Citizen sensing - where people act as sensors

A new way of co-creating smarter cities that puts communities and their needs at the heart of innovation.

Labelisation date : 02/06/2017

  • Bristol , __OTHER

  • Size of city : 428 100 inhabitants

  • Contact

    Martha King

    Arts programme producer, Knowlewest Media Centre


‘Smart city’ programmes are often developed and driven by the few and don’t always take into account the majority of people who live, work and collaboratively make the city. The Bristol Approach to Citizen Sensing is a new way of working that puts communities at the heart of innovation, ensuring that new technologies are developed to meet people’s needs and tackle the issues they care about, rather than being imposed on them by ‘big tech’ companies in a ‘top-down’ process. The approach enables the development of a ‘city commons’, where resources, tools, expertise and technologies are shared and used for the common good. The 6-step framework is itself a ‘commons’ tool that other organisations and groups can learn from, implement and iterate. Over 700 people were involved in more than 45 events during the pilot project. Three sets of prototype citizen sensing tools were designed and tested: tackling damp homes, food waste and mental health.

The solutions offered by the good practice

As a mode of good practice The Bristol Approach to Citizen Sensing framework offers cities new solutions for:

  • Discovering new problems and evidencing scale;
  • Providing inclusive participatory ways to tackle relevant city issues;
  • Increasing skills and empowering communities;
  • Developing open resources;
  • Creating opportunities for new business models and enterprises.

On a granular level, the framework supports communities to work in more interdisciplinary ways to co-create specific solutions to their chosen issues or problems, resulting in new open commons-based resources that are created by and of benefit to citizens.

For example, in the pilot project people who suffered from damp and mould in their homes came together with universities (humanities and engineering), businesses such as ARUP, hackers, open data specialists, city council representatives from housing, parks, building control and health, plus artists, architects, investors and housing associations to participate in a programme of practical workshops, “Hack Days”, making sessions and regular meetings.

The group developed a ‘Damp-busting’ system which included: frog-shaped temperature and humidity sensors, digital interfaces to make sense of data, mapping tools to visualise the scale of the problem and community-trained volunteers to support actionable change using citizen-generated data as evidence.

Building on the sustainable and integrated approach

The Bristol Approach to Citizen Sensing helps to tackle social exclusion, poverty and environmental problems by empowering disadvantaged communities with opportunities to develop new knowledge, digital skills, open source tools and innovative strategies for interdisciplinary methodologies for co-design. Through a common based approach, this practice enables people from all backgrounds and disciplines to meaningfully engage in citizen sensing activities that help co-create new digital tools and open data sets that can provide evidence for long-term policy change.

Based on a participatory approach

At the heart of the framework is the principle of the commons, which is inherently participatory. ‘Commoning’ is an action that involves the sharing of resources and the collective agreement of how they will be used for the Solutions Workshop held as part of the project demonstrated the potential of The Approach to impact city services, infrastructure and new models of community action and business development.

It relies on collaboration between business, local authorities, research institutions and the community to solve problems that affect citizens and areas and carry a financial cost for the city. A participatory approach is built in from the development phase and carried on through implementation.

City stakeholders are mapped and brought onboard at the beginning, engaged through a series of workshops and involved in contributing to the co-designed solution.

A commons principle applied throughout is ‘low floor/high ceiling’, which ensures there are no barriers to taking part (‘a low floor’) but that everyone can be challenged to the best of their abilities (‘a high ceiling’). Varying incentives, rewards and processes of onboarding at different points are also built into the practice.

In e.g. our pilot ‘Dampbusting’ project councillors, technologists, artists, families, housing campaign groups, energy companies, charities, health professionals, data analysts were engaged in the participatory process: all bringing different skills and input.

What difference has it made?

Through the first pilot project, more than 700 people 13-80 years old were engaged in more than 45 events and workshops.

The following differences were made:

  • Participants gained increased digital literacy, new digital skills and data awareness;
  • Participants were more aware of their behaviour and more open to the idea of sharing data and making change;
  • New networks between residents, academia, local authority and business were formed.

We gathered feedback on how to integrate technologies and successfully co-design, e.g.:

“Very thought provoking on many levels”,

“It was interesting to explore with others”,

“I liked all the input related to the technology design”,

“What’s occurred to me is that, for these things to catch on, there needs to be an emotional engagement with the technology and what it can do and how it engages with one’s community. There’s not going to be an engagement with a black box in the corner. There needs to be an aesthetic and a feel and a relationship.” (Caleb Parkin, Lead Artist.)

People felt that they were able to identify their needs that affected their lives and create solutions, leading to a greater feeling of empowerment.

Three sets of prototype citizen sensing tools were devised, designed, deployed and tested: tackling damp homes, food waste and mental health.

A framework that can be shared with other cities has been developed, and through the ENoLL, REPLICATE project and other international partnerships new ways of approaching smart city developments are being implemented.

Why should other European cities use it?

The Bristol Approach to Citizen Sensing framework was designed to be translated to any context. Different cities experience challenges that are unique to them, and the open nature of the framework means that it could be easily used by other cities to address their challenges.

For example, Taylor’s University, Malaysia, are partnering with KWMC as part of the Smart Mobility Cities project. They participated in a sharing good practice workshop with KWMC and commented on how valuable it was to have a methodology to use that genuinely positioned a participatory approach at its heart.

The Bristol Approach effectively draws in people working on similar projects, especially in research/tech and city policy, which allows for wider skills sharing and potential for future collaborations. The Bristol Approach gathers an emergent community who is supported to develop and share the necessary skills, and responds to rewards and incentives, to co-design, deploy and sustain ad hoc sensing networks that build up a new city commons, adding a layer of infrastructural value to the territory and providing opportunities for its inhabitants and local SMEs.