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Solving for Trust: Innovations in Smart Urban Governance

December 05, 2022
How can city governments gain and retain the trust of their constituents?

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About the Webinar

Monday, December 5 at 12:00pm ET

Join Emerson College Engagement Lab director Eric Gordon and Stanford University Knight-Hennessy Scholar Tomás Guarna for an examination of the tech-based solutions being imagined and implemented by city governments to build trust with their constituents. Hear from Gordon and Guarna about the actionable learnings they’ve gathered from technologists and city leaders in Argentina, Spain, and the United States, as part of their research made possible by the Knight Foundation. Then, join us for a panel discussion on recommended next steps for not misusing data, artificial intelligence, and social media influencers in the pursuit of more functional and equitable cities.

Panelists include:

  • Lilian Coral, Senior Director, Open Technology Institute and Technology and Democracy Programs, New America
  • Andy Lutzky, Executive Vice President of Brand Partnerships, XOMAD
  • Dana Chermesh-Rashef, Founder and CEO, InCitu
  • Emily Yates, Former Smart City Director, City of Philadelphia
  • more panelists to be announced!

About the Report

Governments around the world are experiencing a crisis of trust. With global flows of people, information, and viruses, comes an amplified discourse of corrupt and malignant institutions, coupled with a deep suspicion of other cultures and people. Fueling this suspicion is the speed in which information and disinformation travels, the expectations, amplified by digital cultures, of the customization and timeliness of the delivery of goods and services. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed cracks in the foundation of public institutions. Public health systems have been strained, financial systems have been challenged, and meanwhile consciousness is rising (especially in the United States) of racial injustices in all of them. Government institutions are blunt instruments; by design they are supposed to serve everyone, and as a result, they are sometimes seen as too slow, too general to meet specific needs, and consequently, inauthentic representations of the public. As the Smart City Undersecretary for the City of Buenos Aires, Agustín Suárez, explained: “[Governing] is a matter of trust. And it’s a great deal of work to make government trustworthy enough.”

In our new report, Solving for Trust: Innovations in Smart Urban Governance, we explore how city leaders and technologists are using (or imagining) technology to create or restore trust with their constituents. While people’s trust in all scales of government is being tested, the urban scale presents specific challenges and opportunities. Municipal government is in the business of direct service provision, and as a result, people are more likely to base their trust on direct experience, not just ideological assumptions. We point to a trend among city leaders and technologists to enhance the credibility and/or reliability of local government through the use of novel technologies. From adopting blockchain to create “trustless systems” which don’t require existing trust in institutions, to mobilizing social media influencers as “credible messengers,” to creating a digital concierge to triage requests to City Hall, technologically enhanced governance innovations are seeking to transform how cities function in low or no trust environments.

While democratic cities around the world are investing heavily in public engagement efforts – emphasizing relationships that bolster the human face of government organizations – they are slow to have impact at scale. The techno-centric efforts highlighted in our report, on the other hand, are looking for immediate and scalable results by using technology not just to enable interaction, but to transform how and why decisions get made, information is distributed, and actions get taken. We share these efforts not as success stories, but as early thought experiments that city agencies are engaging in to address the trust problem directly. City leaders and technologists understand that the traditional public engagement paradigm is by itself insufficient to establish the trust necessary to govern. Public engagement efforts typically include more and better communication between people and institutions; the novel uses of technology featured in this report are, on the other hand, questioning the role of government in people’s lives by tweaking how and when communication happens.

Through nearly 30 semi-structured interviews with technologists and city leaders in Argentina, Spain, and the United States, the report lays the groundwork for a practice field that seeks to reimagine how trust gets built and sustained in the public sector.

We offer seven recommendations for city leaders, scholars, and policymakers to connect existing practice to the bigger picture of smart governance. Practitioners should…

1. Connect interventions to diagnoses.

Cities need to be clear in communicating the nature of the problem they’re trying to solve before attempting to solve it. Civic technology interventions will be more effective when they are part of broader strategies to foster trust in institutions.

2. Think critically about proxies.

Much more attention is needed in making the connection between the trust relationship developed with human or machine proxy and the institution. Also, cities should be mindful of the problems they might present.

3. Critically explore the use of AI in creating trust.

As cities invest in digital concierge or human proxies, there is a need to understand what kind of relationship is desirable to achieve sustainable benefit for the institution.

4. Recognize that all technology has values; know yours.

Cities should represent their values in digital interfaces so that users understand intentionality and the institution can be held accountable.

5. Realize that how data storage gets communicated matters.

How institutions talk about data storage and mobility will determine how and why people trust it. Institutional leaders working with technically complex solutions need to bring skilled communicators onto their teams.

6. Disaggregate “the public” carefully. And be wary of dashboards.

All smart governance efforts need to start with the premise that there is no one public. There is a need to better understand how disaggregation of data should be communicated and when. Public dashboards that communicate ineffectively can damage trust-building efforts.

7. Listen smartly.

The investment in pervasive listening to align institutional values with those of the constituency may lead to beneficial outcomes. Listening technologies should be understood as public goods, not as techniques that are monopolized by government officials.

As smart cities proliferate around the world, it is imperative that we begin to connect the dots among seemingly disparate experiments. Establishing trust in institutions, whether through blockchain or influencers, is a practicality with immediate and long term consequences. We need to be thinking about not only how technology is helping us to emerge from an existing crisis, but at the same time, how it is shaping the infrastructure of democratic institutions for generations to come.

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