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Sustainable Development Lab has been named as one of 2016’s New Radicals by Nesta and the Observer

Creating a smart city with a blank canvas. Here’s why citizen engagement and co-production is vital.

In this post, Dylan Roberts, Chief Digital Officer, Leeds City Council, explains why citizen engagement and co-production has to be at the heart of any Smart City, and how the Sustainable Development Lab drives this process.

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Dylan Roberts speaking at a Sustainable Development Lab briefing event

When the next big disruption is always around the corner, how do you implement an idea that has the scale of a city and is personalised to the lives of its residents? In Leeds we started with a blank canvas, re-defined problems as opportunities and launched our first set of experiments, which we believe will scale into long term solutions.

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Building wearables with older residents of Leeds in partnership with MAECare

Blank Canvas. Opportunities. Experiments. These are vital elements to forge new relationships. With significantly reduced capacity in traditional public service capabilities against an exponential increase in demand, there is an urgent need to build these relationships across the board.

Technological advances have changed behaviours and created new demands. Consequently, we need to learn how to co-produce new services with our citizens. As systems and disciplines converge, we need to identify new partners who can deliver these services at minimal cost whilst operating within a strong ethical framework.

A significant period of discovery is required before we can begin this transformation. This is why we decided to back the Sustainable Development Lab in Leeds.

Our innovation lab is a foundry of ideas

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Members of the Sustainable Development Lab working on the Bus Beacon prototype

The lab is an important forum that brings council staff and residents together. It is a foundry of big ideas. It also enforces a strict discipline to start small, test rigorously and question assumptions. We make good use of the tools available to us — open data, IoT devices and new production techniques. We also respect the tacit knowledge of our colleagues and residents.

Whilst there is a relentless pressure to create efficiencies. We want to re-imagine problems as opportunities. Our experiments begin with What if…questions. What if we could use waste data to create a service that lets residents know when to put their green, black and brown bins out? What if we could track the energy consumption of every council-owned building across the city? What if we could connect older people with their communities using really simple technology?

The Lab uses a six-month pathway that begins with a question and concludes with a fully functional prototype that is tested further. In order to drive this process forward, we have built a relationship with the thriving network of technologists across the city. This community of developers, data analysts, ethical hackers and game designers bring a new approach to problem-solving. In turn we offer them insight and scale.

Over the past eighteen months the pathway has become robust in its ability to tackle complex issues. It has also become an inclusive forum. Every directorate in the council has commissioned at least one lab. Increasingly, we work closely with vulnerable communities — from older residents to victims of domestic violence.

The results of co-production have started to come in and we are starting to scale

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Meter Explorer, part of the Energy Innovation toolkit developed by the Sustainable Development Lab

The Energy Innovation toolkit which has been developed for the Sustainable Energy & Climate Change team will enable us to design and run behaviour change programmes to achieve a reduction in the Council’s energy bill by engaging 10,000 employees. The Carbon Trust estimates that large organisations should be able to save 10% annually, which in our case would be a saving of £200k per year.

CareView — a community powered safety resource is helping the public health team carry out timely interventions to enable older people to access support networks. LeedsBins was launched in July by Cllr Lucinda Yeadon and Susan Upton (Chief Officer of Waste Management). You can download the app for iPhone and Android devices.

What next?

I am thankful to everyone who has invested time, energy and hard-work in this process. We will continue to experiment and innovate. For the solutions that show potential, we are developing new models to scale and sustain them.

Come join us.

If you are in Leeds, you can take part in our community pilots to test and improve the solutions that have been developed so far. Some of the projects can also be implementation in other towns, cities and neighbourhoods. If you would like to find out more, please get in touch with the Sustainable Development Lab team. They will be more than happy to help.

Dylan Roberts
Chief Digital Officer
Leeds City Council

Written by

I am interested in the context & values of our Digital Identities.

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