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Smart City Leader Interview: Jamie Cudden, Smart Dublin
Joe Appleton7. May 202120 min read

Smart City Leader Interview: Jamie Cudden, Smart Dublin

Jamie Cudden is the leader of Dublin City Council’s Smart City program. The Smart City program focuses on embracing new technologies to solve the many challenges that the city faces to make Dublin a more liveable city for all of its residents. Using pioneering ideas, involving 5G, Internet of Things, and Big Data, Dublin’s Smart City program has been able to develop and deploy a wide range of solutions for challenges such as citizen engagement, sustainable mobility, energy management, and more.

Since Dublin is a prime example of a smart city in action (read our Smart Dublin City Portrait for more information), we decided to get in touch with Jamie and find out how he helped to steer Dublin into a smarter future.


How did you get into smart city development and urban issues?

I’ve been a part of the Dublin City Council for about 12 years now. I started off working with urban and city policy, but my background before that is in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and data analytics. I did my masters in GIS at the University College London, and I’d used what I learned when I worked with the British Home Office and Metropolitan Police, as well as in a local authority setting, looking at the power of geographic data and how you can use that to help develop insights, visualize trends, and deploy better policies. I worked at the Jill Dando Institute of Crime Science as well.

I was very fortunate to be able to understand the power of mapping, data, and visual technology to enhance, inform, and deliver evidence-based policy. After five years in London, I thought it was time to head back home. Luckily, a position arose to take some of those skills and apply them in a Dublin setting. Over time, that role in the city council evolved into the role it is today. In 2015, the Chief Executive asked me to look at putting shape and structure into the smart city opportunity. Before that, I backed the Dublin Chamber of Commerce on an economic recovery project that focused on how industry, the city, and other sectors could work together to overcome the economic crisis. Through that work, I was exposed to technology leaders, academics, and the whole start-up ecosystem.

It gave me a feeling of how collaboration could tackle many of the challenges facing the system, and how we could create collaborative mechanisms through a structured program. And that’s how Smart Dublin was established in 2015. 

The idea wasn’t to be technology-led but to tackle the big issues in the city using collaboration models. Before we established Smart Dublin, we did a lot of work with open-sourced data and big tech companies early on, but we approached it from the wrong angle. It was more like we were looking for problems to solve with technology rather than using technology to solve problems.

I’m very passionate about technology in general and a bit of a tech geek sometimes. My background is in science. I’m very fortunate to be working at an intersection where urban technology, policies, and data meet. For me, it’s a very exciting space to be involved in.

How do you define a “smart city”?

There are so many different ways to define it. In Dublin, it’s about looking at existing and emerging technology opportunities, such as the Internet of Things, 5G, Big Data, augmented reality—the whole toolkit of new, transformative technologies—and asking how can we use them to solve urban problems. Those problems could be mobility-related, they could focus on sustainability, or energy usage, or climate change.

In short: how do we respond better to citizen needs? By taking measurements, we can start having discussions based on real data, without any political motivations. Without that data, it’s difficult to have a good discourse about the real issues we’re facing.

For me, a smart city is about taking advantage of the opportunities presented by these new technologies, using them to transform our cities and address these challenges but with a particular focus on the citizen. It’s really important to create better outcomes for our citizens and residents.

Otherwise, what’s the point? You’d just be doing it for technology’s sake.

If you can build alignment between industry, academia, business, city, and other government agencies, you’re on to a winner in terms of what’s possible and what you can achieve.

Why do we focus on smart cities rather than smart countries? What is it about cities that makes them the right environment for innovation?

It’s about building blocks and scalability. It’s something we encountered building our smart city program. The idea of a smart country is nice but it would be too complex to enact. Cities are already complicated organisms made of many different silos. There is no logic to them, and rolling out ideas can be a struggle.

In the beginning, there was an idea that we could use big tech to roll out massive city-wide changes at once, but even on a city scale, that’s simply not possible. The reality is that cities depend on different silos, different systems, and different procurement cycles…there are so many different stakeholders that it’s hard to get consensus—especially if you want to implement sweeping city-wide changes. That’s just a city. A country is even more complicated.

Cities provide a better opportunity to engage and encourage people and move things in the right direction. Many megacities are almost too big to be smart cities. Even though Dublin isn’t the biggest city in the world, we decided to establish Smart Districts to try and bring focus to specific areas, and scale ideas incrementally.

For example, we started looking at Dublin’s Docklands area. It was already establishing itself as a high-tech hub, so we decided to partner with the Connect Research Center (specializing in future connectivity) from Trinity College Dublin to focus on it and bring in telecoms infrastructure, 5G, the tech companies, real estate companies, and communities to establish it as a testbed. We also worked with the Fraunhofer Institute to help frame this idea, and it was very transformative. It helped make the smart city idea real. As a result, we were able to accelerate deployments in the district.

Smart Docklands has been our flagship project that has birthed other smart districts across the city. When smart cities have proven themselves as effective machines, smart countries may follow. It’s about scalability. 

According to the European Smart Cities research group at the Centre of Regional Science of Vienna University of Technology, smart cities follow six key themes: smart government, smart economy, smart environment, smart mobility, smart people, and smart living. Which of these are the most important to you and your city?

It depends on the nature of the projects. Sometimes, the projects are about solving a problem for a department within a city authority, for example, our flood management team: how can we use technology to get better data about the water levels in our rivers or when and where rainfall is hitting the hardest. We can use new technology with low power networks and deploy more of them to get better data. With that data, we’re mainly solving an engineering problem, but at the same time, we’re also able to warn citizens who live in areas where there is a flood risk. A good, smart solution can cut across multiple themes.

It can be difficult to fit an initiative into just one theme. Another example would be the cycling app that we’ve just launched (Dublin Cycle Buddy). It’s there to encourage people to cycle more, using gamification, and get more people on their bikes. It’s a mobility initiative initially, but it’s also about Smart People, and it’s environmental too since it will help to reduce emissions. 

You see, it’s good to have those themes, but a good initiative will cover a wide range of them rather than just one. The bottom line is that people should be benefitting from these initiatives, whether it’s generating smart data, providing better services, or making a cleaner or safer city. Finding solutions or classing them into different themes isn’t the main problem. The big challenge is communicating the benefits of these initiatives and solutions to wider stakeholder groups. 

It’s a big challenge for cities because they’re so siloed and internally focused.

Training and awareness of what we’re doing is becoming a far higher priority more recently. De-mystifying simple solutions, explaining that the Internet of Things isn’t complicated, that’s more important. “Smart Education” would be a better theme. To that end, we’ve recently developed a program called the Academy of the Near Future. It’s a program designed to upscale and train city staff and students to help them understand the Smart City concept, what technology underpins it, and what data and ethics surround it, in a way that helps them understand the opportunities available, and hopefully change mindsets. 

I haven’t heard about that, that sounds interesting.

We just won funding for it, actually, and it’s a promising idea that we hope could go global.

So, when it comes to solutions, you must receive a lot of idea pitches and project proposals. What criteria do you look for when selecting potential projects to pilot and deploy? What makes a project stand out?

It’s a challenge for any city. There’s only so much they can handle. We get so many great ideas and to be honest, we don’t have much time to look at many of them. The best thing for prospective companies to do is to find out if cities have regular, structured programs for developing solutions, and enter through those channels. Challenge-based programs too.

When people are pitching to us, if they don’t focus on the challenge that they’re trying to solve, it gets a no straight away. They need good use cases that highlight what the issue is and how the solution that they’re pitching to us solves that issue.

A lot of companies that approach us need to understand what procurement is too. We’ve had a few MaaS ideas lately, cool ones about managing mobility data in a city. Great! But when the team comes back with a quote for a pilot, with a figure that is way over our €25k procurement thresholds, it means that we would have to go to tender and that could take between 3 to 5 months, and I don’t even know if I want that solution in the first place.

And that’s fine. These companies need to make money but the reality is that you need to be able to do pilots with cities to demonstrate your ability and also to build trust. You’ll struggle to get any big contracts without being able to build trust and deliver a track record working with cities. It’s time-consuming, but it’s needed to help win bigger contracts.

It’s also important to make sure that sales teams know who they’re pitching to. We get a lot of tech salespeople who really aren’t aware of how cities work and operate, or how their solution can fit into the grand scheme of things.

They pitch ideas, but they don’t know what the problem is in the first place. The biggest mistake I see is a company that comes up with an idea, gets investors, builds a product, packages the product, prices it up, and then approaches cities with it with having understood how cities work. Most of the time, it’s a solution to something that was never really a problem in the first place and its priced in a way that doesn’t make sense!

More recently, we’ve been working with innovation projects that we can pilot and scale in a single procurement process so essentially, we are working with companies to find solutions to known problems.

It’s a two-stage development project, where we pilot something, and if we like it, we buy it and implement it right away.  An example is a challenge we had concerning lifebuoys. They kept getting stolen, and if they’re not there, someone could lose their life because of it. So, we asked, “what if we could get an alert every time one gets removed?”

We don’t care where it goes or who took it, we just wanted to know that it was removed so we can get it replaced, and several companies came up with a solution and now citizens are safer because of it.

Where did these lifebuoys usually end up?

In hotel rooms usually, after stag parties!

Aside from the lifebuoys, do you have an example of another project that you have implemented that has been particularly successful?

A really interesting one at the moment is with Big Belly Bins. We have nearly 400 of these bins across the city. They’re solar-powered smart bins with “compactor” technology. Their larger volume makes them more useful, and they’ve helped cut down the number of regular on-street bins. They also collect real-time data, cutting down unnecessary collections. They’re great, but what we’re trying to look at is whether they can work beyond waste management. 

Whenever someone deposits something in these bins, it is data stamped. So, say you’ve got 500 of these dotted around a city, in parks, city centers, business districts, and suburbs, we’re trying to see if we can network these bins together to maximize information. Right now, we’re trying to understand if it could give us good information about the COVID-19 movement in different parts of the city. We’re deploying radar sensors on them too.

When you’ve got assets like these in prime locations in your city, you have to ask yourself “how can we make the most of them?”

Another one would be our Docklands 5G testbed. This was an interesting project because it attracted several global companies who wanted to use Dublin as a global testbed. We partnered with a company called DenseAir to deliver a neutral host deployment in the docklands area.

Through this, we learned a lot about the challenges of building networks and putting small cells out on poles in the city. We’re now establishing a new telecoms unit within Dublin City Council that focuses on reducing red tape and bureaucracy surrounding telecoms, and how we deploy telecoms in our city. So, this is an example of taking a pilot project and shaping a new outcome for the city on the back of this learning.

The Docklands 5G project also helped pave the way for other innovative solutions in Dublin, like our waterways and gully management system, which we solved with newly developed low-cost IoT solutions. 

Technology is crucial to any smart city’s development. How do you feel about big data and the implications of technology companies working with personal data?

As part of our expansion over the past couple of years, we have introduced a focus on ethics and data privacy. This has been a real game-changer for us. Especially for me, because I get very excited about the tech side of things and can jump into projects without thinking about the implications.

Though it’s slightly off-topic, we’ve been interested in the rise of drone use in the last couple of years. Drones offer great potential for cities. They’re being used for everything from emergency response to waste management. They can be used for environmental monitoring, surveying, and mapping, traffic management. But of course, there are massive privacy issues with them and we need to build out trust in how they are used.

Now we are really keen on pursuing privacy-by-design products. One is in the city’s Hugh Lane Gallery, where we’re using camera-based analytics to understand how people are using the gallery and moving around it. The second is another camera-based analytics project involving vehicle classification for bus-lane enforcement. The big difference between these new projects compared with older ones is that in the past data was just hoovered up into the cloud, compared with today where we’re exploring edge-based data processing and object recognition rather than traditional video processing.

Edge computing involves connected devices processing data on the spot rather than sending that data to a cloud data bank to get processed, right?

That’s right. We’ve been working with ARM on those two projects. And the data we’re collecting is just ones and zeroes on a dashboard. It’s nothing personally identifiable. It’s a game-changer and one of the big trends I’m seeing. It’s far less invasive. But of course, in certain circumstances, it can be adapted to provide more personally identifiable data, but only in appropriate circumstances. 

We have to listen to citizen’s concerns and ask whether there will be concerns about anything we implement. Are the other ways we can deliver this project? Are we meeting our statutory obligations? We are still in the early stages of smart cities, I think many cities fall foul of this. But when you mature as a city—places like Barcelona and Amsterdam are leading the way in terms of privacy and ethics—you need to take it seriously. 

At any one time, we could have over thirty projects running, and you can’t afford to have an experimental project get in the newspapers and ruin your reputation. If the public loses trust in your overall ambitions, then nobody wins. 

Aside from technological advances, do you believe that smaller, non-technological solutions are also key to building smarter and more efficient cities?

It’s hard to separate technology from anything these days, even though some people are pushing back against it. We have plenty of green projects and while most of them aren’t part of my remit, I do believe that the two aren’t mutually exclusive. For example, we’re looking into green roofs and roof gardens at the moment in our Docklands district, and being able to put a low-cost sensor or two into a green project to measure water and automate watering systems is all part and parcel of a modern smart city.

When you’re greening a city, how do you measure it? Probably with drone surveys and aerial photography. Google is doing some great work with their environmental insights engine mapping tree canopies, for example. It’s all part of the same game.

We do have another project in Dublin called Beta Projects. It’s an innovative concept that’s about changing behaviors and quick, agile pilot projects. One that they’re focusing on at the moment is bicycle theft, which is a big problem in the city. People can’t park their bikes safely, so they piloted several “bike hangars” that take up a single parking space for people to safely store their bikes in. It’s great and got an excellent response on social media.

Last-mile logistics is another approach that’s not massively technology-focused. We’re working with UPS and using cargo bikes. It’s not smart technology but it’s a smart idea.

Sometimes we get a bit of pushback from the city like “will you just shut up about smart technologies for a minute!” but it’s true. Smart solutions don’t always need to be about new technology.

Right now, we’re working on a way to better align the Beta Projects initiative with the smart city program.

Which cities or leaders do you hold in high esteem? Are there any cities that you are learning from?

I think Dublin is a very strong city, especially when it comes to engaging with tech companies. I think we’re one of the best cities in the world in that respect, and with our smart districts concept too. External communication and implementation are our strongest points. Our biggest challenges, however, have been refocusing our internal structuring. 

We were caught up in legacy systems and CRMs that locked us out of trying new things. We had a siloed mentality and it held us back somewhat. Now, we’ve had a big shift and appointed a new Assistant Chief Executive to focus on digital services, HR, and corporate. We’ve got a new CRM. We’re trying to align all of our innovation and work on our weaknesses.

But other cities? It’s hard to say because different cities have different problems. Amsterdam is great. They’ve set up a very successful CTO function with Amsterdam’s unique smart city model. Most of the Dutch cities, to be honest: Utrecht and the Hague, too.

Helsinki is another one. Helsinki probably doesn’t even call itself a “smart city” they just do this stuff naturally. 

London is a good one, but it’s a challenging one. They are doing a very good job with good strategy and vision.

Barcelona is another one that’s always innovating. Over in Portugal too, Porto, Lisbon, Aveiro. The teams working there are doing some very interesting stuff.

We know all the right people and collaboration is so important in this sector.

What is your vision for the future of Dublin?

The future is to make sure that we’re at the forefront and take the opportunity to better the city. We can’t not do this. We’re already recognized as a technology leader, with amazing start-ups, great connections with tech companies, and real government backing. For the future, I’d like to see us change the culture surrounding smart city development, and make innovative practices become the norm. 

We should always aspire to be a pioneering city. We should be open to having Dublin as the place to test, pilot, and validate new global services.

People often ask “what’s the point of the Smart City program?” and my answer is always “Well, if I wasn’t here and the team wasn’t looking at these technologies, then no one else would.” Should we let the tech companies dictate our future? I don’t think so. We need to co-build the future together and do it in the right way because the ethics of some of these companies can be pretty poor. Dumping e-Scooters on city streets, for example! New technology brings a lot of disruption. 

All these new technologies have a lot of upsides but there are a lot of unintended downsides too. I would like to see Dublin at the forefront, as a pioneering city that embraces smart solutions with the perfect collaboration between government and new technology. It’s exciting, but we need to tread carefully.

This interview was conducted by bee smart city author Joe Appleton as part of our Smart City Leader Interview Series. We thank Jamie Cudden for his valuable insights and time.


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Profile Image: provided by Jamie Cudden, own graphic composition by bee smart city


Joe Appleton

Joe Appleton is a content strategist, editor and writer at bee smart city. He is particularly interested in the topics of smart and sustainable cities and urban mobility.