How Do Smart Dublin's Link-Ups with Private Companies Influence the City?

Smart Dublin has made its mark on Dublin City Council, says Paul McAuliffe, former lord mayor of Dublin and current Fianna Fáil TD for Dublin North-West.

Take e-scooters, says McAuliffe. When the Department of Transport held a public consultation on the use of e-scooters, the council’s traffic department “put in a really conservative submission without going to any other department on it”, he says.

Councillors and the chief executive were annoyed, he said.

Partly because Dublin City Council’s Smart City unit had been regularly liaising with e-scooter firms and none of that work was reflected in the submission, says McAuliffe.

“That’s a good example of having something like Smart Dublin within the council [that] can function as a disruptor within the structures of a state organisation,” says McAuliffe.

The ripple effects of Smart Dublin’s collaborations can also be seen in the smart Big Belly bins now being rolled out across the city, which were used ahead of that in a Docklands trial.

These collaborations aim to foster innovation to create jobs, to make the city more energy efficient, and to address challenges like climate change and traffic congestion, says a 2019 report from Smart Dublin.

They also make Smart Dublin an unusual beast within the council, given its remit to partner with tech companies and other private players on challenges affecting the city, and to do so outside of the usual channels for public consultation or the usual procurement process.

The closeness of that relationship with the private sector throws up questions around influence, and whether other voices are sidelined in this push to support innovative ways to manage the city.

McAuliffe, who used to chair the council’s economic development committee, says he never felt a particular agenda or product was being pushed through Smart Dublin.

“Whenever local authorities and business interact with each other you can have issues that arise and that’s why we have the public procurement process to keep that distance,” he says.

But Paolo Cardullo says the influence of private companies is entrenched in the workings of the smart city teams in different cities, including Dublin – with people’s views of the city a secondary concern.

“In effect, what we have is real estate with a high price tag – not accessible to normal people,” says Cardullo, author of the book Citizens in the ‘Smart City’: Participation, Co-Production and Governance, and a former researcher in Maynooth University’s Programmable City department.

What Is Its Role?

According to Smart Dublin’s 2019 report, its focus is on collaborations between the local authorities, academia, private enterprise and people living in the city to address challenges within the city, create jobs, attract foreign investment and to improve city life.

But the focus is very much on fostering new businesses, says Liam Heaphy, a geographer in UCD and former researcher on the development of Smart Dublin.

Smart Dublin does this through workshops with staff in local authorities, Enterprise Ireland, the tech sector and IDA Ireland, says Heaphy.

Regular workshops are held where local businesses and representatives from local authorities have an opportunity to discuss “challenges” that they have in their particular areas, says Heaphy.

Companies outside of, and on, the forum then have to try to come up with solutions to these “challenges”. Those that do, get rewards, says McAuliffe.

“The challenges, in a way, were a way of getting around the public procurement process to try and ensure that we could partner with companies that responded in an innovative way to those challenges,” he says.

Previous Smart City challenges included ways to monitor gullies and help manage flooding, last-mile deliveries to cut congestion and pollution, and testing 5G small-cell networks.

Challenges are funded differently depending on the project and who that funder is, says Smart City lead Jamie Cudden.

Many of the research partnerships happen through Trinity College’s CONNECT Centre (Science Foundation Ireland’s Centre for Future Networks and Communication) and DCU’s Insight Centre for Data Analytics, he says.

Then there are pre-commercial procurements – a mechanism that allows public procurers to buy different products from different companies to see which suits their needs best before going to full tender.

These are generally funded by Enterprise Ireland. The aim of this funding is to facilitate competitive challenges that “drive innovation across all sections of the Irish public sector via robust engagement with technology rich companies and organisations”, according to Enterprise Ireland’s website.

“We also facilitate a much broader open innovation approach to showcasing all of this work through networks such as our docklands network etc.,” said Cudden, via email, speaking of the wider Smart Docklands forum.

They’re focused on “accelerating innovation” and they work closely with the IDA, Enterprise Ireland, Science Foundation Ireland, and start-ups to progress that, he said.

Different patches of land in the city have their own local smart districts, areas where tech-y products are piloted – including Smart D8, which is focused on health in that postcode, and the original district, Smart Docklands.

Currently, Smart Docklands has more than 200 members in its forum, including Google, Softbank, Intel, IBM, Hibernia REIT and six local resident and community groups.

Close Relationships

Smart Docklands grew out of the work that the Dublin Docklands Development Authority was doing in the area, said Heaphy, the UCD geographer.

As the tech sector moved in, it became more about serving the needs of this sector, he says.

“The IDA know that for these companies to stay, they need to invest more in research and development,” says Heaphy.

The concept of Smart Dublin emerged from this, as a space where companies could test new products with the support of the local authority, he says.

Smart Dublin became one way to link companies with one another, with research centres in the city, and with the council itself, he says.

It’s never had a big budget, says Heaphy. Last year its budget was €330,000, funded by the four local authorities, according to a spokesperson for Smart Dublin.

Emails between Hibernia REIT – a real estate investment trust that owns mostly commercial properties in Dublin – and Smart Dublin over three years highlight the close working relationship that Dublin City Council’s smart city unit has with one private company in the area.

They range from requests from Smart Dublin to book Hibernia REIT rooms for events, to invitations to Hibernia REIT to host a delegation of investors from Seattle or to ride in a driverless shuttle bus on its city debut.

There are exchanges in which Hibernia REIT asks the council for recommendations on internet of things (IOT) providers, and the council responds, or for recommendations for companies working on NCT tech.

There’s also an invite from the council, asking Hibernia REIT to join a “light-touch steering committee” on an energy project in the docklands, and a proposal around positive energy districts, the kind where neighbourhoods generate more renewable energy than they consume.

There are also emails from the council asking for advice on what “challenges” to focus on.

In an email to Smart Docklands’ Michael Guerin’s invitation for feedback on what Smart Docklands can focus on in 2019 “from a Property perspective”, Hibernia REIT’s Mark Pollard listed the company’s concerns.

“Outside the ‘tech’ elements, one of the key issues I see is the public transport/ walking/ cycling infrastructure,” says Pollard, listing out Dart Underground, more trams on the red Luas line through North Docks and plans for any new Liffey Bridges being mooted.

“The above are not quite your babies I know but if you can work on those with responsibility for them … appreciated,” he says.

In another email from February 2020, they mentioned proptech – which is tech applied to properties and planning – as “increasingly coming across our radar and a possible area our investors will require action on in the coming years”.

They also mention the use of virtual and augmented reality in the planning process and in the engagement process with potential tenants, as well as virtual receptionists, and tools to increase the energy efficiency of buildings as priorities.

Some of this is in the works through Dublin City Council’s collaboration with Microsoft and Bentley in building a digital twin of the city.

Is there a potential conflict of interest if Dublin City Council changes its planning process to align with the interests of institutional investment funds, and feedback from these “challenges”?

“I guess it depends if there are concrete changes that are going to emerge from these ideas,” says Heaphy.

If the actual processing of planning applications is going to change as a result of this – rather than from an independent study of the planning process – then there is a potential conflict of interest there, he says.

“If I was still researching this I’d be interested in talking more to planners about these ideas themselves and what they feel might have an effect on the planning process,” he says.

There’s just one entry on the lobbying register that mentions Smart Dublin. That’s from 2016, when SSE PLC lobbied Chief Executive Owen Keegan about smart lighting in the city.

The lobbying was to “help facilitate Dublin City Council’s understanding of smart lighting solutions as part of its ‘smart city’ objectives”, the entry says.

That’s probably because nobody on the Smart Dublin team is a designated public official. Only contact with a civil servant or politician with that designation – and if it’s a relevant matter – would count as lobbying.

McAuliffe said that for any company to financially benefit really, they’d have to win a public procurement process. “In the main this is about companies testing out ideas.”

On Civic Engagement

Up until 2019, there was limited civic engagement from Smart Dublin, apart from the Smart Docklands civic workshops, says Heaphy, who finished his research on Smart Dublin that year.

“Instead, in 2016 and 2017 they were establishing a relationship through workshops with the staff in the respective local authorities as well as the tech sector, plus Enterprise Ireland and IDA Ireland,” he says.

Paolo Cardullo, author of Citizens in the ‘Smart City’, says he fears that smart-city projects fuel gentrification in neighbourhoods, and push people further from the city.

“Dublin has failed to deliver a vision of a more democratic city because it’s basically outsourced fundamental services to private companies,” he says. “It has no plan to fight typically against gentrification of the city.”

He compares it to Barcelona. When a new administration took charge of the city council there in 2015, they froze all the contracts with the big tech firms and rethought the smart city from the bottom up, he says.

They developed a platform called decidim or, wedecide, through which the city could use technology to encourage more participatory democracy, he says.

One pillar of Barcelona’s approach to using technology within the city administration is “to make sure that procurements are ethically grounded”, says Cardullo.

“It’s very much on the agenda of Barcelona to bring into the city governance the vast and popular movement which led to a change in the administration of the city,” he says.

Dublin is different, he says. “There are some initiatives but they end up producing probably an app or a hackathon with the same participants from high-tech industry.”

The culture of open-source start-ups in Barcelona is quite different to the big tech-led initiatives here, he says.

He doesn’t get the impression that there’s a grassroots movement towards open-source software in Dublin, he says.

According to a spokesperson for Dublin City Council, Smart Dublin has supported citizen engagement through its workshops, online surveys and plan to host online town-hall-style meetings later this year to identify local challenges.

Smart Docklands has carried out around 17 workshops with approximately 300 local participants since the programme launch, says the spokesperson.

“These workshops identify key local issues, playback the programme work to date and actively seek input and collaboration with local stakeholders,” they said.

Cudden says that Smart Dublin does place a real importance on community engagement. “This is centred on our district programmes.”

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Sean Finnan: Sean Finnan is a freelance journalist. You can reach him at [email protected]

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