Inclusive Innovation: Encouraging Participation in Smart Urbanism

01 Jul 2021 – Written by Jessica Sumner

Smart city initiatives as a mode for urban development throughout Europe have created a movement towards innovation and mixed use integration across city structures. Defined by their capability to improve the lives of citizens, smart cities utilise information and technology data to provide analytics which improve the performance of city services and infrastructure, thus providing potential for increased efficiency and quality living.The European Commission has created their own definition of the smart city within their own framework, and has defined it to mean: a place where the traditional networks and services are made more efficient with the use of digital and telecommunication technologies, for the benefit of its inhabitants and businesses”.  Smart city initiatives include a vast array of programmes, all of which tackle various issues and inefficiencies unique to the urban dynamic at hand. For instance, smart air quality sensors which monitor levels of particulate matter, carbon monoxide, ozone, and nitrogen dioxide are instrumental in allowing policy makers to detect nodes of pollution and, in turn, address these issues in an effective and timely manner. Environmental initiatives which have resulted from smart city projects serve not only the population at large, but also are tools from which future generations will profit in regards to air quality and mitigation of environmental degradation. Similar tools have been used in regards to urban governance, such as the use of geo-location apps which allow for disease contact tracing, as has been used with the Covid-19 pandemic. Yet, despite all of the possibilities, overarchingly, smart cities disproportionately benefit the wealthy due to the location of implementation and usability factors within the city landscape, and in turn, further alienate lower-income groups. 

Citizen Engagement

Central to providing the most effective and lucrative outcomes for smart city planning is the need for cross sectoral citizen engagement which takes into account the full dynamic of a city’s population. More specifically, by making incremental progress in several sectors, from smart mobility to smart people, many city governance structures across the EU have invested in engaging with their citizens within a participatory framework to better serve the needs of the community and encourage their direct input. Involving citizen participation in the development process creates a higher standard of urban quality, such as in housing, social welfare, and economic opportunities, and has been central towards many urban development frameworks and smart city technologies. Organisations like the European Innovation Partnership for Smart Cities and Communities (EIP-SCC) have been central to delineating a number of initiatives to encourage reactive policies that align with current city programmes within Europe cities. It is clear that the capacity to contribute to a citizenship focused smart city approach is the necessary shift to respond and progress towards an inclusive and innovative Europe. 

Resiliency and Smart Cities

In part driven by the need to provide greater security and affordability, a smart city approach is the leading indicator of a city’s performance today and one that distinguishes those that have characteristics of resiliency and shock mitigation from those that don’t. Principally, a smart city approach is one that is closely linked to innovation and technology, and while this technologically driven approach fuses Information and Communication Technologies (ICT’s) to seemingly ameliorate the vitality of urban environments, it is also capable of further deepening inequalities and stifling the diversity of the city. These mixed use environments which contain areas of housing, institutions, and entertainment, are bolstered by opportunity and diversity which are central to a city’s ecology, and therefore, must be addressed as a central issue of smart city development. This is demonstrated through the Cultural and Creative Cities Index (C3 Index), which has quantified evidence that demonstrates that cities leading in culture and creativity, such as citizen participation, innovation, and engagement, in Europe also appear to be the most economically resilient ones. Therefore, while integrating cutting edge technology can produce new and innovative approaches to development, it also has the potential to further contribute to social disparities and ignore systemic inequalities.

Social and Economic Vulnerabilities

Likewise, in a broader sense, Europe faces vulnerabilities in its dynamics of migration, industrialisation and economic shifts, but it is these exact fluctuations in the city dynamic that can be accommodated by smart city technology if it is properly addressed. However, with the existing high levels of urban poverty in Europe, which has created vast social and economic gaps, there must be more direct intervention through resilient and smart city planning and integration. In several European cities, such as Rotterdam and Manchester, the recent financial and economic crisis led to increased poverty and social exclusion, undermining perceptions of security among citizens. These increased vulnerabilities are only exacerbated by the implementation of several of the intangible benefits of smart city planning which often narrowly benefit those in higher income areas. Likewise, issues of population displacement, whether triggered by rapid urbanisation, migration, natural disasters or conflicts, are putting pressure on housing, infrastructure, the labour market, the urban environment and community cohesion, among others. Therefore, investments into the urban landscape result in a better quality of life for urban dwellers. This is especially important to keep in mind for smaller metropolises which might not necessarily garner the same attention and funding that those that may already have the infrastructure and investors in place for smart city technology. 

Environmental Considerations

These issues can be addressed and accounted for through intentional use of smart city technologies to recognise where these issues are most concentrated and thus alleviate some of the problems at hand. Communities are often viewed as the passive recipients of protective measures, rather than as partners and participants in climate adaptation, and this can be addressed by ensuring smart city technologies are user-friendly and engaging for community members. Manchester, in the United Kingdom, has taken a leading role in using these technologies to assess vulnerabilities of the increasing effects of climate-change, including floods, heatwaves, and higher probability of storms. The Greater Manchester Local Climate Impacts Profile (GM-LCLIP) identifies the principal weather related impacts that have occurred over the past 50 years and uses that to predict the likely weather and climate related impacts. In addition, the vulnerability of priority services of Manchester were assessed, as well as to current and future weather events affecting the city in sectors of public housing units, adult social care and transport services. Through all the successes of smart city implementation, it is clear that in order to fully reap the benefits of these technologies, these initiatives must directly involve and reflect the needs of the citizens. Of these cases, the most successful cases take a multi-stakeholder approach to ensure that it is truly the community that is invested in the durability of the city’s infrastructure. Particularly, the use of smart data and global governance allows for a greater focus on the city’s complexities to be utilised for its own benefit. When there is the presence of more thorough and comprehensive data collection, the needs of the citizens are quantified and can be addressed and evaluated through quantifiable achievements. Similarly, it is vital to understand and then address the problem at hand, and incorporating rural development into a resilient urban system development is crucial in strengthening the synergies between the two.


A Smart City approach that catalyses equality and inclusivity and diminishes the perpetuation of existing inequalities is a necessary step in preventing one of the major shortcomings of smart city planning: a lack of inclusion. In order to succeed, this approach towards global urban development must have replicable projects that have crosscutting impacts through all urban dynamics of the city. While many cities within the EU have taken leading roles in pioneering the integration of smart city principles into urban planning frameworks, ensuring that disparities are not further augmented by advanced technological implementation must be addressed. Smart cities have the capacity to alleviate these shortcomings if they are addressed head on, and by improving the life of the urban citizen we see greater returns in economic and social gains through better living conditions and environment. While there have been attempts to  portray smart cities as ‘citizen-focused’, to date smart urbanism remains rooted in pragmatic, instrumental and paternalistic discourses and practices rather than those of social rights, political citizenship, and the common good. It is time to come to terms with the reality of smart urbanism and revitalise it in a manner that truly is for all citizens. 

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Recommended citation:

Sumner, J. (2021) Inclusive Innovation: Encouraging Participation in Smart Urbanism, IDRN, 01 July. Available at: [Accessed dd/mm/yyyy].