R. (2006) The Open City [online.] Available at: https://lsecities.net/media/objects/articles/the-open-city/en-gb/

“In the universe, everything is always in motion, and everything is always moving in the directions of least resistance. That’s basic. So I said, ‘If that’s the case, then it should be possible to modify the shapes of things so that they follow preferred directions of least resistance.’ I made up my mind at this point that I would never try to reform man—that’s much too difficult. What I would do was to try to modify the environment in such a way as to get man moving in preferred directions.“ Tomkins, C. (1966). In the Outlaw Area. Interview with Buckminster Fuller, Profiles, New Yorker, Issue: January 8, 1966 [magazine.] Available at: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1966/01/08/in-the-outlaw-area


Air Quality Egg, available at: http://airqualityegg.com/

Changify (neighborhood platform), available at: http://www.changify.org/

CITIVIVA, available at: http://www.citiviva.com/

Citizen Sense, Goldsmiths College (a project led by Dr Jennifer Gabrys and is funded through a European Research Council (ERC) Starting Grant), available at: http://www.citizensense.net/about/

Cities for Life (global platform), run by Corporación Ruta N Medellín in Colombia, available at: http://citiesfor.life/en/Index

Commonplace, available at: http://commonplace.is/

Design and the City Conference, Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, Knowledge Mile Amsterdam, 19-22 April 2016, available at: http://designandthecity.eu/theme/

Neighborland (a toolkit for civic projects), available at: https://neighborland.com/

OpenIDEO (A Web-based platform for innovation), available at: http://www.openideo.com/

Participatory City, available at: http://www.participatorycity.org/#discovered

Safecast, available at: http://blog.safecast.org/

Urban Data School, available at: http://urbandataschool.org/