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27 July 2016

Interview with John Zib, chair of the Citizen City Initiative

John Zib, a social entrepreneur developing scalable sustainable digital urban media platforms that benefit society and the arts, is the Chair of the Citizen City Initiative, a recently created initiative that has merged from two different initiatives: the ‘Citizen & Stakeholders Communication Platforms Initiative’ and the ‘Start from Existing Habits and Identify the Needs: Co-Design and Co-creation as Tools Initiative’. The objective of Citizen City ‘is to make citizen participation a real part of smart cities by creating tools for citizen engagement and co-creation’.


1.    Citizen City is a recently created Initiative that has merged from two different initiatives. Could you describe this new Initiative in a few words? 

At its most basic level, Citizen City represents ‘agency’ or the citizen’s independent ability to act and express their individual power. Our goal is to make citizen participation a real part of smart cities by creating tools for citizen engagement and co-creation. Other issues we are covering are the analysis of existing needs and habits, communication platforms with citizens and stakeholders, citizen-centred design approaches, key performance indicators and socially relevant standards. We have a wide range of topics, but all are related to representing the citizen.   

2.    Why have you chosen ‘Citizen City’ as the name of the Initiative?

The name ‘Citizen City’ is very central to our vision and values. Citizen City represents the individual citizen in the individual city. If we consider citizens at this individual level then we are being inclusive of all citizens. The name also changes the ‘smartness’ of Smart City into a citizen-centric perspective. It is not about the smartness of technology but rather people living in a holistic sustainable balance with their urban environments. Citizen City is really about focusing on individual citizens to achieve inclusiveness and changing mind sets to effect change. A smart city is a citizen city, right?

We chose Citizen City because it resonates with stakeholders. Gathering broad stakeholders is important to gain consensus and momentum. The previous two initiatives were more descriptive with lots of words. Citizen City is snappy and easy to understand. 


3.    What is the status of your initiative right now?

I think what we have done in the last year gives a good understanding of where we really are now and where to go from here. We came out of the General Assembly in Berlin in 2015 with a priority list of topics that we wanted to address in the Citizen Focus Action Cluster. Protecting the citizen with ‘Privacy by Design’ is very clear and understandable. The other list of topics was longer and was eventually grouped into two initiatives.

Over the following months, we realised the similarities of our approaches and issues. Merging into one unifying theme and simple concept is something we see as an important step in understanding problems and how to approach them. A clear and compelling proposition has helped greatly to find synergies within all the different issues we support.

Concretely, we are currently addressing the larger issue of effective knowledge sharing. There is enough technology and learning but the real bottleneck is not enough sharing between cities and citizens. We are working to co-create a knowledge tool with top-down city stakeholders and bottom-up citizenry. Through this we can spread the more specific tools that are focused on co-creation, citizen engagement, etc.


4.    At the EIP-SCC General Assembly you mentioned that you would launch a call to collect successful case studies in order to create a knowledge sharing platform. When will the process open? Who can participate? 

The call is open now and some criteria are listed on the Citizen City website, but our primary focus is on European projects that involve co-creation or citizen engagement. Right now we are starting by creating a small representative set of use cases to develop an effective knowledge tool for users. We see this as an important first step. We do not want to become a repository of information but an effective and meaningful tool for users. We see the knowledge platform designed with two user interfaces –top down (cities) and bottom up (citizen). We are trying to use some ‘open’ approaches in our initiative. Anyone is welcome to submit projects but our current focus is making an effective tool for now.


5.    What are the main strengths of Citizen City Initiative?

I think that is simple: we represent agency for the citizen. There is an overarching message in conversations and speeches that the citizen needs to be an integral part of the smart city efforts. This is said, but many at the top and the bottom do not feel this is happening. To that end, our goal at Citizen City is to address that challenge and provide tools to fill the gap. I think the EIP-SCC framework has helped to make connections to other initiatives and thereby helping spread citizen thinking into other areas of the smart city ecosystem. 

I would say that our main strengths are our citizen focus and its universal appeal to all sectors of smart city and urban development. I would also add that for me the goal is to provide effect and impact not just to deliver reports.


6.    How will your initiative contribute to the achievement of the EIP Goals?

Within the EIP-SCC, we are one of a few cross-cutting horizontal enablers. The other initiatives understand that citizens need to be part of their planning and deliverables. We engage with other clusters to understand their work and show how citizens can be more of a central part of what they are doing.

Another major contribution we provide to the EIP-SCC initiatives and the Market Place is the opportunity to use our knowledge sharing platform to promote their own learning and activities more effectively to city and citizen stakeholders. If we can reach these stakeholders with tools for engaging and co-creating with citizens, this will open the channel to other issues and clusters and initiatives within the EIP-SCC.


7.    What are the main challenges you are facing?

Knowledge sharing is a great opportunity to effect change but not any easy task to accomplish. There are many great initiatives working in this field and we are trying to find ways to collaborate. In this sense, we are sharing understanding and developing opportunities to cooperate on funding calls.

Another challenge is the active participation within our team. Over the last months we have put effort into reaching out to our team and giving them many concrete small opportunities to contribute. We have awareness and feedback but now we want to move towards active involvement. We have reports, articles and studies that need to be reviewed and extract key learning to go into our Guide for Citizen Engagement.

In addition, we are also working with topical specialists and asking our team to become Citizen City agents and speak with their local cities. It is an exciting opportunity to be involved, we are trying to get our work known to a wider community and create opportunities for others so they can engage with us in ways that are mutually beneficial and meaningful. 


8.    What are the next steps?

We are concentrating on two paths. Firstly, we are acting as a formal EC initiative to create coalitions to go after funding calls. This means a lot of networking and dialogue. In this sense, we are compiling a list of calls and reviewing our partners and teams.

Secondly, we are also working organically to get feedback and engagement with our use cases profiles. This is more focused on working with our team and European city networks on a volunteer basis to learn how these can be an effective tool for top down and bottom up stakeholders. Everyone sees poor knowledge sharing as contributing to missing solutions and they are interested in trying to solve this issue.

In addition to the two paths, another concrete next step is the creation of the Guide for Citizen Engagement. This will be presented in November with the signing of our “Inclusive Smart Cities: a European Manifesto on Citizen Engagement”. To develop this guide, we will be reviewing reports, articles and papers. This is an important deliverable for us and our partners. 




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