Participation: Essential fuel for new-age cities Christian Aagaard October 15, 2013 Communitech, Featured Smart cities need people like Anna Beard. Twenty-something, employed and interested in her community, Beard took part in last week’s CityAge: The Innovation City conference in Waterloo. She blogged a civil, measured critique of Day 1, noting that for all that was said about their importance, millennials (the under-34 cohort) seemed under-represented among the panelists and speakers. That generated chatter on Twitter and earned a nod, although not by name, from Kitchener Mayor Carl Zehr who closed the two-day event on Thursday. Beard’s blog and the buzz that followed prove the rules of engagement have changed. If they rely on classic methods – council meetings, open houses and public information centres – to collect ideas and observations, cities will always hear from the same cranky taxpayers, and wrongly assume the people have spoken. But they will miss the insight of a generation that does much of its sharing and reasoning online. CityAge put a lot of issues on the table. By mid-century, three-quarters of the world’s population will live in urban areas. That places enormous pressure on land and other natural resources. It also raises the importance of mining “big data” – the immense volume of digital information people shed going about their lives – as a means of managing such things as traffic flow, policing and the impact of a changing climate. Smart cities still need resolute, risk-taking entrepreneurialism, the kind that hacked farms and grist mills out of the woods more than 200 years ago. They still need the long-visioned, inspired leadership that built large parks in the 19th century and the Iron Horse Trail in the 20th. It is still in play in the light-rail/bus-rapid-transit project that will link Cambridge, Kitchener and Waterloo. Most of all these days, cities need participation. Voting rates, as one indicator of civic engagement, have fallen through the floor, ranging around 30 per cent in Waterloo Region. The good news from CityAge is that technology offers so many other means of connecting with citizens – if municipal leaders would only relax and part with convention. Detroit uses online surveys, phone calls, music videos and storytelling. The city may be cash-strapped, but it’s not bankrupt of ideas. Open data, a byproduct of big data, presents another opportunity. Municipal governments and their associated agencies collect all kinds of information, from neighbourhood crime statistics to traffic counts at troublesome intersections. Conventional wisdom says people will make flawed assumptions if they have easy, keystroke access to data paid for by their taxes. A more enlightened approach sees transparency and sharing as catalysts for creative, citizen-driven change. In that, too, the conference provided a lesson. Instead of viewing Waterloo Region and Toronto as disparate tech centres, people started talking about them as one powerful super-cluster. Who better than Anna Beard and her fellow millennials to solve problems by making sense out of big data and using social media? Well-educated and restless, this is the cohort that moves confidently in an open-source environment and pushes innovation in the technology sector. Smart cities need them at the planning table, too.