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POV

The Smartest Cities Are Compassionate Cities

The case for a new core operating tenet for local governments.

Phil Noble/Reuters

A city government exists to provide services to its citizens, though it may not feel that way after spending an afternoon applying for a construction permit. Paper-driven, anachronistic processes continue to paint local governments in a negative light, making citizens’ lives more frustrating. What if cities had compassion for their citizens and approached providing services with user empathy? Existing mechanical processes such as obtaining a small business license or contesting a parking ticket are ripe for a revolution.

Superior user experiences demonstrate compassion for customers. Companies that focus on this have revolutionized industries. Think about Amazon, Google, or Apple. When cities put a priority on creating a great experience for every interaction, they become more compassionate and accessible in the process.

What might happen if compassion were a core operating tenet of local governments? It would be an unorthodox approach to think of citizens as customers, tenaciously working to ensure they do not lose them to a competitor (i.e., moving to another city). But with this mindset, city leaders would be required to truly understand and empathize with their customers. A customer-focused city would deliver solutions that make lives better.

Some big cities are moving in the right direction of improving their customer's experience. Indianapolis, D.C., and others have parking apps that replace meters, simplifying the process of paying by eliminating the need to carry change and allowing drivers to add more time remotely. Boston and New York are working on solutions to pay for parking fines using a smartphone. SeeClickFix allows citizens to report neighborhood problems such as broken traffic lights or potholes right from their phones.

Boston has also relaunched its portal, allowing citizens to access information through “guides” that feature curated content based on how a resident thinks about an issue, such as moving, or owning a car. This is an excellent example of compassion for the user, providing information to them on their own terms instead of forcing them to hunt for relevant information.

Anchorage is another example of a city pushing smart technologies to improve its street lighting. More than 4,000 lights will use energy-efficient LED bulbs and be managed by a wireless control system to remotely control them. The next phase is to use each of these light poles as data sensors to monitor traffic, measure air quality, or automatically direct emergency response vehicles when needed.

These examples highlight an urban vision that includes smart technology to improve citizen mobility and thereby quality of life. But, a person will have a number of critical and frequent interactions with their local government to service common needs, like paying routine fees. Traditionally, these are unpleasant experiences both for the person receiving the service and the employee doing the work.

The engine of many cities is a lumbering bureaucracy that evolves at the speed of government. And yet, they serve a population that operates at the speed of the internet. Each year, the expectation gap grows between what citizen-customers want to experience and what traditional governments deliver. This can manifest itself in long lines, confusing paper-based processes, and generally negative experiences. Maintaining this status quo puts city governments in danger of becoming irrelevant as more and more private sector solutions to big civic problems emerge.

One company taking the reins to combat poor digital experiences at the city level is Sidewalk Labs. They partner with cities to find the right technology solutions to everyday challenges, ranging from commuting to social services to affordable housing. And they do so with the understanding that, when people’s lives are improved with technology, an entire city becomes better as a result.

The U.S. Department of Transportation also issued its “Smart City Challenge” this year, pushing municipalities to rethink urban transportation using sensors, self-driving cars, and connected vehicles. Seven finalists were selected from a pool of 78 entrants for the $40 million award; Columbus, Ohio won with its vision for a beautiful city providing clean transportation options, a healthy city offering safe opportunities for non-motorized travel, and a prosperous city efficiently connecting workers to jobs.

With the pervasiveness of digital technologies disrupting all industries, now is the time for the same to happen widely across public sector service providers. This is just the beginning of a positive shift toward focusing on the citizen-customer. We need to see more of these solutions implemented, and on a larger scale, for cities to make the transition to becoming more compassionate.

About the Author

  • Tom Cochran is the chief digital strategist and VP for the public sector at Acquia. He spent four years as a digital leader in the Obama administration with the White House and Department of State.