Skift Take

The CitizenLab platform fills the need in conventions today for an affordable, scalable community engagement tool connecting conference delegates and exhibitors with local citizens and policy makers.

One of the themes in Skift’s 2016 Megatrends report looked at the “Cities As Platform” concept, whereby governments are developing digital platforms to facilitate two-way engagement between policy makers and citizens.

There is a lot of innovation in civic tech in 2016. In the best of cases, cities are evolving into urban operating systems, which presents some potentially interesting opportunities in both the leisure travel and conventions sectors, above and beyond the proliferation of “smart” transportation apps. One early example of that is discussed in the Skift post: How the Rise of Smart Cities is Impacting Travel and Tourism.

But to understand the potential implications of city platforms on travel and tourism, a little background is required first.

Government-backed digital platforms come primarily in two forms. There are “open data” platforms with raw datasets designed for business, scientific, government, media, and academic use. Examples include the Paris, Los Angeles and New York open data portals, where anyone can source information such as: neighborhoods with the most foreclosed homes, permits for special events, number of long-term vacation rentals, etc.

The second type of government platform focuses on citizen engagement, or “citizensourcing.” It’s a transparent framework for locals to submit ideas about how to make cities more efficient at improving overall quality of life and more effective at formulating development strategy.

Two good examples of those are Madam Mayor, I Have an Idea in Paris, and MyMedellin Co-Created City in Colombia. Others include SpeakUp Austin and Better Reykjavik.

“We tend to think of government as doing things,” says Tim O’Reilly, founder and CEO of O’Reilly Media, who’s regarded as the “Oracle of Silicon Valley” and a leading voice in civic tech. “But we should also think of government as a platform that lets things happen.”

But what about smaller cities without the budgets to develop these types of online citizen engagement platforms? And why couldn’t corporations and conferences develop similar digital community crowdsourcing tools that connect both public and private stakeholders?

To begin to address those questions, Brussels-based CitizenLab launched a new platform this year to crowdsource ideas and feedback from citizens about specific government projects in cities like Hasselt, Belgium, and most recently, Geel, last week. City councils work with CitizenLab to create a customized website with specific urban planning proposals, and in response, participants upload what are basically mini blog posts with their suggestions and feedback.

“As digital technologies are changing the way we interact with each other, cities have to undergo a transition as well,” said Wietse Van Ransbeeck, founder of CitizenLab. “Tomorrow’s government is not merely a centralized, rules-driven body, but it should enable and facilitate citizen-led innovation through open digital ecosystems.”

CitizenLab is designed with a scalable and customizable architecture that can adapt to different types and sizes of cities. For the citizen end user, the platform’s intuitive interface, which resembles today’s mobile-first website design trends, helps drive adoption.

The public can also upvote their favorite ideas supplied by other people, similar to Reddit and any number of other interactive web portals, to bring the best suggestions to the top of the digital forum. Over time, that helps governments determine consensus around specific themes.

Van Ransbeeck said pricing runs around $1,000 per month, which he suggested is much less than if a city tries to develop and maintain this type of platform on its own.

“For cities that have more than half a million inhabitants, they have the budget and probably the in-house skills to develop a tailor-made platform themselves,” he explained. “But what we want to do is provide our customers in smaller cities a ready-to-use platform that is fully customizable, because cities want their own branding on the platform. Next to that, we focus on a good design, one that is easy to use, both for the citizen and the city administrator.”


Smart Cities Asia 2016 Conference

With an established base of European cities using the CitizenLab platform, the company is about to enter the meetings and conventions market. CitizenLab’s goal is to expand its cloud-based services to help convention stakeholders and delegates connect and co-create events more strategically than ever before, using a standalone turnkey platform.

The second annual Smart Cities Asia Conference kicks off in Kuala Lumpur on October 18, 2016. This summer, the event is going to be launching a CitizenLab-powered platform to crowdsource ideas about how to drive innovation in the Malaysian capital, from both locals and visiting attendees. The resulting intelligence will then be collected for distribution at the conference as a centerpiece component of the event.

This is the first real link that we’ve found between the City As Platform concept and the convention industry, which is scalable for citywide events, bringing together both private and public partners to better inform programming and strategize outcomes.

This is innovative in a few ways:

  • It starts a dialogue around the conference well ahead of the live program to help build engagement and drive attendance toward the event.
  • It offers the conference owners and exhibitors a chance to develop new business leads within the context of real-world smart city advancements.
  • It expands the conference user experience and ROI with a real-world project aligned with the event’s mission, which will provide better educational, marketing, and digital content opportunities.
  • It benefits the local community and informs the local government. That is a growing mandate for global events to leave a measurable legacy impact on the cities where they convene.

“What attracted us to the CitizenLab platform is how user-friendly it is, and because we believe when it comes to innovation around smart cities, it shouldn’t be a top to bottom approach,” said Vincent Fong, general manager of the Knowledge Group of Companies, who is part of the operations team behind the development of Smart Cities Asia 2016.

“Cities can benefit a lot by tapping into their local expertise, and we want to drive that message using our conference,” he continued. “A strong part of our ethos is we don’t want to just distribute information. We want to be able to facilitate real change within the city, so we will share with the municipal councils, ‘Hey guys, these are some of the low-hanging suggestions that you can implement into the city user experience.'”

Fong explains that by integrating the CitizenLab project into the event programming, that provides proof-of-concept that can be articulated and debated during the event. Meaning, content and programming is being driven in part by a component of the event itself, adding a degree of spontaneity and on-demand discovery in the overall planning process.

However, because the success of the CitizenLab platform in Kuala Lumpur is unknown, and the issues raised won’t be readily evident until right before the beginning of the conference, that presents some challenges for the event organizers in terms of how policy-makers in Kuala Lumpur will react.

The feedback could raise some debate the local city council isn’t expecting, explained Fong, “because sometimes there is a disconnect about what the government is implementing compared to what the citizens actually want.”

He thinks there could be a fair amount of engagement on the CitizenLab portal because the citizens of Kuala Lumpur, who represent a significant percentage of the delegate count at Smart Cities Asia, can now express their opinions in an open, transparent global forum.

“Part of the challenge of an audience participation engagement platform in this part of the world is a fear of transparency,” Fong said. “The local council becomes wary of how something like this will impact their key performance indicators and performance in general…. So part of what we’re trying to do is change the current mindset by showing that this is actually really good for the city.”


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Tags: meetings and events, skift cities

Photo credit: Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre (lower left) is home to this year's Smart Cities Asia conference, which will implement the CitizenLab community engagement platform. KLCC

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