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18th Jan 2020

Magazine

Smart cities: helping to improve our lives and save the planet

Hobbit Bilbo Baggins of the famous J.R.R. Tolkien stories had a magical sword that lit up whenever there was a dangerous orc approaching.

Such a cool invention, noted a speaker at a recent conference in Stavanger. But what if, she asked the audience, we could all have umbrellas that would light up whenever the city's meteorological services expected rain in the area where the umbrella was, so that you would not forget to bring it?

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  • Jens Bartholmes, policy officer at the European Commission, in Stavanger. He is also one of the speakers at this week's Brussels conference. (Photo: Bitmap AS)

It was perhaps a rather trivial idea, one of many ideas being discussed at September's Nordic Edge Expo in Norway's Stavanger, but it showed how digitally available data could be connected to physical devices to make life easier.

That notion is at the core of "smart cities", the main subject of the Stavanger conference.

The vogue word is being used to describe cities that use technology to improve the lives of their citizens, reduce costs, and become greener. The smart city, its supporters say, can simultaneously tackle two challenges most cities face: population growth and climate change.

On Friday (6 November) the European Commission is hosting another smart cities conference, in Brussels.

More people to live in cities

In Europe, already three quarters of the population live in cities. The United Nations expects this to rise to 80 percent by 2050. Meanwhile, city governments realise they have to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and become more efficient in their use of resources, to help prevent the worst effects of global warming.

Take street lights, for example, "one of the biggest energy expenses a city has got", Bas Boorsma of Cisco told the audience.

"LED light, which is a revolution in itself, is already taking off 50 percent of the energy bill. If you make it dynamic - sensor-based - with lights dimming if there is no movement at the street, you get to save an additional 30, 35 percent." He said Amsterdam and Copenhagen were already experimenting with this.

Horizon 2020

The European Commission has also embraced the concept, and although it has come up with a definition of a smart city, that is not actually what matters most, said Jens Bartholmes, policy officer for new energy technologies and innovation at the European Commission.

"Nobody will say: 'I have a dumb city'. Everybody wants to be smart. We are pushing more that they think about how to become smart. It's all about the process, not about the end result - which anyway is not definable because it is a moving target."

The commission is spending €200 million of its 2014/2015 budget from research programme Horizon 2020 on proliferating the smart city.

Stockholm is one of the recipients.

"In Stockholm we actually don't really like the buzzword smart cities. We're trying to move away from it", said Gustaf Landahl, the Swedish city's climate and environmental strategist.

He noted that smart city refers more to an attitude of trying to use technology to improve energy performance in buildings, transport, and infrastructure. Stockholm is one of the cities that received EU funding for several trials, including fitting lampposts with charging points for electric cars, and free WiFi.

"Why do we need European money for this? The total cost of the project is much greater. The renovation of buildings is, like, 20 times the cost of what we get from the EU Commission. But the little extra money from the EU Commission makes it possible to test some of these new ideas and get them going", Landahl told this website.

Lighthouse projects

So can any city become a smart city? The nine cities that were selected by the EU Commission as "lighthouse projects" are all situated in northern and western Europe – apart from the Turkish city Tapebasi.

While a more balanced selection is expected in the second call, there are some conditions that make it more likely for richer cities to be at the forefront of the smart city movement, said Tone Grindland, head of economic development for the Stavanger government.

"In the Nordics we have a population that normally trusts the government. That's a benefit we're not always aware of," he added.

There are examples of smart cities on the eastern side of the former Iron Curtain, like in digitally savvy Estonia.

Landahl noted that it was just a question of time. "Western European cities are a bit further ahead in many of these advanced technologies, but I'd say that the Eastern European cities are picking up very quickly. I believe also that cities that are new and active and growing quickly, they are often pretty good at leapfrogging processes and taking up new ideas quicker – sometimes old cities have difficulties [and] are very conservative."

What is needed in the words of Cisco's Boorsma, is "vision and true leadership", including the willingness to take risks.

Jarmo Eskelinen leads Forum Virium Helsinki, a company in charge of managing the Finnish capital's smart city projects.

He noted a difference in culture between the US and EU. "We have a license to fail, but it has taken a decade", said Eskelinen. "We need to develop a culture of failure."

NB: Lyse invited EUobserver to attend the Nordic Edge Expo and paid for travel and accommodation, but the company had no editorial influence over this article

This story was originally published in EUobserver's 2015 Regions & Cities Magazine.

Click here to read previous editions of our Regions & Cities magazine.

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