Smart Strategies for Bringing Technology to Skeptical Communities

Smart city experts say state and local governments often turn to technology to better serve voters, but they may find themselves hindered by skeptical residents and elected officials.

Brian Johnson, City Manager of Peachtree Corners, Georgia, at the Smart Tuesday City Connections exhibit.

“If they don’t understand the benefits of trying innovation…it loses momentum,” he said.

Peachtree Corners, founded only 10 years ago, is lucky to have a city council open to innovative technology, but other cities may not be, Johnson said. Some governments may keep legacy projects, such as maintaining an old golf course, creating a “money black hole”, he said.

Having officials eliminate these additional costs helps free up resources for smart technology, as does having senior officials serve as project leaders. “Otherwise, things like permitting could be isolated in public works or planning,” Johnson said, taking up valuable time and energy.

Hans Hechtman, president of Hechtman Consulting, says thinking about outcomes at the outset is another way to win over the community and get them to think creatively. For example, if someone’s rubbish isn’t being picked up on time, the government will hear, he said, so providing smart tech solutions to common problems is an ideal start.

Additionally, agencies should remind residents how dynamic their environments are and how flexible they need to be in order to think creatively and make room for advanced technology in their communities, Johnson added.

Wayne Fenton, assistant director of solid waste management for Durham, North Carolina, said the city has had success using a public website to outline the city’s food waste collection program.

Since January 2022, Durham has asked volunteers to keep their food scraps, which are then collected with normal trash and recycling. The program, in partnership with Atlas Organics and the Duke Center for Advanced Hindsight, aims to measure the amount of food waste that households generate and to curate ways to build community composting habits.

To allay public concerns that participating organizations would reveal too much information about each household’s residents, the city posted information on its website describing the program and its purpose, as well as the per-household data collected. Additionally, residents can learn about the program from the decals on the trash cans provided by the city.

Social media has also become a valuable asset to educate and engage the public, Fenton said, and Durham’s communications department actively addresses questions and criticisms residents post on Facebook or Twitter to build awareness and trust in the city’s programs. Because of the city’s outreach efforts, Fenton said there was little opposition to the food waste collection program.

Fenton said agencies must be especially careful about using the information they collect because the public may think it’s evil, but that assumption can be dispelled “as long as you communicate what you’re doing and why.”

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