Civic Technology and COVID-19

The growth of urbanisation has placed increased demand on infrastructure and services such as transportation, water/sanitation, energy, and civic projects. As cities continue to expand and demographics change, it has become challenging for governments on a local level to make informed decisions representative of the local population. Through town hall meetings and public hearings, traditional means of public engagement are no longer sufficient in attaining meaningful citizen input to policy and decision making. These types of engagement methods have come under criticism for their inaccessibility, timelines and representation of the broader demographic of modern society. Resulting in increased distrust amongst impacted citizens and reinforcing perceived existing biases.

What is Civic Technology

Civic tech is “technology that enables greater participation in government or otherwise assists the government in delivering citizen services and strengthening ties with the public”. Simply put, civic tech facilitates alignment between the government and citizens, where the public can share their opinions and talents to government decision making. As such civic technology increases local governments efficiency, transparency, and accountability, deepening the democratic relationship between citizen and state. Moreover, civic tech provides the opportunity for meaningful engagement with the public and improves equality.

The technology facilitates greater transparency through open data, supports the democratic process and creates a citizen-centric approach to the government, enabling public inclusion in the decision-making process.

Organisations such as the Knight Foundation and Code for America are prominent organisations in the field. The Knight Foundation classify Civic Tech projects into two primary categories:

  1. Opening government: includes transparency of data, facilitating the voting process, mapping and visualisation of public data, making use of public data and the co-creation of laws and government decisions

  2. Citizens’ participation: which is primarily concerned with the development of citizens’ networks, the engagement of local communities, crowdfunding and sharing citizens’ data.


The Impact of COVID-19

Winston Churchill is famously quoted as saying, “Never let a good crisis go to waste”. History would suggest that pandemics have forced humans to embrace change, described as a ‘portal’ from the old world to the next. COVID-19 has created an unparalleled opportunity to reimagine technology’s role in shaping society. It is anticipated that a surge in technological innovation will materialise from the current COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent economic instability. It’s expected the next 30 years will be highly influenced by the Paris Agreement and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), resulting in a cluster of technological innovation in the areas of; renewable energy, electromobility, smart cities, hydrogen-based industry, circular economy technologies, and biophilic urbanism. Moreover, according to Prof Peter Neman, COVID-19 has further strengthened the concept of “global localism”, which could materialise in several new features of urban transformation: relocalised centres with distributed infrastructure, tailored innovations in each urban fabric, less car dependence, symbiotic partnerships for funding, and rewritten manuals for urban professionals.

Similarly, concerning smart cities, the COVID-19 pandemic has been referred to as the “lubricant” for further development in this area. There has been a significant rise in Civic Tech projects globally as a direct response to the pandemic, organisations such as Code for Japan, Code for Germany and Code for Pakistan all launching several projects in response to the virus. We’ve already seen Civic tech initiatives across Africa implemented as a direct response to the pandemic; the Civic Tech Innovation Network referenced at least 140 initiatives across the continent. Civic Technologists also created a comprehensive COVID-19 data platform available at global.health, described as the first easy-to-use global repository, enabling open access to real-time data containing over 30 million anonymised cases in over 100 countries. The data curated on the site aims to help epidemiologists monitor the trajectory of the virus and track variants. A list of other corona-focused civic tech initiatives can be found here.

The role of Civic Technology post-pandemic

The question remains: What role does civic technology have to play in a post-pandemic society, and how can this technology align with citizens’ thinking? Current trends and strategies amongst government bodies and businesses are understandably focused online due to social distancing and COVID-19 restrictions. However, citizens are missing human interaction; civic technologies in smart cities have the capabilities to support luring consumers back into the streets, creating much-needed traffic for local business, and in turn, giving consumers their desire for meaningful human contact.

The researchers at Bord Bia have suggested that several Consumer Lifestyle Trends have emerged since the global pandemic, based on their extensive market research. Interestingly Responsible Living, Engaging Experiences, Community and Identity, Fuller Lives and Health & Wellbeing are the leading lifestyle trends, which are consistent with the value proposition of Civic Technology and organisations such as Hello Lamp Post.


Responsible Living

I want to have a positive impact on my society and the environment and take pride in a more sustainable way of living.

COVID-19 and incumbent restrictions have positively impacted the earth’s climate, resulting in a pollution reduction, with carbon emissions falling globally. We’ve all seen the images of smog-free skies over the notoriously muggy cities across the world. According to reports, overall carbon dioxide emissions dropped by 7% compared to 2019, highlighting the positive impact of social restrictions. It’s argued that a more socially conscious and responsible consumer is likely to emerge post-pandemic, with a greater focus on sustainability, responsible living and carbon footprint.

Civic Technology is congruent with this sentiment; Hello Lamp Post, for example, teamed up with the Southwark Council and Traverse to support action for climate change. The project aimed to raise awareness and encourage individuals and the collective community to tackle the Climate Crisis. The technology allowed citizens to give their thoughts and ideas on how they could support climate change.


Engaging Experiences

I want moments of discovery and delight that enhance my day, sharing exciting stories and spaces with others.

The rapid digitisation of global economies has seen modern cities undergoing significant changes. New technologies and services based on such technologies have altered everyday life for citizens, including working methods, mobility and shopping habits. Many cities have already begun the transition into entertainment and leisure destinations as opposed to the conventional shopping environments, with COVID-19 accelerating this trend. Playful platforms such as Hello Lamp Post are playing a central role in transforming the traditional high street. This immersive digital experience encourages engagement amongst the public and the physical environment, a valuable resource in enticing people back to the transformed high street. The award-winning project in Belfast, Northern Ireland, for example, highlights the capabilities of this technology in engaging with visitors.

“The technology has transformed how visitors can engage with a destination, and enable the tourism industry to look at creative and innovative ways to deliver experiences for our visitors which are authentic, compelling and memorable.” - Digital Engagement Team, Tourism Northern Ireland

Similarly, the town of Dorking leveraged the platform, creating a Christmas trail where residents were encouraged to engage with their physical surroundings and explore different elements of the public space as they re-entered the high street over the Christmas period.


Community and Identity

I want to express the views and values of myself and my community and have that uniqueness and creativity respected and celebrated.

In a smart city context, participatory mechanisms and technologies allow citizens to engage with the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of public policies. Therefore, participatory technologies such as smart street furniture facilitate alignment between citizens and governments, allowing for a citizen-centric approach to smart cities. For example, Hello Lamp Post’s chat-based technologies aggregate user’s sentiment, creating a feedback loop between citizens and local authorities, allowing for co-creation in urban planning and human-centric cities.

“Transform your community engagement by gathering insights from your citizens and share the information which aligns to your local recovery plan, using Hello Lamp Post’s digital tool.”

When citizens interact with Hello Lamp Post technology, they can directly shape policies, surroundings, and communities. This playful technology sources a more candid public opinion than traditional methods of town hall meeting and surveys. Moreover, it provides a unique opportunity for under-represented sections of society to have their voices heard, and the results speak for themselves;

  • Engagement typically increases by 40% or more.

  • Community engagement expenses are reduced by approx 30%


Fuller Lives / Life Logistics

I want to use my time to be as productive and sociable as possible, flowing from one thing to the next - and helped, not hindered, by tech.

According to the research, this trend is driven primarily by three factors; Growing Digital Connectivity, Changing Life Stages, Household Structures and Rapid Urbanisation. There will be 75.4bn connected devices worldwide by 2025; by 2040, there will be a 25% increase in single-person households; between 2016 and 2030, the number of cities with over 500,000 inhabitants will grow by 80% in Africa and 30% in Asia, 68% of people are expected to live in cities by 2050. Traditional means of engaging the community through town hall meetings and workshops are no longer adequate means to interact with an increasingly connected, urbanised and diverse society. These outdated activities can be determined as top-down, fragmented, ingenuine, non-inclusive and often misrepresenting the whole community.

Governments are beginning to recognise that top-down technology solutions have their limitations and that community-centric approaches are much more aligned with modern citizens. That’s where technologies such as Hello Lamp Post can help. Hello Lamp Post is helping to put people at the heart of policy and decision making by gathering citizen insights and sentiment to inform strategic plans better. By humanising urban environments and making places interactive, Hello Lamp Post is helping to shape people-centred cities of the future.


Health & Wellbeing

Public interest in health and wellness has been on the rise for some time now, further accelerated by the global pandemic; understandably, people have become hyper-focused on both physical and mental wellbeing. Studies suggest pre-pandemic people primarily took a reactive approach to their health; however, moving forward is expected to shift to a proactive approach to protect and shield one’s health and wellbeing. Moreover, the pandemic has highlighted imbalances and inequity in essential services relating to COVID-19, exemplified by the rollout of coronavirus vaccinations. The public is demanding democratised access to health services and accessible information and education regarding their health.

The flexibility of Civic technologies such as HLP’s chat-based technology allows for conversations to be adapted for the specific needs and objectives of the implementing organisation, making it a powerful tool with regards to health and wellbeing. As part of the Hello UBC project, the conversation was adapted to allow students to highlight areas of stress and anxiety caused by the pandemic, providing valuable information to the university on student pain points. Moreover, the collaboration with West Ealing county council further highlights the capabilities of Civic Tech in this context. In this community, residents engaged with the chat-based technology to give their inputs regarding “healthy streets”, yielding valuable insights on improvements to cycleways and improvements to green space areas.


Conclusion

Civic technologies such as Hello Lamp Post enrich users’ lives, adopting a bottom-up approach to their operations. Central to their ethos is social responsibility, engaging users and giving back to the local communities. These core values are congruent with the expected consumer trends that are likely to emerge on the other side of the pandemic. For more information on Hello Lamp Post and the role of Civic Technology post-pandemic, visit their website, alternatively get in touch with a member of the team by email at contact@hlp.city.

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