On Sweden’s southwest coast, the city of Helsingborg sees itself “as an enabler of innovation, rather than the innovators ourselves,” says Åsa Bjering, the programme manager for the city’s department of ‘Innovation and Green Transformation’.
The distinction is important.
A 2020 European Capital of Innovation Awards finalist, Helsingborg is well known for its forward thinking, and Bjering’s department brings together both climate activities and smart innovation where they can act in unison.
“It is important that people working on smart city policies understand that climate neutrality is their goal”, Bjering told attendees at a panel at the Smart City Expo World Congress in Barcelona in November – though people working on climate-related activities should also understand how technology can help them.
Irma Ventayol i Ceferino, from Barcelona City Council’s Climate Change and Sustainability Office, also a speaker on the panel, shared a similar sentiment.
“To be a smart city is not a goal or purpose in itself. Smart and climate policies should be the same [and] these policies should respect planetary boundaries and meet established socio-environmental standards”, says Ventayol i Ceferino.
Innovation, therefore, is not a city’s primary function. But if it improves the city for its inhabitants and assists its climate goals, it should be welcomed and facilitated.
But how are smart cities connected to the goal of climate neutrality? And what makes “smart” cities smart?
Greater efficiency is the first part of the answer. Using resources more effectively, through better technologies or automation, allows the scarce assets of a city to go further and to where they need to be.
However, smart cities go “beyond the use of digital technologies for better resource use and less emissions”, says the European Commission, meaning “smarter urban transport networks, upgraded water supply and waste disposal facilities and more efficient ways to light and heat buildings. It also means a more interactive and responsive city administration, safer public spaces and meeting the needs of an ageing population”.
Efficiency alone, therefore, isn’t a new answer to city problems in general and won’t be the answer to those above.
What is required then are two connected elements. The first, and most innovative, is data.
“As our urban spaces are increasingly enabled by sensing and automation technologies, data is becoming central to how we understand and design our cities”, says Jane McLaughlin, a city advisor on the NetZeroCities project who moderated the panel in Barcelona.
“Working together to design approaches to how we capture and use data in the city is key to help us to create climate-neutral, smart and, crucially, human-centred cities, designed for and by people. We’re already seeing great innovation in this area from cities all across Europe, with an inclusive and collaborative approach vital to ensure everyone in the city is onboard and involved in the transformation”.
From traffic and temperature levels, to air, water, and soil quality, monitoring and measuring changes as they happen can reveal insights city managers have never had before.
Decision making, in theory, not only improves, but so does its timeliness, and events can be forecasted and planned for or even prevented.