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Cities Discover the Power of Collective Intelligence

A new study by William Eggers finds cities that tap the wisdom of the masses can maximize the impact of smart technology investments.

When it comes to reimagining urban planning, William Eggers talks about the paths children make in the snow. You can hire an urban planner to lay out the walkways in a playground based on the way people ought to go, said the executive director of Deloitte Center for Government Insights. Or you can watch kids walk through the snow, observe the trails they follow, then use those as the guide for laying out the pathways.
“There is a collective intelligence in cities,” Eggers said. “City officials can tap into that to make better decisions, but it starts with understanding that bottom-up intelligence. That’s your starting point.”
Eggers isn’t just talking about playground paths in his new study, Making Cities Smarter: How Citizens’ Collective Intelligence Can Guide Better Decision Making. He argues tapping the wisdom of the masses is key to maximizing the impact of smart-city technology investments.
Nor is he alone in making that case. Executives at the Barcelona engineering firm Bax & Co. argue that when it comes to smart cities, too often “solutions are developed without asking the end users whether they actually need the solution. The result is wasted resources, an unused product and perhaps discouragement from continuing an important initiative.”
It’s common to see cities put technology ahead of people. “We see a lot of this, where the smart city is all about sensors and big data analytics and that’s what will make cities really smart. The result of that is going to be a lot of money spent without a lot of results,” Eggers said.
How to put people first? Eggers has a number of suggestions to help guide IT decision-makers on the road to smarter cities.

Partner up

People are generating large volumes of useful information in the private sector that reflects a certain public consciousness cities could leverage through creative partnerships. Boston for instance taps Yelp reviews, applying algorithms to this citizen intelligence in order to predict potential health code violations and more effectively dispatch inspectors. The city likewise uses crowdsourced Waze data to help with traffic management.
“We already are giving off a lot of digital exhaust every day, so we should ask how the city can tap into that to understand the collective intelligence,” Eggers said. In Boston’s case, “the city is constantly thinking about what the citizens are already giving out and how they can use that in specific ways to improve quality of life.”

Use the city’s own intelligence

Cities, as organisms, produce vast volumes of information as a natural byproduct of their daily activities. Officials can look internally to identify and harness that information. Eggers describes efforts in New York City to improve building inspection efficiency by mining employee experience in order to identify hazardous properties.
The city had received some 25,000 complaints around illegal conversions of housing units, but it only had 200 inspectors available to cover the workload. Planners needed a way to home in on those properties where there most likely existed a legitimate and immediate problem.
“They built a predictive data model with the help of the building inspectors who had been in the field for years. These were people who had been working the beat, who knew which places were dumps, and they were able to use their insights to effectively do a triage,” Eggers said.
By mining the intelligence and experience of city workers, the department saw the number of investigations leading to vacate orders rise from 13 percent to 70 percent, an indication that the human-guided effort was leading inspectors to more high-risk properties.

Build an app

One way to ferret out the native intelligence of a city is through device-based apps. Eggers points to the Buenos Aires experience, where citizens use a civic app to register concerns and complaints. “They analyze this data, and then based on the location and the type of complaint, they assign a vendor to address that,” he said. “It increases citizen satisfaction and cuts the response time.”
Similar apps have been appearing in U.S. cities, allowing citizens to use their phones’ cameras and GPS functionality to record potholes and other situations. “The citizen becomes the eyes and ears, and it enables the city to get to a lot of places in real time,” Eggers said. “The Internet and mobile devices are enabling new forms of mass collaboration. Digitally connected citizens are the ultimate ‘network of sensors’ that enables local information to get to decision makers in a timely fashion."
When implementing an app, or any new technology for that matter, Bax & Co. notes that user involvement in the early development and evaluation phases “is crucial to ensure a successful product. For instance, rapid prototyping — the process of creating a quick mockup and testing it with users to implement feedback immediately — ensures instant and constant feedback, improving the final design and decreasing the chance of leaving out important features.”


Cities looking to tap the inherent power of the civic collective also may want to consider the “behavioral nudge.” While big data analytics and high-tech tools may determine the best course and even make it possible to take action, a low-tech tweak may still be needed to mobilize the masses.
  • People are far more apt to file their tax returns if, along with the needed forms, they get a little note telling them that 90 percent of their neighbors file on time and honestly.
  • Singapore has undertaken efforts to ensure people save seats for the elderly on public transportation: The city painted big smiley faces on the reserved seats.
  • In Chicago, city authorities painted “shrinking” lines on the road leading up to a dangerous curve. This gives drivers the impression they are speeding up, and so they reflexively slow down. The effort reduced crashes by 36 percent.
All this points to a gentle but potentially effective way of engaging masses of citizens in the enterprise of civic improvement. “You are not going to mandate the change, but by changing the design or making these small, simple changes, you can encourage better outcomes,” Eggers said. “From a collective standpoint, if a lot of individuals are all making better decisions, then you end up with a smarter city.”
Adam Stone is a contributing writer for Government Technology magazine.