Explained: Why Facebook’s COO Swears by The Usage of Tech and Social Media in Connecting Cities to Their Residents

As we grow our work across cities in the US, we have seen, again and again, the ways in which city leaders are harnessing technology to improve their communication with and connection to their residents. Cities are becoming increasingly aware of the value of social media tools like Facebook and Twitter, which, unlike other traditional communication tools used by many cities, are gender, race and socio-economically agnostic, meaning they have the potential to tap into diverse communities across cities and towns of all sizes. At Zencity, we believe that helping cities access and analyze this kind of data serves as a way to give a voice to the otherwise silent or passive majority.

“If you’re a city in America and you’re not using technology, you’re missing an opportunity, number one, to connect to your constituents, but number two, to allow your constituents to connect to the city. That’s what’s so important.” 
Mayor Marty Walsh, Boston, MA

At the recent 86th Annual Meeting of the US Conference of Mayors, which our team just returned from, we were thrilled to see that some of the leading mayors in the US have identified the importance of technology for exactly the same reason. The Annual Meeting wove together the Conference’s three key priorities for 2018: infrastructure, innovation and inclusion. With those themes in mind, a panel on the intersection between technology and American cities focused exclusively on this idea of using technology to connect to all citizens. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg took the stage and repeated, again and again, the importance of social media to city leaders in communicating with and connecting to their communities, as well as the importance of giving all communities access to technology and innovation.

Mayor Walsh succinctly laid out a message that resonated with us greatly: “If you’re a city in America and you’re not using technology, you’re missing an opportunity, number one, to connect to your constituents, but number two, to allow your constituents to connect to the city. That’s what’s so important.” Mayor Walsh’s emphasis on the way in which technology and new media provide a tremendous opportunity for cities by creating a two-way channel of communication should not be taken lightly. Whereas traditional media resources for cities like press conferences and the 6 o’clock news were once a way for a city to have a one-way conversation with its residents, mediums like Facebook Live, Twitter threads, and even the comments sections of online newspapers are all platforms for dynamic, two way conversations, where the city can speak to its residents – and the residents can always answer back.

Mayor Walsh also highlighted how this kind of dynamic engagement extends beyond social media. He spoke about how the City of Boston went through a master planning process (the first in 50 years!), and have now implemented a dashboard on their website to talk about what they’re doing. “In the past,” said Mayor Walsh, “you do a master plan and it would be a document and it would be on the shelf … now, because of technology, that’s a living, breathing document. Because of technology, what might have worked three years ago, doesn’t work today, and you can adjust that master plan to today.” Utilizing technology to continuously revamp and revisit planning and strategy is one of the driving motivations behind our work at ZenCity. Moreover, we believe that you should revisit strategic initiatives and improve them using metrics.

Boston is starting to do this. They’ve begun utilizing metrics to improve services and to make these improved services more available. For Mayor Walsh, measuring statistics in both the long-term and over the course of the day has been enormously insightful for the city. Hearing a mayor talk about the power and importance of measuring data over time and daily was like music to our ears because this is one of the linchpins of the success of our platform – the fact that it provides different vantage points for different time periods.

“The more connected we are, the more we can move together, forward, together.”
Mayor Sylvester Turner, Houston, TX

The panel at the US Conference of Mayors was rounded out by Mayor Turner, who could attest to the power of technology and the community connections it enables during some of the toughest times – in his case, in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. Mayor Turner is practical and forward-thinking: “the reality is that things are changing, technology is here and it’s here to stay,” he said. Consequently, he is focusing on leveraging social media to help communities stay connected and to bring technology and innovation to under-resourced and underprivileged communities. Moreover, he wants to make sure the city “doesn’t further increase the divides between the haves and have-nots.” Mayor Turner knows that there are many people in the city that are hard to reach, and that “technology is a way to connect with them … For me, it’s all about connectivity. The more connected we are, the more we can move together, forward, together.”

And of course, how could we leave out Sheryl Sandberg from a recap of a panel that she took part in? Sandberg preached the good that Facebook can bring to local communities and the reality that, “city by city, street by street, town by town, people connect on Facebook whether it’s during a disaster, whether it’s for a birthday, whether it’s the everyday things in your life.” So how is Facebook taking an active step on the city level? Sandberg used the panel to announce Facebook’s commitment to investing in local communities by investing in local economy. Facebook will be supporting the growth of small businesses through Facebook by providing social media training. Additionally, she stressed how Facebook provides a platform where mayors can connect directly to their constituents, again touching on themes of connectivity but also transparency through communication.

All in all, we were fired up to see some of the most prominent leaders of our time, in both the public and private sector, coming together to talk about the way that cities can continue harnessing the power of tech to move cities forward. This is what we’re all about at ZenCity and we believe that leveraging the communication channels that residents are using to enable cities to connect to all the communities in their city is an opportunity not to be missed. 

You can watch the whole panel here starting at minute 12:15.