Why Community Participation is Key to Successful Smart Cities in Developing Countries

The development of smart cities has become a global trend to improve the quality of urban life through the use of technology and data. However, in developing countries, the success of implementing this concept heavily depends on active community participation. Involving the community in the planning and development of smart cities ensures that the solutions developed are relevant to the needs and aspirations of residents and enhance their sense of ownership and responsibility towards the city.

We can learn from what happened in Rio de Janeiro, as presented by the Center for Digital Society UGM. Rio de Janeiro launched an advanced city operations center to monitor and manage various aspects of the city. However, this project was criticized for its lack of transparency and community involvement in decision-making. As a result, the community felt that smart city technology was being used to surveil them rather than to improve their quality of life. This led to distrust and resistance towards other smart city projects.

Additionally, the development of smart city technology in Rio de Janeiro tended to be concentrated in affluent areas and the city center, exacerbating existing social inequalities. Poor residents living in peripheral areas often did not benefit from this technology. The implementation of smart city projects, especially in less developed areas, can trigger gentrification. The increase in property prices and living costs due to improved infrastructure and services can force low-income original residents to relocate.

Therefore, it is crucial to involve the community from the beginning in the development of smart cities. Here are some steps that can be taken to involve the community in this process:

Public Consultation and Feedback

Public consultation is an essential first step in involving the community in developing smart cities. Effective methods include forums, surveys, and digital participation platforms. In Cape Town, South Africa, discussion forums such as the Energy Water Waste (EWW) Forum, funded and organized by the city government, serve as platforms for the government and business stakeholders to discuss and collaborate on addressing challenges related to energy, water, and waste. This forum is part of the city’s Climate Action Plan and has become an important public-private collaboration platform.

In Medellín, Colombia, citizen surveys are used to design more efficient public transportation projects, such as the Metrocable system, a cable car that connects previously inaccessible hilly areas. These surveys help understand citizens’ needs related to public transportation, making the Metrocable system more responsive. Besides Metrocable, Medellín has also implemented other transportation projects like the Metroplús bus rapid transit (BRT) system and the EnCicla public bike system, all designed based on community input.

Digital participation platforms also play a crucial role. In Nairobi, Kenya, platforms like Ushahidi are used to collect data and feedback from the community on urban issues. Initially developed to map reports of post-election violence in Kenya in 2007, Ushahidi is now used for various purposes such as crime reporting, infrastructure issues, election monitoring, disaster response, healthcare services, and environmental issues.

Using Ushahidi in Nairobi shows how technology can amplify community voices, enhance government transparency and accountability, and encourage public participation in urban development. With these methods, governments can ensure that the smart city solutions implemented truly meet the needs and aspirations of the residents.

Collaboration and Partnership

Collaboration between various stakeholders is key to creating innovative and sustainable smart city solutions. One effective form of collaboration is the Public-Private-People Partnership (4P). In Lagos, Nigeria, infrastructure projects are developed through partnerships between the government and local technology companies. The Lagos Smart City Initiative aims to transform Lagos into a smart city by leveraging technology to improve public service efficiency, traffic management, and security. For example, the Lagos government collaborates with local tech companies to develop CCTV-based traffic monitoring systems and mobile applications for reporting infrastructure issues.

Living Labs are another concept that creates experimental spaces where residents, researchers, and companies can collaborate to test and develop smart city solutions. In Nairobi, Kenya, iHub is a technology innovation space that provides a venue for entrepreneurs, developers, and technicians to work together on developing technological solutions to local problems. iHub has played a significant role in fostering the growth of the tech startup ecosystem in Kenya.

Crowdsourcing is also an effective method for harnessing the collective wisdom of the community to generate new ideas and solutions. In Jakarta, Indonesia, PetaJakarta.org is an online mapping platform that allows residents to report urban issues such as flooding, traffic congestion, and infrastructure damage. The data collected is used by the city government to identify priority areas and plan interventions. Additionally, in Accra, Ghana, OpenStreetMap is used to map public transport networks, including bus routes and stops, to improve accessibility and transportation planning.

By building public-private-people partnerships, creating Living Labs, and utilizing crowdsourcing, governments can develop smart city solutions that are more innovative, sustainable, and responsive to the needs of the community.

Education and Public Awareness

Increasing public awareness and knowledge about smart cities is crucial to gaining support and active participation. One effective way to do this is through public information campaigns. In Accra, Ghana, the city government uses social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook to share information about smart city initiatives, infrastructure projects, digital public services, and community participation programs. Similarly, in Mexico City, Mexico, social media campaigns are used to promote smart city initiatives, including mobile apps for reporting urban issues and accessing public services.

In addition to information campaigns, training and workshops are also vital. In Lima, Peru, the “Lima Digital” program offers free technology training and workshops for residents, ranging from basic computer skills to web development and programming. This program aims to increase digital literacy and reduce the digital divide in the community. In India, the non-profit organization Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF) conducts various digital training programs across the country, including basic computer training, web development, and digital marketing.

Educational programs also play an important role in preparing the younger generation to become active digital citizens. The Indian government’s “Smart Cities Mission” includes an educational component to raise awareness about smart cities among students and teachers through workshops, seminars, and learning materials. In Brazil, cities like Curitiba and São Paulo have integrated smart city concepts into school curricula, teaching students about smart city technology, sustainability, and community participation. Meanwhile, in South Africa, several universities offer specialized programs on smart cities, covering topics such as urban planning, information technology, and sustainability.

Through information campaigns, training and workshops, and educational programs, governments can enhance public awareness and knowledge about smart cities, encourage active participation, and ensure the successful implementation of smart city projects.


Involving the community in the development of smart cities not only increases the relevance and success of projects but also builds residents’ sense of ownership and responsibility towards their city. By implementing strategies such as public consultation, collaboration and partnership, and education and public awareness, governments in developing countries can ensure that the smart city solutions implemented truly meet the needs and aspirations of residents and are sustainable in the long term. Case studies from Asia, Africa, and Latin America show that community participation is key to achieving inclusive and effective smart cities.

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