Working with local authorities a few years ago, I noticed that they referred often to ‘customers’ rather than ‘citizens’. I understand how this may have come about — perhaps an attempt to address historical failures in service. But it jarred with me. And the more time I spend working on smart cities and places, the more it becomes clear why this is so problematic.
The relationship between customer and supplier is asymmetrical. One is usually an individual, the other usually a corporation. A customer only contributes money to this interaction, and rightfully expects service in return.
Places aren’t like this. Our contribution is much more than money. It has to be for places to succeed. And the relationship between us and the place cannot be so asymmetric. It has to be a shared collective, not a controlled hierarchy.
Participation and obligation
We already contribute more than taxes. Sometimes as volunteers, sometimes out of obligation. We bring our knowledge and our experience as jurors, school governors and more. These are rich contributions to the community. But there are much more ad-hoc contributions, like picking up a piece of litter, or reporting a crime of which you were a witness, not necessarily a victim.
Treating citizens as customers reinforces the idea that these things are not our responsibility. That we pay our taxes and we take our services, and that’s the limit of the relationship.
Austerity and automation
In an age of austerity, this approach becomes not just undesirable but unsustainable. Authorities cannot possibly pretend to maintain service standards without greater input from citizens.
In an age of smart places, we have to be even more careful. Because hierarchical, top down ideas of control and responsibility will be embedded into systems. Once there, they may be much harder to change.
In the future we need to re-establish in people’s minds the idea that living in a place is a participatory act. That you share responsibility for your streets and your services.
Perhaps the shift to smart places is an opportunity to do this?
Smart places support much lower friction interactions between people, place and authority. Whether it’s for information dissemination or collection. Could these channels of communication be the framework by which we restore the expectation of participation in the place you live?