This researcher is giving people the tools to tackle environmental issues

Dr. Francesco Pilla talks about the importance of empowering citizens with the technology and knowledge to act on sustainability challenges.

Dr Francesco Pilla is an Associate Professor at University College Dublin and a researcher at Lero, the Software Research Center of Science Foundation Ireland.

Her work lies at the intersection between cities and technologies, and her goal is to build better cities through technology, innovation and citizen participation. It focuses on empowering communities with advanced technology, enabling them to take action on pressing environmental issues.

Pilla draws on a number of European projects to integrate climate action into education. It has received over €15 million in funding from the European Commission over the past six years, enabling it to pilot ways to empower citizens with the tools, technology and skills to act on multiple challenges. related to the climate crisis in Dublin and other European countries. cities.

“I believe that the only way to act on thorny challenges such as climate change and provide long-term sustainable solutions is to put citizens at the center of the solution itself”

Tell us about the research you are currently working on.

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

These projects encompass multiple areas of urban sustainability, so my lab now includes staff with a multidisciplinary and transdisciplinary skill set ranging from geoinformatics, hydrology, transportation, epidemiology, science data, earth observation, ecosystem services, environmental sustainability and forensic statistics. , urban design, civic engagement, etc.

Most of these projects focus on the active involvement of citizens in solving different sustainability challenges, so I have carried out many activities with local communities and schools.

As a member of We count project, for example, we organized a series of citizen science activities in schools focused on promoting active mobility. We engaged the children to monitor air pollution and traffic in their area using low-cost sensors. The data was used to show them firsthand the link between local traffic and local air pollution and explain how they could play an active role in improving the situation.

We will continue to develop these activities under the recently launched program I change project and two new Horizon Europe projects called TwinAIR and TRIGGER, focusing more on indoor air pollution and behavior change.

Why do you think your research is important?

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

Top-down policies in various areas of sustainability and targeting multiple Sustainable Development Goals have proven ineffective because they were “applied” to the whole population. I take a bottom-up approach in developing my solutions and engage citizens and a wide range of stakeholders to co-develop these solutions together to increase ownership of the problem and the solution.

What prompted you to become a researcher?

My father and his passion for always learning something new and never taking any answer as definitive without investigating further. This didn’t always work out well for me, as it got me kicked out of religion class in elementary school for asking too many questions!

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

I think the biggest misconception is that academics are portrayed as some kind of weirdos living on top of a mountain, so I get a lot of weird comments. Sometimes people ask me what it’s like to be on vacation for four months a year. Unfortunately, with the many ongoing European projects, it is quite the opposite!

Joking aside, the biggest challenges (and biggest rewards) of my projects come from the strong involvement of multiple stakeholders, the intensive and extensive participatory approach and the piloting of solutions in real contexts.

The three things are intertwined and part of the living lab framework. It can be difficult to engage stakeholders from local authorities, industry, etc., especially to sustain their engagement over the life of a project (typically three to five years), and to move from a vision co-developed the solution to tackle the local problem. challenge of coordinated co-deployment and co-evaluation of the solution.

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

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

That hasn’t changed for me; he just adapted. I held workshops with local communities and schools during the pandemic and continued my citizen science activities.

We should give people more credit. I have found all the local communities and schools I have worked with to be extremely flexible and open to change.

They were happy to switch to online interactions and actively participated in all activities. We couldn’t do face-to-face workshops to show them how to use the different sensors. Yet they all adapted without issue and went through the various (and often not straightforward) installation procedures and data analysis tools.

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