Listen to Dublin’s leadership in communication and supporting a culture of innovation across local governments.
Conor Dowling PHD, Smart Sandyford Programme Manager
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Welcome to the Govlaunch Podcast. Govlaunch is the Wiki for local government innovation and on this podcast we’re sharing the stories of local government innovators and their efforts to build smarter governments. I’m Lindsay Pica-Alfano, co-founder of Govlaunch and your host.
The City of Dublin launched its “Smart Dublin” programme in 2016 with the goal to future-proof the Dublin region by trialing and scaling innovative solutions to a wide range of local challenges.
But Dublin’s is not your typical Smart City model -- Dublin has been focused on developing Smart districts in order to allow each distinct area to pilot and innovate within its own regional context as opposed to a city-wide model. From efforts to tackle the climate crisis to bridging the digital divide, they believe that with a region specific focus to innovation, they can build a more resilient Dublin.
Today, Olivia from our team chats with Conor Dowling from Dublin’s Smart Sandyford District. So I’ll pass it over to Olivia and Conor now to chat about the great work underway in Dublin.
Hi, I'm Olivia from Govaunch and I'm here with Conor Dowling from Dublin, Ireland. Connor, tell us a little bit about your role.
Hi, Olivia. Thanks for having me on the podcast. I'm the Smart Sandyford District Program Manager here in the smart city team in Dublin. So I'm a researcher by training and recently completed a PhD in urban resilience here. I used IOT float sensors to measure and improve the resilience of Dublin in the face of climate change and it was actually in the development and deployment of these sensors that I first engaged with the smart Dublin team. So they helped me connect with other academics, industry experts and help progress my research. So jump forward a couple of years to last November and, uh, here I am as the smart city program manager. Um, the Smart Sandyford program I managed now is a research led smart business district. So here we bring local government, academia, and the local business interests together. Um, this is achieved through partnerships with enable and connect research centers in Trinity College Dublin, Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, and local business interests through the Sandyford Business District, but all of this essentially falls under the smart Dublin umbrella.
Um, my work involves coordinating projects between these diverse partner stakeholder groups and addressing the needs of local residents, employees on the actual companies themselves. So the primary focus for me is on mobility. You know, we've huge congestion in the district, um, on, it's kind of on one of the main motorways as well. So it's a big commuter area and, but I also work on sustainability and resilience projects. Um, we gather data, develop projects based on the information the data provides, and then we operationalize these projects. So the aim of the smart Dublin program or my own program smart Sandyford is to offer a new way to provide more efficient and cost effective testing of smart city technologies that once proven can then be scaled across Dublin. And that's, that's me
Really interesting work that you're doing, and we'll definitely unpack the smart city district based approach you mentioned a little further on today, but before we delve into that, just generally, how are things going within the city of Dublin today?
Yeah, I mean, to be honest, things are quite tough at the moment. Um, at this stage, you know, everyone's kind of fed up or suffering indeed from COVID-19 and it's probably quite a difficult time for most Dubliners. Um, we're at a level three of a five level government restriction system here, which essentially means that most businesses, uh, that their offices are closed. People are being asked to work from home and there are no indoor restaurants or entertainment, visiting a friend's is limited for example. So with that in mind, pretty much from the start of this year in February, we've had to have a complete shift for the focus of local government and indeed for our smart city team. So on the positive side, you know, there is a silver lining from the pandemic is if there is one is that it's led to a huge amount of activity across Dublin in the form of COVID relief measures that promote local businesses and help the economy.
So one such example is the introduction of safer cycling infrastructure. So we've had segregated cycle lanes for the, like pretty much for the first time properly introduced, um, staggered traffic signals promoting cyclists ahead of traffic. And all of this is supported by data driven decisions based on simple PIR assist, sensor data that are placed around the city. Um, so this is having a major impact on the city and promoting modal shift onto more active forms of transport, such as walking into cycling, but crucially, this is all making local villages, more accessible and more enjoyable places to stay, eat at, or even go shopping. And that in turn all sustains the local economy through the pandemic.
So right off the bat, you gave our listeners a fabulous example of one of your smart city initiatives related to mobility, having actual sensor data, influencing your decision making around cycling infrastructure is powerful. Just thinking about how contentious rolling this type of infrastructure can be at times, it's helpful to know that you are using simple and smart technology to actually plan these out. Can you speak more about the sensor data and you know, is this helping shift car usage to bike usage?
Sure. So I think it's important that we know that this sensor data forms a piece of the puzzle with, um, you know, there's obviously the project planning, but there's also a consultation process with local stakeholders before, during and after any project. And then the sensor data feeds into that, so that we're able to address key issues. So for example, one of the, you know, you said that the cycle lanes might block up a particular road. We actually put our traffic sensors then on the next road over where, you know, you'd assume the us, the likelihood that the traffic is going to be moved to, to see the actual impact that the cycle lanes are having. What we've seen is that the traffic has not increased overall on the surrounding roads. And actually traffic has decreased all around the areas where these cycle lanes have been introduced, as we've seen that the shift to cycling or walking, you know, it's a longterm trial. Most of these things are done over six month period. So we had actually, you know, you'd expect more cyclists during the summer. Um, we'll hope to see the same trends where we're seeing the increase in cyclists continue into the winter. Um, but that, that remains to be seen, but it is a matter of monitoring that data and seeing what the exact impact is so that when people have those concerns, you can say, well, look, here's the hard and fast truth of things of things and that usually is probably the best way to deal with that.
Your comments around people and human feedback being integral to your process is key. Smart city does not mean void of humans. As evidenced by what you've shared with us already. Your team and Dublin overall are certainly making waves in the smart city realm. How did Dublin started? Sterny the integration of digital infrastructure? And can you touch on the start of this journey with us?
Well, that's, that's nice to hear that we're making waves, but, uh, we, we probably started quite small, really. Um, we focused on first discovering what the challenges are for local government. And then looking at what market solutions were available to address those challenges. So this allowed us to be pretty flexible and that it was kept relatively small in that initial stage. And we were able to react to the needs of stakeholders as they arrived to the program. Um, and then we were able to of course, pivot to new projects as they came up. So that quickly gave us a few early successes and helped build up the smart Dublin brand, if you will. Um, and, um, back generated new projects all by itself. So that was, that was hugely helpful. Um, you know, I mentioned at the start we adopted this smart districts approach, so that helped us focus on innovation in particular areas in the city and to the specific needs of the area.
Because I think sometimes when you hear of these citywide programs, individual citizens might not be aware of where it's happening if they don't see it on their doorstep. So by having certain areas where people know things are happening, they're actually up to see it in the daylight, which really helps. So I think, you know, everybody knows that the rapid digitalization of public services over the last decade or 20 years, maybe at all levels of government has led to the need to test and validate these new technologies quickly and effectively to ensure that they're safe. Um, in 2016, that actually led to the formation of smart Dublin, um, the adoption of that district approach. So in essence, we have five key drivers, so we prioritize civic innovation. Number two, we aim to, to solve city challenges. We are program led by institutions such as the local government or in some cases, academic partners.
Um, and then fourr we prioritize improving local districts. Um, that's really important that there's real impact for the areas that these solutions are being tested. And then number five, critically, um, further to the point about the consultation process, we engage with the local citizens throughout that engagement. So before, during, and after we're getting feedback and ensuring people are up to date rather than just an initial consultation, and then they may never hear of a project or a report that gets left on a shelf. So really the smart districts approach was designed based on a triple helix model, which is basically we emphasize the need to combine the knowledge and experience of the different stakeholder partners. So industry academia and government to all successfully develop trial and deploy smart technologies recently, though, we've actually emphasized that this could be considered a quadruple helix.
So to emphasize that inclusion of the citizen as well, um, in, in Dublin, we have a few different districts and while each of the districts are directly supported by third level institutions and local government, um, my own district smart Sandiford is the first one to actively engage with the industry as a partner. So they are actively involved in every single project we do. They're not just brought in on particular, um, projects as they arise. The local companies are consulted as a task force, at least monthly. Um, and then on the particular projects that the individuals are working with us on. So that's, that's really how we're engaging and bringing all the different partner groups together as we go.
Dublin has been on the cutting edge of leveraging data to support its smart city initiatives, which brings up questions around privacy and data. You mentioned business partnerships that you've engaged with, and that certainly brings these questions top of mind. How does this play into your work and how has Dublin addressed these concerns more generally?
Okay. So one of our core ends for any of our projects is to work with partners in industry to make data available to our citizens for smart Dublin, privacy data sovereignty and data security are core elements of our approach. Uh, the attention in the first instance is to open up governance through participatory processes. And secondly, to ensure that the smart city or smart Dublin serves its citizens in the way the citizens would want to be served, you know, uh, rather than build the way around, we're not coming up with smart technology for the government, but rather seeking out what exactly the local citizens are interested in, what their needs are. Um, in terms of our own output then, we have an online data platform called dublinked, where we publish almost all of our data as much as possible, anything that isn't, um, you know, where we can't have for security or privacy reasons with a local company, we can't share.
That's the only reason we wouldn't share our data. So everything is made public. We scrub it, anonymize the data in line with GDPR and make it available to the public. So for maybe people who are outside of Europe, GDPR is General Data Protection Regulation, and it's an EU wide regulation ensuring, um, personal privacy and protection for the individual, uh, in terms of their data. Each of our projects has a strict checklist to ensure that data is gathered and stored by us, and our partners in compliance with GDPR at a bare minimum. But, um, beyond making that data available, we actually tried to go a step further and summarize the data and turn it into information so it's easy for people to understand and see what we're doing and what's happening in their city. Um, for example, Dublin consists of four local authorities and we all four work with MasterCard to produce the quarterly Dublin economic city monitor, which is basically a report on the economics of the city.
And that's overseen by Jamie Cudden. Um, the monitor is a report on the economic performance of the city and highlights spending trends using MasterCard data, as well as other inputs, from everything from housing to savings, to local government taxes and that kind of thing. Um, so a key objective of the monitor is to develop and publish new data series each quarter to increase our understanding of the performance of Dublin. And it includes spending analysis to deliver unique insights for the consumers and tourism spend, but it also gives timely insights on factors such as retail and housing, as I mentioned. Um, I think it's important to note that the over the last few months we've seen a massive impact of COVID from this and a real shift away from spending in shops in person towards online spending as people are spending more time at home.
So that's interesting as a trend that probably we were seeing up to 30% of the spend in Ireland was, um, online sales. That's increased now over the last couple of months with people working from home. And basically these kinds of projects where we're working with multinationals or indeed smaller companies to gather and manage data and then publish it, are really important for business promotion in the city. Just as a side benefit, not necessarily this project, but MasterCard recently announced a further 1500 jobs in Sandyford. So hopefully that kind of relationship continues to be mutually beneficial.
The example you just shared regarding your partnership with the private sector can only truly be successful when you garner public trust. How did Dublin initially roll out and promote the smart Devlin program and was this met with any initial resistance?
So with the creation of smart Dublin and the adoption of that smart district's approach, I mentioned it was decided that each of our districts would have specific objectives to fit with the nature of the district itself. So it's smart Sandyford, the district, which I manage, um, that was the third district in Dublin. And by the end of the year, we're going to have five districts. So each of those districts operates with specific business objectives. The first of these which was set up in 2016 was the smart Docklands in the center of the city, which has quite a mixture of our, uh, central business district with some older inner city communities. Um, and that was designed as a smart city test bed where developers could come and trial new sensors and connectivity designs to kind of develop this idea of a smart city following on from that, uh, by a year and a half ago, smart DCU, which is a Dublin city university was designed as a smart city campus.
And that's actually tied with one of the biggest stadiums in Dublin, which has an 80,000 capacity GAA stadium, which allows us to address challenges around mass movement and gatherings of people in a confined space. So building on those two earlier inceptions then came smart Sandiford, which is designed as a smart business district, um, where we prioritize the needs of the business community and go beyond the simple testing of devices really to pre-commercial tests that are then once proven, ready to go as a citywide deployments of technology. More recently in the last couple of months, we've had Smart Balbriggan, which is a smart community project. And then in the next couple of we're going to have smart Dublin Eight which is a smart healthcare focused district. Um, so it's a really exciting time for these districts, but they will have very kind of specific objectives that they deal with.
Um, you know, we've, we've spoken about the consultation process, but each it, as they're being developed each of these, uh, work, um, districts, I'll take that one again. And we might chop that. So as they're being developed, each of these districts first has a workshop consultation with the local district stakeholders, which in, in my instance, in Smart Sandyford, we did that in 2019, um, before the inception of the district later that year in 2020. Um, and we identified mobility as the primary challenge facing the district and smart technology enabled areas are sold to address this and other challenge areas. So each of the districts goes through a similar process of engagement with local stakeholders to identify their core needs. Um, I suppose there wasn't really any resistance per se to the development of these districts, but I think some of the feedback can be a little bit off in terms of those consultation processes in terms of what people understand to be a smart city, but nothing really in terms of resistance.
Um, I think people quickly come around, they're able to understand the benefit of our approach and people are generally really welcoming and supportive of the project. And I think that's helped when they can see that their input is valued. We're listening to them and they can actually see the feedback and everything we publish on the impact on the projects we choose following the consultation and including those same people to give them feedback and get their feedback as we progress with projects. So that's all kind of a reinforcement cycle as we're going through different projects with different stakeholder groups, and it goes beyond simple testing of devices, um, to make real impact on informs pre commercial tests before the citywide development of technology, rather than maybe previously people would, you know, you might wake up with a new technology add on the lamppost, outside your window or something like that. People are a little bit more aware of what's going on now.
Shifting gears a bit, as you've mentioned, your smart city framework in Dublin was one of distinct districts. In practice, how do you ensure cohesion across all the smart city districts while still maintaining the opportunity for individualized district-based initiatives and innovation?
Yeah, like we, we joke that there's competition between us, I suppose there is a healthy bit of competition between the districts, but, but in reality, we really do work together as a team and it might sound corny, but it really does come down to teamwork there. So every morning we have a brief morning call, um, where the smart city team on each of the smart district managers touch base to discuss our planned actions for the day. And also just to make everyone aware of kind of upcoming events or new projects that are on the horizon so that we can kind of give input and, you know, tease through different problems that each of us are having. Um, this ensures that we're basically all aware of what's going on with the other districts, but it also helps those relationships. You know, it's not just a project update.
There's a little bit of chit-chat that, especially when we're all working from home these days, it's, it's really, really important to help build that team cohesion. I think we're helped as well by a really strong coordination team in smart Dublin. Allen Murphy and Ashley Lennon really help with kind of having this big picture view of where all the projects sit and where they fit between the different districts on maybe say, if I'm approached by a particular project, that isn't a clear fit with our, our district objectives of mobility, I can go to them and they'll know, okay, this energy project might fit better in, in smart DCU, for example. And that, that gives us, you know, it gives us quick turnaround and we don't have to say no to people that are approaching us because we are going to be able to find a fit or a home for different project types.
So I think just to add to that, most of our projects require a multidisciplinary and a multi-departmental approach be that within the local government, in the local, um, university, it takes all sorts of people and all sorts of different skill sets to get these bigger projects done and to be successful. We have to pool our resources and expertise, which has helped to break down silos and encourage collaboration, not only within local government, but also within with our industry partners on the academics, as I mentioned. So I, you know, we'd always say this is the only way forward to address any of the major existential threats, such as COVID that I mentioned or climate change. And so a true smart city requires the skill sets of all of these different stakeholder groups.
So you give us two great examples throughout this podcast. One around the partnership with MasterCard and the other one around the use of sensors for a data driven approach to implementing safe cycling infrastructure. Can you share with us some of the initial results of these initiatives and in your opinion, has the smart city program anticipated benefits actually materialized in Dublin so far?
Sure. So I mentioned the COVID relief measures that we're bringing in and the new cycling infrastructure, which is being introduced over the last six months, which has been absolutely transformational. Um, our footfall analytics, which picks up the different cycling modes has shown a 100% increase in cycling along where these new infrastructure, um, deployments have been in the last year. So June last year, we've seen a hundred percent increase in cyclists. That's an absolutely massive metric and target for our city. Um, I think it's, it comes down to helping people who wouldn't normally cycle and wouldn't feel safe. So our research showed that 1% of people are going to cycle no matter what, a further 10% of people are relatively comfortable on the road with cars. Um, but they'd be wary, a whopping 60% of people are afraid to cycle where there's not safe and structure to do so.
And if my math is right, the remaining 40% are not going to cycle no matter what you do. So, but basically it is so important to make cycling safe that, um, that's what has been reflected in our analytics. And that's just shown the influence in a very short space of time with, with measures that are relatively, quite cheap in comparison to developing a new road, for example, um, kind of have a massive increase, you know, from every perspective, from a health perspective to a, um, sustainability perspective, to a cost saving. Traffic alone has decreased. So on every metric you can imagine we're seeing a benefit to these sort of measures on the economic side. Um, we just actually, the, the national government published the budget for Ireland, uh, last night. So there's a massive shortfall obviously with COVID being the major factor there, um, across the country.
So we have to really think about where the return on investment is going to be and what impact our projects are going to have, and be possibly a little bit more selective in which projects we're going to go ahead with. And that's reflected in the economic monitor that I mentioned. We've seen the shift in people’s spending. People spending more, um, uh, things to do with their home home appliances, that kind of thing, and not so much on, um, uh, spending in, in cities. We're also seeing a shift in the type of house using that as being purchased or rentals being given up. And a move away from the city center. So we're having this donut effect or hollowing out of the city center, which is a major issue for a city like Dublin that's kind of tourism focused. And we cater a lot towards these big multinational corporations on their employees who are now not working and living in the city center as much.
And that's having a huge impact on our local businesses, but it's also having paradoxically a beneficial impact on some of the local bits is outside the city center. So the suburban villages and cafes that kind of business is actually seeing a bit of a turn. So to be aware of those trends and analyzing where those impacts is there going to be is absolutely critical when you're planning any sort of, um, approach or project for a smart city. I think where our data is hugely beneficial and kind of the proof is in the pudding. When you have those, those data metrics you can show, well, this is the impact and your anecdotal evidence doesn't stack up with what we're seeing in the data, and that usually is kind of where people open their eyes. And that's how you actually can progress a conversation with somebody who might have agreed with you in the first instance. But, um, overall I think most people would agree that the smart city programs have been hugely beneficial to the local citizen, to the government, and to research as well. So overall it's a really good news story, I think.
Great. Thanks for sharing that. And it's a perfect segue to my next question for you. Is there any advice that you'd like to share with a local government looking to develop its first smart city strategy beyond adopting the district based approach you shared?
Yeah. I’d really push for the district approach. We've seen it in a couple of cities around the world and how it works, obviously tweaking for the local environment, but no matter what approach you're thinking of adopting, the stakeholder buy-in is absolutely essential. And possibly some of our early projects, we didn't have buy-in from the gatekeeper or the champion in the local government or the researcher that we needed. But as we've learned from those earlier projects, we've seen the absolute importance of bringing people along the journey with you. Um, so that district process, for example, it's not good enough to just bring people in on individual projects as they arise. They really need to be aware of the long term objectives and ongoing projects that you have. Um, so stakeholders will come to a new partnership with their own distinct ideas based on their background and their experiences, but it's absolutely critical that you're able to bring all those experiences together to benefit from their knowledge would build a common objective that everyone can agree and then work towards together. We're pretty fortunate in Dublin, we're led by, um, the academic partners and Trinity and Professor Sean Clark there has, um, you know, real technical expertise obviously, but also has the insight into how to manage all those moving parts associated with these kinds of projects. And that's really important to have the right, the right people, the right leadership, but also to be able to bring other people along with your message as well.
Great. Do you have time for a few more quick questions?
Yeah, of course.
In innovation, we know that failure is an important part of the process. Tell us something that you've tried that didn't work.
I think every everyone I've talked to from a smart cities or cities management, even in, you know, the universities as well, we all have the same sort of headaches with, uh, procurement. Um, and one project that we had run was called the business innovation research project. So we identify different challenges that the council has, and then we set these challenges to address these projects. I've, um, as kind of like a, a prize for small companies to come in and enter and enter their own solutions and come up with novel ideas that could be then tested over a two year period and then the best solution would win and be developed right into the, into the, um, into the city. What happened though, was that because of our procurement legislation, we still had to go through the same, um, tender process. And it wasn't necessarily the company that had gone through this small business innovation research and done all the work with the council that was then winning the tender at the end. You know, they could be undercut by a larger company who might have a similar product, but is able to set it at a cheaper price, for example,
So our next are our following round of small business innovation research or SBR, um, projects has a built in preferred supplier arrangement so that if you go through this two year process, um, develop the solution, working with the local government, that you'll then be a preferred supplier and you're not absolutely guaranteed, but you're more likely to be the supplier of the technology for the city. So I think that's a really good learning that we took from an earlier project that, you know, had some initially good, solid objective, but some unforeseen outputs that we then learned from and try to adapt and fix to improve the, the offering, uh, in the longterm.
What's something that excites you about the future of civic innovation in Dublin?
Okay. Uh, I love anything to do with IOT and sensors. I think it's fascinating. I think it's going to change how we do almost everything, especially at a local government level. Um, but the competition at the moment between the different low power wide area network technologies and Biot Vodafone and LoRa and Sigfox is really driving innovation in Dublin at the moment. Um, we've already rolled out a number of Sigfox and LoRa based projects working with connect and Trinity, but with NBI IOT now really kicking up the competition and, and rolling out their nationwide coverage. I think this could be a game changer. So in Sandyford that’s where Vodafone's HQ is in Dublin, uh, we have a LoRa test bed with a local telco infrastructure provider cell next, who are running a number of further trials with air quality, transport monitoring, emergency backup, lighting, you name it. Um, and we also have Sigfox there as well.
So when you put all this together, this is opening up a huge amount of data, and we're seeing how these, um, you know, they're all similar IOT for most people, but they all have the little niche, um, place that they work on different projects. So we're actually able to compare and contrast them really well. And I think watching that competition develop is, is really, really exciting. Um, and something that, you know, city operators could only have dreamt up before in the month following its release, there were over a million downloads of our national government-led covert tracker app in Ireland. So it's just a simple, relatively simple Bluetooth app that lets citizens know if they've come in close contact with somebody who has COVID or if they come in contact with somebody who may have COVID. So it's allowing both the individual feel a little bit more safe, but it's also giving the government an awareness of where the key vectors are, where the concentration of COVID is.
And it's allowing us to plan a little bit better where to deploy, um, the, the resource at this time. So the rate of download of that app has been really high in comparison to other countries where it's voluntary. I think Japan has a good example, um, on certainly as a percentage of our total population, we'd have one of the higher uptakes of that app. So one of the companies that was involved in an app for the Irish based up near four, who are, who are based here in Ireland, um, are now rolling out a seminar app in New York, uh, mayor Como, on New Jersey or sorry, governor Como rather on New Jersey, governor Phil Murphy, um, are both, uh, getting these aps for their, for their, um, for their States. So I think that's, that's a really interesting way to go. I don't think it gives all the answers, but in terms of doing something proactive, I think it's a really important, um, technology for, for national and local government as well
From unpacking the unique district based approach to advancing smart city initiatives, to sharing with us specific examples, ranging from cycling infrastructure and partnering with the private sector to acquire some interesting data. You've certainly given our audience a lot of helpful insights regarding smart cities. We're looking forward to hearing about more projects like this, and thank you so much for joining us today, Connor.
With now 5 districts across the greater Dublin area, including a local university, and each focusing on different areas of innovation, Smart Dublin is able to pilot and test various models and products in specific areas before full deployment city-wide.
I’d like to highlight Smart Dublin’s leadership in communication and supporting a culture of innovation across local governments. They have been keen on transparency with public project boards and public updates on various pilots underway, highlighting the need for better tools for information sharing both across local governments and the community.
Thanks again to Conor Dowling for coming on to talk about his team in Dublin and their innovative work.
I'm Lindsay Pica-Alfano, and this podcast was produced by Govlaunch, the wiki for local government innovation. You can subscribe to hear more stories like this, wherever you get your podcasts. If you're a local government innovator, we hope you'll help us on our mission to build the largest free resource for local governments globally.
You can join to search and contribute to the wiki at govlaunch.com. Thanks for tuning in. We hope to see you next time on the Govlaunch podcast.