Home » 10 Tips – How to Avoid Citizen Engagement Pitfalls in Smart Cities Deployment

10 Tips – How to Avoid Citizen Engagement Pitfalls in Smart Cities Deployment

by Mazlan Abbas

Dr. Mazlan Abbas, CEO FAVORIOT, Malaysia

Many citizen engagement mobile apps (example – identifying pothole, drainage faulty traffic light, illegal parking, unattended, etc. issues) failed simply because it’s unable to sustain the popularity, usage, and continuous enhancement. Why? Below I listed some of the tips for the city authorities to consider avoiding these failures:

  1. Buy-in From Both Segments i.e. Officials and Citizens – It requires the active participation of both parties. It’s like “chicken or egg” question. Who starts first? Residents felt that their complaints would go down the deaf ears of the local councils – just like going down the black hole. Nothing comes out and no action taken. The local authorities that are sensitive to the citizens felt that the citizens need to channel their grouses into a proper channel rather than letting their anger on social media and become terribly viral. Even after launching their own city’s citizen engagement mobile app, the take-up, and reports from the people are lukewarm – seems that the residents are not keen to use such apps.
  2. Publicity – If you ask 100 or 1,000 people on the streets whether they have heard such application. I can almost guarantee you that none have heard that. It’s easier to get a ridiculous publicity message across the WhatsApp rather than something which is more useful. It’s also the fault of local councils who uses only their official website portal to announce or publicise the citizen engagement mobile app. After such a big hype during the launch of the service and what media posted the next day, the message will be a deafening silence after a few days. There’s no continuous effort in educating the public.
  3. Finding The Concerned Citizens – Who are these people? What type of individuals that are concerned about the cleanliness or safety of the surrounding? Sometimes, the same person that always complained in their Resident Association or Community WhatsApp group, when being offered an official channel or tool, they are the ones most likely will not use them. They love to complain but not to act when given the opportunity to participate. The selfishness of the citizens sometimes hinders such services since people only concern about themselves and their homes rather than the whole community or their city. You might think – what about savvy smartphone users like the yuppies or Gen-Y? Do they comprise most of the users? Surprisingly, they are not concerned with such apps – weirdly they prefer to take selfies and viral the issues on their social media channels. In other words, they love to make themselves famous and proud to see their message gone viral but unfortunately, it’s not on the official channel.
  4. Gamification If Necessary – People wants an incentive to participate in crowdsourcing initiative. Either get themselves paid in monetary or prizes. The other way is to gamify the app in such a way that gives some form of status within the community app. Give them points and elevate them into a different status or higher rank on the leadership board. Launch contest with prizes for being the most active users.
  5. Pressure Groups – No administrators of the cities would love to receive complaints every day. Nobody likes to handle hundreds or thousands of complaints each day throughout the whole year. But if they did not manage and close the complaints, how could they solve all the problems which are already in the queue? Why need to be in a reactive mode when local councils can be proactive? Sometimes, city authorities need a little push or “pressure” from the people. Who elects them if not the people themselves?
  6. Social Media Channels – The most popular official channels by local councils are either through phone, fax, web portal or email. But technology has rapidly changed the landscape of communications with the advent of smartphones, mobile Internet, and Social Media. Allow the citizens to communicate on their favourite social media channels.
  7. In-house vs. Outsource – There’re a lot of similar citizen engagement mobile apps in the market. But most of them forgot that the backend system that handles the reports are not visible to them. Thus, a lot of cities who thought that they could just develop the mobile app (i.e. the front-end) in-house did not realize what they are going to end up. Nearly all local council IT departments are not set up as a product development house. The budget given to them are only enough to operate, manage and maintain the IT system but not to become innovative and develop their application. Think twice before embarking on in-house development.
  8. Product Roadmap – Handling a continuous development and future enhancement of the backend system requires a sustainable IT support resources. New technology emerges and thus it must quickly be adapted with the current process workflow. Developing and supporting this in-house will probably give the IT department of the local council a horrible nightmare that they will always regret.


  1. Smart City Vision – Citizen Engagement is only one of the single component in a Smart City. They are many applications which require integration to a smart city platform; thus, it cannot be developed in silo manner. Remember that IOT also requires input from physical sensors (other than the sensors from the smartphones). A real Smart City need an integrated platform that collects and aggregates various sources of data (structured or unstructured) to discover the insights of the city and make cities a better and sustainable place to live.
  2. It’s NOT an IT job! Of course, any IT company can develop the mobile app. However, IOT requires different skills that encompass embedded programming, understanding different communications protocols, cloud services, and big data analytics.

Due to many stakeholders, difficulty in changing old mind set, lack of drive and commitment posed big challenges. But by avoiding these pitfalls, the chances of successful citizen engagement are higher.


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