Cities all over the world are investing in infrastructure like fiber-optic networks, a range of sensors, and interactive touch-screens and in practices like open data collection in a race to become “smart and connected.” Cities are rushing to get “smart” in order to create new economic opportunities, to take advantage of potential systems efficiencies, and to not be left behind the technological curve. They’re making smart-city investments with the best of intentions to improve quality of life and increase opportunities for commerce, tourism, and their citizens alike.

As part of these smart and connected investments, many communities are developing smart-city strategies to guide development and implementation. For example, members of the Mayors Bistate Innovation Team published a digital playbook in 2011 in order to leverage a newly installed Google Fiber network to spark economic development, advance opportunities, and improve daily life in Kansas City. In 2013, the mayor of London formed the Smart London Board, which published the “Smart London Plan” to harness “the creative power of new technologies to serve London and improve Londoners’ lives.“ The plan lays out the numerous ways the city will utilize technology and big data to re-create London not only as a cutting-edge city, but as one able to handle the influx of people expected to move there by 2030. Creating and executing such a plan in a way that is intentionally responsive and relevant to the whole of a community can create the opportunity for a city to go beyond “smart” and instead become an “intelligent community.” This is, of course, easier said than done, but some essential steps toward enabling an intelligent community to flourish are outlined below.

Define what an intelligent community means for your city

The essential quality of a city that uses a smart technology digital platform to create equal opportunities for learning and civic participation is a shared understanding of what is meant by “equal opportunities” for that community. Good intentions are not enough to serve the broad needs of everyone who comprises the population. Rather, a city must first commit to intentionally defining “equal opportunities” in a way that balances the diverse and sometimes competing interests of people, companies, government, and other verticals. With this shared vocabulary and understanding in place, a city can then define a shared purpose for what they hope to accomplish with a smart digital platform, motivated not just by technology for technology’s sake but by by a clear vision of equity. An open process for defining and working toward this purpose should have the following qualities: user-centered, inclusive, curious, and transparent.

User-centered processes in this case consider what the benefits are and for whom. Instead of drawing solely on anticipated use cases by professionals, user-centered processes engage community members in dialogue about issues and creating solutions that would be practical and beneficial to the greatest number of individuals. In order to be successful, discussion and dialogue need to continue through all stages of the project and must actually result in impact on the end system, not just become a black hole of feedback that has no effect. As users become more aware of the implications and applications of technology, their needs may shift accordingly.

The process needs to be inclusive to ensure everyone is fairly represented and invited to participate. Allowing people from all backgrounds and abilities to be part of what is happening—while providing training and assistance to ensure that everyone understands what is being discussed and planned—will give the process the best chance of representing a wide variety of needs from the most informed place possible.All members of a community will be able to be actively engaged in dreaming up concepts and building robust solutions to challenges that diverse communities face. By doing this, one can also enable the third recommended quality: curiosity. Curiosity allows us to ask ourselves the question, “How else might we address this problem?” By approaching an intelligent community effort with this in mind, cities can promote discovery, provide hands-on learning opportunities to a vast range of people, and can consider and create multiple entry points for users to interact with the process and the technology.

Finally, the process needs to be transparent. Stakeholders and community members need to know what is being done and why. This can range from clearly explaining the broad benefits of technology so that everyone can understand how they are impacted to what investments are being made and when. If cities are going to engage the community in user-centered, inclusive, and curious ways, they can undo the goodwill that has been created through their willingness to be open in the first place by not including transparency in the process.

A true intelligent community isn’t just a community with a bunch of cool and expensive sensors or one that does neat one-off demos with fast internet. Instead, it’s a city that has figured out ways to connect people, not just things. These cities are using technologies not just to gather data about citizens but also to give their citizens better access to the keys to the city, and to the information and resources they most need.

Connect the dots between innovation and digital inclusion

To build this kind of intelligent community, broad participation is critical as systems are planned, designed, and implemented. To ensure this happens, we must reduce the barriers to entry for people and help them understand that they do have the ability to shape not only their interactions with technology but also the technology itself. By helping people build confidence with and a baseline understanding of technology and how to use it, we can allow them to take steps to become empowered technology users and creators. Through widespread conversation and distributed digital literacy efforts, we will see a shift in comfort, adaptation, and ability to create future communities we all want to live in. And, even better, all members of a community will be able to be actively engaged in dreaming up concepts and building robust solutions to challenges that diverse communities face.

Show the impact of smart investments

In addition to human connection and digital literacy, there are opportunities to bring people along by showing them what is happening and how it impacts them and their community. Sharing results, innovations, and advances in smart cities through immersive experiences could also bring more awareness and transparency around the smart technology digital platform. Through tools like virtual or augmented reality, cities could easily point out the advances made in technology and/or infrastructure and then include the real-world impact. For example, using an augmented reality app to highlight different smart and connected city features and their impact on citizens and other areas like the environment, transportation, or public safety could be helpful in showing people where money and time is being invested and why. A case for applying this technology can be found here, and some practical application use-cases can be found here.

Learn from other intelligent communities

Achieving these advances will take intentional community dialogue and delivery of digital literacy skills in a variety of settings. By utilizing some of the resources like the ones available below, cities would be well on their way to achieving the advances discussed previously.

  • (Planning) Kansas City Digital Drive has put together a playbook for cities to ensure digital inclusion remains at the forefront of smart city infrastructure and investment. It has become a model for cities across the United States for their own technology development plans. At the annual Gigabit City Summit, the playbook is used as a resource for cities new to the concepts and investments in infrastructure.
  • (Equitable Access) The Detroit Community Technology Project offers technical support to various grassroots networks including the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition, the Allied Media Conference, New America Foundation, and transnational groups interested in fostering community technology. They also provide communities with the training and support they need to build local and international community wireless mesh networks.
  • (Digital Literacy) Based in Boston, Tech Goes Home’s Community Program is national, award-winning initiative “empowering communities to access and use digital tools to overcome barriers and advance lives.” The program helps participants gain access to the skills and hardware needed for twenty-first-century success. The program involves 15 hours of practical digital skills training for participants and programs currently run in five US cities: Boston, Chattanooga, Las Cruces (NM), Litchfield (CT), and New Orleans.
  • (Inclusion) In addition to focusing on providing digital literacy tools, training, and advocacy as one of its five focus areas, Mozilla finds, connects, and provides learning and funding opportunities for a new generation of leaders who will ensure the next wave of access, inclusion, and opportunity online. By providing ways for all people to participate online, Mozilla strives to maintain the internet as a global, public resource for all.