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Smart technology for cities and citizens

Emilie Doran, Communications and Member Relations, ICLEI Europe
07 December 2016
© Emilie Doran

Like most people in Europe today, I own a smart-phone. This summer, as I cruised across France on my bike for two months, it was my life-line. Online maps guided me through cities and countryside, crowd-sourced review websites helped me pick where to snack and sleep, booking applications made last-minute hotel and train reservations possible, and chat and audio softwares kept me connected with family and friends. Smart technology was my constant companions on the road!

In our work at ICLEI– Local Governments for Sustainability, we look at how smart cities and digitalisation are shaping the dynamics and the design of our urban environments. Back in the office, I reflected: what can be extrapolated from my summer bike trip experience? Breakthroughs in information and communication technology are changing the way we live – how we interact, work and spend our spare time. Digitalisation allows us to access, consume, and produce information on the go and experience our urban areas in new ways.

At ICLEI, we work with local authorities throughout Europe to use smart city principles to promote sustainable urban development. Smart solutions need to be designed to make cities better connected and more environmentally sustainable: in a rapidly urbanising world, cities need to become smarter to respond to citizen needs and to reduce their environmental footprint. Key challenges for smart and sustainable cities are to provide solutions to significantly increase cities' overall energy and resource efficiency through actions addressing, among others: buildings, energy systems, mobility, water and air quality in a multi-stakeholder cooperation setting.

© ACido Zítrico, Flickr

To be successful, smart cities must be based on inclusive, participatory, and service-oriented governance and decision making. ICLEI’s stand on smart cities is that technological progress is only valuable when it supports the citizens, in that way building more inclusive and cohesive societies.  Making data accessible and understandable empowers citizens, provides them with the information needed to help shape their city. Through people-centred online systems, cities can leverage the ideas and creativity of citizens with differing priorities and capabilities. This transparency can allow citizens to add their voice to urban planning discussions and contribute positively towards their community, particularly those difficult to reach groups or those that may not have engaged in the process otherwise.

Local governments are moving on this! In April this year, a milestone moment occurred when 1,000 participants of the 8th European Conference on Sustainable Cities & Towns adopted the Basque Declaration. Local leaders voiced their desire to think outside the box and find smart and innovative ways to economically and socially engage with civil society. The need for transformation and 15 pathways for progress to a liveable and inclusive Europe were outlined. In terms of technological transformation, the importance of using smart technologies, addressing the digital divide to facilitate equal access to information and digital services, and opening data standards for the public good are highlighted. 

But the theory needs to be transformed into practice, and that's where ICLEI comes in! My colleagues and I work on a number of EU-funded smart city projects, more often than not in cooperation with our member cities. Our team consists of over 50 urban sustainability and communication professionals based in Freiburg (Germany) and Brussels (Belgium). We step in to help local governments work with others in developing and delivering action for change based around smart technologies. Our experience includes translating complex research findings, directives and policies into accessible language, and transferring and disseminating knowledge, good practice and solutions to their local context.

Passing on practical lessons learned about solutions to other cities, to support replication is a key part of all ICLEI smart city projects. As a network of over 1000 cities, towns and regions committed ​to building​ a sustainable future, we believe that exchanging, sharing and learning is central to influencing change. Each and every city is different, and so the solutions and the way in which smart innovations are applied should be adjustable to the local context. There is no smart city blueprint, no one size fits all approach but there are commonalities which can be learnt from and shared, and ICLEI plays a key role in making this happen.

© May S. Young, Flickr

Here are some “smart” projects we work on:

GrowSmarter connects three ‘lighthouse cities with industrial partners to demonstrate smart city solutions in energy, infrastructure and mobility. Each city is transforming a local site into a testing ground, making significant investments in smart technology for energy, waste, mobility and more. The complexities in rolling out multiple solutions at the same time in an integrated way offer many challenges and potential lessons when it comes to breaking down silos and introducing change. “Follower Cities” will be paying close attention, with the goal to replicate suitable solutions in their own local contexts. The idea is to create a ready market for these smart solutions to support growth and the transition to a smart, sustainable Europe.

The smarticipate project will create a platform that makes open data available to citizens in an accessible format. Residents in three project cities will be able to use this platform as a tool to interact with their local council. It is designed to enable citizens to make proposals, make local authorities more transparent and to capture the creativity of the people who live there. Open data will be transformed from a little used resource to a vital tool to plan the future of a city. I quite like that smarticipate upends the traditional relationship between local authorities and citizens - making them partners.

My favorite aspect of the smarticipate project is the smartathon. Inspired by “hackathons”, smartathons are workshops for city officials and citizens to discuss how open data and smart technology can help improve their city. In September, Londoners were invited to join the first smartathon in their city, where they discussed how smarticipate could use new technology and open data to help them share an idea, improve an idea and turn an idea into reality. For a lively discussion, a mish-mash of people were sought: young and old, computer-literate and less so, local movers and shakers but also those with no political agenda. I really liked the idea that any and all citizens were invited to steer the process to turn the project into a user-friendly tool that is relevant for them. You can watch how it played out below: 

A smart solution example close to my heart takes us back full circle to where I started – on a bike. Last year I discovered a platform in our town (ICLEI member city Freiburg). Loosely translated from German as “Better on the go” the platform uses an interactive map to collect input from citizens about dangerous spots for pedestrians and cyclists. In three simple steps, you identify the traffic point on the map; describe the situation and make a concrete improvement proposal; and -optionally- include a picture. It's not a city initiative per se, but the city administration has committed to consider appropriate proposals for further implementation.

As a bike-commuter and concerned urban citizen, it resonates with me. The ultimate goal of the project captures exactly what I believe smart solutions should embody in this digital era: technology for better quality of life, increased environmentally friendliness, and more open citizen participation. And it gives me hope that every city can take its own, even small, “smart” steps. 

Emilie Doran, Communications and Member Relations, ICLEI Europe

I manage communication, event organising, and programme development for various conferences and projects. I’ve been involved in a range of ICLEI events, including the World Congresses and European Conventions, ESCT Conferences, and my personal favorite, the EcoProcura series. I’ve dabbled in mobility projects, such as Urban Transport Roadmap 2030, SOLUTIONS and CIVITAS CAPITAL, and have recently become involved in energy projects Heat Roadmap Europe and THERMOS.

I’m a “third culture kid” and reformed nomad, now settled at the edge of the Black Forest. In my spare time I listen to rock music, play team sports and go bike touring.

Follow me on Twitter @emilie_events