by Tanja Tanskanen

It was a sunny, warm summer day in Finland – and I had no clue what is electricity and how can people live without a flush toilet. I was a small girl, when my family took me to my grandfather’s childhood home in the middle of forests and fields. My grandfather’s family used to grow crops and had a few animals, enough to make bread, butter and meat to support the family throughout the year. They lived in a house called ’savupirtti’, which is a log house, with a stone oven for cooking and heating and without a chimney. That was in the 1920’s.

Fastforward 100 years: my grandpa would be amazed today! Houses communicating with energy grids, increasing number of alternative modes of transport available (personally, I have fallen in love with e-bikes), self-driving cars who smile to pedestrians (check Semcon) and live video feeds on Facebook from city’s political decision making and debate meetings (as in the city of Helsinborg).

The idea of smart cities is useful. First, digitizing city services can make the services more efficient and cheaper; a welcomed development when municipalities are struggling to finance their basic services. Second, data insights into the flow of resources to and within cities can help to find ways to cut the use of unnecessary energy and materials; or in other words, improve the resource management in cities. Third, smart cities can give a positive push also for the sustainability agenda – if we develop smart and sustainable cities hand in hand. I was happy to see that this year there was a little bit more focus on the Sustainable Development Goals, climate-neutrality and resilient cities at the expo. In practice that means that now cities need to develop large infrastructure changes and do serious procurement choices to make the transition to a low-carbon society.

I’m positive, but also a bit concerned.

I wish we would focus more on innovation and impact.

According to the UN projections, adults will be the majority of the world’s population (UN World Population Prospects) and 68 % of people in the world will live in cities by 2050 (UN World Urbanization Prospects). That means we need to change the consumption patterns of adults, who are increasingly living in cities and levelling up to the middle-class. The social impact of levelling up in income can be high – but we need increase resource efficiency and decouple the societal change from the negative climate impact.

IPCC summary for urban policy makers has estimated that to achieve a 1.5°C-consistent pathway, we need to reduce the emissions from the global building stock by 80-90 % in comparison to the emission level in 2010, reduce the final energy use by the transport sector by 30 %, and increase energy supply from renewables by 70-85 %, all by 2050.

Here are a few of the innovations, reflections and changes in cities I picked up from the expo and from our Nordic delegates that I’m especially curious about – broken into six themes, which I think can have the largest impact in making cities smart and sustainable:

  • Energy. Stavanger upgraded their energy plant to run 100 % with renewable energy, reducing the CO2 emissions by whopping 88 %! In Umeå municipality, there is a surprising collaboration between an energy company and their customers: the energy company is working together with the customers to help lower their costs – in other words, the company is decreasing their own profit. Carina Aschan is doing wonders facilitating this smart business model for 100 % renewable energy.
  • Housing. The GrowSmarter project in the City of Stockholm has renovated more than 130,000 m2 of buildings with energy efficient and smart technologies – for example, improving insulation, optimizing ventilation, circulating warm water in loops, as well as using waste heat from datacenters and supermarkets in district heating – resulting to 64 % of energy savings and 70 % of CO2 emission reductions. These are probably one of the reasons why they won the World Smart City Awards at the expo this year.
  • Mobility. I already told that I love e-bikes. 🙂 But as I come from Finland, I understand the challenge that Vantaa Airport City discussed: the challenge of winter-time in the Nordic countries for electric mobility. Good news – Helsinki has opened a bike hotel for 34 000 bikes for commuters to solve the challenge of parking and charging e-bikes. In another roundtable, Narvik was looking for shore power supply and electrification solutions for cargo and cruise ships at their port – hydrogen and lithium-ion batteries (Northvolt) were brought up to develop low-carbon options. Beyond the roundtables, MySMARTLife project in Helsinki is planning to replicate their shared smart charger pilot for buses and municipal maintenance vehicles. But not all solutions are technical, Stockholm reminded; the congestion charge was a success to improve the traffic flow and air quality in the city.
  • Smart bin is not about the sensors. It is about focusing on the user behavior; tip, paint the waste trucks as monster trucks! Speaks to my inner child at least. It is about identifying, which bin really needs a sensor (location, location, location…), how to use the data to optimize emptying times and other logistics, and what are the political decision around connectivity and data ownership. The smart waste collection challenge was brought up by the city of Reykjavik and presented by ReSource. Some cities are also encouraging citizens for collective cleaning of the streets, like Plokkari in Iceland. They created an app, organized a litter-picking day and rewarded points that can be used on buses. Also the cleanup of seas was discussed: Sotenäs municipality has a tesbed on how to collect waste in the sea.
  • The city of Skellefteå has developed a solution for elderly and their families. They install sensors, which give a pattern of the elderly’s activities at home and sends messages to relatives if there are anomalies in the activities. This service has been copied in another Swedish municipality, Kiruna, and inspired the city of Uppsala to develop a similar solution. Luleå University of Technology, which is behind this development, wishes to share the platform with the rest of the world.
  • There was a lady from the US delegation presenting her ambition to develop the largest platform of water data globally at the Nordic pavilion stage. I think this is a highly important step to take to use our water resources sustainably and maintain the quality. Can anyone remember her name or organization?

(There are of course a lot more things happening, such as 3D property laws addressing drone traffic, as discussed in the Forum Virium Helsinki roundtable, and cross-cutting themes such as citizen engagement.)

I think these solution themes can give us guidance what to focus on when developing smart cities. They focus on the main energy and material flows managed by cities, as well as important, basic needs – your home and health.

We have come a long way from my grandfather’s childhood home and improved our lives tremendously. But we need to find a way to continue to provide solutions for basic needs – without going overboard with our carbon budget.

When developing smart cities, keep your eyes and ears open for impact.

It is not easy to find the livelihood-climate impact balance (if ’balance’ is even the right word). And it is not easy to find the transformational solutions to build sustainable livelihoods and cities. To start with, we need to ask two basic questions when developing smart cities: Are we responding to the real needs of the city and its citizens? Are we reducing our greenhouse gas emissions enough?

One of the best ways to answer to the first question is to ask both subject experts (such as city developers) and local experts (also called as citizens). To the second question, there are also methods to use. You could measure your alignment with the Paris Agreement according to the Science-Based Targets Initiative (SBTi). Also the global standard, Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Procotol, provides a framework for cities for measuring their climate impact. If you don’t want to go that hardcore (yet), try the SDG Impact Assessment developed by Chalmers University of Technology and University of Gothenburg (thank you Peter Carlsson from Sotenäs for this tip).

However, when you bring innovation and procurement into the picture, you need more tools. You need to acknowledge the potential impact the new innovation can bring to the city and its citizens. For this, some ingenious people have started developing forward-looking assessment methodologies – since the 2018 launch of  Mission Innovation Solutions Framework, we have been a Framework Explorer and learned a lot about avoided emissions using this framework to evaluate clean technology startups.

 One more puzzle piece to solve – funding.

Now we still have one big puzzle to solve – funding. Fortunately, the private sector, citizens and banks are developing a wider spectrum of financial instruments for city and community development. Heimen Visser, who is part of an investment company called Primevest Capital Partners, helps Dutch municipalities to adopt smart street light infrastructure by making an investment case – 50 % energy savings by 2030 – and creating a revenue sharing model between the partners and the municipality. Other alternative funding examples came from Ronald Kleverlaan from Utrecht University: in the Eat Local initiative, over 200 citizens joined together to put 2 000 euros each into running their own farm and hiring a farmer. In another example, more than 1 000 local investors co-invested €18,5 million in a windfarm. This doesn’t mean that traditional public sources (e.g., bonds or taxes) would become irrelevant; instead, it means that the funding instruments are becoming more creative, complementary and diverse.

Putting the puzzle together – the role of collaboration and James Bond.

So far we have identified the most impactful solutions, provided incentives and secured funding for them locally. Next we need to help the solutions to scale up where they are needed the most, and do it fast to mitigate climate change – we need internationalization and collaboration.

One Nordic country alone is a small market. One idea to support the startups to grow faster – brought up in the Stockholm roundtable – was to share information between cities regarding their current challenges and large procurements. If one city has a challenge, let’s say on energy storage, and another city is looking for a similar solution, together they could provide a larger market opportunity for companies to work with them. So next step: cross-country collaboration in the Nordic cities to support uptake of innovations.

Talking about innovation, one roundtable participant said: ”You need an actor with a license to do something in a different way, like James Bond, with no plan in the morning. We need cross functional teams, like James Bond has.”

I played with one idea in my mind before the expo this year, an idea that could leverage the Nordic participants knowledge gathering like a cross functional team. We had almost 500 participants in our delegation this year, from city digitalization departments, environment and health administration, academia, funding agencies, national energy agencies and all kinds of startups with different expertise. Imagine – what a massive collective learning opportunity! So although I could not get that far as to set up a joint learning platform, I would love to hear what did everyone else see and learn. I’m also curious to hear what is your idea of meaningful smart city develoment.

Author: Tanja Tanskanen, Project Manager, Nordic Partner at the Smart City Expo 2019

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