Article written in partnership with Nova Tech Club.
In the European Union’s point of view, a smart city goes beyond the use of digital technologies for better resource use and less emissions. It means smarter urban transport networks, upgraded water supply and waste disposal facilities, as well as more efficient ways to light and heat buildings. It also means a more interactive and responsive city administration, safer public spaces and striving to meet the needs of an aging population.
SDG 11 of the UN 2030 Goals looks at these solutions as ways to achieve more inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable human settlements. For example, their 2022 report highlights that 99% of the world´s urban population breathes polluted air, and municipal solid waste has collection and management problems that need to be tackled immediately (only 82% of this waste is collected and only 55% is managed in controlled facilities). In line with this, smart cities emerge as a possible approach to deal with these issues.
In short, smart cities are designed to achieve a sustainable organization as a society. It incites discussions between urban planners, city councils and even technology giants so as to enhance the population´s lives. Nonetheless, opposing views bring forth a sense of distrust related to the actual smartness of an actual implementation of the concept of smart cities.
Portugal’s Smart Cities initiatives
Unbeknownst to many, Portugal has a vast number of initiatives with the aim of creating or developing smart cities by easing collaborations between municipalities.
SMART PORTUGAL has been promoting the ‘smartification’ of Portuguese cities through various events, namely Smart Cities Tour and the “Cimeira dos Autarcas”, in an effort to increase national and international collaboration, but crucially, to let the public in on the innovations already in development. In collaboration with “Associação Nacional de Municípios Portugueses”, NOVA Cidade – Urban Analytics Lab, the organization behind SMART PORTUGAL, has implemented an annual activity plan to accelerate smart city innovation in the country, having also created simple and clear guidelines and standards, paving the way for Portugal to become a global leader in the field.
Portugal Smart City, under the SMART PORTUGAL program, tries to bring cities and companies together to connect innovators and implementors. Gatherings and fairs, such as the SMARTCITY Expo World Congress, allow businesses, academics, and legislators to come together and find partners for pioneering projects. Some initiatives have already broken ground and are producing palpable results. Rener Living Lab, or RPCI, formed in 2009, is a national smart city network that now accounts for more than 120 municipalities with certified smart projects, distinguishing their quality and workability, and increasing their international projection.
In more practical terms, a number of Portuguese cities have been recognized as being in the forefront of positive change. 2020 saw Lisbon crowned European Green Capital following efforts to use residual waters to feed the city’s parks and an affordable public transport pass that allows citizens to cheaply travel between the cities and surrounding 18 boroughs. Valongo has been distinguished with the European Green Leaf award in 2022 as a result from an effort to increase city energy efficiency and create urban farms. Guimarães has also been classified as one of “100 Smart Cities” by the European Commission through its efforts in river shore quality with the construction of “Ecovias”, as well as a bet in a circular economy with the programme RRRCICLO, among others.
The European Approach on Smart Cities
On a European scale, there have been in the past few years many examples of city implementations and EU initiatives. Take Copenhagen for a great urban design example: approximately 43% of all commutes are conducted by bike. Vienna´s Citizens´ Solar Power Plant project must also be highlighted since it was very successful in engaging its citizens and energy companies to promote solar power energy. In Barcelona for example, the REC (Real Economy Currency) is introduced as a local social currency, which allows transactions in a community between individuals, institutions and businesses that accept it. This project fosters small businesses that are struggling to survive in digital times and in big cities.
The European Union has been very avant-garde when it comes to respecting the historical roots of cities and advocating for their sustainable future. EU Missions are a new way to bring concrete solutions to some of our greatest challenges. They have ambitious goals and hope to deliver tangible results, with the Climate-Neutral and Smart Citiesinitiative being one of the most ambitious missions that aims to deliver 100 climate-neutral and smart cities by 2030, ensuring that these cities will act as experimentation and innovation hubs to enable all European cities to follow suit by 2050. Funding will cover a wide range of subjects such as urban planning and design for climate-neutral cities, sustainable urban mobility, positive and clean energy districts, with a lot of projects already being implemented. Furthermore, personal data protection is also a pertinent subject to the EU´s concerns. Project Decode, for instance, provides tools that put individuals in control of whether they choose to keep their personal information private or share it for the public good.
Smart Cities across the World
While smart city projects exist and thrive worldwide, some cities have gone above and beyond in creating a smart ecosystem for its residents, improving sustainability and efficiency. Masdar, in the UAE, was what can perhaps be called the most significant green project in the Arab World. This pilot project aimed at housing 50 thousand people in an urban landscape with no automobiles and making sole use of renewable energy. While the initiative has seen its fair amount of success, it’s important to point out that it is still significantly smaller than first planned, with some critics also pointing out that the focus should be on greenifying existing cities and not creating new ones.
Songdo, South Korea followed a similar path to Masdar, though at a more significant scale. With innovative urban waste collecting systems, trash is transported using a network of pipes eliminating the need for trucks. With the concept of Ubiquitous City – where citizens can access services anywhere, anytime, from home banking and teleconferencing to intelligent transport systems and remote sensing – becoming an area of intense focus, Songdo has also incorporated some innovations in line with it. CCTV and sensors, for example, have become essential for the Korean city to control traffic flows and quickly respond and adapt when accidents occur, informing locals of exact public transport timetables and occupancy.
Nevertheless, this city concept has its flaws. Korean residents have complained that, maybe due to its intent as an international city, Songdo doesn’t feel quite authentic. Foreigners, in contrast, have a sense of deja vu as the replicas of the boulevards of Paris, pocket parks of Charleston, Central Park in New York City, or the canals in Venice make the city seem like a patchwork of other urban areas. Another big area of complaint has been what many thought would be the city’s main selling point: technology. Constant surveillance and monitoring have left many with a feeling of unease, with concerns for privacy and intellectual property growing. Similar smart projects have been halted entirely after encountering significant pushback from citizens not wanting to share so much information. Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs Toronto project, with “(…) mass timber housing, heated and illuminated sidewalks, public Wi-Fi, and, of course, a host of cameras and other sensors to monitor traffic and street life(…)” was one of said projects, facing heavy criticism from the get-go.
Smart Cities are now more popular than ever. Meeting UN’s SDG 11, this project has even gained momentum in small countries such as Portugal, with EU legislation adapting to ease the rise of smarter and more sustainable practices. Worldwide examples, from the Middle East to South East Asia, offer a glimpse of more radical initiatives, along with its benefits and shortcomings. While services may be improved upon, privacy is an ever-growing concern, and if legislators, investors, and urban planners want to go ahead with these new forms of design and construction, the safeguard of private information needs to be on top of everyone’s mind.
Sources: Energy Cities Hubs, DECODE project, European Commission, The Global Goals, NOVA Cidade Urban Analytics Lab, Forum das Cidades, Jornal de Negócios, The Verge, Bloomberg
(guest writer NTC)