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Best Practices for Community Engagement in Smart Cities

By Yinka Ajibola and Rabia Daud, Ball State University; Rebecca Hammons, Associate Professor, Center for Information & Communication Sciences


Effective smart city solutions are built on strong community engagement, which serves as a collaborative means for making policies and decisions. It allows community members to participate in the conversation, enhancing community support for smart city initiatives.

We wanted to learn how community engagement and inclusiveness are addressed in contemporary smart city initiatives and conducted interviews with five city planners. This article describes the outcomes of our research.

Literature review:

The concepts of the ‘smart citizen’ and community engagement have been used by both local governments and civic organizations [2]. A 2018 case study stated, “citizen engagement may be fostered through three stages: disclosing data to citizens; walking citizens through mechanisms used in creating products; making the citizens aware of the product’s effect”[3]. Another recent study tested the effectiveness of a top-down technology approach versus a community-engagement approach. The research concluded that a top-down technology approach does not always proffer substantive solutions because “Cities are not machines” [5]. The community engagement approach yielded a more productive outcome that helped fuel further initiatives. The study emphasized the importance of building trust while engaging with the community [5].

The factors that lead cities to become smart are human capital, the empowerment of people, human interaction, and involvement [1]. In the UK, a study was conducted to assess community engagement in response to its smart initiative. Despite the community’s engagement through different mediums, the study revealed a representation gap that requires improved strategic engagement plans to address barriers to participation [1]. Similarly, a Canadian study found that each of the three communities studied exhibited varying forms of engagement [4].


We conducted qualitative interviews with five smart city planners across the U.S. and analyzed the interview data manually to identify themes.


City Planner A (California) believes that smart city initiatives are often conducted as vanity projects with big technology company involvement. Project execution often comes at the expense of the stakeholders who weren’t involved, informed, or engaged in collaboration, without equitable community engagement, leaving them at a disadvantage. It is important to be intentional in why you are engaging the community. Much of the response to a call for community engagement comes from the whiter and wealthier demographic because they have the time and resources to get involved. This city is being intentional about the projects they pursue and are investing in systems that address pre-existing biases that adversely impact minority groups.

City Planner B (Oregon) focused on solutions that are equitable from a digital and inclusion standpoint by applying the power of data analytics. They have created principles for infrastructure accessibility and access to digital services. Community engagement is tricky because, for a community to engage, they first need to have the privilege of time. Given the diversity in his city, they focus on collaborating with organizations that work with the most vulnerable and disadvantaged communities to identify quality of life improvements. He talked about a “from bottom-up” model in terms of economic status to bring the improvements in the community, such as working with people with disabilities, native Indigenous communities, and immigrants. They are working to gain the trust of residents to increase community participation.

City Planner C (Florida) believes that smart cities only exist to make life better by using technology such as AI and data management, and that is achieved via community engagement or being customer-centric. The needs of the people change from one demographic to another; community engagement allows them to prioritize high-demand initiatives. The elected officials talk to the community in townhalls and different gatherings to understand their lived experiences. This gives them valuable data and allows them to build trust between the community segments and city planners. His city sends out surveys to identify gaps in the planning and highlight, with data, the pressing issues faced by the residents. He emphasized the importance of listening to the voice of the customers. His city has been using algorithms on digital media platforms to identify issues faced by community members; they have identified major roadblocks and gaps that they were then able to address. It is important to learn from mistakes and by interacting with the community.

City Planner D (Texas) works in IoT for traffic management and utility management systems. He believes that quality of life has improved for many with the introduction of smart cities projects. There have not been many community engagement events carried out in the city, primarily because of the technical nature of the projects. Making digital solutions equitable requires improving the city’s ability to meet the necessities of life for citizens. His city is at the forefront of accessibility and inclusiveness for project status updates to the community. They ensure that updates are available in multiple languages and methods accessibility. He mentioned that it is important to create an excellent user experience for citizen interactions with city managers.

City Planner E (Missouri) emphasized the importance of transparent, data-driven, and equitable initiatives that bridge the digital divide. Many of their initiatives start with focus groups that include citizens from all levels of society. For example, smart street parking meters were deployed in 2015 after extensive research on citizen street parking needs. This, and many small initiatives, led to a rapid increase in general revenue. Citizens want to be informed on how money is being spent and receive updates on new projects. Therefore, his office has created a website where they post their financial reports for public access, increasing trust. Their main priority is to combat poverty and focus on making the city more digitally accessible. The data gathered from prior smart city projects have allowed their city to identify new initiatives such as city-wide WIFI and repurposed parking lots.

Researcher Recommendations for Smart City Planners

  1. Talk to your community stakeholders, focus on their basic needs and solve the problems that matter to them.
  2. Make engagement possible through effective communication methods and appropriate incentive plans.
  3. Collaborate with organizations representing different demographics to increase community participation and adoption.
  4. Get regular feedback from stakeholders to assure continuous improvement of solutions.
  5. Stay aware of events or trends that affect adoption and adjust plans accordingly.
  6. Ensure transparency of smart city plans and projects, including spending, to build trust.
  7. Use caution in proceeding with industry-sponsored projects.
  8. Be transparent with the community for critical aspects such as data ownership and accessibility, potential bias in algorithms, and security and privacy.
  9. Consider potential political implications and build strategies to address them. Build a solid network with stakeholders.


A successful model of smart city community engagement is one that is community-centric and addresses problems that affect citizens. This can be achieved by engaging communities in an equitable manner and being mindful of their time, restrictions, and worries.

Effective data management policies and incentivized programming for community stakeholders have proven to be best practices for those we interviewed.

Without community engagement practices, our interviewees noted a lack of support for key smart city initiatives that impact the ability to meet the needs of the community. Each community will have unique needs for engagement that should be considered in smart city project planning.


  1. M. Mazhar, B. Kaveh, M. Sarshar, R. Bull, and R. Fayez, “Community Engagement as a Tool to help deliver Smart City Innovation: A Case Study of Nottingham, United Kingdom.,” Dmu.ac.uk, 2017, doi: http://hdl.handle.net/2086/14232.
  2. M. de Waal and M. Dignum, “The citizen in the smart city. How the smart city could transform citizenship,” it – Information Technology, vol. 59, no. 6, Dec. 2017, doi: 10.1515/itit-2017-0012.
  3. L. Vidiasova, F. Cronemberger, and I. Tensina, “The Smart City Agenda and the Citizens: Perceptions from the St. Petersburg Experience,” Communications in Computer and Information Science, pp. 243–254, 2018, doi: 10.1007/978-3-030-02843-5_19.
  4. N. Goodman, A. Zwick, Z. Spicer, and N. Carlsen, “Public engagement in smart city development: Lessons from communities in Canada’s Smart City Challenge,” The Canadian Geographer / Le Géographe canadien, Mar. 2020, doi: 10.1111/cag.12607.
  5. R. Lea, M. Blackstock, N. Giang, and D. Vogt, “Smart cities,” Proceedings of the 2015 ACM International Joint Conference on Pervasive and Ubiquitous Computing and Proceedings of the 2015 ACM International Symposium on Wearable Computers – UbiComp ’15, 2015, doi: 10.1145/2800835.2801629.


Yinka Ajibola is currently pursuing a double master’s degree in Information Communications Sciences and Political Science at Ball State University (expected to graduate May 2021). He received his undergraduate degree from Mount Mercy University. His topics of interest include information communications technology for development (ICT4D), social networks, and artificial intelligence for social good. Upon graduation, Yinka will be pursuing his Ph.D. at the iSchool at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Rabia Daud is originally from Lahore, Pakistan, Rabia Daud is currently pursuing her Master’s of Science degree in Information and Communication Sciences from Ball State University. Where she also works as a graduate research assistant with Dr. Rebecca Hammons. Most of her work revolves around researching best practices for Smart City planning and ethical use of the Internet of Things (IoT) for smart city planners in the US. After her degree, she will be joining Salesforce as an Associate Customer Success Guide. Prior to getting her Master’s degree, she did her undergraduate from DePauw University and majored in Economics and Communication.

Rebecca Hammons is an associate professor in the Center for Information and Communication Sciences (CICS), a top-rated technology master’s program at Ball State University. She has extensive technology industry experience in establishing and leading software quality assurance, product development, project management, and IT teams.

She is co-chair of the IEEE IoT Initiative Smart Cities Working Group, chair of the Global Cities Teams Challenge Ethics Action Cluster (NTIA/NIST), and chair of the Internationalization Taskforce for the College of Communication, Information, and Media at Ball State University.

Current technology industry research interests include Ethics in Smart Cities, the Internet of Things for Elders, and Gold-Collar Workers. Dr. Hammons thrives on leading organizational change initiatives and coaching individuals and teams to reach their full potential.


Steve Jones joined the Center for Information and Communication Sciences faculty in August of 1998. He came to Ball State University (BSU) after completing his doctoral studies at Bowling Green State University where he served as the Dean of Continuing Education developing a distance-learning program for the College of Technology’s undergraduate Technology Education program. Dr. Jones was instrumental in bringing the new program on board because of his technical background and extensive research in the distance-learning field.

Prior to coming to higher education, Dr. Jones spent over sixteen and a half years in the communication technology industry. He owned his own teleconnect, providing high-end commercial voice and data networks to a broad range of end users. Dr. Jones provided all the engineering and technical support for his organization that grew to over twenty employees and two and a half million dollars per year revenue. Selling his portion of the organization in December of 1994, Dr. Jones worked briefly for Panasonic Communications and Systems Company as a district sales manager providing application engineering and product support to distributors in a five-state area prior to starting doctoral studies.