Dublin, Ireland: Optimizing its smart city remit

Innovation is challenging for a city when the national government controls many of its urban domains. Dublin, Ireland’s capital, sets an example of how a municipality can make good progress toward becoming a future-ready city geared to meeting citizen needs, even without total authority, by working with higher levels of government and optimizing the power it does have.

Ireland’s central government retains authority over important domains that municipalities in other countries normally control, including education, health, policing, and many aspects of transportation. Irish cities have chief executives, but not directly elected mayors.

“That makes it much harder to set a big, audacious vision, but there’s a lot within our remit that we can do,” says Jamie Cudden, manager of the smart city program for the Dublin City Council. Areas Dublin does control include infrastructure such as roads and sidewalks, parking, fire and rescue, streetlights, libraries, social housing, waste and wastewater management, the environment, and hundreds of typical city services.

“There can be a disconnect between national bodies and what citizens think,” says Cudden. “We serve as the interface, with a closer ear to the ground, particularly when it comes to areas of social inclusion.” The city has its own plan for “future-proofing” itself. “We look to become a dynamic, sustainable, future-ready city built on inclusive neighborhoods and communities, a strong economy, a vibrant cultural life, and connected growth,” says Cudden.

A greener future

Sustainability is a major theme for Dublin, which seeks to meet national and EU goals for a 40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 while it works to improve the city council’s energy efficiency by 33%. One initiative is the retrofitting of social housing to make it more energy efficient. That includes using national funding to offer incentives for installing solar panels and insulation.

Sustainable mobility is another goal. “The pandemic spurred a massive change in mindset regarding making the city more attractive for cycling and led to a huge investment in cycling infrastructure. Many quicker and more temporary deployments stayed sticky, including a significant pedestrianization in the city center,” says Cudden. “There’s an acknowledgement that the city is a different place post-COVID.”

Dublin is starting to see a pickup in shared mobility, such as car clubs and bike-sharing programs, including Dublinbikes, Moby, and Bleeper, says Cudden. The city supports these organizations by allowing licenses to operate on its streets. In addition, it is encouraging development of mobility-as-a-service apps that allow users to make account-based payments for all legs of a multi-modal journey.

The city is also working to expand the number of EV charging stations, in cooperation with other regional authorities. However, Dublin’s Georgian architecture and narrow streets makes this challenging. “There’s a lot of competition for curbside space, so we are likely to see EV charging in car parks and at petrol stations play a significant transition role,” says Cudden.

Harnessing digital technologies

Dublin is embracing the latest technologies and innovative working practices to improve the quality of life for its citizens in the region. With three other councils in the region, Dublin City Council established the Smart Dublin initiative in 2016 that set up four “smart districts” in the city to act as testbeds for new technologies to solve urban problems in partnership with a range of global technology firms, SME’s, academia, public bodies and local communities.

One area where its work has paid off is telecommunications. The sudden upsurge in remote working, online shopping, and digital communication during the pandemic put tremendous pressure on telecom networks. “It showed us the need for much more consolidation and leadership from the city council to support rather than block telecoms investment,” says Cudden.

As a result, the city council set up a new telecoms unit earlier this year as a “one-stop shop” to help speed the rollout of 5G and high-speed connectivity. “We did a lot of experimentation in our Smart Docklands District from 2017 to build a 5g test-bed and deploy a network of small cells, and realized quickly that it’s hard to find poles, power, and fiber that can be easily accessed,” he says.

The telecoms unit provides a single point of contact for the council to get permits and navigate the planning process to put equipment in ducting, on buildings, and on street furniture.

“This is critical for the future of the city and will help us deliver 5G more quickly than other cities in Europe,” Cudden says. The council is working with companies to ensure that disruption is kept to a minimum and that all parts of the community have connectivity.

Cudden notes that the pandemic’s lasting effects are still unclear. One unknown is how hybrid working will affect office space in business districts. Another is the effect of ecommerce on retail shops in the city, whose business has not yet returned to pre-pandemic levels.

Data partnerships

Data is vital for monitoring these trends. The council keeps its finger on the pulse of Dublin’s economic performance— and on its environment—through data partnerships with the private sector. Partners include MasterCard, which provides consumer spending data insights; Standard & Poor’s, which supplies purchasing manager index data; and Google and DPD, which use electric cars and delivery vehicles to collect street-by-street air quality information. Also, the city has developed Dublinked, an innovative non-personal data repository and network freely available to anyone, that includes more than 500 datasets on a wide range of economic, environmental, health, and cultural areas.

Dublin is using this data to support policy decisions and feed into new digital twin technology. It has six different projects in development with multiple industry partners, including piloting the use of digital twins to better manage high-risk sites across the city, for use in emergency response.