Empowering Citizen-Oriented Smart City Innovation in Mexico (ECOSCIM)

Lead Research Organisation: University of Bristol
Department Name: Sch for Policy Studies


The term "Smart City" is currently used all over the world to talk about urban futures. It can mean lots of different things. But it often means using digital technologies to help manage cities more efficiently. For example, this type of technology can help manage traffic flows or pollution. Smart City innovation can be about efficient city management, but it can also open up new opportunities for citizens to participate in the governance of their cities.

There is currently a debate about whose interests are served by the Smart City, and whose interests should be served. Are there people who are disadvantaged or excluded by smart urbanism? If so, then how can we stop that from happening? Smart City innovation spends too much time focusing on management and engineering challenges - getting the technology to work - and not enough time thinking about where smart urbanism might be taking us. We need to think more about the opportunities, risks and vulnerabilities created by increasing reliance on digital technology.

This project will develop a new method to help the Smart City innovation process. It will do this by working with citizens, community groups and policy makers in Mexico City. The project is seeking to make sure that innovation is oriented towards citizens' priorities and interests: the development process should be forward-looking, integrated, inclusive and equitable. The project will also examine the social and political organisations and institutions that Smart City projects need to interact with in order to understand how this broader context can act to enable or frustrate citizen-oriented projects.

The project will achieve its objectives by looking at the stages of Smart City development: anticipation and conception; development and implementation; and operation. It will carry out case studies of existing projects planned and in operation in Mexico City. These will help us understand, first, how the planning process for these projects measures up against our new framework and, second, whether the way they operate is inclusive and socially equitable. The project will interview users and non-users of the Smart City projects and those involved in running the projects. Our researchers will also interview people from different sectors who are involved in Smart City policy and practice to understand the barriers and enablers to effective innovation in Mexico City. We will then work with citizens to discuss what they would like Smart City futures to look like. This will be done through a series of workshops. These workshops will lead to a process of Smart City development: we will work with a smaller group of citizens to co-create the concept for a new Smart City innovation. The final part of the research will discuss this idea for a new innovation, along with the information about barriers and enablers to innovation, with policy makers to see how the whole system might be changed to make it more welcoming to citizen-oriented innovation.

Each stage of the project will produce a report and a short briefing document. These will be made available through the project website. We will publish updates on what we are learning from the project as we go along. At the end of the project we will produce a report giving an overview of the whole project and write academic articles. Finally, we will use all the learning from the project to collaboratively produce a toolkit designed to help citizens and communities think about the issues associated with Smart Cities and to help them carry out a more effective process of Smart City innovation.

The project will help to promote citizen welfare and effective urban governance in Mexico. In particular, its emphasis on co-creation and inclusion will enhance citizen autonomy and well-being. It will do so by drawing on the unique combination of strengths in Smart City research and practice in Bristol, which has a track record of internationally excellent research in this field.

Planned Impact

Who will benefit from this research?

This research will benefit the participating citizens, community groups and NGOs in Mexico City through building capacity and shared experience of co-creating Smart City futures and innovations. It will benefit the Smart City policy and practice community in Mexico City by providing opportunities for social learning about the preconditions for inclusive and equitable Smart City development, and reflecting on the necessity and scope for institutional change to move closer to those conditions.

Citizens and community groups in other cities in Mexico and in other DAC countries will also benefit from project outputs, particularly the later outputs designed for non-academic audiences. These will be geared towards offering guidance on how to engage inclusively and thoughtfully with Smart City innovation and how to think about the institutional conditions needed for success in delivering inclusive and equitable Smart City development. This sort of reflection can open up a space for dialogue about the need for change.

The project will promote welfare directly through building social capital and knowledge through the co-creation process. It will also promote welfare through articulating a framework that will empower citizens to engage with Smart City developments, rather than Smart City development being something that is experienced as something imposed from elsewhere. Ultimately, by giving citizens voice and promoting meaningful participation, while at the same time assessing how political and social institutions can be more responsive to those actions, this process can contribute to increasing trust in government, social cohesion and, as a result, economic development.

Members of the research team will benefit from the processes of knowledge exchange, collaboration and social learning designed in to the project.

The research will benefit the scholarly community interested in Smart Cities. This is a major topic of contemporary debate across a number of academic disciplines within and beyond the social sciences. We envisage this project making contributions that will be of interest to those working in the fields of social policy, science and technology studies, urban politics and governance, and urban geography.

What will be done to ensure that beneficiaries have the opportunity to benefit from this activity?

The project will disseminate learning as it progresses, publishing interim reports, briefings, and regular news items about the project. Short videos summarising key findings will be produced (in English and Spanish). These outputs will be disseminated via a range of online channels in Mexico and UK, including the active social media communities in Mexico City. Project partner organisations can provide access to local networks through which project information can be circulated. We will also disseminate key reports within communities in hard copy to mitigate the risk that those without access to relevant technologies find themselves excluded.

Later project outputs designed for non-academic audiences will be disseminated online; through a public launch; and through established local, national and international networks.

A programme of dissemination at academic conferences will be agreed within the team, ensuring that this includes developmental opportunities for more junior members of staff.


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Sweeting D (2022) Easier said than done? Involving citizens in the smart city in Environment and Planning C: Politics and Space

Description • While the regulative socio-political institutions (eg laws, policies and governance structures) in Mexico City are in principle broadly supportive of citizen oriented smart city innovation, significant institutional barriers to citizen-oriented innovation exist at the level of normative (eg value systems) and cognitive (eg sense-making activities) institutions and in the way regulative institutions operate in practice.
• To interpret smart city development practice, and the role of citizens within it, it is important to embed it within an understanding of broader socio-political dynamics.
• The way in which competing institutional logics (eg logics of innovation, bureaucracy, citizen engagement) are resolved within this policy field is influenced by broader societal logics of, in the case of Mexico, clientelism and corruption.
• In relation to smart city development in the Global North there has been considerable focus on the role and motives of multinational technology companies, with a concern that private value extraction is a higher priority than addressing pressing urban problems and delivering public value. In Mexico, rather than focusing on the private sector, greater barriers to citizen engagement in state-led smart city activities are (i) citizens' mistrust of the state and concerns about broader social implications of participating and (ii) the strongly state-led approach to smart city development adopted by the government's technology development agency (the ADIP) which operates with a very thin notion of community and citizen engagement.

• The pandemic accelerated the adoption of off-the-shelf digital technologies that allowed civil society organisations to continue to operate online and at a distance. Changing use of technologies also helped some organisations to operate in new and more efficient ways in a context where state funding was increasingly scarce and government hostility to civil society organisation increased.
• However, there were only limited indications that this greater exposure to technology and the benefits it can deliver had led to a reduction in the barriers to citizen involvement in smart city innovation process. On the contrary, some broader social developments during the pandemic would appear to have reinforced existing barriers.
• We concluded that in Mexico City the prospects of citizen and community involvement in smart city innovation activities of the type advocated in the smart city literature (state-led/facilitated or based upon a helical model of innovation) are extremely limited without major institutional change.

• This does not mean that communities and civil society organisations cannot appreciate the potential benefits from increased deployment of technologies. The co-creation process run as part of this project secured positive engagement from representatives of civil society organisations. Feedback indicated that this was because, unlike the state, the universities were trusted to act as disinterested facilitators.
• The co-creation process was driven by needs identified by community members and led to designing a digital platform that allowed information provision and exchange and users to make connections and access resources.
• This development aligns with arguments in the academic literature about the need for an alternative conception of the smart city - knowledge-first rather than tech-first; the increasing influence of platform urbanism; and the growing interest in grassroots digital urbanism.

• We can draw from the experience of this process indications of the institutional conditions that would be necessary to deliver citizen-oriented smart city innovation beyond the state.
• In Mexico City there are already examples of digitally-focused social innovations organised within civil society and beyond the state. Case studies conducted during the project illustrate that citizens think about and relate to such organisations in different ways to the way they relate to the state. The question is how communities and civil society organisations more broadly can feel empowered to act.
• The project is developing a toolkit to assist communities and civil society organisations interested in engaging with smart city innovation. Feedback gathered following the launch of the initial version of this toolkit indicated that it had the potential to be of considerable value to those taking initial steps to engage with the issues.
• The project reflected on processes of deinstitutionalisation of existing socio-political institutions and the embedding of new institutions more conducive to citizen- and community-oriented smart city innovation. In this respect it draws on insights from the literature on socio-technical transitions, while supplementing these ideas with a more explicit theorisation of institutional change and the institutional work necessary to bring it about.


• ODA relevance of research findings: By taking a novel institutional approach, the project findings allow the development of a richer understanding of the barriers and enablers to citizen-oriented smart city innovation and therefore the sorts of changes required to deliver smart city innovation that was genuinely citizen oriented. While the research identified institutional barriers that might be specific to the Mexican context, the approach is potentially applicable across DAC countries.

• ODA relevance of non-research findings: the key outcome in this area is the toolkit, which is currently being revised. The toolkit has a diagnostic element which is informed by the research findings. Early feedback on a draft version was positive and gave pointers regarding areas for revision. The revised version is yet to be launched. It will be available online and in downloadable form.
Exploitation Route When the final version of the project output aimed at a non-academic audience (the toolkit) is launched this will be freely available on the web. It is intended to be put to use by others.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Government, Democracy and Justice

Description While the project has had some societal impacts, at this stage they have been relatively modest. We would expect the impacts to be greater once the final project outputs are launched. 1. Societal and Economic Impact: The smart city innovation development process we conducted brought together representatives of civil society organisations to share views on the issues they faced. The development process was driven by focusing on the most broadly shared concern. Through this process the CSO representatives identified commonalities in their experiences and the issues they faced. A network began to form. From this network we drew 15 participants for a more detailed co-design process. They reported learning from this process and reported that the process changed their orientation towards the use of technology to support their activities. The feedback we received from civil society representatives on the draft version of our toolkit indicates that this output, informed by the project findings, has the potential to be of value to organisations in the sector. 25 organisations came together for the launch of the draft Spanish language version in October 2022. Follow up interviews were conducted in November 2022 to gather feedback on this version of the toolkit and how it might be revised to ensure that it addresses the key issues. 2. Addressing Sustainable Development Goals: We see the project as addressing SDG 11: Sustainable cities and communities. In particular, our work relates to the target of enhancing "inclusive and sustainable urbanization and capacity for participatory, integrated and sustainable human settlement planning and management in all countries". The tools we are developing are aimed at empowering communities and civil society organisations to act on their own behalf in relation to urban technology. The aspiration is to increase their ability to use technology to address the challenges they face, thereby making the management of urban settlements more participatory and equitable. If the relevant capacity is built effectively then these governance arrangements should be sustainable. The audience for the final version of our toolkit will be global rather than specific to Mexico City.
First Year Of Impact 2021
Sector Communities and Social Services/Policy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software)
Impact Types Societal

Description Community organisations and the use of urban technologies
Geographic Reach Local/Municipal/Regional 
Policy Influence Type Contribution to new or improved professional practice
Impact So far the impacts have been relatively narrow - focused on those who have participated in the research process itself. However, the plan to launch a version of the platform that has been developed and make it available publicly means that the scope for the impact broadening is considerable. This will be reported on in due course.
Title Citizen Oriented REsponsible Smart City Innovation Tool (CORESCIT) 
Description A key aim of this project is to develop a method for assessing existing smart city innovation practice and guiding future smart city innovation processes to be more responsible (in the Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) sense) and citizen-oriented. It is also exploring how the method needs to be framed such that it is sensitive to/useful in contexts other than those of the Global North. During 2019 we developed an initial version of the framework to be used to evaluate existing smart city innovation practice in Mexico City. The framework combines ideas from the RRI literature with lessons from the Bristol Approach to Citizen Sensing, and the concept of convivial tools. 
Type Of Material Improvements to research infrastructure 
Year Produced 2019 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact The framework has so far been used to structure data collection (semi-structured interviews and focus groups) on existing practice in Mexico City (Oct 2019-March 2020). These data are currently being analysed. During the remainder of 2020 we will be (i) working to refine this version to adapt it for use in the Mexican context, in collaboration with our Mexican HE partners and representatives of relevant NGOs based in Mexico City and (ii) working with the refined version of the tool as a guide for a development process for the concept for a new citizen-oriented smart city innovation. A revised version of CORESCIT will be a key output of the project, to be made publicly available. Work on a revised version of this framework is being undertaken: revisions are being made in the light of the findings from the project fieldwork. This output will be reported in the 2024 submission. 
Description Newton Fund Core Collaboration 
Organisation Anahuac University
Country Mexico 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution This collaboration is the core of our Newton Fund project. Anahuac University are funded separately by Conacyt and there has been no financial transfer between the two organisations. We are working with colleagues from the Facultad de Estudios Globales. The project was designed collaboratively and the original plan was the co-produce throughout - in terms of designing and conducting the fieldwork, collaborative analysis, as well as writing up outputs. This plan has been disrupted because of Covid.
Collaborator Contribution We have continued to co-design (and re-design in the light of Covid) the research and collaborate on the analysis and writing up of the project. However, colleagues at Anahuac have been responsible for a much larger proportion of the data collection than originally anticipated because Covid meant that UoB team members were not able to travel to Mexico. The UK team has not been in a position to contribute to the collection of primary data since the start of the Pandemic.
Impact All outputs and outcomes have been the result of this collaboration.
Start Year 2019