3 Key Learnings To Move Forward With Citizen Engagement & Co-Creation

We’re moving towards a new era. An era of smart cities with citizens actively involved in problem-solving, innovation and decision-making.

Smart cities are often depicted to be about digital technologies only, but they aren’t. The technologies are simply the enablers. Smart cities are about their daily users, their citizens.

Citizens have plenty of ideas on how to transform their city into a more sustainable and resilient environment. As the present collective intelligence in cities remains largely untapped, the opportunities to collectively tackle problems and foster urban innovation are huge.

In the last months I immersed myself in civic engagement and co-creation.

Citizen engagement refers to the practice of encouraging citizens to become involved in the community life and help shape the community’s future, whereas co-creation is a specific method on how to do so. It aims at bringing different city stakeholders together, with a set of offline and online initiatives, in order to jointly create a better city and future.

3 Key Messages

After talking to many experts, attending several events and reading a lot about these topics, I found out that there isn’t one magic formula or scalable model out there yet to crack the code of co-creation.

In order to keep moving into the right direction, I want to share my three main insights with you.

1. No success without commitment

No smart city without smart citizens. But no smart citizens without any commitment from the municipality either.

The co-creation process between a city government and its city stakeholders requires financial, human and time resources. As long as there is no commitment to achieve anything, there won’t be any success.

Citizens do want to engage, but need to see an outcome of their efforts. Or, at least, that it is taken into account in the decision-making process. Therefore, commitment forms the starting point for successful co-creation.

Bonus tip: As a city government, avoid making big promises towards citizens while ultimately doing nothing with their input. This results in a loss of credibility and has a negative impact on citizens’ engagement.

2. Online and offline means go hand-in-hand

Both online and offline initiatives are aimed at bringing civic engagement to the next level. With the emergence of smart cities, which involve the use of digital technologies, online means gain in importance. But this doesn’t imply that governments should put an end to their offline efforts.

Online and offline initiatives are not mutually exclusive; they reinforce each other.

Today’s citizen participation opportunities are mostly limited to old school forms, a vote every several years, in-person visits and town hall meetings.

This is where technology comes in. It can increase the interactivity with citizens and provide an easy and wide access to different citizen groups. It’s not necessarily about technology, but rather about how technology enables city governments to better serve their citizens and the way this results in more transparency, a more inclusive society and more engaged citizens.

Bonus tip: Every citizen group has its own reason to participate. A profound understanding of these motives is good to keep in mind, e.g. youngsters want to show their capabilities and the elderly want to share their expertise.

3. Trust, experiment and learn

Last but not least, how to move from a couple of success stories to co-creation as a common practice in cities all over the world?

Trust between the different city stakeholders involved in the process lies at the heart of co-creation.

And this is necessary since co-creation contains uncertainty of outcome, which implies more questions than answers at the start.

Besides that, it’s important to adopt an experimental mindset and learning attitude to find out what works and what doesn’t. Making mistakes and adjusting accordingly are inherent with innovation and moving forward.

Bonus tip: City governments, willing to start co-creating, don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Get inspired by the few success stories out there.


Thanks for reading!

  • These insights were gained by working on CitizenLab, a civic engagement platform for cities. For more information, please visit www.CitizenLab.co.
  • If you have any questions or comments on this post or anything else, you can contact me via driesvanransbeeck@gmail.com, Twitter or LinkedIn.