Smart cities embrace societal challenges

Using your contactless bank card to “touch in, touch out” on a city’s bus or metro system without buying a ticket or travel card is experiencing a smart city in action. Smart cities use digital technology to integrate people’s needs with city infrastructure while addressing major societal challenges, such as the transition to sustainable energy, or even tackling crime. The benefits to society, including business, are many.

Story by Justine Whittern


Dr Tobias Brandt from Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) researches the development of smart cities – particularly the challenge of making energy and transport more efficient. The assistant professor is a member of RSM’s Erasmus Centre for Future Energy Business (ECFEB) contributing to the RUGGEDISED consortium that aims to transform the Hart van Zuid area of Rotterdam into a smart city in the next five years using a grant from the EU’s Horizon 2020 fund. Underpinning the project is the collection and exchange of information – big data – that can drive the transition to renewable and optimised sources of energy. The RUGGEDISED project centres on a local exchange of energy, but is based on an exchange of information.


Sharing energy

Smart city technology could improve the daily lives of Europe’s growing urban populations while combatting climate change. Business can benefit too, not only from more efficient city infrastructures, but also from the big data originating from power usage, public transport, and smartphones.

In Rotterdam, the Hart van Zuid’s landmark buildings will share energy generated from solar panels, urban wind turbines, heat-cold storage installations and energy retrieval from sewers and pavements, making large strides towards zero CO2 emissions.


City-wide planning

Pex Langenberg, Rotterdam’s deputy mayor and the city councillor responsible for mobility, sustainability and culture, says that: ‘The Hart van Zuid project is a real test case; other cities can learn and replicate it.’ He says the objective is to implement it city-wide in Rotterdam. The city’s smart management of waste is already scaling up and Langenberg identified smart-charging parking lots in other city areas as another quick win for the smart city.

Langenberg says businesses and other organisations can help to accelerate the growth of smart cities when they adopt open standards and open infrastructures. ‘Rotterdam needs the participation of business and knowledge institutes to secure the lessons learned, implement the structures smoothly and provide guidelines for further scale-up of the tested solutions in neighbourhoods, city-wide and preferably region-wide or even nationwide,’ he says. Understanding the new business models is important for businesses hoping to jump on board. ‘Develop and share, with clear objectives and a long-term relationship in mind. Be straight forward about your data and your standards,’ he advises.


Urban data analytics

‘Availability of data is the key,’ agrees Dr Brandt. Immense amounts are collected by businesses, industries and cities from smartphone users, traffic movements, and power use. Urban data analytics is the buzzword, says Brandt, but many cities and businesses don’t yet know how to deal with the data to from open or proprietary data

Factories, businesses, and houses usually optimise their own operations, but something changes with a smart city approach, because at its heart is the market mechanism that enables exchange of information within a microgrid (a small, locally supplied intelligent electricity network). Incentives such as energy discounts at specific times allow the power supply for businesses and homes to be aligned and co-ordinated for power-hungry actions such as industrial processes or charging up electric vehicles.


Spread the news

Getting the idea adopted in the first place is a challenge. When it’s more convenient to use public transport, people are more likely to do so. If residents don’t notice the effects or understand neither the goal nor the potential, and if some businesses benefit earlier than others, then smart cities can’t automatically rely on stakeholders’ enthusiasm.

‘The whole city has to know about the neighbourhood project,’ says Brandt. For the Hart van Zuid project to be successful and to spread, it’s key to communicate why optimising energy is necessary, and how improving the city as a whole is possible.


Six cities

Rotterdam is one of six cities within the RUGGEDISED consortium using ICT to integrate energy provision and e-mobility, and to create sustainable urban spaces. Others are “lighthouse” cities – Glasgow in the UK and Umeå in Sweden – plus three follower cities seeking to replicate the results: Brno in the Czech Republic, Gdansk in Poland and Parma in Italy.

No-one knows exactly what financial pay-off there will be, but first, cities must want to try it,’ says Brandt. Initial pay-off may become apparent within a couple of years. Promoting the city’s stimulating atmosphere for sustainable economic development will help to gain the support of businesses. Furthermore, the potential benefits from big, open data go beyond energy and mobility. For instance, the data can be used for predicting where cities should direct their tourism budgets, for visualising crime hotspots such as pickpocketing, or for local businesses using targeted advertising to reach smartphone users.


Governmental encouragement

The city’s government also needs to keep an open mind, says Pex Langenberg. ‘Almost every part of a smart city will evolve during the next two decades, so the city’s organisation needs to change too.’ In the Netherlands, there’s encouragement from the government, which has introduced its omgevingswet (integrated environmental licence). ‘It’s a good example of the intention to simplify rules for spatial development,’ he says.

There’s no doubt that smart city projects like RUGGEDISED are a good thing for society, but it’s essential to make sure that all stakeholders see just how good if they are to embrace and support them.


This article was first published in RSM Outlook summer 2017 – RSM’s alumni and corporate relations magazine. You can download RSM Outlook here.

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