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How to make the smart city a reality: forget technology, focus on the people

By Clare Taylor

European public funding has kicked off the first generation of ‘smart city’ projects, a recent concept in sustainable urban development aimed at integrated planning for energy, mobility and ICT. But successful smart city development does not come easily: above all, it requires engagement from citizens, say several experts Energy Post spoke with. “The smart city is about identifying solutions that are part of everyday life”.

“Through citizen engagement, we can build a self-sustaining legacy that will impact positively on future generations,” says Matthieu Grosjean from Steinbeis-Europa-Zentrum in Baden-Württemberg, Germany.

Grosjean is project manager for Remourban, one of the four smart city projects that the Steinbeis-Europa-Zentrum (SEZ) is involved in. Remourban is helping to finance and coordinate smart city testbeds in three ‘lighthouse’ cities: Notthingham, with a budgets of around €10 million, Valladolid (€6-7 million) and Tepebasi, Turkey (almost €4 million. The funding will be used to develop low energy districts in each city, building on previous sustainable development plans.

In an interview with Energy Post, Grosjean, Remourban project manager, explains that the three lighthouse cities in the Remourban project were already signatories to the Covenant of Mayors and so “they had their inventory of emissions in place. Furthermore, all three had city strategy plans, which included some aspects of urban regeneration.”

Key ambitions from Valladolid’s sustainable energy plan include a 5% annual decrease in road traffic, 75% reduction of power usage in public street lighting, and increasing the share of locally sourced biomass for heat generation.

Nottingham’s plan aims at a 26% reduction of carbon dioxide emissions against 2005 levels, and 20% of the city’s own energy generated from low or zero carbon sources by 2020. Measures include doubling the size of the city’s district heating network, developing a local biomass processing and transfer site, and a new biomass combined heat and power plant with associated district heating. A city level anaerobic digester is also under consideration.

What did Grosjean learn from these projects so far? “In my opinion”, he says, “some of the biggest challenges are linked with the necessity of developing integrated solutions that take into account several domains (energy efficiency, ICT, mobility, etc.), instead of addressing these areas separately. To be impactful and effective every aspect must be tackled with interconnected solutions.”

Another, maybe even bigger challenge is getting all stakeholders on board: “Smart cities are very attractive for the local authorities, since they are a modernizing force, and also a great way to improve quality of life and increase the competitiveness and value of a city”, says Grosjean. “But the public authorities are usually not the only one that need to be involved, you also have property owners, private companies and businesses.”

Quality of life

In some ways smart cities represent the latest thinking on urban regeneration, strongly influenced by veteran social and economic theorist (and an advisor to the European Commission since 2002) Jeremy Rifkin’s claims that industrial revolutions are linked to step changes in technology centered on energy, transport and communications. In a nutshell, Rifkin posits that the contemporary ‘third industrial revolution’ is characterized by a high penetration of renewable energy, along with greater connectivity enabling shared and efficient services.

Across Europe, the first generation of smart city projects are underway. Via the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, a total of twelve Smart Cities and Communities projects have been funded, to the tune of €270 million, since 2014.

Outside of the Remourban project, Milan has been positioning itself as a smart city since 2013, and fostering projects ranging from shared mobility services to coworking spaces, community gardens, and digital manufacturing.  

Piero Pelizzaro, Chief Resilience Officer at the City of Milan, recognizes the challenges mentioned by Grosjean. “The market is not always ready”, he says. “Citizen engagement can be difficult, as can outreach to business.”

According to Pelizzaro, “the smart city is about identifying solutions that are part of everyday life. We have not spent time on defining technology. It’s more interesting to focus on developing the smart community: stakeholders such as universities, industry and citizens. What is first perceived as smart technology quickly becomes part of everyday life. Technology comes anyway because the market will bring it to the table. This is particularly important for developing ‘Manufacturing 4.0’, our plan to foster companies and start-ups in the field of digital manufacturing and new crafts.”

In Milan, he says:Rather than develop a strategy or a plan, our approach has been to facilitate a supportive environment for public and private investment. These are participatory projects, with co-designed solutions. This in turns makes it easier to implement solutions because everyone is already involved and committed.”

Pelizzaro says “Milan leads in bike sharing services and we also have the highest number of car share services. We were the first city to retrofit streetlighting with LEDs and include sensors for air quality in this retrofit [read more about streetlighting retrofit in the smart city context here]. The smart city is a natural fit for Milan.”

Citizen engagement

Grosjean’s view is that citizen engagement in a smart city needs to go far beyond the usual level of involvement required, such as responding to a public consultation. “Citizen engagement is not only a matter of raising public awareness, it comes with the mission of actually changing behaviour in the society,” he says.

This approach to citizen engagement taken by Remourban is strongly influenced by the contemporary consumer online retail experience (for more detail, see this report). For example, the Remourban citizen engagement strategy includes: mapping on and offline media channels, understanding the density and footprint of civil society organizations, detailed profiling of the city’s socio-economic and demographic attributes and consideration of voter turnout in different districts.

“This is a process that goes well beyond technical actions and takes a considerable amount of time, well beyond the project duration,” says Grosjean. “It requires a long and strong commitment and a change in attitude – but it’s through the citizens engagement activities that Remourban can project the cities into the future and build a self-sustaining legacy that will impact positively on future generations.”

More than two thirds of European citizens live in urban areas, and this share continues to grow. These high-density populations are ideal testbeds for pioneering sustainability concepts such as smart cities, but whether sufficient numbers of ‘smart citizens’ can get behind the projects remains to be seen.

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