Photo credit: Ariel Noyman


Nina Hälker is one of smarticipate’s “Smart Implementers” – an expert working on the intersection between smart cities and urban planning. As a researcher at the CityScienceLab in the HafenCity University, she works on issues related to governance and participation within the framework of digitalisation in the city. A social scientist by training, Hälker has a keen interest in the impact of digitalisation on urban communities.

Finding places for new residents with innovative tools

The CityScienceLab an international cooperative effort between the US-based MIT Media Lab and HafenCity University in Hamburg which examines the interaction of cities and digitalisation in a cross-disciplinary manner. Part of this research involves modelling and forecasting future scenarios related to digitalisation of cities, with a particular focus on interactive tools that harness open data sets. One of the modelling tools built by the MIT Media Lab are the CityScopes tables – 2×2 metre tables with a glass surface that uses webcams to allow for real-time spatial experiments. Objects on the table are recognised by the sensors, which perform computations and provide useful information.

The tool is well suited for exercises involving spatial and geolocation data, and has been used by the CityScienceLab in many projects. One such project is Finding Places, which sought to find suitable dwellings for refugees who arrived in Hamburg in 2016. The city proposed several locations for new residential accommodations, but faced serious resistance from residents, who were already competing for the space available. “Our Mayor then said, ‘hold on, we have this new table from MIT. Can we not put that to use?’, and that’s how the initiative started,” says Hälker.


See a CityScope in action below:


Citizens were invited to take part in workshops with up to 20 participants with the goal of finding places for the city’s new residents.. “For us, the questions was what information do citizens need in order to make qualified decisions about spatial planning in the city?” said Hälker.

Many of the participating citizens had no previous experience in city planning, which meant the greatest challenge was making sure that everyone could take part in the discussion. The team’s solution was to repurpose MIT’s CityScopes. “Focussing on state-owned land, we prepared geographical data: each parcel of land was classified according to specific restrictions. We ‘fed’ about 30 different criteria into the model – like nature preservation or noise impact, cemeteries or industrial areas – to give the participants detailed information about possibilities and restrictions for future land use,” says Hälker. “The rules were simplified to allow for a dialogue on eye-level between the citizens and the representatives of the local administration”.

Participants in the workshop were free to place Lego bricks on the table, which represented potential  residential buildings. The table then recognised the location of the bricks and automatically displayed additional information on a screen. Armed with this information, citizens were able to discuss the site in greater detail. Through this process, 161 possible locations for refugee accommodation were identified.

A critical friend of smarticipate

Back at the Smartathon, Hälker was keen on trialling the smarticipate prototype which she had already heard about during the previous Smartathon. “It’s clear that there are still many things to be developed and implemented,” said Hälker. “Many people commented that the tree-planting app is too simplistic or narrow, but our group came up with interesting results during our trial. For example, we noticed that the dataset did not actually include all of the trees on the street. So in this case, perhaps we do not have enough information to make an informed decision.”

Of course, the smarticipate project, as well as the CityScienceLab’s projects, has an inevitable end date. How can the outputs of these related projects be exploited and further developed? “The city of Hamburg has the goal of becoming a digital city which will integrate these projects,” says Hälker. “The LGV and HCU also have a partnership to bring results from smarticipate and [Horizon 2020 project] MySmartLife into what’s called the Urban Data Hub.” But a strategic direction is critical as well, notes Hälker. “I think the main part is to start with local authorities and understand what kind of support they would like to have to make use of open data”.