Riverrun, past drones and data

Just over 100 years ago, Dublin city was made famous as the site of James Joyce’s writing – works of extraordinary literary innovation that have thrown their shadow over all publications since. Now, Dublin City Council is tapping into that spirit, carving a path in innovative governance and services fit for global recognition. The city’s transformation has been recognised, with Dublin earning second place in last year’s Capital of Innovation (iCapital) Awards.

Finnegan’s wake

Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake uses a half-invented language to distend and contract time and space, melding all human history and culture into the sweep of Dublin’s landscape. Jamie Cudden, Smart City Lead at Dublin City Council, remembers that when he first shared the ambitions of Smart Dublin at a council meeting in 2015, those gathered at the table looked at him as though he’d just read out the first lines of that famously impenetrable tome: “I was talking about drones, 5G, Internet of Things, and I remember just looking down at the table and they just looked like, ‘What is this guy on about?’, ‘This is just out there.’” Well, maybe not if the last five years are anything to go by!

However, as Joyce moves from the biblical fall to the modern era across a few kilometres of the River Liffey, the time between this meeting and the demands of 2022 passed in the blink of an eye. “We’re already experiencing exponential growth in many of these technologies. For example, 5G, it’s real now,” Cudden relates. “For drones, we are seeing significant traction with multiple departments in the City Council using or looking to use them in areas such as emergency response, fire brigade, pollution control, waste management and more. The Internet of Things has gone mainstream. And there is, of course, the explosion of new mobility services, from e-scooters to e-bikes and car clubs. That’s just five or six years we’re talking about here.”

Frank White Smart City Co ordinator, Kathy Quinn Deputy CEO DCC Minister of State with responsibility for Public Procurement and eGovernment at the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, Ossian Smyth TD, Jamie Cudden Smart City Programme manager, and Veronica Mariti Sesoko Smart City Assistant engineer. Gareth Chaney/ Collins Photos

It’s not that the council had not been investigating these issues before. Still, the exploration was ad hoc and spread across many departments and projects that didn’t communicate much with each other. Smart Dublin was established to draw these fragments together, sewing them into a single mutually inspiring and progressing narrative.

Another area of focus was on data. Different departments of the city and other entities were gathering lots of it. But those collecting it weren’t sure what to do with it. It wasn’t adequately collated, so different databases couldn’t shed light on each other. Also, much of the data was not published as open data, which was a concern.

“The question is how you apply technology to deliver wider benefits,” Cudden explains, “How can it be used to do things differently and shape our local policies? How do we embed it into institutional cultures and get people more familiar with using it to help them do their jobs? How do we make sure as much as possible is published openly?”

The question is how you apply technology to deliver wider benefits.
— Jamie Cudden

Helping internal teams to get a grip on the latest technologies was essential. “Engineers,” Cudden explains, “have big budgets to deliver traditional infrastructure projects but may miss opportunities to embed new technologies into them.” This presents dual dangers: the money may be wasted on “yesterday’s technology,” or entrusted to “people trying to sell you stuff that sometimes doesn’t work.”

Smart Dublin, Cudden says, can act “as a neutral broker,” which translates between municipal tenderers and the companies looking for their business, thereby ensuring better outcomes for the city and helping to future proof these investments.

The flip side of this lack of maturity across city departments is that many essential areas still have to experience the benefits of innovation – for example, urban logistics. “Deliveries are un-coordinated with so much duplication across urban centres,” Cudden declares. “This is a challenging area for cities post-Covid as we have seen such rapid growth in online and e-commerce.”

How do delivery drivers know where to park?
— Jamie Cudden

This issue is exacerbated by the significant transformation of public transport and logistics during the Covid-19 pandemic. “How do delivery drivers know where to park in cities with so much changing at the kerbside level? They don’t,” Cudden exclaims. “This digital data layer is just not available. Until this information is digitised, the benefits of newer technologies in cars or vehicles will not realise more benefits in areas such as smarter logistics and optimising last mile deliveries.”

It’s a battle to put this way of thinking into practice across the council and other players, Cudden explains. “You’re firefighting, literally when you’re working in the city,” he emphasises. “If you’re managing waste, you’re probably responding more to the pressure for more bins or illegal dumping than you are thinking about the next step in terms of technology.” It falls to Smart Dublin to help internal teams integrate the innovative approach into their way of working and understand how it can make their jobs easier and more effective.

You’re firefighting, literally when you’re working in the city.
— Jamie Cudden

Efforts are paying off because it’s becoming more and more apparent how vital these technologies are to how we live today. The concept of open data, according to Cudden, was a very academic idea five years ago, but nowadays, its application is staring people in the face.

One of the most known features of Joyce’s book – and one that Taiwan’s Digital Minister, Audrey Tang, has referred to as an inspiration in the open source programming language that they are developing – is that it begins with a half-sentence that completes the half-sentence with which it ends, creating a continuous loop.

A lesson that it is not about getting to the end but about the journey along the way. So it’s no surprise that Cudden phrases the most crucial part of his work as “bringing people on the journey.” He and his team seek not to dictate outcomes but to accompany people and enrich their experience with a broader scope of possibilities.


Unquestionably Joyce’s most famous book, and one of the most famous in the English language, is Ulysses, where each chapter centres around a different location in Dublin and takes on a different literary style. Joyce maps the movements of his protagonists over 24 hours onto the wanderings of Odysseus and his son Telemachus in Homer’s Odyssey.

Similarly, Smart Dublin has broken an epic voyage into localised chunks, each presenting a different form of innovation. In the Smart Docklands, the business district where Google and the other tech giants are based, it’s all about connectivity. In Smart Dublin 8, an area historically associated with tailoring and later factory work, the question is now health and wellness. So far, there are five smart districts, each dedicated to a unique issue.

Ulysses’ chapter in the Docklands starts with its protagonist setting off to the post office for an expected letter. Maybe a little analogue for the Smart Docklands, as Cudden explains that the area is now “a testbed for 5G and future connectivity.” For example, the experiments they ran there five years ago were able to inform the ongoing national rollout of 5G, proving the viability and value proposition of the technology and catching potential pitfalls early.

Experiments there also convinced the council of the need to establish a telecoms unit to support the scaling up of these types of investments across the city. So what was a Docklands pilot has gone on to back the business case for establishing a telecoms unit in the Dublin City Council.

The mantra of all this experimentation, Cudden says, “is ‘make this real.’ It doesn’t matter to people in Dublin if innovation is happening in Singapore or Hong Kong – unless you can show the benefits locally and build trust and confidence.” He also stresses the importance of involving local stakeholders and communities to express their needs and build a vision together. “I think getting them involved has been a real game changer – this also extends to the tech companies, SMEs, local universities and other public sector bodies that all have a role to play,” Cudden adds.

Digital twin 3D model
3D model of a building

One of the most exciting projects in the Docklands is the development of digital twins. These digital replicas of cities can be used to model potential processes, developments and other applications. “This modelling technique,” says Cudden, “allows you to visualise the ideas and bring people along before going for the bigger scale.”

Smart Dublin collaborated with other developers across the district to access the 3D digital files of the new buildings in the area. Once the digital version of the surface was ready, the city put it online as open source and organised a 3D hackathon to discover what people could do with it. Many participated, from big tech companies to local start-ups. “Our question,” says Cudden, “was: We know you could do something big with this, but we don’t know what.”

Winners of the hackathon came up with a wide range of ideas. Some proposed an app to give feedback on proposed developments. You would see the proposed changes superimposed on the existing space using your phone’s camera and augmented reality. Others devised a system allowing firefighters to immediately appraise emergencies and scan the area for accessible water pipes.

The city has also brought bigger partners on board, working with companies like Bentley and Microsoft to advance some hackathon ideas. The beauty – and challenge – of the digital twin, Cudden explains, is that “it’s a bit of anything to anyone. It’s just digitising what we know as the physical world.”

Now the question for the city is how to proceed on a larger scale and pursue several high-value use cases. “We are also trying to understand whether to have an external company manage the twin or to handle it internally – the trade-offs between capacity, price, and control are all key considerations,” says Cudden. “Eurocities partnered initiatives like Living in EU are an excellent source of guidance.”

The potential of digital twins is limitless, particularly when merged with other datasets, according to Cudden: “We’re also looking at air quality modelling, bringing in the Google Street View car, as part of Google Airview, and measuring hyper-local air quality, bringing in digital 3D models and then simulating, if you change how you configure traffic in this part of the city, what impact will you have?”

Google Street View, Air View Dublin. Image credit: Google

Tours following the footsteps of Ulysses’ characters throng through Ireland’s capital, and Joyce once boasted that if Dublin were to burn down, it could be rebuilt accurately using Ulysses’ detailed descriptions. Unfortunately for the scholars that could be employed for such a scheme, it will no longer be necessary. Just as Ulysses maps not only the layout of the city but the fibre of its localities and the spirit of their residents, Smart Dublin’s digital twins have given us a 3D replica that is no cold reproduction but is textured with concerns of its communities and pregnant with an open horizon of potential.

Portrait of the artist as an innovative city

In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce brings the reader into the author’s boyhood, filled with eager fascinations and fluctuations of the soul from hedonism to extreme piety to eventually something in between. The unflinching and often unflattering portrait demonstrates how deeply one’s character is affected and shaped by those around it, for better and worse. Dublin is examining its image through the eyes of young people and start-ups that can offer disruptive and innovative ideas to change the face of the city, giving them, like Joyce’s young protagonist, the opportunity to experiment and mature.

“Students, schools and local communities need to know what technology powers their city,” Cudden declares. This helps ensure acceptance, empowers people to engage, and may inspire them to participate in creating. In collaboration with Trinity College Dublin and the national research centre for future network and connectivity, Connect, the city has launched The Academy of the Near Future. “It’s about upskilling and training people in how and why technology is useful through workshops and engagement,” Cudden explains. So far, 1,000 16-17-year-old students have taken part across Ireland.

It’s about upskilling and training people in how and why technology is useful.
— Jamie Cudden

Another tool for engagement is the Design your Future City Challenge. The city uses a week-long challenge for groups of 20 students to “take the lessons of being practitioners delivering projects and capture them so we can teach others some of the pitfalls and the opportunities.” This is meant to provide an alternative to academic courses on smart cities by focusing more on the practical side of what someone working in a city has to deal with.

Disclosing an accurate portrait of the smart city from the municipality’s point of view is also essential when engaging with global players. Dublin wanted to take advantage of the world-leading tech companies headquartered there and its start-up ecosystem. But the council found that “a lot of these guys don’t understand the challenges that cities face,” Cudden says.

Dublin created a small business innovation research programme in partnership with the national enterprise agency, Enterprise Ireland. Through it, the city launched challenges relevant to the local administration, offering a total of €1.5 million in funding to bring winning ideas forward – successful proposals received between €10,000 and €100,000 each.

Designed to stimulate the market and support pre-commercial concepts, it came at a very appropriate time at the start of the Smart Dublin journey. This challenge-based model, says Cudden, “really progressed how their innovative proposals were tuned into difficulties that the city faces.” Wrapped up in innovation is the fact that it is not always successful. However, “even when projects don’t work out, you learn why they don’t, and maybe it gets you to pivot a little bit.”

The open calls helped the city get ahead of emerging technologies, like low power systems and the Internet of Things. One successful project that emerged from the call was the use of low-cost sensors to detect when drains in the city are blocked, potentially causing flooding. “Two Irish-based companies have built fully working solutions,” Cudden says gleefully, “and now we are going to procure them at a bigger scale.” Having trialled their idea in Dublin, these companies are also pitching their ideas to other cities around the world.

Another success was a smart mobility hub app encouraging municipal staff to leave their cars at home and use shared mobility services, e-bikes and cargo bikes for site visits. The app has been a success. “It’s a game changer,” says Cudden, “these services are essential for staff that need access where it’s hard to take a private car. We are now engaging the market to scale up this solution over 2023.”

Karl Hussey Photography 2021

Seeing and understanding how the local administration works is also extremely important for companies in terms of procurement. Cudden regrets that many companies have come to him with great ideas that they have worked on for years, only to have him say, “Guys if you came to me two years ago and said that’s the pricing model, I would have told you not to bother.” Mutual understanding benefits both parties because it means that companies don’t waste their time on solutions that won’t fit the local budget or context.

I would have told you not to bother.
— Jamie Cudden

Another thing that Dublin is helping companies to understand is that by opening their data to the administration, they can develop use-cases that add value to the data in the open market. For example, the fitness company Strava gave its cycling data to the city for free during the pandemic, which is an invaluable tool for understanding usage patterns across the city.

Many companies, Cudden says, “are noticing that there is value to providing access to data that can help cities for policies and decision making.” For example, MasterCard is sharing data with the city as part of our Dublin economic monitor. “We got cool insights from some of their aggregated spend data for the city that can support policy decisions,” boasts Cudden.

One of the critical literary devices of Joyce’s Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man is the epiphany. This is a moment when some seemingly inconsequential perception functions as the culmination of accrued minor influences, resulting in a major shift of perspective – a change in the mode of life.

Through many small interventions, open courses, public calls, meetings and dialogues with stakeholders big and small, Dublin is working to bring about an epiphany on a grand scale, shifting the way that companies and cities collaborate. Thanks to the unflinching portrait of itself, Dublin’s shift, it seems, is already well underway: “You’re seeing this whole world of start-ups and innovation and disruption open up,” Cudden says.


Joyce’s first published work of fiction, Dubliners, is still celebrated in the city. A collection of short stories showing the city through many sets of eyes, those of the young and the old, male and female, insiders and outsiders. Like this collection, the Council is working to make all its residents protagonists in the city’s story.

Dublin is taking advantage of the lowering costs of technologies, such as sensors, to put them directly in the hands of citizens. “All of a sudden,” exclaims Cudden, “there’s a new paradigm where communities can generate data of their own.” This empowers them to demand policy changes. Cudden gives the example of air quality: “If you know that the air quality outside your house is pretty bad, you can make a much stronger case for a policy that deals with that. You can personally drive change.”

Communities can generate data of their own. You can personally drive change.
— Jamie Cudden

Citizen science ranges from using sensors outside people’s homes to the See Sense project that lets people add sensors to their bike lights. “They generate data on things like road surface quality,” Cudden explains. In this way, the city invites people to challenge it. “If they have the data, we have to do something about it,” Cudden explains.

Another local initiative is Civic Dollar, being piloted in Smart Dublin 8. “We want to encourage people to use parks more and get out and about. The app geofences the parks, and when people spend time there, they get points.” These can be cashed in to buy a coffee or enter cultural locations around the city. “It’s hugely popular,” Cudden says, “Dubliners love to experiment, that’s what we’ve learned, but it’s about giving them the right opportunities.”

Joyces’ Dubliners culminates in a story titled The Dead, which opens deep questions about Irish society, the human soul, hospitality, love, and departure. Even as tech talent floods into Dublin, the age-old Irish pattern of people emigrating to seek better opportunities continues.

Dublin is acting as a facilitator that can link small companies with global ones and open up opportunities for all, bring cutting-edge technology to bear on the concerns of communities, and empower individuals with data and knowledge. In this way, through Smart Dublin and other programmes, the city is working to create a deeper relationship and become home for all kinds of people and the innovation within them, just waiting to be unlocked.


Anthony Colclough Eurocities Writer