Marek Vogt, a citizen participation expert with Rotterdam-based urban planning company WeLoveTheCity, joined smarticipate with the experience that every city-level project is made better by listening to different voices: the greater the diversity, the greater the positive impact.

“WeLoveTheCity was interested in smarticipate because our focus is talking with diverse groups of stakeholders, including citizens – hearing their visions and developing their ideas into concrete proposals. Our urban planning work in the Netherlands has shown us that projects are improved by collecting ideas from a lot of different stakeholders,” says Marek. “You need to find the right stakeholders, not just the usual stakeholders. You want to collect different knowledge and different views, which you don’t get if you always have the same type of people involved. You want to have a diverse discussion from the very start.”

WeLoveTheCity acted as the link between the partner cities and the technical team, ensuring that the cities’ (and citizens’) requirements were reflected in the final platform.

“We said from the beginning that we will start with the cities and then depending on the requirements of the city administration and its citizens, the technology will be developed to support. We wanted to put citizens first,” says Marek.

Each of the three partner cities – Rome, Hamburg, and the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) in London – had a different starting point in terms of issues to be tackled and experience with open data. “Despite their diversity, we quickly realized that there were quite a lot of overlaps between the cities – things that they were all struggling with,” says Marek.

“It was clear that the cities were dealing with open data very differently. In Rome, their open data was really an issue, while in Hamburg they have a law that mandates data to be made public.

“In London, the primary concern of the citizens was that they really wanted to see the impact that their proposals would have on policymaking. They were afraid that there would be a digital iron curtain, where a platform like smarticipate would block the citizens from accessing politicians. They said this absolutely should not happen! When they submit an idea, it should be very transparent and clear in terms of what is happening with it.”

“Open data wasn’t an issue in Hamburg, but the citizens had a particular request (which is perhaps more German!) – they wanted to know what the rules are in the system. Smarticipate, in the end, is about combining open data with rules, including defining the automatic feedback. Writing down the rules basically defines the outcome of the proposal. They were worried about a situation where the rules would block innovative solutions. Even when the system says it’s not possible, there should be a way to propose it to the city directly.”

Marek’s enthusiasm to involve a wide-breadth of people in co-creation was not immediately shared by the city partners, with some worried about the impact it would have on their ‘Smartathon’, an event to discuss the features of the platform. “We saw in all three cities that officials weren’t sure if it was such a good idea to involve citizens from the beginning in the co-creation of smarticipate. Their experience was that they get people who are very critical and not really looking to co-create. But if you really have an interesting, exciting, catchy topic, then you usually get other people that normally wouldn’t join public meetings. These people really make time and invest, as they feel that it’s relevant for them to contribute to the project,” explains Marek. “In the end, each city saw that it was a successful approach, and that citizens like to be involved from the beginning.”

One of the primary outcomes of the project is convincing the partner cities to think differently about open data. “If you don’t have open data and you’re not willing to share your knowledge, then it doesn’t work,” says Marek. “At the start it was a challenge to involve the other city departments – we had to convince each city department that smarticipate means less work, as the automatic feedback will take over some of their daily work. It took a lot of one-on-one discussions to convince some people within the cities that smarticipate won’t just result in more angry comments from citizens!”

Speaking about what would define success for the platform, Marek’s primary question is ‘Are the citizens ready for it?’ In other words, does the platform ask too much of people? “At the start of the project we asked ourselves: is the platform more for doers or more for receivers? It seems that there are not as many doers as I personally expected, because I realized in the last year that people don’t just quickly embrace the possibility to create an app them self. Citizens are looking for the cities to solve issues for them, rather than saying that they will take it over from the city. That’s interesting to see – the smarticipate platform is offering a lot, but maybe the citizens aren’t ready for it, they’re not ready to get that involved in public services to this level. I think it’s a learning curve for citizens and cities!” says Marek. “And those who are getting involved are volunteers who do it in their own time, and that’s a challenge for them and for the city. I think cities have to support these volunteers.”

In light of this, it was concluded that another step was needed to highlight the potential of smarticipate.

“Together with the technical team, we simulated the process of using the smarticipate platform to address a particular issue in an App Making Session for the city partners. It was a great success. By simulating the step-by-step process together, the cities really got the hang of it. City representatives were enthusiastic about how easy it was to configure a new topic. The joint conclusion is that the App Making Session should have happened earlier in the process. Co-creation should not only take place between the technical team and the end users – as happened in the Smartathons – but also between the technical team and the cities,” says Marek.

“This prevents cities from behaving like a customer despite being a partner in the development process, and it stops the technical team from withdrawing into their shell. The enthusiasm witnessed in the App Making Session made the consortium decide to package that process in the manual ‘How to create a new app’.

For Marek, the lesson learned is that explaining the smarticipate concept is all very well, but potential users only really become enthusiastic when they have access to the actual platform, along with a clear manual.

Looking to the future, Marek says the next steps are the further integration of smarticipate in already existing platforms like DIPAS (a digital participation system) in Hamburg, and the upscaling of smarticipate to all boroughs of the Greater London Authority. “The key word is integration, that smarticipate is integrated into existing city platforms, which people are using. The Hague (where WeLoveTheCity is the leading planning agency) is interested, together with a large Dutch developer (BPD), to adopt the smarticipate platform to make a planned transformation more accessible for residents, entrepreneurs and developers.”

“A follow-up session with cycling organisation ADFC Hamburg is also planned, as they would like to develop applications to advance cycling in the city,” adds Marek. “Helsinki, Oslo and Ghent have also expressed interest in adopting the smarticipate platform.”

With the end of the smarticipate project in sight, and the platform being trialled in each of the three partner cities, Marek believes that it is impressive what has been achieved in only three years: “It was very good what we managed. It showed that it’s possible to start the co-creation process with citizens and to bring open data further by combining it with rules.”