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Smart CITIES 2.0 – Cities are reclaiming and grounding a hot debate

Smart Cities combine technological and non-technological solutions to overcome challenges and foster their sustainability. A range of examples of how cities draw on technological and non-technological innovation to address urban challenges  through their smart city initiatives were presented at the Smart CITIES 2.0 conference, held by ICLEI at Metropolitan Solutions in Berlin on June 1-2. Dresden, Copenhagen, Zagreb, Hannover, Proto, Riga, Hamburg, Berlin, Seoul, Sonderborg, Linköping – cities from all around the world met companies like Amazon Web Services, Here and Siemens as well as organizations like Climate KIC, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development and the World Council on City Data. And Jeffrey Sachs provided food for thought – actual lunch had to wait for the benefit of an extended Q&A – on how cities can address climate change.

 

Why the title, “Smart CITIES 2.0”?

The capitalized “CITIES” emphasizes the imperative importance cities and their inhabitants in the debate, over the importance of the Smart Cities market – even though estimates for the size of that market seem to range anywhere from 750 billion to 1.4 trillion USD (as per a quick web search), cities are first and foremost habitat for people, and not simply a market. Secondly, leaving the unresolved, abstract debates about definitions behind, cities from all over the world already use the term “smart” to describe implemented policies and projects that work for them in practical terms. They prefer discussing the ‘what’, ‘why’ and ‘how’ of smart cities based on their own social, economic and environmental needs rather than on technological possibilities, dreams of the future and what would be nice to have. The smart cities debate has matured and moved from the visioning stage to implementation. Hence the “2.0”.

 

What do Smart Cities actually do on the ground?

Smart City projects as presented in the conference are as diverse as the cities that implement them and include the application of technological solutions, but don’t end there. The municipal government of Vienna and Recife successfully introduced software solutions to monitor urban energy consumption and emission levels. Mobile apps are used in Seoul (South Korea) as well as the European Green Capital 2017 Essen (Germany) to increase citizen participation in municipal governance or to incentivize green consumer choices. Jongno, a District of Seoul, increases happiness of citizens not via a technological approach, but by ‘emptying’ the city – removing urban clutter like billboards, obsolete phone booths, old lamp posts and other obstacles to free up space for people, plants and green spaces. And for the Berlin Water Works, ‘smart’ means to identify risk factors and increasing the resilience of their water provision systems, serving a population of around 3.5 mio. people. The various smart city projects undertaken by local governments around the globe and showcased in Berlin seemed to have but one common denominator: they are all smart in the sense that they tackle a local need cleverly within the means available to them.

 

Sustainability-oriented and Purpose-driven

Carefully defined objectives are essential for the successful implementation of technology-backed solutions to urban challenges, as are comprehensive approaches that take into account non-technological factors as well. ICLEI Secretary General Gino Van Begin emphasized the importance of the Sustainable Development Goals in defining the purpose and goals of smart cities. Malmö aims to become a smart productive city by promoting industrial symbiosis – the linking of energy and resource streams in a city under circular economy principles. The City and County of Denver, USA, aims to simultaneously increase the efficiency of its urban transport systems and reduce its carbon footprint. Denver promotes electric cars and appeals to its citizens to “love this place”, encouraging them to use more public transport. Among the City of Veile’s smart city objectives, with resilience as ultimate goal, are to become more reflective and not buy into every new trend and technological development, as well as to foster redundancy and autonomy of critical infrastructure for cases of emergency. Karl-Filip Coenegrachts from the City of Ghent emphasized that urban development is a process, not a goal: “The city is never finished and is in a permanent beta version”.

 

People-centered and participatory

“People have to be an active part of decision making” said Ashok-Alexander Sridharan, the Lord Mayor of Bonn, summing up a key argument echoing throughout the conference. Listening closely to the voices of citizens is important for making sure that smart solutions used by municipal governments actually work as intended – merely deciding for citizens with good intentions is not enough. The strategy paper of the City of Vejle, results from a highly collaborative process which involved municipal government representatives, local businesses and citizens alike to draw a joint vision of a “better city for the citizens”.

 

Smart is what CITIES make of it

The rich kaleidoscope of projects, solutions, innovations and thoughts presented at the Smart CITIES 2.0 conference demonstrated the vast diversity of  smart city solutions implemented all  over the world. Many participants in an intense afternoon of final roundtable discussions stated with much conviction that from a practical point of view, there is no need for a universally agreed upon smart cities definition. Smart is what cities make of it, and they serve the purpose of increasing sustainability and wellbeing of citizens – depending on what that means in a given local context. Thirdly, with a focus on innovation and testing new solutions and approaches, the conference showed that the smart cities field certainly requires intensified trans-municipal learning and knowledge exchange, or as Jerome Tinianow, Chief Sustainability Officer of the City and County of Denver put it: “When one city wins in sustainability, all cities win in sustainability.”