Chapter 1:
Tapping Resident Expertise and Know-How

The design of city programs and services can be dramatically improved with feedback from the people who use them. Most city leaders recognize the value of public input. Despite this, resident engagement is often a challenge for cities.

To inspire participation and get input from residents, creative cities are thinking beyond surveys and town hall meetings. They are coming up with low-cost, high-impact methods to test ideas with their residents and quickly gather feedback. And they've shown that the best way to get residents' attention is to do something different and – dare we say it – fun.

The Champion Cities used a host of creative approaches to tap resident expertise and know-how.

Engaging A Test Group Of First Responders To Give Feedback On New Interventions
Huntington, WV

Huntington's first responders face 10 times the national average of opioid overdoses, resulting in higher turnover and lower capacity to deliver high-quality care. To combat "compassion fatigue" among first responders, the City is assigned mental health professionals to fire and police teams and conducted focus groups and interviews to learn how to tailor the support.

Huntington worked directly with first responders to test interventions that might help tackle compassion fatigue, ensuring that first responders are able to give the best care possible to opioid users. Here they tested how family cooking classes might be part of a holistic approach at bolstering first responders' wellbeing and sense of motivation. Through testing, the City learned that first responders often feel unrecognized, or that their work has little impact. As a result of this insight, the City incorporated a feedback loop to give first responders progress reports on people they've treated. This helps first responders understand that their work is important and appreciated.

Using Virtual Reality To Help Residents Shape Future Plans
New Rochelle, NY

New Rochelle wants to balance speedy redevelopment with residents' desire to have a voice in city planning. These people are using augmented reality on a phone screen in order to visualize proposed changes to the environment – such as the transformation of a downtown eyesore into a stunning 28-story, mixed-use building.

New Rochelle conducted consultations at a local farmers market. Here, a woman is invited to use a virtual reality headset to visualize planning projects before sharing her feedback on the proposals. During this test, the City learned that many residents found low-cost augmented reality just as effective as (and even more accessible than) the expensive virtual reality headsets. They used this knowledge to develop an implementation plan that is more cost-effective and has a wider reach.

Building 3d Models To Facilitate Feedback On Designs
Los Angeles, CA

Homelessness in Los Angeles rose 20 percent in 2017. To help combat this, the City is offering homeowners incentives designed to make it easier and cheaper to build small accessory houses on their properties that might then be rented to people experiencing homelessness.

The city needed to first understand if homeowners would be interested in this opportunity and arrangement. To get feedback, they photographed the interior of a new small home model and made it into a 360-degree virtual reality experience, which was shown alongside 3D models of the homes.

The City also used this approach during a workshop in downtown L.A. Formerly displaced residents used the tools to envision how it might feel to live in one of these new homes, and they provided important feedback about their design, location, and appeal. This immersive engagement helped the team understand that homeowners and people living in the small homes would have varied needs. For instance, some respondents expressed preferences for more privacy, while others favored shared housing. In response, the City is developing a matchmaking tool, to ensure they make pairings that align the respective needs of homeowners and tenants.

Using Quickfire Methods To Unlock Hidden Insights
Moreno Valley, CA

The majority of Moreno Valley residents don't have more than a high school education, and the City is interested in helping working adults continue their learning. As part of that effort, they wanted to test how a stipend program might help residents go back to school.

Here, they invited residents to add Post-it notes to a board to reveal the barriers that stop them pursuing further education. The team was surprised by some of the stories the exercise uncovered. Many participants described a complex web of personal barriers – including family responsibilities, food insecurity, and a lack of housing, affordable transportation, and healthcare. The team used this feedback to augment the stipend with wrap-around services that address complex needs.

Using Quick Randomized Control Trials To Test Impact On Behavior Change
Princeton, NJ

Almost 25 percent of the garbage in Mercer County landfills is food and organic waste, which produces an abundance of methane gas. Princeton's idea was a multi-pronged approach at reducing this waste, which drew on the field of behavioral economics to change residents' habits around composting, as well as installing a local food digester to turn waste into compost for local farms. The Princeton team tested multiple behavioral-science based interventions to get residents motivated to participate in a composting program. Their experiments included social-media nudges, free bins, and a new delivery and pick-up process. They also conducted interviews to better understand the 'why' behind residents' behaviors. One of the insights that emerged was that many residents were more likely to act if they felt that others in their community were doing so. The team used this insight to tailor their interventions to create a sense of collective action and service.

Making Complex Technologies Easy To Understand
Austin, TX

For the more than 7,000 people who experience homelessness in Austin, lack of ID can create barriers to housing, employment, and other critical services. Identity documents are easily lost or stolen. The City of Austin's idea was to use blockchain technology to provide homeless residents with a unique identifier that allows them to access their personal records at any time, through any device.

When cities propose to use emerging technology, they often encounter doubt among residents about how the technology will work and how trustworthy it is. To help explain the technology and its potential value to displaced communities, Austin's team used notebooks held closed by padlocks to explain how blockchain works.

They used these notebooks as a prop during a workshop at a pop-up resource clinic for people experiencing homelessness. The notebooks were shared to demonstrate how blockchain could be used to make identity documents for homeless residents accessible, while keeping them protected. When residents understood how the technology worked, they were willing to support the City's efforts.

Creating A Low-Cost Mock Up Of A New Service
Oklahoma City, OK

Nearly 77 percent of the inmates in the county's overcrowded jail are nonviolent offenders whose crimes might be better addressed through mental health and community services. Oklahoma City's idea was to prevent incarceration and reduce recidivism for nonviolent offenders by integrating crime, health, and social service data to target appropriate interventions.

During testing, the City wanted to find out whether Community Health Workers could be effectively integrated into existing screening processes for offenders. The team conducted simulations of the arrest process with the help of prospective Community Health Workers and individuals who had previously interacted with the justice system. They role-played various points of entry for Community Health Worker integration, including arrest, booking, pre-trial and sentencing. They engaged a range of participants to simulate the impact of different offenses, personalities, social and economic circumstances on the process.

Try Before You Buy: Taking Residents For A Test Drive
Lincoln, NE

Lincoln is exploring how autonomous shuttles can help the City to reduce traffic congestion and improve air quality. Talk of driverless vehicles can trigger strong reactions from residents, ranging from excitement to fear or skepticism. To understand how locals felt about driverless shuttles roaming their streets, Lincoln let them experience it firsthand. They rented a driverless shuttle and invited the public to come and take a ride. More than 1,500 residents accepted the invitation, and throughout the journeys, the City captured people's feedback and concerns through a series of interviews and surveys. Lincoln found that residents were overwhelmingly excited about what the technology could mean for their city. And the test had another, unexpected benefit: It helped create buzz around the idea, which helped the city build stronger partnerships in support of the project.

Here are you will see two generations of Lincolnites – 97-year-old Jean, along with her daughter – trying out the autonomous vehicles for themselves.

Getting Out Of The Office And Talking To People Where They Live And Work
Cheyenne, WY

In Cheyenne, economic decline has resulted in an increase in underutilized buildings, directly affecting the 4,000-plus people who live in the City's downtown core. Cheyenne's idea was to use an online platform to match the owners of vacant buildings and small business owners both to each other and with incentives for creative redevelopment. In order to test the idea, they set up a display in a vacant and highly visible downtown building. It was a prime chance to put the spotlight on a vacant commercial building that could benefit from Cheyenne's solution.

The Cheyenne team set up storyboards that detailed how their "Buildings with a Purpose" program could work, as well as the benefits it would provide building owners and entrepreneurs. By placing these storyboards in a vacant building and opening the building to the public, they generated buzz and gathered feedback from more than 90 residents. Through this exercise, the City learned that local building owners and entrepreneurs felt that it was important to add direct, face-to-face assistance to the online matching process. In response, the team incorporated in-person assistance from a 'business liaison' into their plan.

Grand Rapids, MI: The impact of resident engagement on the design of new ideas for a city

Grand Rapids MI has turned up on a lot of "best" lists lately: best places to live, best cities to raise a family, best housing market for Millennials, and more. Yet these recognitions only tell half the story.

Two of every five black and Hispanic residents in Grand Rapids live below the federal poverty line. They're not sharing in the gains of a development boom as 10,000 people move to the City each year. To the contrary, many are being forced out of their homes by rising rents and redevelopment in neighborhoods that are suddenly trendy places to live for people with more money.

At the outset of the 2018 U.S. Mayors Challenge, City leaders proposed tackling this problem with data. Their idea was to collect, analyze, and share the results of a community census through a publicly accessible dashboard, empowering city leaders with localized, actionable data on hotspots of inequality to help deploy health, housing, and other resources where they are most needed.

But as they tested their idea, they learned more about the problem the city was facing – and refined their solution to increase its impact.

In March, just a few weeks into the testing phase, a City commission was set to consider zoning changes aimed at boosting the City's housing supply. As part of the testing process, the 2018 U.S. Mayors Challenge team, led by Director of Customer Service Becky Jo Glover, built an online data dashboard with maps and visualizations to show where the new policy would give developers a green light to build. They wanted to see if making the data accessible would inspire public participation, so they presented the dashboard back to residents for their feedback.

They were shocked by the impact of the test: Residents responded in large numbers – and used the data to inform their feedback. A standing-room only crowd came out in opposition, some of them citing maps from the data dashboard in their arguments. The good news was that it seemed clear that data could empower citizens. "We'd never had so many people come to talk about a city ordinance before," Glover said. "We knew that people think the City doesn't listen to them, but what we didn't realize was how intense that feeling was."

Glover's team partnered with a local design firm to hold a series of "co-creation sessions" 1 with different stakeholder groups (including neighborhood associations, developers, city planners, and others) to gather input on the substance of the zoning proposals. The team heard first-hand from longtime residents that many felt totally powerless against the forces pushing them out of their neighborhoods.

1 Co-Creation

The process of multiple parties working together to design a new product or service. Co-creation is a way to draw on diverse forms of knowledge and expertise in order to develop better solutions to a defined problem. In the context of the 2018 U.S. Mayors Challenge, co-creation takes place between City Hall staff, residents, and other community stakeholders.

Building on what they learned in these sessions, the City partnered with a neighborhood association called the Westside Collaborative to develop a shared-ownership housing model. The idea is to give even longtime renters an affordable way to take an equity stake in the community. This would give them the tools to stay put in their neighborhood despite development pressure – and to share in the gains of rising housing prices.

It's a bold idea aimed at changing the economics of gentrification. As Glover sees it, the new plan is proof that Grand Rapids is learning how to use data to work in collaboration with citizens – and harness their expertise to develop more effective ideas.

A conversation with
Tessy Britton
Director of Participatory City

Tessy Britton is Director of Participatory City, an initiative that will start to build a large urban Demonstration Neighborhood in a London borough (of 200,000+ residents) in 2017. Working closely with the local authority and many other collaborators the intention is that over a five year period this neighborhood will become a model of equality, wellbeing and sustainability.

For the last six years Tessy has been researching and prototyping new ways to support widespread practical participation, the kind of participation that works with the fabric of daily life.

For local governments looking to tap the expertise of residents, what would you point to as low-hanging fruit or quick-win strategies?

Occupy a shop front for a few weeks, fill it with interactive imaginative installations which ask some of the burning questions, make lots of tea, talk to people and gather their insights.


What about more sophisticated strategies that local governments could be aiming for, to maximize their partnerships with residents?

Assume that government and residents have the same vision for sustainable, beautiful, happy and healthy neighborhoods - but different ways that they can contribute to building that vision. If a local government can stimulate residents' creativity and then support them to bring their ideas to life, that's the starting point for a genuine partnership, a meeting of minds for co-produced neighborhoods.


Sometimes local government needs to overcome trust barriers with residents before they can engage them as partners. What are some creative ways you've seen local leaders and their teams build trust with residents?

Local governments in general find it hard to shake off the idea that government services are the only starting point, and capturing residents' expertise, approval or energies in delivering those services is the aim. Residents often see through these attempts to engage them as window dressing at best, gap-filling funding at worst, which is bound to erode trust. Creating real two way dialogue that leads rapidly to the co-creation of concrete new things that contribute to the shared vision is a million miles away from this. Strategies for co-production need to revolve around residents, not the other way around. It's a simple principle and it works.


Can you share one great example of residents making a contribution to problem-solving in their city?

At the neighborhood level I believe that building social capital and new networks is one of the strongest ways that residents can contribute to problem-solving in their city. There are rafts of research which show that increasing social capital has amazing impacts on many complex social problems - from educational achievement, to economic growth.

At the economic level cities need new types of resident business incubators, which are ideal places to build new systems that solve existing and future problems through collaborative, environmental and social business development. Too many start-ups are failing, and if we aim to build circular economies from the ground up, these new businesses need lower risks, by having more expertise on hand, more collaborative environments, and more support. New business development of this kind will also only work if they are made fully inclusive, otherwise we are just creating the next round of inequality issues.


What are the top two or three tips you would give to someone working in local government to better tap the potential of their residents?

Think in sets. For every problem you work on think about how you could work with residents to create a more complete set of co-produced activities, projects, services or collaborative businesses that could work together on the issue, not just what a single service might achieve.

Build flexible ecosystems. Cities are dynamic environments, with people moving in and out. People have changeable lives, with responsibilities, health and financial issues. Design for this reality, allowing resident's involvement to be flexible, not assuming stable and static initiatives.

Invest seriously in participation. Don't think of working with residents as a way to save money or make you more efficient, but rather as a serious way to build a sustainable co-produced future. This takes a serious investment of creativity and resource.


Do you see attitudes on resident engagement changing? In cities, what does the future of participation look like?

Yes attitudes are changing, but too slowly and only where people are taking very hard headed assessment of our current ways of organizing society. Co-production between government and residents is the only way to build a sustainable city, so we need to start getting good at it, and fast.

Tips on Resident Engagement from the Champion Cities

1. Use new approaches to build relationships with residents beyond the "usual suspects"

Many of the Champion City ideas focused on improving life for residents who are facing severe hardships, such as people at risk of homelessness, undocumented migrants, or those living in poverty. Many of the cities did not have strong communication channels established to get feedback from these communities, but developed creative new approaches to engage them.

Boulder, CO, has been trying to shift residents away from reliance on single-occupancy, fossil-fuel vehicles toward more efficient forms of transport – but have struggled to engage all communities in the effort. The City prototyped a new "connector" model of recruitment, engaging ambassadors from targeted neighborhoods to help promote the City's transport solutions. With the help of these "connectors," Boulder achieved a 20 percent response rate on questionnaires, compared to a previous response rate of 1 to 3 percent.


2. Make an effort to understand the community context

Communities and City Halls can hold different values – and often see the same problem from many different angles. The existing relationship between a city and its residents (as mediated by initiatives, services, or previous engagement efforts) will impact the success of any new efforts to collaborate.

The initial idea in Louisville, KY, was to dispatch aerial drones in the seconds after gunshots were detected, allowing police to capture critical evidence from the crime scene. City officals engaged residents in one-on-one conversations and focus groups where they showed examples of the new drones and how they would work. These discussions uncovered deep trust issues between the community and police force. Residents were wary of the technology, raising concerns that the drones would contribute to over-policing. While the initial idea focused on law enforcement, the team pivoted its idea with the help of community input. The City now proposes to use information collected by drones to reduce emergency response times. Such information could enhance situational awareness of first responders and boost victims' access to care in the crucial moments after a shooting.


3. Engage with residents on terms that work for them

In the past, many cities have relied on the willingness of residents to meet on government's terms: at City Hall, during work hours, with the agenda aligned to pre-set objectives. Unsurprisingly, barriers such as time pressure, work, childcare, disabilities, or lack of perceived relevance prevent a diverse group of residents from engaging. The Champion Cities made it easy for residents to engage by fitting within people's daily routines and motivations.

Georgetown, TX, proposed to build a distributed-energy grid that produces and stores power locally by leasing residents' roof and yard space. The idea that people might spend time during their weekend lining up to comment on the business model for the City's energy grid may sound surprising. But the Georgetown team managed it, engaging more than 600 people and creating enthusiasm for the idea.

How did they do it? The team brought a "money-grab booth" to a local festival, where passers-by could step inside, snatch as much (fake) money as possible, and exchange it for gifts like hats and T-shirts.

The only condition: Participants had to complete a survey on how the City's virtual power plant might be paid for. From the responses, the team learned that residents were less interested in City Hall paying them for the use of their roofs, and that they were, in fact, willing to offer their roofs for free if it meant they'd have reliable back up energy during a storm.

For families living in Danbury, CT. the lack of affordable childcare options means that almost 1,000 children are forced to attend unlicensed daycare facilities. The City's idea was to provide incentives and training to individuals who want to establish home-based childcare businesses, reducing reliance on unlicensed services or unaffordable options for working parents. Danbury is one of the most diverse cities in the country - with over 50 languages spoken at the schools and the majority of home daycares are used by Hispanic families - so they are ensuring that their tests are inclusive. During testing, the team ran trilingual sessions with daycare providers who were largely Spanish-speaking.


4. Face-to-face engagement can provide deeper level of insight

When tasked with getting feedback from residents, sometimes cities default to the most traditional method: a survey. Several Champion Cities found that combining surveys with in-person engagement provided a deeper level of insight from their residents.

Los Angeles, CA, which is exploring if small, accessory dwelling units built in homeowners' backyards could provide housing for the City's displaced population, at first used a survey to gauge the public's interest and appetite for these small homes. During their later tests with 3D architectural models, the team used open-ended questions to prompt members of the displaced community to share their opinions. These conversations revealed deep insights around values, including the concept of "home" and "neighborliness," that would have been difficult to surface through the survey alone.


5. Share data in a format that is meaningful and accessible

Sharing data with residents can be a powerful tool for engaging them in an issue. But you can't just put it out there in its raw form and expect it to have an impact – data need to be communicated in a way that is accessible, clear, and relevant. This might mean presenting data visually (in the form of maps and charts), making it interactive so residents can see what it means for them and their neighborhoods, or allowing residents to contribute data themselves.

In Denver, CO, families spend an average of $3,100 a year on asthma-related medical costs. The City's idea was to improve air quality by installing cutting-edge air-pollution sensors around schools that could provide data to inform the city's approach to making the air safer for all. During testing, the City made plans to install data dashboards in schools that would help staff and parents to make informed decisions and reduce all childrens' exposure to air pollution. To help ensure the dashboard design would be easily understood and prompt behavior change, the team co-created the display through a series of engagement sessions with parents, teachers and nurses. Using principles of human-centered design, the team created a prototype – a simple sketch – of an initial dashboard design, and shared it with session participants. They then updated the design with feedback multiple times through several sessions, so that the final version would be informative and user-friendly for the community.


6. Give feedback to residents you have engaged

Engagement is a two-way and continual process. It is not enough to simply engage residents once, take the learnings and go. People who have given their time to provide their views want to know that they've been heard and see action. That engagement can also motivate them to take an active role in co-producing/delivering the solution in the future.

In Washington, D.C., City leaders want to improve their responsiveness to residents and looked to create a team that would routinely conduct surveys in order to integrate residential feedback into key decision-making processes. In working with residents to find out what incentives most encouraged survey responses, the City learned that residents were motivated by getting more information about how their survey responses were being used. With that information, the City decided to share feedback and live survey data on the survey portal. The team also begun planning other ways of providing residents with updates on how their input has been put to use – from agency newsletters, to community walks, and even a City-hosted podcast.