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The Online Tools Detroit Is Using to Support Sustainability

Detroit may be behind on rolling out a full sustainability action agenda, but the city is agile and catching up fast with a new set of digital tools to foster engagement among the community.

Detroit, like many cities, is working to get greener these days, doing so by creating the Office of Sustainability, hiring a director for that office, and, most recently, deploying a new set of tech-based tools to foster broad community engagement.

The nature of Detroit’s sustainability work is still taking shape, with the city working to finalize a full plan. It will likely include everything from building new homes to air quality management to better use of vacant lands. It’s significant work, and to make sure it gets done right, the city wants as much input as possible, said Joel Howrani Heeres, director of the office, which is about a year old. To get that input, they’re using a set of digital tools from a Boston-based company called coUrbanize.

What those tools do is create a digital means for the community to get information and also express their opinions.

“What’s been cool about the tool is it really allows folks to zoom down to their neighborhood level and talk about what do they love about their neighborhood,” Howrani Heeres said, “and what would they change, in a way that makes sustainability a little more tangible. It can be a lofty, wonky term.”

One concrete example of what this looks like is that Detroit currently has 14 sustainability ambassadors going to neighborhood meetings and collecting input. During those meetings, attendees can use SMS technology via coUrbanize to ask questions. Organizers can also host polls via text, sharing the responses of those in attendance in real time to get a sense of how people feel about the planning. Detroit has also used the digital platform to help with a survey of 1,600 local stakeholders, half of which were engaged digitally and half with paper forms.

The city is currently prepping the rollout of its full sustainability action agenda, which is slated to happen in April with input from the community being solicited, collected and applied every step of the way. In this capacity, Howrani Heeres is a natural choice for sustainability director, having previously run the city’s open data portal before getting the new appointment. The sustainability work fits into broader use of digital tools for things like letting people know when a vacant building demolition is set to take place, as well as related precautions.

“This is just one of many efforts to permeate digital opportunities that are applicable for the population of Detroit so we can communicate more nimbly and adeptly with our citizens,” Howrani Heeres said.

This is not the first such project for coUrbanize. The company has worked with municipalities throughout the continental United States, including Boston; Boise, Idaho; and Santa Barbara, Calif., helping them all to foster and host increased engagement, said Karin Brandt, coUrbanize’s CEO and founder.

Detroit has so far collected 1,200 comments from interested community stakeholders, Brandt said, and coUrbanize’s analysis indicates that 86 percent of those comments have been positive or neutral in nature.

Detroit is just one example of a city looking to use technology to foster greater community engagement. Indeed, the topic is a pressing concern for cities throughout the U.S., be it in relation to a new sustainability agenda or for any other civic business. The benefit of giving them the option to text, email or post opinions is twofold, broadening the channels with which feedback can be given and also making these efforts more inclusive.

The coUrbanize effort in Detroit, for example, is also taking place in multiple languages. They’re using online channels as well as signs around the city, posted in Spanish and Arabic, to reach the city’s sizable immigrant communities. As urban spaces in America become increasingly diverse, there is great potential for technology to make sure large segments of communities do not get left behind.

“The barrier to participation can be really high,” Brandt said, “if you work multiple jobs or have to get a babysitter. Or it can hard to stand up in front of your neighbors, especially if English isn’t your first language. These tools can help with that.”

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.