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A Snapshot of Citizens’ Priorities and Views

ESI ThoughtLab

For city leaders to be able to achieve their social, environmental, and economic goals and meet the needs of their citizens, the perspectives of those city residents must also be considered. In today’s world, social media is one of the most effective means to gauge citizen sentiment.

ESI ThoughtLab’s study, Smart City Solutions for a Riskier World, examined the approaches of 167 cities to addressing the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). To understand citizens’ priorities as they relate to the SDGs as well as their views on various smart technologies, we also created a real-time, AI-enabled Citizen Sentiment Tracker to explore Twitter feeds. 

This unique tool employed AI to collect, categorize, and assess citizen views expressed through hundreds of thousands of tweets. It allowed our team to identify which SDGs and technologies were top of mind for city residents and how their views compared with the efforts of leaders of the cities they live in. 

We selected 10 cities to examine—Abu Dhabi, Amsterdam, Auckland, Barcelona, Bogota, Lagos, New York, San Diego, Singapore, and Vancouver—to provide a representative sample of municipalities from around the world, different in population size, region, and stage of economic development. Our first analysis covered roughly 640,000 tweets over nearly 10 weeks, from January 25th to March 31st, 2021.  

A predominant focus on good health and peace

The SDG good health and well-being accounted for almost half of the tweets collected—not surprising given that COVID-19 was the overwhelming concern of most city residents around the world. While the share of tweets on health and well-being issues fluctuated somewhat over the period under review, it generally remained the most salient focus of discussion.  

Peace, justice, and strong institutions followed as the next most frequently commented SDG, accounting for 29.3% of tweets collected. This reflected rising public concerns around social justice, civil unrest, political polarization, and democratic processes in many of the cities. For instance, in Barcelona, the Catalan regional elections spurred discourse around separatism, while large-scale demonstrations against the military takeover in Myanmar were a major topic of discussion among Singaporeans.

The remaining SDG topics were mentioned far less often. Tweets related to no poverty made up just 5% of the total and many of these reflected pandemic-related issues. In New York, for instance, they centered on COVID-19’s economic impact and support for government relief packages. Industry, innovation, and infrastructure, the fourth-placed SDG, was cited most in Abu Dhabi (8% of tweets), a city striving to be the technology and innovation hub of the Middle East. SDGs related to the environment got the least tweets, since these concerns were eclipsed by more immediate worries related to the pandemic and its repercussions. ​

Similar trends by region

The comments collected from the 10 representative cities generally reflected broader trends in their regions. The two main SDGs – good health and well-being, and peace, justice, and strong institutions – were the principal focus in all regions. Citizens’ worries around peace and justice in Bogota and Lagos mirror those of citizens throughout Latin America and Africa, regions that struggle with civil unrest, criminal organizations, high levels of corruption, and fragile state institutions.  

In Europe, electoral battles and political polarization have been top of mind, especially, but not exclusively, in Barcelona, where the Catalan independence movement has sparked huge debate around peace and justice. The fight for democracy in Asia has pushed the conversation around peace to the forefront in cities like Singapore and Hong Kong. ​

Metro residents in North America (New York, San Diego, and Vancouver) and MENA (Abu Dhabi) tweeted more about health issues. A weak government response at the start of the pandemic hurt these two regions.

Tracking citizen views on smart technologies

Our study showed that cities are adopting a wide range of digital technologies to support their efforts to achieve their urban development goals. The citizen sentiment tool tracked city residents’ comments related to 12 key technologies—AI, blockchain, robotics, cloud, autonomous vehicles, digital and mobile, data security, IoT and sensors, augmented reality, biometrics, and geospatial technology. At the top of the list in terms of number of tweets were digital and mobile, AI, blockchain, and data analytics.  

Many of the tweets around mobile centered on apps, the quality of mobile networks and phones, and availability of 5G. Blockchain was a popular topic because of a surge in discussion about bitcoin and other cryptocurrency investing. The other technologies didn’t get many mentions. This could change as cities accelerate their adoption of more advanced technologies such as data security tools, Internet of Things, and biometrics.