Society in Transition
Modern society is always in transition from one state to the other. Cities and citizens are getting smarter, the population is getting older, and fossil fuels are increasingly being replaced by renewable sources. Many organisations try to offer a helping hand in these and other transitions, which often affect the living environment. Many implications are necessary and can make the world a better place, but there is one stakeholder that shouldn’t be neglected: the smart citizen.
Risks of the Information Society
Smart citizens are a result of the transition from a traditional to an information society. Data about our living environment is widely available, and this data is increasingly accessible to the public. Smart citizens have learned to use this data to their advantage and because of this, they have become increasingly aware of the condition and occasions of their living environment. This awareness requires a different approach from policy,- and other plan makers who would like to implement change. Plan makers have adapted to receiving more resistance against their plans, as the public tends to adopt a NIMBY approach towards for example the energy transition. The smart citizen is one of the factors driving this trend, which is a risk for those who desire to see their spatial plans realized.
Although some planners behold this new situation with solicitude, others are intrigued by the possibilities the smart citizen offers. These planners see opportunities to inform large groups of citizens in a comprehensible and meaningful way, in which citizens can actually contribute to the plans instead of retaining them. This opens the door for SMARTicipation, in which smart citizens are involved in a smart way.
Empowerment of citizens
The Dutch government recognizes the importance of empowering citizens as well, as public participation has been embedded as a strict condition in the Environment and Planning Act (Dutch: Omgevingswet). This law states that citizens, companies and social organisations should be able to participate in processes of policy and decision formation. This involvement would increase the quality of policy and decisions, rise public opinion, and prevents risks of unnecessary delays by appeals and procedures of objection. Ultimately, this would lead to more satisfied citizens.
What does public participation look like?
How then, you may ask, will this wonderful process of involvement unfold? Although the Environment and Planning Act describes where and when stakeholders should be involved, it is not stated how this involvement should be organised. Traditionally, public participation did often take place in information meetings organized.
There are a couple of disadvantages to these meetings, of which the most important factors are summed up:
• Only a select group of people is able to attend these meetings.
• Meetings are easily dominated by one group who is in favor or against the plans, preventing a good dialog and silencing minorities. Anonymous input for the plan is often not possible.
• The attendance of the meetings does hardly represent the population of an area, as mostly elderly people are attracted by the meetings and younger people lack time or interest.
These factors prevent a democratic way of decision supporting involvement, as the meetings are easily tainted by a certain audience or opinion because of these factors.
SMARTicipation in practice
Luckily, there is room for improvement of traditional citizen involvement. The combination of the information society, smart citizens, and a wide range of digital tools enables so-called ‘data-driven’ participation, or SMARTicipation. Tools such as Windplanner, created by The Imagineers to interactively simulate the placement of wind turbines and solar panels in a 3D environment, drive information meetings to a whole new level and do also enable and motivate citizens to explore and improve upon proposed plans from their personal computer.
A more generic tool is Maptionnaire, that expands traditional online questionnaires with spatial and map-based answer possibilities. This enables municipalities and other organizations to quickly reach a representative part of the population and to quickly gather a lot of data of hundreds or even thousands of respondents. These respondents have a different perspective from planners and possess a lot of local and practical knowledge. As the amount of data coming from such surveys is big data, patterns and clusters are easily found. By focusing on these patterns, the public opinion of the majority of the respondents can be distilled and arguments in favour or against certain decisions can be built. Therefore, this method of data collection can serve as input or feedback for all kinds of decisions, such as steps for the energy transition, developing traffic plans, reporting nuisances, and designing new plans for a city centre. The Smart Citizen is here to stay and has the same ambition as the planner; improving the spatial domain.
Let’s make an advantage of this and realize ourselves that involving citizens is not a weakness, but a strength!
The examples stated above are all real-world examples. Are you interested in the projects or would you like to involve citizens better in your own projects? Don’t hesitate to send me an email (bart-peter.smit@RuG.nl) to ask for more information or to plan a meeting.
This Girugten article first appeared in GEO PROMOTION MAGAZINE, 23rd of February, 2019. Source top photo: Ruimteschepper