This researcher is giving people the tools to tackle environmental issues

5 Jul 2022

Image: Dr Francesco Pilla

Dr Francesco Pilla talks about the importance of giving citizens the tech and knowledge to act on sustainability challenges.

Dr Francesco Pilla is an associate professor at University College Dublin and a researcher at Lero, the Science Foundation Ireland software research centre.

His work lies at the intersection between cities and technologies, and his goal is to build better cities through tech, innovation and citizen participation. He focuses on empowering communities with cutting-edge technology, enabling them to act on pressing environmental issues.

Pilla is leveraging a number of European projects to bring climate action to education. He has been awarded more than €15m in funding from the European Commission in the last six years, allowing him to pilot ways to empower citizens with tools, tech and skills to take action on several challenges related to the climate crisis in Dublin and other European cities.

‘I believe the only way to act on wicked challenges such as climate change and provide long-term sustainable solutions is to have citizens at the centre of the solution itself’

Tell us about the research you’re currently working on.

I’m currently working on eight projects funded by the European Commission, focusing on empowering citizens with tech and knowledge to act on traffic, air pollution, flood risk, promote active travel, sustainable energy consumption, greening urban environments, etc.

These projects encompass several areas of urban sustainability, so my lab now includes staff with a multi- and trans-disciplinary set of skills ranging from geocomputation, hydrology, transport, epidemiology, data science, Earth observation, ecosystem services, environmental sustainability, forensic statistics, urban design, citizen engagement, etc.

Most of these projects focus on the active involvement of citizens in tackling the various sustainability challenges, so I ran a lot of activities with local communities and schools.

As part of the WeCount project, for example, we ran a range of citizen science activities in schools focusing on promoting active mobility. We engaged the children in monitoring air pollution and traffic in their areas using low-cost sensors. The data was used to show them first-hand the link between local traffic and local air pollution and explain how they could have an active role in improving the situation.

We will continue expanding these activities as part of the recently started i-Change project and two new Horizon Europe projects called TwinAIR and TRIGGER, focusing more on indoor air pollution and behavioural change.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

Our research is necessary because I believe the only way to act on wicked challenges such as climate change and provide long-term sustainable solutions is to have citizens at the centre of the solution itself.

Top-down policies in various areas of sustainability and targeting multiple Sustainable Development Goals’ objectives have been proven to be non-effective because they were ‘enforced’ on the broader population. I adopt a bottom-up approach in developing my solutions and engage citizens and a wide range of stakeholders in co-developing these solutions together to increase ownership of the problem and of the solution.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

My dad and his passion for always learning something new and never taking any answer as final without investigating further. This didn’t always work out well for me, as it got me kicked out from the religion classes in primary school for asking too many questions!

What are some of the biggest challenges or misconceptions you face as a researcher in your field?

I think the biggest misconception is that academics are pictured as some sort of weirdos living on the top of a mountain, so I get a lot of strange comments. Sometimes I’m asked how it is to be on holidays four months a year. Unfortunately, with multiple ongoing European projects, it is quite the opposite!

Jokes aside, the biggest challenges (and biggest rewards) in my projects come from the high involvement of multiple stakeholders, the intensive and extensive participatory approach, and the pilots of solutions in real-life settings.

The three things are strongly interrelated and part of the living lab framework. It can be challenging to engage stakeholders from local authorities, industry, etc, especially to maintain their engagement for the duration of a project (generally three to five years), and to go from a co-developed vision of the solution to tackle the local challenge to the coordinated co-deployment and co-evaluation of the solution.

As part of my projects, we have co-developed and piloted solutions to tackle local mobility issues, to mitigate the impacts of climate change, to improve air quality, to enhance ecosystem services of urban vegetation, to reduce plastic pollution, etc.

Do you think public engagement with science has changed in recent years?

It didn’t change for me; it only adapted. I’ve been running workshops with local communities and schools through the pandemic and continued my citizen science activities.

We should give more credit to people. I found all the local communities and schools I’ve been working with are extremely flexible and open to change.

They were happy to move to online interactions and actively participated in all the activities. We couldn’t do face-to-face workshops to show them how to use the various sensors. Still, they all adapted no problem and worked their way through the various (and often not straightforward) installation procedures and data analysis tools.

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