Achieving Clean Air in Cities through Citizen Science: COMPAIR's Vision Statement
Having a clear vision is vital for any project that wants to leave a lasting impact. To imagine how a better world would look like if the project is successful, the COMPAIR consortium organised a visioning session at the kick-off meeting in Ghent in November 2021. The session followed a workshop format, with three groups of 6-10 participants working in parallel on tasks prepared in advance by the moderator. Each group had a mixed composition in terms of partner profile e.g. a pilot city, a technology provider, a research institute. This ensured strong interdisciplinarity within teams and helped gather diverse opinions on the multi-dimensional issue that is air pollution.
Vision workshop in action
Vision building blocks
Toward the end of the session, a picture with four impact areas emerged. These can be thought of as central defining vision elements or building blocks:
Urban value chain: COMPAIR brings together members of the quadruple helix community to co-create effective place-based solutions to mitigate air pollution and other related urban challenges. The multi-stakeholder collaboration exhibits high levels of trust and inclusivity, with grassroot communities, researchers, industry experts and policy actors working side by side to make the vision of zero pollution a reality.
Behavioural change: COMPAIR stimulates behavioural change by increasing environmental awareness among urban inhabitants. Commuters, car drivers, home owners, business managers and even climate sceptics develop a well-rounded understanding of how their action and inaction contributes to, or helps mitigate, climate change and air pollution in the city. Better awareness encourages people to engage in citizen science initiatives and help the environment, for example switching to more sustainable everyday practices, and participating in urban policy making processes as data collectors and co-creators.
Technical change: COMPAIR uses novel data collection and cloud calibration techniques as well as advanced data management processes to make citizen science data policy-ready. As a result, local and regional administrations have more fine grained information at their disposal to enact evidence-based policies. Moreover, authorities will have more trust in citizen science data once they know that grassroot initiatives are working with, not against, them when it comes to air pollution.
Policy change: COMPAIR unlocks insights from traditional and citizen science data by making information available through a Local Digital Twin. Not only does this help policy making become more data driven, experimental and forward-looking, it provides cities and regions with an enhanced capacity to monitor and simulate measures required to achieve carbon neutrality and zero pollution objectives within the framework of EU's Green Deal.
The four impact areas were further elaborated to produce a vision statement for COMPAIR. The vision statement defines the purpose and values of the project and will be used to help shape and guide the COMPAIR Consortium culture and delivery processes.
Inspired by its results, cities and regions across Europe are following COMPAIR’s approach to tackle one of the most persistent ‘wicked’ challenges in the developed world: air pollution. Having tried to solve the problem with only public and private sector measures, new adopters are starting to realise that success is unattainable unless the full urban value chain is involved. This requires setting up a multi-stakeholder platform where representatives of research and civil society work alongside government and industry to co-define a collective approach to the problem.
From COMPAIR’s best practice guide on stakeholder engagement, new adopters know that members of the quadruple helix community vary according to level of power and interest. While it might be tempting to dismiss those at the bottom end of the matrix (low power, low interest), these groups absolutely need to be part of the action, otherwise the full urban value chain is present in name only. A truly inclusive space is one where not only high-level categories are represented (policy, industry, research, society), but also groups that traditionally have been excluded from decision making structures either by choice or due to their disadvantaged position e.g. low-income status, migrant background. A successful citizen science initiative would ensure that i) people who have low interest at the beginning become supportive of project objectives as the initiative develops, and ii) those with low power are connected to and heard by those who can mobilise resources to catalyse change on the ground.
Participation in several co-creation workshops with other stakeholders does not guarantee behavioural change. That is why COMPAIR tested a range of pathways to see which ones work best for different groups. Building on this knowledge, new local and regional initiatives leverage motivation and group dynamics to turn quiet residents into active citizens. Showing people that their actions matter, that data they collect will ultimately be used by public authorities to make better policies, provides a strong incentive in this regard. Additional measures can be used to convert specific groups e.g. clear demonstration of privacy and security standards in project tools (people distrustful of tech and digital newbies), community awareness platforms that emphasise local effects of climate change (climate sceptics).
Thanks to these efforts, the level of environmental awareness among city inhabitants increases substantially. Armed with a more in-depth understanding of the complex relationship between lifestyle choices, air pollution and climate change, people gradually abandon carbon-intensive activities in favour of greener alternatives. They change their travel and shopping habits. They try new ways of heating homes and cooking food. Many also show interest in civic participation, some for the first time. Climate change and air pollution become issues that people hold dear and want to do something about, including by measuring them through low-cost sensors.
Once frowned upon by public officials, data collected by citizens now carries the policy-ready label. To achieve that, COMPAIR had to introduce several innovations aimed at improving data quality from DIY and portable measurement devices. The main ones include a new cloud calibration pipeline for continuous benchmarking to reference stations, as well as new processes to improve data curation, analysis, filtering and interoperability with third-party systems.
The integration of citizen science into policy making offers cities several advantages. It allows local policy makers to get a more complete view of pollution in urban micro environments. Trends and dynamics of ambient air quality can now be better assessed than before when only one source of information was used i.e. data from official reference stations. Once the true situation with air pollution is known, decision makers can make a more accurate assessment of its impact on human health, economy and the environment, and then use this information to respond accordingly with appropriate new measures.
Arguably, it is this novel monitoring framework which combines, among other things, citizen science data and advanced decision support tools like Local Digital Twins, that is COMPAIR’s main legacy. The framework provides a robust digital monitoring and reporting system for public authorities to understand the state of air pollution at different spatial and temporal scales. This information can be leveraged to find out whether KPIs to be achieved as part of the Green Deal are being met and, if not, where additional progress is needed (pollution types, sources, sectors etc.), and how best to achieve it.
The vision statement is a lighthouse that will guide our efforts in the years to come, whether it’s engaging with stakeholders, working on project deliverables, or motivating partners to go out of their way to make COMPAIR a success. That said, the vision is never fixed. Internal changes within the project, groundbreaking results, major external shocks like the ones we have witnessed since 2020 all can necessitate changes to the original version. So, to ensure its relevance, we will be reviewing our vision statement at least once a year against progress made and any megatrends driving change globally.
If you share our vision and would like to join forces to tackle air pollution, don't hesitate to drop us a line via contact form.