by Pavel Kogut (21c Consultancy), Lieven Raes (Digital Flanders) and Susie McAleer (21c Consultancy)
Reaching net zero requires fundamental changes to our values and habits, to how we work, travel, produce and consume. It’s a journey that needs all hands on deck. Not just policy-makers or industry but the whole of civil society. Citizen science – the involvement of the public in scientific research – is a form of social innovation that leverages the power of the crowd to provide new insights and solutions to existing problems. COMPAIR is an EU-funded citizen science project that combines inclusive stakeholder engagement and new technologies to develop policies for more liveable, sustainable cities.
In an urban context, citizen science has been used to monitor environmental conditions with a view to addressing local challenges like greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and air pollution. The two are a major concern for Europeans and are closely related. Many air pollutants and GHGs come from the same sources. Reducing one helps to offset the other. So, it’s no coincidence that cleaner air and better health are among the main co-benefits of climate-resilient development.
Citizen science can drive change in lifestyles and policies needed to achieve healthier, more sustainable cities. To unlock this potential, citizen science projects must ensure the widest possible participation. However, the reality is that many initiatives repeatedly target the same demographics (e.g. individuals with higher levels of education and social status) because they often have pre-existing knowledge and motivation to act on climate change, and are therefore easier to engage. Less represented in citizen science are vulnerable individuals from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, minorities and those at risk of social exclusion .
Another challenge for citizen science is to improve the uptake of its results in policy circles . Treating policy impact as an afterthought risks undermining results’ sustainability, not to mention citizens’ motivation. Participation is strongest when people know that what they do matters. People are more likely to change themselves if they know that their contribution will influence policy and make a difference on a bigger scale.
Unlocking Citizen Science Potential
Aiming for both inclusive engagement and policy impact will yield more sustainable results than following a strategy that prioritises just one or the other. The dual focus has been adopted in COMPAIR [L1], an H2020 project that uses citizen science to improve urban air quality and create climate-resilient communities in Athens (GR), Berlin (DE), Flanders (BE), Plovdiv and Sofia (BG).
COMPAIR engages people who are vulnerable to air pollution and are typically underrepresented in citizen science. The target audience includes young people, the elderly and minority groups. Establishing contact with them can be difficult due to age, lack of trust, language barriers and limited digital literacy. The strategy chosen by COMPAIR is to work with organisations that already have access to these groups, for example, charities, community clubs and schools.
Stakeholder Engagement Examples
In Sofia, air pollution is concentrated in areas where solid fuels are used for heating. These tend to be deprived neighbourhoods with a high concentration of vulnerable groups. COMPAIR is partnering with local Roma minority organisations to recruit volunteers from this difficult-to-reach community, to share information on pollution’s harmful effects, alternative fuels and the various measures that Roma can take to protect themselves.
Athens’ bad air and rising temperatures adversely affect everyone, but the elderly are especially vulnerable. For this reason, the Athens pilot made them a priority group for its citizen science. The initial engagement is happening through Friendship Clubs, recreational centres for senior citizens operated by the Social Affairs and Solidarity Agency of the Municipality of Athens.
The Berlin pilot recruits volunteers from neighbourhood management areas. These are places inhabited by minorities and marginalised communities, including people with a Turkish background, low-income individuals and welfare recipients. The team is working with local advocacy groups to make outreach to these communities more effective.
Stakeholder engagement in COMPAIR is bolstered through the use of digital tools like AR apps, open dashboards (Figure 1) and digital city twins to help participants make sense of gathered data so they can make informed decisions based on facts.
Figure 1: Volunteers discussing collected test-results via dashboard during a School Street Cafe in Herzele.
The involvement in citizen science will leave participants more knowledgeable, skilled and better connected (social capital), fostering their sense of belonging and enhancing their understanding of how different actions – or inaction – affects them and the environment and what they can do to change the situation. Perhaps the biggest intangible benefit will come from the realisation that their actions matter, that their needs, data and recommendations are going to be used to inform policies to drive better outcomes for their communities. This is where policy impact comes into play.
Policy relevance requires an understanding of which policy priorities can be addressed with citizen science. In other words, what can cities use citizen science for? In Flanders, the Herzele municipality’s decision to implement a school street required an evaluation mechanism to assess the measure’s effectiveness. (Both the school and the neighbourhood have been involved in data collection, with results now integrated into the curriculum.) In Berlin, the new mobility plan has triggered massive land-use changes whose impact on air quality and traffic remains unknown [L3]. Athens adopted a climate change adaptation plan which lists citizen participation among the recommended resilience-boosting measures . Sofia is about to launch a new school bus and wants to know if it will lead to a reduction in traffic and air pollution, while Plovdiv is eager to introduce and evaluate the effectiveness of the first-ever school street in a city.
To all these needs, COMPAIR responded with the greatest asset cities have at their disposal – their citizens. The dual focus on inclusion and policy has turned citizen science into a vehicle for policy–society interface. It’s this ability to merge top-down and bottom-up approaches in a unified framework that makes citizen science a powerful instrument for building climate-resilient communities and ensuring that local Green Deals are designed not only for but also with the people.
 C. Paleco, et al., “Inclusiveness and diversity in citizen science”, in K. Vohland, et al., The Science of Citizen Science, Springer, 2021, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-58278-4_14
 U. When, et al., “Capturing and communicating impact of citizen science for policy: a storytelling approach”, J. Environ. Manage, 2021, vol 295, no. 113082, 1 Oct. 202, doi: 10.1016/j.jenvman.2021.113082.
 Athens resilience strategy for 2030 | tomorrow. Retrieved September 29, 2023, from https://www.citiesoftomorrow.eu/resources/toolbox/roadmaps/athens-resilience-strategy-2030/
Pavel Kogut, 21C Consultancy
Lieven Raes, Digital Vlaanderen