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

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Sweeting, D. (2022) Easier said than done? Involving citizens in the smart city in EPC: Politics and Space

Description During this period two of the project's work packages were completed. The first work package examined the barriers and enablers of citizen involvement in smart city innovation that exist in the socio-political context in Mexico City (CDMX). It did so by interviewing key stakeholders in the smart city/urban policy field. The analysis for this work package was conducted using an institutionalist theoretical perspective. This means the research was looking for formal and informal rules that shape the way that people make sense of their world and the way that social processes operate. This work package highlighted issues associated with the specific nature of smart city innovation in CDMX, but it also highlighted the importance of understanding broader societal level institutions, on the one hand, and political and policy legacies and logics, on the other. In particular, it highlights the importance of the political dynamics created by the interaction between participatory democratic practices, clientelism, corruption and well-established modes of social organisation/associationalism. These interactions shape the role of citizens in smart city activities and citizens' willingness to be involved in such activities. The second work package conducted research with citizens in CDMX primarily using focus groups. It interviewed people who use urban technologies/smart city apps and people who do not. The aim was to understand citizens' attitudes to these types of urban innovation and how they interact with them. The findings were in line with those of the first work package but there was also considerable emphasis upon the role of trust and upon the way in which pre-existing relationships between citizens and their government - both based on perceptions and based on experience - affect issues like attitudes to data sharing and privacy, which in turn affect willingness to engage with urban technologies. The elements of this part of the project's work that are distinctive include: the use of this type of institutionalist perspective; the strong focus on citizens' voices, including non-users of urban technologies; locating of smart city innovation clearly within its broader socio-political context.

A third work package was completed during 2021. This involved representatives of a range of civil society organisations in focus groups to discuss the scope for urban technology to assist in dealing with urban problems arising as a result of Covid/in a post-Covid world. This brought people together for the first time and in the process has identified areas of common interest and common concern. Driven by the issues and concerns identified by representatives of Civil Society Organisations, we brought together CSO representatives to co-design a platform that can provide information and support to members of the CSO community who are facing a challenging context, particular in a context of significant reductions in government funding. The final work package (which will be completed by the end of March 2022) is exploring further perspectives on this platform and the data will be analysed through a reapplication of the institutionalist lens.
Exploitation Route The data collection associated with the project's substantive work packages is almost complete. These work packages have delivered substantial additional learning, but this is yet to be fully analysed and written up. Once this is done we will be in a position to produce our toolkit to help citizens and communities who wish to get involved in smart city-type innovations. This toolkit will be publicly available open access.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Government, Democracy and Justice

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 out is considerable. This will be reported on next year.
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 (in 2021), to be made publicly available. 
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