Sustainable Smart Cities – what could this mean for Leicester?

I hear the phrase “Smart City” more and more these days – in part, this is due to work that DMU is undertaking with Leicester City Council to explore what the Smart City concept could look like in Leicester, and how industry could partner with the university to make this happen. I’ve also been a bit unclear about what exactly the term means! So exploring links between “Smart Cities” and sustainability seemed like a good idea as part of the Spring 2017 event series.

Smart City event audienceYou never know who will come to publicly advertised events and I found the turnout to this event wasn’t as I’d expected! I’d planned around a get-together of local sustainability practitioners coming together to engage with a new topic. Instead, I’d actually convened a gathering of professionals and academics with an interest in making sense of the Smart City idea, and sustainability played a smaller role in the discussions. This wasn’t a problem (in fact it made for an interesting and worthwhile discussion), but I did find it interesting. Perhaps people in the voluntary sector or members of the public with an interest in sustainability see the issue as not being that relevant to them?

At the event, Janet Riley from DMU’s Institute of Energy and Sustainable Development (IESD) provided an intro to the Smart City idea. Her current working definition is

“A smart city innovates with data, digital technology, infrastructure and governance to improve resilience, sustainability, safety, user-experience and quality of life for all who live and work in it or visit it.”

The humble lampostSpecific examples helped to make the idea tangible. These included initiaitves such as “London datastore” and “Bristol is Open” that share data (on transport, building energy use) and invite others to make use of it for societal benefit. UrbanDNA’s vision of the “humble lamppost” was a catchy idea – a lamppost that as well as providing street light, could also be used for electric vehicle charging, wifi provision, public announcements and more.

Discussing the idea, we saw many possible benefits of Smart Cities, in particular around efficiency in transportation and building energy use. The idea also raised many concerns: how much we trust the organisations that accrue our data; whether people are socially excluded by systems that assume proficiency with smartphones; a risk of over-reliance on technological solutions and losing our capacity to adapt; and a concern that many of these changes may unfold with little or no public consultation or oversight. It was great having live input from participants joining us online, such as hearing about a number of Smart City projects already happening in Milton Keynes.

We left the session a little wiser about what “Smart Cities” could mean, and at the same time a touch baffled by an emerging and nebulous concept. You can listen to presentations on the day and view Janet Riley’s powerpoint below.

We’re still scoping out this idea at DMU, so your thoughts are welcome on if/how you’d like to see Leicester become a “smarter” city.

Janet Riley’s Smart City talk (Audio and Slides, 25 mins)

Janet Riley’s Smart City talk (Slides Only)

Designing a regional support structure for local sustainability groups

Local voluntary groups such as Transition initiatives can do excellent work to develop projects around local food, renewable energy and more. But what kind of network and support structure can help them to thrive?

thrives and barriersI took part in a really engaging one-day workshop at Graceworks in Leicester on Saturday 17th June that explored that issue. The workshop was led by Richard Couldrey (conducting Masters research on this topic) and Mike Thomas (from the Transition Network). Our workshop focussed on the East Midlands, with people attending from Transition Leicester, Transition Lincoln and groups in Melbourne, Chesterfield, Belper, Horncastle, Loughborough, Market Harborough and Nottingham.

ThriveThe discussion around what enables and holds back grassroots action brought up a lot of familiar themes, such as the challenge of recruiting volunteers, of good group dynamics making or breaking voluntary projects and how a supportive local authority can be a great help.

Five main themes emerged around what a regional support network might do: linking out to other organisations (either other sectors or on a national/international scale); sharing stories (case studies and otherwise); sharing resources and knowledge; staying connnected; using a Permaculture, systems-thinking ethos to design the network.

My lightbulb moment during the day was about the concept of social learning. That is, I see sharing resources/knowledge/stories and staying connected as two sides of the same coin, in that they are done through relationships and interaction of some sort (whether face-to-face or online). You could call this ongoing process social learning.

regional network mapAs someone looking to support social learning for sustainability in Leicester and the wider region, this reaffirms for me the value of organising face-to-face get togethers and online learning spaces.

Interestingly, we all agreed that catching up was valuable, and yet without the initiative to do so coming from the outside (from the Transition Network), it wasn’t on anyone’s to-do list to organise. I left with the intention of contributing to that “convening” role locally, through this blog and events at DMU.

How to sustain sustainability support projects? Ideas from Sustainable Harborough

For some time I’ve been interested in what it is about a community that helps or hinders initiatives to promote sustainable living. What I mean here isn’t how our context can help us to live a greener life, such as how doorstep orange bag collections make it easier to recycle household waste in Leicester. I mean how the organisations and initiatives that create an enabling environment to help us make greener lifestyle choices are set up and sustained. You could call these organisations and initiatives “enablers”. These “enablers” might be local authorities funding cycle lanes or setting up compostable waste collections, charities running events or workshops that bring people together to learn and share knowledge, and much more. So, how can these enabling initiatives be set up and sustained?

Gavin-headshot-webOur event on Thursday April 6th 2017 explored this question, with Gavin Fletcher (pictured) sharing the experience of Sustainable Harborough. Sustainable Harborough is a voluntary sector organisation employing four staff over five years to support the development of projects to make Market Harborough a more resilient town in terms of energy, food, water and wildlife.

Everyone present at the event lived or worked in Leicester, so our goal was to reflect on the extent to which Leicester is an enabling environment for sustainability initiatives, and what we could do or change if not.

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Does “theory” help to change behaviour? Ideas from Les Robinson’s Changeology

Les RobinsonLes Robinson, author of “Changeology” joined us at DMU via the web on Monday 20th April, as part of the Spring 2017 events programme, to share his insights on designing projects and programmes to change behaviour to promote sustainability.

I’m a big fan of Les’s approach – it draws on academic research evidence, but is equally based upon what Les and others have found working in practice in a range of real-world projects.

Les’s slides and a recording of his talk can be accessed below – there’s an excellent mix of ideas to help understand behaviour, and practical ideas on how to influence it.

What I’ll mention here is one of the main ideas that he raised that people took away – how to work well with “theory”.

We talk a lot about theory in a university setting. In the social sciences, a theory is our way of offering an explanation or account of what seems to be going on in a situation. Les is with Kurt Lewin in thinking that “there’s nothing as practical as a good theory” – and a key part of the Changeology approach to designing initiatives is coming up with an understanding of what’s going on (by talking to and involving the people who the project affects/involves) and articulating a theory of change – that is, how the initiative will actually lead to the desired behavioural changes (see quote).

This sounds obvious and useful, yet it’s surprising how often these two steps don’t take place – I’ve certainly been guilty of it in the past, and many projects or research studies skip this step of clearly developing a theory.

“Theories of change are useful. How we think matters a lot. Failed projects usually fail because their thinking was wrong, not because their execution had mistakes. It’s good to be exposed to a lot of concepts and theories, so we have alternative ways of seeing and thinking. p.s. All theories are wrong.”

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Building a Bridge – linking theory and practice

Hello! AJR homeThis is the start of my blogging journey with Green Bridge. That’s me in the photo – I am a sustainability teacher, community organiser and narrowboat dweller amongst other things.

The inspiration for Green Bridge comes from a course I teach at De Montfort University in Leicester, “Leading Change for Sustainability”. The course aims to help students better understand society and human behaviour with a view to changing things to promote environmental sustainability. I love sharing these ideas with my students and the discussion that ensues, but over time I’ve noticed that I’m looking to achieve more than that.

I don’t want some of the most interesting theories on how to support behaviour change to be confined to a classroom; and likewise, I don’t think that we’ll develop a good understanding of behaviour change without a healthy interaction with people at the sharp end of making it happen.

What I’m looking to work towards is a sense of being part of a community of learners and doers – trying to break down some of the separations between different areas of practice (academia, business, activism, campaigning…) and get a greater range of people talking, acting and learning together, as that’s where innovation and learning will come from.

So, this website and other activity through “Green Bridge” is a step in that direction. I’m glad that at the moment DMU has a vocal commitment to supporting the public good through initiatives like #DMULocal, which is supporting me to setup this area of work and keep it going.

So, I hope you’re up for joining me in this endeavour, and let’s see where it takes us…