Empowering Communities - The Community Reporter Model for Engaging Diverse Voices in Smart City Design

Originally published at: https://decentered.co.uk/empowering-communities-the-community-reporter-model-for-engaging-diverse-voices-in-smart-city-design/

The speed at which urban life and information systems are becoming conjoined is breathtaking. Even in a mid-size Northern European city like Leicester, the pace of change is astounding, as the function of the urban centre moves from the predominantly mechanical model of moving things and people about, to the integration of systems and data that allows us to interact in ways thought impossible only a few years ago.

Datafication and the manipulation of information is at the heart of the design of the smart city, and will be the focus of discussion at the Empowering Communities: How to Design a Smart City that Works for All event, taking place on 22nd June at De Montfort University in Leicester.

While it is easy to get lost in the seductive potential of AI and integrated network systems, it is crucial to ensure that the development and implementation of smart city initiatives are inclusive, and consider the diverse needs and perspectives of the communities they serve.

Engaging with a broad range of voices and involving citizens in decision-making processes is vital for creating sustainable, people-centric smart cities. In the workshop, we will explore how the community reporter model of community-focussed communication can be a powerful and complementary tool working alongside AI and generative systems, for empowering communities and fostering inclusive smart city design.

Why Engagement is Important in the Design of Smart Cities: Engagement is a cornerstone of effective smart city design. By involving diverse voices, including marginalized communities, residents, and local organisation, in decision-making processes, it’s possible to ensure that smart city initiatives address real needs and challenges.

But how can we ensure that when we are designing our AI systems that they will meaningfully engage with all the different stakeholders in a way that fosters a sense of ownership and belonging? How can we be certain that the systems that are invested in will lead to the acceptance and adoption of smart technologies?

Will AI and network technologies actually promote equity, social cohesion, and a more democratic approach to urban development?

The benefit of pursuing a meaningful community engagement approach is that it can enable us to tap into the collective intelligence of communities, harnessing their local knowledge, expertise, and lived experiences. By incorporating the perspectives of people across all society, we can minimise bias, and with careful support and a commitment to learning, help to create solutions that truly address the needs of the people.

Engagement helps build trust and transparency between governments, organisations, and the community, resulting in more effective and sustainable smart city implementations.

The Challenges of Engagement: Engaging diverse voices in the design of smart cities comes with its own set of challenges. One major obstacle is the lack of representation and inclusion, especially for marginalized groups. Overcoming language barriers, accessibility issues, and ensuring equal participation can be demanding. Additionally, engaging a diverse range of stakeholders requires thoughtful planning, resources, and commitment from all involved parties.

Furthermore, it is essential to address the digital divide that separates people and expecting or forcing them to use technologies they have no concern for. We’ll be asking how we can ensure that communities have the necessary digital literacy, skills and access to participate meaningfully in smart city initiatives?

Overcoming these challenges requires innovative approaches that empower communities and create platforms for their voices to be heard, but relying purely on digital forms of engagement will not be sufficient.

How do we need to work with what works, and meet people on their own terms, rather than trying to shoehorn them into the systems design thinking of the data sciences?

The Community Reporter Model:
The community reporter model is an effective approach for engaging diverse voices in smart city design. This model involves recruiting and training community reporters who act as intermediaries between the community and decision-makers. They facilitate dialogue, disseminate information, and amplify the voices of the community.

  1. Recruitment of Community Reporters: Community reporters are individuals from the community who have a passion for journalism, storytelling, and community development. They are recruited based on their knowledge of local issues and their ability to engage with a diverse range of stakeholders.
  2. Training of Community Reporters: Community reporters undergo comprehensive training to enhance their skills in journalism, communication, and technology. They learn how to conduct interviews, report on community concerns, and use various media platforms effectively.
  3. Creating Dialogue: Community reporters organize interactive events, such as games, roundtable discussions, and workshops, to foster dialogue between community members and decision-makers. These activities encourage the exchange of ideas, the identification of local challenges, and the co-creation of solutions.
  4. Dissemination of Content: Community reporters utilize community media platforms like community radio to disseminate information and raise awareness about smart city initiatives. These platforms provide a voice to marginalized communities and ensure that their perspectives reach a wider audience.
  5. Measuring Impact and Success: To assess the impact of community reporting initiatives, it is important to establish evaluation metrics and gather feedback from both the community and decision-makers. This data can guide future engagements and ensure continuous improvement.

The Advantages of a Community Reporter Model: The community reporter model offers several advantages for engaging diverse voices in smart city design. By involving community members as reporters, it provides a platform for their perspectives and concerns to be heard, ensuring that decision-making processes are more inclusive and representative. The model also fosters a sense of empowerment and ownership within the community, as they actively participate in shaping their own smart city future.

Moreover, the community reporter model helps bridge the gap between experts, policymakers, and the community. It promotes collaboration, understanding, and trust-building, leading to more effective and contextually relevant smart city solutions. Additionally, the model can leverage community media platforms for the dissemination of information, ensuring that all community members have access to relevant updates and are well-informed.

Most important, however, is that community media plays a part in the sense of belonging and mutual understanding that drives a cohesive society, and which is tested in an age of misinformation and globalised media attention.

Reflections from the Leicester Case Study:
In this workshop, we will look at a number of case studies conducted in Leicester, where the community reporter model was used to engage with different people and to give recognition to their diverse voices.

We will be asking how this experience might help with the design of smart cities, and we’ll consider and reflect on how the these practical projects highlighted several strengths and weaknesses, along with opportunities and challenges that emerged throughout the process. Questions we are asking include:


  • To what extent did the model successfully engage a wide range of voices and participants, leading to more comprehensive discussions and perspectives.
  • What difference did it make for community reporters to bring their experiences and international profiles? Did this enrich the dialogue and understanding of smart city challenges?
  • What role did the community reporters play by creating media for themselves, and were they able to amplify community voices and raise awareness?


  • What are the implications of a lack of investment in community cohesion and social capacity building limited the long-term impact of these types of initiatives?
  • Does the absence of critical appraisal of social needs hinder the development of holistic smart city solutions?
  • How can we orient experts unfamiliar with community communications and community development objectives in such a way that they are poised to meet the challenges of bridging the gap between different stakeholders?


  • To what extent does the availability of inclusive models of community-focused media, such as community radio and community newspapers, provide a valuable platform for engagement?
  • Can leveraging decentred forms of media combined with wicked problem-solving approaches enable the training and confidence of community advocates?
  • How will the changing landscape of various public and commercial sectors provide opportunities to address community needs through smart solutions?

Threats (Challenges):

  • What do we need to consider if we are to address privacy concerns and seek to gain consent and trust in a smart city situation?
  • How should we go about developing an inclusive framework for community engagement and ensuring all views are valued remains a challenge?
  • What will be the impact of climate change on infrastructure and services, of added complexity to the smart city design process?

Enablers, Objectives, Requirements, and Key Players: To ensure the success of the community reporter model and effective community engagement in smart city design, several enablers, objectives, requirements, and key players need to be considered. To what extent can these be based on a people-centric approach, and to what extent must we factor in transparency, digital confidence and awareness, and adequate infrastructure?

What would collaboration among steering groups, design teams, universities, researchers, community champions, policymakers, and government entities look like in driving this process forward.

By engaging diverse voices in the design of smart cities, it may be possible to create inclusive, equitable, and sustainable urban environments that work in practice and have the consent of the people who are part of them.

Potentially, the community reporter model offers a powerful approach to empowering communities by amplifying their voices, and bridging the gap between decision-makers and the community. By embracing this model and addressing the challenges associated with engagement, can we create smart cities that truly serve the needs and aspirations of all their residents?