Together is better: when engaging citizens makes cities smarter

Engaging rather than imposing top-down solutions. Community empowerment and trust-building make European cities smarter: Insights and innovations from a grassroots approach to urban planning.

Imagine living in a building that once leaked heat in the winter and baked in the summer, now retrofitted to be a haven of comfort and efficiency. Picture neighborhoods buzzing with green energy, all born from the collective imagination of the people who live there.
This is the ultimate goal of the Climate-Neutral (CN) Labs, piloted in Dresden and Zaragoza, and experimented in many other cities like Vantaa, Ghent, and Istanbul. Not only spaces for scientific brainstorming, these living labs act as innovation hubs where citizens and other stakeholders roll up their sleeves and help to co-create climate solutions for Positive and Clean Energy Districts in their cities, for example moving to geothermal energy for heating and renovating buildings. This grassroots approach to urban planning isn’t just about meeting climate neutrality goals; it is about creating spaces that resonate with the needs and dreams of the community. Stefania Mascolo, Eurocities coordinator of the European project NEUTRALPATH, which is running these labs, explains: “Every city is different. Only by involving all the actors of the local ecosystem can you co-design solutions that meet local needs. In the process of setting up thelLabs we are seeing a good degree of responsiveness by the population in the five participant cities. Most people are well-aware of the relevance of climate challenges and happy to be doing something in their own environment”. Living labs focus on practical activities, such as collaborative workshops with citizens, training sessions for city staff about innovative governance solutions, and looking for ways to influence citizens’ behaviour towards greener mobility and energy patterns. The most challenging ambition is to involve those population groups with limited awareness of climate change challenges, and those who are most vulnerable to the consequences of climate change. To reach these groups, it is important to focus on the concrete benefits of the climate neutrality transformation, such as lower energy bills and better health”, says Mascolo. This means finding a sustainable way to finance the renovation investments and innovative services, guaranteeing affordability: which in turn means mobilising private investors to help co-design sustainable and innovative business models, another important pillar of co-creation.

Experience shows that this approach works. Let’s travel to Torrelago, a district in Laguna de Duero, in the province of Valladolid, Spain. Here, the Cityfied project has transformed 1,488 apartments, not just physically, but in the hearts and minds of the residents. This massive overhaul slashed energy consumption by 40% and cut CO2 emissions by a staggering 94%. But the real story is how this change came about. It was a journey of persuasion, public meetings, and a unique ‘local ambassador’ – a trusted figure from within the community who bridged the gap between residents and project managers. The residents, initially skeptical, saw their heating bills plummet and their homes transform, all for a manageable investment. This project wasn’t just about energy efficiency; it was a lesson in trust-building and community empowerment, sustained by a sound business model. Ali Vasallo Belver, of the Cartif Foundation, a technology centre that coordinated the project, explains:”All the apartments were privately owned, and the renovation had to be approved by a majority of residents, so we had to persuade them of its benefits. The retrofitting project, with a budget of €16.5 million, was co-founded by the EU’s FP7 programme and each household had to agree to pay €5,712 to match EU co-financing, but the providers anticipated the costs getting it back from the heating bills. A win-win situation”.

However, no business model can work unless people are convinced that the green transition is in their best interests. Many cities are experimenting with gaming and other engagement tools to develop awareness in the population and test ways to change behaviours. The city of Trento in Italy, for example, ran a gamified learning activity with over 200 students between 14 and 16 years old in a local high school, to teach about the impact of behaviour on energy consumption, as part of the STARDUST project. The students worked in groups to measure energy consumption by classroom and building, with a gimmick (smart plug device). Then they competed in estimating the total consumption of the school compared to the previous year – those who guessed closest to the actual energy bill got a prize and of course the glory. “We used the gamified activity to simulate the kind of behaviour which can minimise energy use, and gave the smart plugs to the students to take home,” says Nicolas Caballero, from EURAC research, organiser of the activity together with the local environmental protection agency APPA and the educators from  Level Up. “The kids very much enjoyed the interactive part of the experiment, a little less the informative part, which is normal. We used a web app to report on consumption and provide advice, a tool which we hope to use again in other schools. Actually we’d love to use it in households!”.

The advantages of energy-efficient buildings are easy to see, while the benefits of other climate-neutral transformations are less evident and require changes in people’s behavior. Take for example mobility: how best to persuade people to walk, cycle or use public transport to work or school instead of driving? Perhaps by launching a mobile app granting credits (a bonus) if people choose public transport (or walking) instead of a car: or by encouraging visitors to Trento to park their car and use electric scooters to move around the city. These are two of the innovative business ideas proposed by Trento University’s students in a smart mobility hackaton challenge, launched by the city in 2022. “The hackaton attracted a lot of attention; eventually it involved 35 students in 6 competing teams” explains Marcello Curci from Habitech, partner of the STARDUST project, organiser of the challenge with the municipality, EURAC, FBK, Deda Next and JETN (Junior Enterprise Trento). The 3 winning teams received a small amount of money and the opportunity to present their idea to the Trento administration. “Our real goal was to raise awareness and engage the students about the mobility issues” concludes Curci.

Many cities are experimenting with mobile apps to “nudge” behavioural changes. Tampere for example – another partner of STARDUST – launched a mobility carbon footprint calculator in 2021, with an average of 1500 users per month. Tampere’s residents can use it to calculate the CO2 emissions through their everyday mobility choices: the idea was to encourage more sustainable ways of getting about. The city also ran a test, with the support of Helsinki University, by adding to the app proactive information on health benefits for people walking or cycling instead of using transport. “Citizens appreciated the information, but we did not find evidence that it changed their mobility choices, compared to a control group: the effect was probably small” explains Anna Vilhula, Tampere’s project manager for the initiative. As behavioural science shows, information alone is not  usually enough to make people change their behaviour – there must be some kind of emotional trigger or driver to overcoming habits. However, these tools supply high quality data on mobility patterns and carbon footprints which is extremely useful for city mobility managers.

Article written by Gabriella Cattaneo

Foto di Jacek Dylag su Unsplash