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In Long Beach Smart City Initiative, Residents Can Guide Tech Work

The Long Beach Collaboratory has been created to provide a new form of citizen engagement where residents can be chosen to join collaborative teams to identify technology pilot projects for their neighborhoods.

Community members in Long Beach can grow their team-building and technology skills while advising city tech leaders on some of the neighborhood needs and issues smart city technology can help address.

Oh, and they can earn a stipend for participating.

The Southern California port city has launched a new smart city initiative known as the Long Beach Collaboratory (LB Co-Lab). The program is designed as a new form of citizen engagement where residents are selected to work on collaborative teams to identify technology pilot projects for their neighborhoods. At the same time, residents will pick up new technology and other skills which can include task management, goal setting, conflict resolution, team building, leadership and community engagement, said Ryan Kurtzman, smart cities program manager for Long Beach.

“Through a partnership with our local workforce development agency, participants also have access to a free technology certificate program of their choice and a career coach,” he added. “Participants have expressed interest in topics such as cybersecurity, basic computing and software development.”

The LB Co-Lab project is structured around four neighborhoods in the city, where groups of five to 10 community members will be selected to serve on the collaboration panels. For their service, the members can earn $1,000 stipends. They will work alongside other organizations which could be private-sector technology providers, nonprofits, academic institutions or others which will help with the design and deployment of a technology solution to solve problems the groups have identified.

As a starting point, the city has launched four “challenge-based RFPs.” For example, in Long Beach’s Ramona Park neighborhood, officials would like a tech-based solution to advance Internet reliability and access. Whereas in the Willmore neighborhood the challenge is structured around improving pedestrian and cyclist safety.

At the core of each pilot project, and the process guiding through their design and deployment, is the concept of community engagement — having the affected communities work hand in hand with developers and policymakers to ensure the technology does what the community needs it to do, and is trusted by the community.

“We do believe community engagement is a core component of becoming a smart city and implementing technology solutions with an equity lens — solutions that actually work for our stakeholders, meet them where they are and address their challenges,” said Kurtzman, via email.

As smart city projects have evolved across the nation, officials have gained a new appreciation for community engagement throughout the entire process. It’s needed to ensure not only that the tech solution will be the right solution for the right problem, but also to develop trust, particularly as digital privacy concerns become more heightened.

“Unfortunately, a lot of that tech is increasingly creepy. And a lot of the media headlines we see focus on the negatives, and the potential harms this tech can bring, rather than the benefits,” said Jacqueline Lu, who leads Helpful Places, a mission-driven startup that helps organizations pilot and roll out new technologies in ways that are transparent, legible and enable civic dialog with the residents of that community about the use of those technologies.

“Communities are increasingly responding to these public concerns with legislative responses, like surveillance ordinances,” she added, speaking on a smart city panel at the recent Urbanism Next Conference in Portland, Ore.

“I am fascinated — also concerned — but I am fascinated by the smart city stuff,” remarked Brian Hofer, chair of the Oakland Privacy Advisory Commission and the Executive Director of Secure Justice in California, speaking on the same smart city panel. “But each of those things comes with data, comes with risks.”

To allay some of the concerns around digital privacy, Long Beach launched a project to use explanatory signage to identify various pieces of urban tech in the public space. The signage offers context for how the data is used, processed and stored. Happening in concert with the physical signage is an online platform on the city’s open data portal that provides even more information.

“So it’s really giving you the full picture,” said Kurtzman, during the conference.

To gain the community’s feedback on the signs city officials arranged “data walks” which led community members on a walking tour of downtown.

These are the kinds of conversations community members selected for the LB Co-Lab project can be expected to have with one another, and with the city. The project is modeled somewhat on the NYC[x] Co-Labs initiative in New York City.

Too often, some of the community feedback smart city officials in Long Beach heard was around having a proper say in some of the technology decisions made by officials.

“They did not feel like their input was considered in civic decision-making related to technology, and they did not feel prepared for the emerging ‘smart’ economy,” said Kurtzman.

This story first appeared in Government Technology magazine, Industry Insider — California’s sister publication.
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas for Government Technology magazine.