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City Leaders Need To Get Better at Asking Their Residents for Help

Reflections on maternity leave and smart cities

Last year, as I prepared for new motherhood, friends and books consistently offered this advice: get comfortable asking for help. Three months into motherhood, I have indeed become more comfortable asking for help, and I have found it to be an enlightening and rewarding learning experience.

Recently, I read an article about how Europe has ambitious goals to wean off of Russian energy and yet is not looking to use consumer behavior change as a strategy. The Economist writes,

“Even simple measures that might barely inconvenience people are treated as taboo. Earlier this month the International Energy Agency (IEA), which advises rich-country governments, suggested that Europeans might consider turning down the thermostat by just one degree centigrade. What might seem like mere virtue-signalling greenery would actually cut consumption by 10bn cubic metres of natural gas over a year. That is roughly one month’s worth of Russian imports. This modest appeal was relayed by precisely nobody in office.”

It makes one wonder: how much easier would it be for cities to crack the complex issues they face if they better sought out behavior changes and shared responsibility from their residents?

To be fair, I remember Mayor Garcetti and LADWP asking residents to turn up their thermostats and avoid energy usage during peak hours when heat waves would approach, and there are surely many positive examples elsewhere. I would love to hear success stories in the comments. Still though, it feels like an area ripe for improvement.

To go back to the learning experience of new parenthood, it is not simply a matter of being more willing to ask for help, though that is part of it. To be successful, it is also important to get more adept at asking for help. This includes gaining clarity on what you need and who to ask, and then doing so directly, humbly, and before you are desperate. It also is useful to give options for the person to provide help. Finally, simply being frank and sometimes vulnerable about the situation you are in enables people to help you in ways you may not have considered.

Thinking about cities, two examples come to mind from the world of waste, which is a real passion area for me. First is the shift from sorted recyclables to the single-stream system that started in California in the 1990s and spread throughout the US in the decades that followed. Sure it is easy for residents to put all recyclables into one bin, but it also makes the thought process of what is recyclable more removed, and energy still must be invested (through a mix of human workers and machines) to sort through the waste eventually. The result is an expensive system to separate the materials downstream and a whole lot more trash getting sent to recycling facilities. Might some portion of the population be willing to sort their recyclables, whether at home or a centralized location, if it would help the city and the planet? The second example from the world of waste is storm drains that allow street litter to flow into waterways, since downstream interventions like netting have proven not to work. Might community members pick up litter around the drains, especially in advance of a storm, if called upon, or if they were just more aware of the need?

Some might argue that our leaders’ need to win elections creates an insuperable barrier, as anyone who tries to shift more responsibility to the people is politically doomed. But I don’t believe that. I have faith that residents are ready to rise to the challenges that we collectively face, and will make the greatest impact if they are asked with skill and comfort. If our leaders get comfortable asking for help, I expect that those leaders and the community members who respond to the call for help will enjoy the same rewarding experience I have had in recent months and, best of all, the community as a whole will benefit. It takes a village to raise a child…and it takes a village to make a better village.

Chelsea Lawson is the Director of Analytics at Cityfi, a smart city advisory firm.

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We’re in the business of urban change management.

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Chelsea Lawson

Chelsea Lawson

One cannot fix one's eyes on the commonest natural production without finding food for a rambling fancy.

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