Engaging CitizensThe Democratic Potential of Smart Communities

A smart community is one whose residents, organizations, and governing institutions are using information technology to transform their region and bring about community benefits, including economic development, job growth, and an increased quality of life. Among the potential quality of life benefits resulting from the widespread deployment of information and communications technologies in smart communities is improved democracy.

The collaborative nature of smart communities should result not only in innovation and economic growth, but also in the generation of social capital and trust; both of which are conducive to and strengthened by economic development. Moreover, economic growth and social capital are also believed to contribute to a democratic political culture.

The educational component of smart communities should also contribute to increased political participation because rising education levels are believed to produce a more articulate public that is better equipped to organize and communicate. Similarly, the tech savvy citizens of high-tech smart communities should be accustomed to thinking for themselves and, therefore, better prepared for democratic participation.

The deployment of new technologies in smart communities may also encourage governments, as partners in these initiatives, to become more citizen-centred and responsive. One implication of improved responsiveness would be increasing levels of trust and, subsequently, citizen engagement in government activities. A more engaged citizenry would, by definition, be more involved in making governance choices. This should generate legitimacy for governments by contributing to overall citizen life satis-


Thus, smart communities, because they involve a network structure, should generate social capital – the foundation of democracy – both indirectly through economic expansion and directly, by changing the ways in which citizens interact with and relate to governments. Moreover, because of their educational emphasis and focus on high-tech job growth, smart communities should also contribute to the development of more democratically inclined citizens.

Improving Representative Democracy

Enthusiasts are eagerly awaiting the replacement of representative democracy by technology-supported referendum-based direct democracy. It may be preferable, however, if technology was used to improve and modernize representative democracy. Technology could encourage citizen engagement, by facilitating citizen deliberation and participation in policy-making.

Advocates of deliberative democracy fear that direct democracy, and particularly direct democracy facilitated by Internet technologies, leaves no room for reasoned dialogue and debate. They argue that “tele-democracy” fosters a compilation of opinions rather than a public voice. Smart communities, on the other hand, can provide the means to facilitate citizen deliberation in modern mass society . By providing access to large amounts of information and by encouraging interaction both among citizens and between citizens and governments, smart communities have the potential to become democratic communities.

More Citizen Participation

Citizens in advanced industrial states are turning away from traditional forms of political participation at the same time that they are more politically interested than in the past, and more willing to participate in non-conventional ways. Canadian survey data suggest that citizens are, at least somewhat, prepared for e-government initiatives and, if governments commit themselves to carefully consider citizen input, a majority would be willing to become involved in citizen engagement activities.

There are also some indications that the opportunity to use technology may even increase political participation for certain population segments. According to the California Internet Voting Task Force, the participation of younger citizens and busy professionals could increase as e-government initiatives are introduced. These groups are Internet savvy but they tend not to find time to participate through traditional political channels.

Finally, on the basis of an extensive analysis of social values and social change in Canada, the research firm CROP concluded that government should establish itself as a place for exchange; a meeting place for the Canadian social diversity. CROP also advocated government as Agora, and the notion of a Network State. All of this bodes well for improved democracy in smart communities, if technology is used to facilitate deliberation and governments take seriously what they hear.

Technology: Necessary but Insufficient

Politics and governance should be improved by the deployment of technologies in smart communities.

Due to their collaborative and educational aspects, smart communities have the potential to facilitate and encourage democratic participation. While opening up to citizen input will require political will, it is governments at the local level – where smart communities are being established – that appear most open to power sharing and citizen involvement.

The most promising participatory tendencies are evident in the advanced industrial states. It appears that increased citizen interest in governance as well as access, acceptance, and use of the new information and communications technologies may be associated with what Neil Nevitte has referred to as “the rhythms of post-industrialism.”

That is, publics in the advanced industrial states are both more prepared and more willing to engage in democratic governance. These same publics have lost faith in traditional methods of participation, such as political parties and elections. Consequently, governments must furnish opportunities for citizen participation and make them meaningful. Smart communities appear to be a good step in this direction.

Where smart communities are established, there are several reasons why improved democracy will likely follow. First, citizens do tend to use the Internet to learn and stay informed. Second, citizens have expressed a willingness to participate in governance through engagement activities. Third, smart communities will tend to be disproportionately populated by technology savvy, well-educated citizens, who tend to be both interested in and relatively well equipped for political participation.

As Benjamin Barber has noted, however, technology “is our instrument and tool, rather than our maker… A civil Internet will grow out of political choices we make and not out of the nature of the technology.” Smart communities require smart citizens as well as governments that are wise enough to implement the outcomes of deliberative decision-making processes.

Tony Coulson ( coulson@tc.gc.ca) has a background in applied social research and policy analysis. He lives and works in the Ottawa area.