For those who work on EU-funded projects, each “final conference” can at times seem as though a well-worn template is being followed: a venue is booked, catering is ordered, and a shortlist of speakers are recruited to give powerpoint presentations.

The long-running Informed Cities series, which held the smarticipate final conference, aims to rethink such events to make them more engaging.

“The original idea of Informed Cities was to bring researchers and local governments together, two groups who didn’t speak together as much as they could,” says Ania Rok, Coordinator with ICLEI Europe and one of the organisers behind Informed Cities. “As it progressed, we decided to bring in civil society voices, including bottom up initiatives. Informed Cities is now a forum for these three parties to discuss emerging issues in urban governance from a critical perspective.”

Smarticipate fit well with the aims of Informed Cities: it had a role for local governments, which deliver public services; a role for researchers, who are involved in developing digital tools; and a role for civil society, which represent citizens’ knowledge and needs.

“Digital innovation is a topic that really benefits from diverse perspectives, as often traditional discourse around smart cities focuses almost solely on the business perspective – we wanted to add other perspectives as well,” says Ania.

“It was important to us to bring together groups that don’t talk enough to each other. People that look at digital tools from the perspective of technology, people who are the users of these services, and experts in domains such as mobility, energy, and urban planning.”

Going beyond the partner cities

Rather than choosing one of the project’s partner cities to host, the decision was made to hold the conference in the Austrian capital of Vienna.

“We thought it would be very interesting to host the conference in a city that wasn’t part of the project, as it would allow us to demonstrate how flexible the platform is,” explains Ania. “It would also allow us to do an experiment in real time – we picked a number of Vienna based initiatives, working on topics that were either already explored by smarticipate such as urban gardens, or topics that were not explored by smarticipate such as vacant spaces, and put them together with smarticipate partners to see if this platform could be applied in this totally different context.”

“Getting Vienna to commit to this, from our perspective, was already showing others that we have taken a first step in going beyond the project consortium. If you hold the event in a city that was part of the project then it’s expected that they are going to say the platform is amazing! If a city that wasn’t part of the project still feels that the platform is interesting enough for them to want to look at it more deeply, then it’s a positive sign.”

The conference featured three interactive formats: a round-table discussion for people to share their experience, field workshops which enabled participants to interact with local initiatives in Vienna, and the open space format, which gave every participant the opportunity to propose a session -with the caveat that the proposals could only be submitted during the conference based on the topics raised.

“The sessions were different to just showcasing an online tool – instead they were about having a broader discussion on how local governments and citizens interact, and giving a more in-depth consultation about smarticipate. It worked well,” said Ania.

A non-traditional format

Interaction and knowledge-sharing was a key focus of the event. Rather than go the traditional route, the conference had only two keynote speakers – Stefaan Verhulst from GovLab and Borja Prieto from the City of Madrid.

“We chose the two keynote speakers very purposefully. One speaker, Stefaan Verhulst, represented the broader research perspective and placed digital tools in the context of urban governance. This was important for us so that the conversation didn’t start to revolve around the latest gadgets and the fanciest tools.”

“The second, Borja Prieto, showed a city perspective, in this case Madrid, which is a great example of using digital tools consciously. This included developing their own open source tools and sharing them with other municipalities, having a political commitment to co-creating the future of the city together with citizens, and using a range of tools, not only digital.”

This decision to move away from the traditional conference structure had the potential to put-off some of the participants, but in the end it was warmly received according to Ania: “I was pleasantly surprised by the level of trust participants had in us; even if it wasn’t in the usual format they decided to give it a try. I think [the participants] really enjoyed it, especially the field workshop and the chance to go out into the city and talk to people doing things on the ground. I think they found it very enriching. Our Viennese partners also presented their projects with great enthusiasm and their commitment showed. “

The event was held in two venues: the Nordbahnhalle, a former fruit warehouse, which is now a space for urban creatives and a centre for ideas about how to renew the local area, and the Vienna city hall.

“We started in this ‘rough’ place, with bare walls, an industrial vibe and toilets in containers outside, and then the next day we moved to the beautiful location of the Vienna city hall. This all added to the experience,” Ania laughs. “We also ordered catering from a collective that works with food waste. I imagine it was quite an experience for some of the participants!”

Presenting smarticipate

As with many events designed to showcase technology, technology ended up causing a temporary issue, as the Wi-Fi faltered. For a conference on digital innovation, this had the potential to turn into a disaster. In the end, however, the participants made it work: “I think when it comes to digital innovation the ‘innovation’ part is just as important as the ‘digital’ part,” says Ania. “You can talk about some concepts without necessarily playing around with the platform. It’s also a question of having a room full of people that are willing to change things on short notice – I was nervous about it as I thought there could be some kind of mutiny as we were supposed to be testing an online tool and the Wi-Fi wasn’t working! But in the end people were able to take it in their stride and still have good conversations and good experiences, and delay trying out the platform until the Wi-Fi returned. That was reassuring!” says Ania.

“The lesson is, you can never have enough Wi-Fi back ups. We had three and still had problems!”

The smarticipate platform was also presented, generating a high-level of interest among participants. “What was most impressive for [the participants] was [the smarticipate platform’s] flexibility,” says Ania. “It’s not just a tool to plant trees in Hamburg, rather it’s a mechanism that can be applied to different urban challenges. It became also quite exciting to try to figure out how it could be applied to new challenges – basically, co-designing these new public services.”

“There was also quite a big discussion about open source: the benefits and also the weaknesses of open source tools for cities. In order to be kept alive, such tools need a community behind them. The question was how to create such a community and what kind of business model should be developed to ensure the tool is accessible, but also reliable.”

Looking back, Ania is pleased with the non-traditional approach taken by the conference: “In the end we wanted to have a balance between showcasing the project and our work, and creating a platform for other projects and initiatives and other voices to join the discussion, in the hope that something new emerges. In this way, even the people from the smarticipate consortium could go back home benefiting from the new ways of thinking.”