Towards healthier urban environments: The rise of Smart Healthy Cities

Cities face major challenges in creating healthier urban environments. Digital divide, pollution, road traffic and social and health inequalities are all major hurdles to overcome. Day 2 of the Digital Health and Wellness Summit 2019 (DHWS19) focused on the routes being taken around the world to create Smart Healthy Cities and took us on a deep dive into the ambitions and goals of the PULSE Project.

PULSE is a Research and Innovation Action funded under the H2020 EC Framework Programme which is implemented by a multidisciplinary consortium gathering 12 organizations across Europe. PULSE partners are engaging in a collaborative dialogue with a range of stakeholders across seven global cities to transform public health from a reactive to a predictive system focused on both risk and resilience. In terms of public health risk, the project is specifically focusing on the link between air pollution and the respiratory disease of Asthma, and between physical inactivity and the metabolic disease of Type 2 Diabetes. The emphasis is on environmental and behavioural risk of disease onset. In terms of public health resilience, we are focusing on well-being in communities. The goal is to build extensible models and technologies to predict, mitigate and manage public health problems, and promote community health, in cities.

The PULSE ‘Smart Healthy Cities’ workshop featured into the DHWS19 programme kicked off with the opening speech from Mika Rantakokko (University of Oulu), Coordinator of the Digital Transition Partnership in the EU Urban Agenda, who illustrated how digital technologies can really transform cities in healthier urban environments .

“Everything that can be digitized will be digitized”, said Mika, emphasising the strong focus that smart cities’ projects are taking on coping with the digital divide in cities and developing the digital skills of citizens to make the transformation of public services truly beneficial to all.

Barcelona, our host city for DHWS19, tops the rankings of smart cities in the world. The Catalan capital is itself a pioneer in the adoption of smart solutions for urban management with public and private initiatives developing internationally recognised strategies and municipal projects. The city’s leadership and infrastructure is grappling with some wicked problems, explained Elia Diez (Public Health Agency of Barcelona), such as air pollution, lack of green spaces, high rates of road traffic injuries, low rates of physical activity and noise pollution. Specifically, from the public health perspective, one of the major challenges is the prevalence of unhealthy lifestyle in neighbourhoods  with lower socio-economic status and education level on average. The  “Health in the Neighbourhood” municipal programme tackles such needs in deprived areas through a community health strategy and is showing positive effects on self-rated health[1].

Linking to that, Catherine Perez (Public Health Agency of Barcelona)  explains how local and international initiatives can fruitfully collaborate and nurture each other. An example of this is the synergy established between the local  ‘Superblocks’ initiative and the PULSE project. The Superblock is a new model of mobility that restructures the typical urban road network. With its implementation, Superblocks provide solutions to the main problems of urban mobility and improves both the availability and quality of the public space for pedestrian traffic. By deploying PULSE solutions (app, air quality sensors, fitBit, WebGIS) the agency has been able to harvest much more environmental and health data than using traditional sources (surveys, fixed air quality stations, focus groups, etc.), thus improving the integrated assessment of the local interventions.

After that, Janette Hughes, Director of Planning and Performance at the Digital Health and Care Institute in Scotland, spoke to attendees about the pioneering work carried out Glasgow, transforming the most populous city in Scotland into one of the smartest cities in Europe, with a focus on shifting the balance of care from treatment to prevention. Janette shared how different and complementary initiatives in the city are contributing to such goal like the ‘Sensing the City’ project, a mobile sensor network that focusses on environmental sensors that attach to a vehicle. The sensors monitor and record gaseous emissions, particle matter, temperature, humidity, air pressure and ozone. Sensing the City is innovative in moving from static sensing to a mobile sensor network, with the ability to follow specific transport networks dynamically, picking up air quality data and with the potential to monitor other movement/flows in space. This opens new ways for use of data from a variety of sources to provide a more informed and integrated choice to the travelling public as well as supporting better informed policies in other sectors such as health, education, etc.

In part 2 of the workshop, we heard from PULSE partners who showcased the achievements of the project so far and how the different components of the PULSE solution work together. Jose Gabriel Terius, of the Technical University of Madrid, on how the PULSAIR app is being used to monitor life habits, gamify healthy living and more effectively engage citizens. Vittorio Casella, from the University of Pavia, explained how the deployment of GIS and live data mapping tools are allowing the PULSE project to analyse data on air pollutions, asthma prevalence  and trends over time. Finally, Vladimir Urosevicfrom Belit presented the last but not least piece of the PULSE architecture, i.e. the data collection system and pilot management dashboard which allows the integration of diverse data sources from the app and the tools (sensors and Fitbit) and keep track of user activity.

After the PULSE demo, rounding up the discussions of the day, we listened from key industry leaders who are composing the PULSE Business Council, an external board having as prior mission to provide advice on the project plans for exploitation and future sustainability. Moderated by Maite Ferrando, CEO of KVeloce I+D+I, we heard from Sylvie Donnasson from Edito Health, Cristian Pascual from Mediktor and co-founder of the Barcelona Health Hub , Peter Wu, CEO of ASUS Cloud and Jörg Weißmann, Head of Medical Affairs at RocheDiabetes Care. The discussion focussed on the main drivers and barriers towards future use and deployment of PULSE results. User Engagement continues to be one of the greatest challenges to secure success of public health interventions and real life changes.

We’d like to thanks all attendees, speakers and sponsors of DHWS19 and look forward to seeing you next year at DHWS19!

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[1] E Sánchez, F Daban, I García-Subirats, N Vázquez, A Pérez, E Díez; Barcelona Health in the Neighbourhoods programme: the experience in Besòs-Maresme: Esther Sánchez, European Journal of Public Health, Volume 27, Issue suppl_3, 1 November 2017, ckx187.068,


This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No GA727816.

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