Author: Joe Appleton


An education programme in Dublin is teaching secondary school pupils and public sector workers the benefits of IoT and smart cities. Tech For Good speaks to Dublin City Council and Smart Docklands to find out more

IoT is changing the way that cities are designed and built. For many citizens, the idea of vast sensor networks and smart technology is overwhelming at best, and nefarious at worst. Fortunately, a bold and exciting project led by Dublin City Council, Smart Docklands, and CONNECT – the Science Foundation Ireland Research Centre for Future Networks and Communications department at Trinity College Dublin – is working hard to demystify the world of IoT, Big Data, and smart technology. It’s called the Academy of the Near Future and it is a Smart City Education Programme that has been designed to educate secondary school students and public sector workers about IoT: how it works, how it can benefit citizens, building trust, and cultivating innovative thinking at the same time. Dublin’s Smart City programme is one of the most exciting in Europe. Based around its Smart Districts model, Dublin is quickly becoming one of the most innovative capital cities in the world. Led by the city’s Smart Docklands area, which is an advanced living testbed for Smart City initiatives and home to many of the world’s leading technology companies, it has proven itself to be one of the most forward-thinking regions in Europe. Thanks to valuable partnerships between large tech companies and innovative startups, and with incredible support for Dublin City Council, Trinity College’s CONNECT Centre, and other key stakeholders, modern technologies such as AI, Internet of Things, Big Data and more, have become a real part of Dublin’s everyday operation.

However, as these technologies become a larger part of our lives, it’s easy for those outside of the tech industry to feel lost and overwhelmed by the apparent complexity of these technological ecosystems. And that’s where the Academy of the Near Future comes in. “Over the years, we’ve been very fortunate to learn a lot from big tech companies,” explains Jamie Cudden, the Smart City Lead for the Dublin City Council. “We’ve managed to learn how to understand these technologies but also how to engage with people and communities. But the problem with IoT and smart technology is that you need to make these tools available to everyone and understandable to everyone if you’re going to make a difference. “You can do the most amazing things with big tech companies and innovators, but if you’re not getting a buy-in from other authorities, then you can’t enact any real change.”

At first, the idea behind the Academy of the Near Future was aimed squarely at upskilling and better-educating city workers. “How do you teach the decision-makers and budget-holders about the benefits of a technology that they don’t understand?” says Cudden. “If you’re investing in large-scale capital programmes, if you don’t know how something works, you’re not going to buy it. We needed a programme that can teach how IoT works in an accessible way. That was the original concept and it developed from there.”

The name “Academy of the Near Future” sounds like something from the pages of science fiction, but the reality is that it’s not teaching anything particularly futuristic. “We’re not talking about technologies from 10 or 15 years down the line,” says Cudden. “We’re talking about right now. But while we’re trying to educate the public sector workers in Ireland’s local authorities, we also thought ‘hey, if we’re teaching Dublin City Council staff, we could probably teach kids as well’ – and that’s no disrespect to the staff!” From there, the idea grew to include teaching transition year secondary school students to help excite and inspire them to look deeper into the potential of IoT technologies. To learn how the Academy operates, we spoke to Caroline Boyd, the Engagement and Project Manager at Smart Docklands, who has been overseeing the project since December 2020. “Originally, we brought together small groups of 10 or 15 students for two-hour workshops that introduced them to IoT and allowed them to experiment with a wide range of technologies to develop real solutions to real urban problems,” she says. “For example, we would use plug-and-play sensor kits and a drag-and-drop coding platform that allowed students to build functioning IoT sensor systems that were fully working and harvesting data by the end of the workshop.” During the courses, both students and council workers have been introduced to cloud platforms, simple sensors, and real-life scenarios. “It was originally intended to be a very hands-on and physical workshop, but of course, COVID forced us to pivot,” says Boyd. “Currently, we’re running our workshops using a variety of online tools, but it hasn’t had a negative impact. We’re still sparking curiosity and getting kids to solve real-world challenges in understandable contexts.” What’s more, participants – or Visioneers, as Cudden prefers to call them – can find solutions to their own problems. “These students have great ideas of their own,” Boyd says. “One student noticed a problem with speeding cars on the road outside his house, so he now understands how he could install a speed sensor that could count how many vehicles were speeding directly outside of his house. With this new knowledge, he could gather a wealth of information that could potentially be used to push policy in the future. The last bit wasn’t his exact words, but it’s what he could do with it!” The workshop leaders give examples of ideas and how IoT can be used to solve certain problems, but the Visioneers come up with their own problems to solve, setting themselves a challenge and creating a viable solution to it all within a two-hour time frame. At the same time, students also gain a deeper understanding of smart cities, the acronyms, and buzzwords that go along with them, whilst cultivating an appetite to get more involved.

"The problem with IoT and smart technology is that you need to make these tools available to everyone and understandable to everyone if you’re going to make a difference"

“Whether we’re inspiring kids with Lego-like components and drag-and-drop code, or educating public sector workers with more advanced sensor kits, the goal of the Academy of the Near Future is to demystify the world of smart cities and upskill communities at the same time.” Words like smart cities, big data, and IoT might be the kind of buzzwords that the Academy is trying to educate students about, but the Academy has one of its own, and that’s demystify. The heart of the Academy of the Near Future is a commitment to demystifying how smart cities work. “A lot of people have no idea what the technology is that makes their city work,” says Cudden. “Even traffic lights - how do they work? People are always fascinated by this topic. ‘If I push the button does it make the lights change faster?’ We need to make this information available and really engage with people. There’s a lot of distrust when it comes to these technologies, and the truth is, everything is there to make the city a better place.” Distrust in these technologies has been one of the major stumbling blocks for smart city programs all over the world. However, with initiatives like the Academy of the Near Future, explaining these topics to a wide demographic about the nature of IoT and how it’s closer to Lego than it is to Orwellian science-fiction, is an important part of dispelling that mistrust. “The Academy is a mechanism to build trust and facilitate the growth of inclusive cities. With the rise of these modern technologies there has been a growing lack of trust in the way that it has been going, with questions about data security and other issues,” Boyd explains. “But the Academy gives us a chance to clarify our positions on those things and highlight the safety measures that we have in place. Building trust is an important part of what we’re doing.” While the Academy is currently a Dublin-focused initiative, it has plans to expand beyond the city limits. The long-term goal is for the programme is to spread to other regions across Ireland, with further plans to replicate its success internationally. “Right now, our initial goal is to deliver the Academy to 1,000 students within Ireland. As this is a joint venture that includes CONNECT and Trinity College, we have resources outside of Dublin to make this happen, particularly around Cork, Limerick, and Waterford,” Boyd says. “We also want to develop a train-the-trainer resource that we can share with other local councils, such as Fingal and Dún Laoghaire.” “We’re starting with 1,000 kids,” Cudden adds. “But we’d like to run a larger challenge and combine the results that we’re seeing and recognise the different innovations and thoughts that are coming out of these workshops. From there, we can start to see the future of citizen science and develop real modules for supporting communities too.” Though the Academy and its partners have only just started their journey, it’s already becoming apparent that it will be an important pillar of smart city development in the future. Currently, it’s taking part in the 2021 Bloomberg Mayors Challenge, and thanks to its innovative nature and partnerships with Connect, Trinity College Dublin, and the city’s Smart Docklands, it’s likely to do well. However, we’re only at the beginning of the story. The team is actively encouraging those who might benefit from the Academy to get in touch. “If this resonates with people, then reach out to us,” says Cudden. “We want to get as many people as we can to become aware of this technology and what underpins our cities. We need to ensure that the future of our cities is moving in the right direction. The Academy is not industry-led, it’s about people and communities. Our CTA is this: if you’re interested and want to find out more, or work with us, or even share your own ideas, then get in touch with us.” The Academy of the Near Future is an exciting initiative with limitless potential that can upscale the capabilities of council workers and inspire a new generation of innovators. Though there are a handful of other similar initiatives out there, few can boast city-wide backing that works together with schools and also in parallel with the people who are directly responsible for building cities. It’s a unique narrative, and one that highlights the importance of prioritising inclusion in the urban planning process. As Boyd nicely put it at the end of our conversation: “We’re building cities together with people, rather than doing it to people.” And that’s exactly what the Academy of the Near Future stands for.