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Interview with Chelsea Collier, Founder at Digi.City

We interviewed Chelsea Collier, Founder at Digi.City, to hear about her thoughts on the role that communities and technology have to play in the process of building smart cities.

Lora Botev
Marketing, Opendatasoft
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Hi Chelsea, thank you for being our guest today! Could you please tell us a bit more about how (Digi.City) came into being and what its main purpose is?

In 2016, I received an Eisenhower Fellowship to study smart cities in the U.S. and China. At that time, most of the smart city conversation was coming from industry and was very technology focused. I saw the opportunity and the need to translate the technical side to how smart cities impact people and ultimately communities. This idea eventually led to the creation of Digi.City

The purpose of Digi.City is simply to share information, best practices and to convene communities. The website and events are designed to support those exploring how to integrate smart city technology. This is a very complex and quickly evolving space with lots of different agendas. Digi.City presents an unbiased, informed perspective. The challenges that face cities are not new and all involve a lack of access in some way. Whether the focus is mobility, affordability, air quality or education, people want access to better options. With the advent of technology, we have so many new methods for addressing the issues and sourcing new solutions. 

Having information and using that as a lever for economic gain is the way of the past. The new way of working is to share information and to encourage supportive partnerships that can result in positive outcomes. My ultimate hope is that Digi.City encourages people to talk to each other, but more importantly to listen to one another. 

Tell us a little bit more about yourself – how did you get involved in the smart city space?

That is an interesting question as I haven’t always been involved in the smart city space. After a degree in communications, I started off working in the advertisement industry. I then went through a number of different positions in sectors ranging from non-profit and government to business and consulting. 

Ultimately, I found my calling in the smart cities space, which seemed to merge what I enjoyed most in my various professional experiences and, as a matter of fact, requires people from all of the above-mentioned industries to work together. What felt like a frenetic career path now contributes to my ability to bring people together. I can better understand their perspective and help to integrate those across sectors. 

How would you choose to define a smart city?

I don’t believe there is a destination that is a smart city. The concept of smart city technology and methods, however, involves deploying connected technology and data analytics to create better outcomes for communities. The benefits of doing this include (1) greater efficiencies to deploy city resources, (2) a better quality of life for residents, (3) and increased economic opportunity.

It’s important not to lose sight that while the technology is critical, it is the thoughtful application of technology to improve the human condition that matters. Technology is the enabler. I also like to talk about the different levels of a smart city. Infrastructure is the critical piece – the foundation of any smart application. High-speed Internet/Wifi and power are the key components – if it’s not connected, it’s not smart. Devices (sensors, cameras, etc) are deployed on the infrastructure to collect data. This data is then managed, secured and shared to deliver the insights that are then translated into community and market benefit. 

And we are right at the beginning of this evolution. The advent of 5G will catalyze the Internet of Things (IoT) and that is when we will see the true potential of smart cities. 

What role can community engagement play in attempts to build smarter cities?

Community engagement is critical and separates those cities that are successful in their deployment of smart technology and those that miss the mark. The traditional definition of community engagement is someone from an organization getting into the community and sourcing insight from individual people. The evolved way of doing community engagement is to use technology to supplement this activity and not just focus on organization to individual, but on individual to individual across organizations. 

To build stronger cities, we must listen to one another and then activate those insights. Technology is simply a tool to help us do that, and at scale. How a community chooses to use that technology is dependent on having insight to what residents and visitors want and need. There is such an opportunity to have meaningful community engagement around the subject of technology. And it doesn’t have to start with the term “smart city.” 

What are some of the basic steps any given city could take to further engage its residents in the process?

A greatly simplified version is to:

1 – Commit to true engagement (listen, be open, be willing to challenge your assumptions).

2 – Create a system that can scale. One-off conversations are important but they can only get you so far. Technology is here and can help – so use it. The combination of personal engagement combined with the use of technology is powerful.

3 – Be actionable and responsive. Engagement goes two-ways. People want to be heard, and they also want to know that their voice (and their time) makes an impact. Be sure to communicate the results of your engagement process – this can mean direct contact, publishing your results, or any combination of methods. Just be sure it doesn’t go in a report and on a shelf. People want to know that their perspective matters. I outline some of this in the Smart Cities Playbook.

You have spent time observing smart city initiatives in a number of cities, both in the US and abroad. How can cities across the world best learn from each other and replicate successful smart city projects?

Shared information platforms and events like Digi.City and Smart Cities Connect are built with this objective in mind. There are many organizations within and across sectors that encourage shared learning and collaboration. A few other examples include MetroLab for universities and Catapult as an advisory service.

Opendatasoft provides cities with a data sharing platform. From your own experience, what role do you think data can play to strengthen community engagement in smart city projects?

Data is simply technology’s way of communicating reality. When we are dealing with reality, we can begin to overcome the things that separate people. When we come together and collaborate, the solutions often present themselves because they are active in the community but are simply not connected across systems. This is the true potential for smart cities – connectivity of people through the connectivity of things and using information to make better decisions and improve people’s lives.

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