Ghent hosts EuroCities, the conference of smart ideas


This week's international EuroCities conference features smart solutions for urban problems. The Ghent city project Living Labs tries to offer technological solutions to urban problems, with a little help from local communities and businesses

Living Labs is featured in conference centred on smart citizenship

This week, mayors and other municipal leaders from across Europe will gather in Ghent to discuss how digital technology and other innovations can turn all of us into “smart citizens”. Organised by EuroCities, a network of 130 major urban centres, the conference is a chance for Ghent to demonstrate some of its own innovative approaches to modern living.

These range from an initiative to reorganise traffic around school gates for safer drop-offs, to community projects taking over a factory site awaiting redevelopment, providing allotments, a bread oven and a children’s farm.

But the most advanced of them all is the Ghent Living Lab, part of a movement that aims to involve people more closely in the process of innovation. This is necessary because, when you ask people how they might use a new technology, the answers they offer seldom reflect reality.

“People cannot imagine the kind of uses they would have for a technology or a product that doesn’t exist yet,” says Pieter Ballon, who will be discussing the concept of living labs at the EuroCities conference. He is the international secretary of the European Network of Living Labs and a professor at the Free University of Brussels (VUB).

The solution to this dilemma is to give people a prototype they can play with – not in an artificial setting or simulation but in real life. “This makes them aware of what it really is, to see how it would change their routines and also allows us to discover the unexpected uses that people come up with.”

The same goes for business people, who traditionally begin thinking about commercialising new technologies only when research and development is drawing to a close. So a living lab brings potential users together to test new technologies in real life and provides a secure platform for businesses to work on new commercial ideas. 

Urban problems and solutions

Ballon first got involved with living lab projects in 2005, through the Flemish government’s Interdisciplinary Institute for Broadband Technology, now known as iMinds. Early partners for the living lab projects were mainly large companies, such as network operators. “But the cities, which are very important hotbeds of innovation, were mostly out of reach for us,” he recalls. “They weren’t used to playing an active role in innovation. Ghent was among the first to realise this and develop its own activities.”

It’s in cities that you have this very intense interaction

- Pieter Ballon

Cities are the perfect setting for what living labs are trying to achieve since the challenges new technologies attempt to address – from mobility and environmental sustainability to social cohesion and economic growth – are often most acute in urban environments.

“The elements of the solution are also concentrated in cities,” Ballon adds. “It’s there that you have this very intense interaction, both in real life but also on the virtual level, because people are carrying smartphones and all sorts of other devices.”

The Ghent Living Lab was established by the city authorities in 2011, and it involves companies along with most of the city’s academic institutions. iMinds, where Ballon is director of Living Labs, has also been a regular collaborator in projects that attempt to bring new technologies up to city scale.

Huge success

One example being presented at this week’s meeting is Zwerm, an attempt to use digital technology to reconnect people to their communities. The project set up two major neighbourhoods in Ghent, Ekkergem and Papegaai, as competitors in an online game. 

Points were earned when people from each neighbourhood “checked in” with sensors built into strategically placed artificial trees. More points could be earned if they checked in at the same time as someone they didn’t know. “Sparrows”, bird-shaped boxes full of sensors, were also scattered around the neighbourhoods, logging points (and changing colours) when passers-by whistled at them. People playing the game could also get real-time updates about how their respective neighbourhoods were doing.

Being a living lab project, the researchers had no idea if people would get involved. “You put some tools there, you create this atmosphere in real life, and you see what happens,” says Ballon. Despite taking place in the freezing weather of February and March earlier this year, people loved it.

“It was a huge success, beyond all our expectations,” Ballon says. “People would take elderly neighbours to go and check in at their local tree; they would have parties and barbecues around them. In the end, hundreds of people actively participated in the game. After two months we could show that, among the participants, everyone on average knew 14 people from their neighbourhood that they didn’t know before.”

Traffic snarl-ups

Another initiative making use of the living lab is the 9K project, which allows people living in Ghent (postal code 9000, hence the name) to make observations and suggestions about the urban environment. One element of the project is the 9K Spotter, a mobile application that allows people to make comments using photos, location data and so forth. 

Now we need feedback from the city itself

- Nico Verbruggen

Comments can be positive or negative, from praising parks to highlighting a traffic snarl-up, but should always be constructive, with suggestions for solving problems or spreading benefits. People can then vote on these issues and the most important will be passed on to the responsible authorities.

“Most of the 9K Spotter is functional, albeit early in development,” explains Nico Verbruggen, one of the young developers involved in the project. “Now we need feedback from the city itself, as well as more feedback from other parties.”

Another element of the project is the 9K Builder, an application along the lines of the city-building simulation game SimCity. It will allow Ghent residents to recreate their neighbourhoods online and suggest improvements in the process. Ultimately, the Spotter and the Builder should work together to generate new ideas for improving the urban environment.

Delegates to EuroCities will see a presentation of the 9K Project and then have a chance to become living lab rats for a couple of hours by trying out alpha versions of both 9K apps.

27-29 November │ Across Ghent