Solving for Trust: Innovations in Smart Urban Governance

2021 - 2021

A gold to red gradient with a teal cube suggesting internet connections

The Engagement Lab at Emerson College released “Solving for Trust: Innovations in Smart Urban Governance” in November 2022, a Knight-supported report that examines how city governments gain and retain the trust of their constituents in a time where distrust in institutions has risen. Recommendations include clarifying problem diagnosis, considering trust proxies, aligning technology with values, and actively listening to the public to rebuild trust.

Download report Watch webinar

About the Project

Problem Space

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

Proposed Intervention

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.

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.

Social Impact

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.
  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.
  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.
  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.
  7. Listen smartly. The investment in pervasive listening to align institutional values with those of the constituency may lead to beneficial outcomes.

Logo image for Knight Foundation

Project Contact

For inquiries about this project, please contact