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A citizen-centred approach to smart cities – Information Centre – Research & Innovation

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IT solutions/tools can make urban services more efficient, sustainable and user-friendly. The citizens from these areas would need to fully understand how these tools work, and what the benefits are to profit from them. An ambitious EU-funded project has sought to achieve this by developing citizen-focused tools and supporting the next generation of smart city innovators.


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© Julien Eichinger, #87362621, source:stock.adobe.com 2021

Cities in the 21st century need to provide their ever-increasing populations with sustainable, safe and liveable environments. In recent years, the term ‘smart cities’ has been coined for IT-based initiatives that monitor and analyse different aspects of urban life, and manage the provision of various services, such as transport, lighting and waste disposal, intelligently. A service or app on your mobile that integrates bus, train and tram frequencies in real time is an example of a smart city application.

Smart cities must be inclusive and participatory, to ensure that these services are actually used. To be effective however, citizens need to be able to understand the processes that are driving smart cities. Citizens also need to feel that they are in control, rather than being under the control, of these innovative developments.

“The GEO-C project sought to investigate how we can realise truly open cities,” explains scientific coordinator Christian Kray, head of the Situated Computing and Interaction Lab at the University of Münster, Germany. “This means smart cities that are open to all citizens and that facilitate participation at all societal and technical levels.”

Collaborative approaches

To achieve this, the project brought together, in addition to institutes from Germany, Portugal and Spain, experts from academia, industry and government, specialising in a range of fields. Disciplines included environmental modelling, statistics, human-computer interaction and decision support systems. The aim was to find ways of building smart city services that put citizen needs at the centre, for example by ensuring that users can easily see which app is using what data.

“One key goal was to develop the Open City Toolkit (OCT), a collection of tools, software, libraries and apps that can empower citizens to participate in and shape the future of their cities,” says Kray. “The toolkit would help to deliver services based on open data that are useful for citizens, businesses and governing bodies alike.”

GEO-C, a research project undertaken with the support of the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions programme, also sought to train the next generation of smart city experts, within this multidisciplinary environment. “This research area provides challenging and rewarding topics for early-stage researchers to carry out PhDs,” notes Kray. “These topics include, for example, how to encourage participation across all ages and groups of society, how to assess quality of life, and how to deliver fundamental urban services.”

Some 15 EU-funded PhD researchers recruited for 3 years helped to develop the toolkit. City councils in the cities of Münster (Germany), Castellón (Spain) and Lisbon (Portugal), as well as several companies across Europe provided invaluable data, real-life case studies and technological expertise.

Providing urban solutions

The successes of GEO-C have underlined the importance of openness, collaboration and accessibility to the success of smart city innovations. All the tools and guidance developed through the project are open-source and freely available. Tools are highly practical, as they are focused on delivering solutions to real challenges.

“Shortly after our project started, Europe faced a large influx of refugees and was struggling with how to handle the situation,” notes Kray. “One of our researchers was inspired to work closely with refugees, to find ways of collaboratively developing technological solutions to be used by disadvantaged groups.” A resulting paper was published in the prestigious journal ‘Transactions in Human-Computer Interaction’ (TOCHI), and this is often cited as a successful example of how to work with groups that are socially excluded.

A number of follow-up projects continue to build on the project’s initial discoveries. These include the development of a tool to create software fully compliant with data protection rules and the investigation of methods to ensure that location tracking technology does not negatively affect digital sovereignty (in other words, it ensures that individuals have control over their data).

“All our EU-funded early-stage researchers have gone on to jobs in the field, many of them staying in Europe to help make open cities a reality,” adds Kray. “Their results are currently being used and trialled in ongoing and upcoming projects, giving citizens the power to contribute to the design of their own smart cities.”

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