How do we engage citizens in smart cities? Views from Holyrood’s smart cities event


The Technology Innovation Centre, Strathclyde University

                                                                                                Image by John Lord via Creative Commons

By Steven McGinty

On 14th September, Holyrood held a smart cities event at Strathclyde University’s Technology and Innovation Centre (TIC). It was chaired by Willy Roe CBE, an expert in public service reform, and brought delegates together from local and central government, academia, and the private sector.

The smart cities agenda is becoming increasingly important as cities face significant challenges, including climate change, traffic congestion, and ageing populations. However, as Dr Lorraine Hudson, Research Fellow at the Open University, highlighted, only 18% of people have heard of smart cities. This issue of ‘engagement’ became a key theme for the event, with delegates wondering how we engage citizens in smart cities.

Future City Glasgow

Gary Walker, former Programme Director for Future City Glasgow, spoke about the council’s success in exploring ‘innovative ways to use technology and data to make life in the city safer, smarter and more sustainable’.

With £24 million in Innovate UK funding, a number of demonstrator projects were introduced, including:

  • creating a new state-of-the-art Operations Centre, with integrated, traffic and public safety management system, bringing together public space CCTV, security for the city council’s museums and art galleries, traffic management and police intelligence
  • introducing intelligent street lighting in areas, such as the Riverside Walkway, which switch on when people walk by, and Gordon Street, where lighting provides real time data on noise levels, footfall, and air pollution

The council has also incorporated a number of community engagement initiatives. These include:

  • Engagement hubs – the hubs provide information to citizens about smart cities, and were spread out across Glasgow, including the main hub on Buchanan Street and in communities such as Easterhouse and Pollock.
  • The Glasgow Cycling App – the easy to use platform was designed to encourage cyclists to share their experiences of cycling, generating data that could help others plan journeys or highlight areas to target for improvement
  • ‘Gamified’ engagement tool – this tool was developed in collaboration with the University of Glasgow and a local company, and aims to encourage people to modify their energy behaviours

Time to involve the people?

Dr Lorraine Hudson presented research from the Institution of Engineering and Technology. It highlighted that:

  • people’s views are the most important considerations when taking cities forward
  • introducing new city-wide technologies has been done without consulting citizens
  • the public has yet to buy into the idea of smart cities and are not convinced by the value and benefits on their lives

She also posed the question of whether citizens should be thought of as passive ‘consumers’ or ‘co-creators’ of smart cities.

In addition, Dr Hudson provided some statistics on the free Smart Cities course run by the Open University. They showed that over 23,000 people had joined since 2014, with 45% ‘knowing little or nothing’ about smart cities prior to the course. There was also interest from over 100 countries, including Brazil, India and Ukraine.

Interestingly, she suggested that participants’ comments could be mined to understand citizens’ views on topics such as open data, privacy and leadership.

Mazi Project

Dr Michael Smyth provided an insight into the MAZI project, a collaborative EU initiative which sets out to empower people to use technology to shape their local public spaces.

The innovative aspect of the project involves the use of ‘Do-It-Yourself networking’ – a combination of wireless technology, low-cost hardware, and free/libre/open source software (FLOSS) applications. By making these technologies understood and easy to customise, configure and deploy, MAZI hopes to empower citizens to build their own local networks to facilitate physical, hybrid and virtual interactions within communities.

Panel Discussion

Ben Miller, Policy and Communications Officer from Smart Energy GB, commented on the UK’s rollout of smart meters. He explained that although many meters had been replaced, some members of the public were still reluctant to have the new smart meters installed. It was suggested that they represented the ‘spy in the house’, with some people concerned over the data being recorded and sent to electricity suppliers.

Ritchie Somerville, Innovation and Futures Manager at Edinburgh City Council, reflected on the impact of their budget challenge planner, an engagement tool which enabled citizens to have their say on how public money should be spent. The council used the feedback gathered to help make decisions when finalising the budget. The tool received over 3000 ‘engagements’ and was deemed to be a success by the council.

Mr Somerville also highlighted the importance of explaining the benefits of smart cities. He explained that most citizens are happy to sign up to social media and store club cards because of the services and rewards they receive. In his view, providing the opportunity to opt into services and showing the clear benefits should ease concerns over privacy.

Dr Hudson provided some further thoughts on the need for engagement. She noted that smart city project ‘Bristol is Open’used an open blog to encourage debate.  Additionally, she warned that failing to consult citizens could lead to a lack of trust. Another delegate highlighted Edinburgh Airport, who implemented a £1 drop-off charge without consultation, and are struggling to engage local residents over plans to change flight routes.

Scott Moore, Business Analyst at the Improvement Service, described his experience learning from Seoul’s (South Korea) main digital transformation body. In response to a question on cultural differences, he explained that the use of digital technology is more widespread in Seoul, amongst all age groups. He suggested that encouraging an increased take-up of digital technology would be a key challenge for Scotland. The Carnegie Trust and the Wheatley Group are two organisations who have been doing excellent work in tackling digital exclusion.

Final thoughts

The event provided a great opportunity to reflect on the future of cities. Although public budgets are reducing, it was felt that investing in a smarter approach to cities was a worthwhile endeavour. With the introduction of the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act, many felt that this was an ideal time for local authorities to engage with citizens, and ensure smart cities are not just focused on technology, but are truly citizen-led.


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