The week of January 4, 2015

Inside Amsterdam’s efforts to become a smart city

By Selena Larson

Amsterdam wants to be smarter than you. And it’s well on its way.

The Netherlands capital is on a mission to turn itself into the smartest city in the world. Through a collaboration with government officials, private companies including telecom giant KPN, and the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, the city is quickly becoming a futuristic tech hub.

More than half the world’s population lives in urban areas today, and that number is expected to climb to 66 percent by 2050. In order to build sustainable communities that can be home to the expanding populations, smart city initiatives like the ones in Amsterdam aim to make cities livable for more people, as well as cut back on emissions and energy consumption.

Amsterdam is the 16th smartest city in the world, and second most tech-intelligent, according to the Cities in Motion Index, a ranking of the smartest cities based on factors like urban planning, technology, the economy, and the environment. Other municipalities around the globe look towards the Amsterdam Smart City (ASC) for inspiration and to learn new ways to test initiatives that can scale across urban environments. Founded in 2009, ASC and the Amsterdam Economic Board facilitate the testing of smart city programs and then help them grow to become city-wide features.

“One of the main challenges right now is the ‘balance’ in the city,” Annelies van der Stoep, ASC project manager, told the Kernel. “The balance between the many visitors enjoying our inner city and the residents, the balance between economic growth and sustainability.”

The organization’s 100 partners are involved in more than 70 projects throughout the city. One of the cornerstones of Amsterdam’s program is its open-source data initiative, which lets people and organizations access and contribute to the public data that allows companies and citizens to build applications and other services for Amsterdam. Amsterdam is one of eight cities across Europe participating in the CityService Development Kit (CitySDK) that documents and distributes real-time data and provides developers with open application programming interfaces (APIs) to allow them to build products and services that serve the community.

The Netherlands capital is quickly becoming a futuristic tech hub.

For example, this open-source city data enables app creators to build services that improve transportation, make it easier to report issues to the city in real-time, and even help create applications for tourists traveling to the city. The Waag society, an institute for art, science, and technology, used Amsterdam’s CitySDK to create a color-coded visualization of the 9,866,539 buildings in the Netherlands based on the year the building was built.

Likewise, the Waag Society partnered with the Smart Citizen project, which lets people monitor the air pollution, noise, and light intensity in different neighborhoods to let the community contribute to the City’s open data program. Through an Arduino-powered hardware sensor connected to a mobile application, neighbors set up a small box outside their home and provided data to the Waag Society for three months.

While the organization’s partners are eager to make Amsterdam the world’s smartest city, its forward-thinking efforts can’t be achieved without first experimenting with initiatives on a small scale, as neighbors test out new programs.

Living in a “Living Lab”

Throughout Amsterdam there are “Living Labs,” or communities that act as petri dishes for ideas and initiatives to be tested before scaling them across the city. In IJburg, Amsterdam’s youngest neighborhood, projects like free Wi-Fi and a new Fiber network, personalized television and transportation services, and a coworking space allow residents to experiment and test city projects to improve healthcare, environment, and energy programs in the city.

IJburg is no stranger to new and unique living experiences. The community was the first floating neighborhood in the world—the 75-building neighborhood features glass houses erected on floating developments butted up against sidewalks afloat on the water.

Because heavy traffic into and out of the island during rush hours can clog up transportation in the small community, the city created Smart [email protected], an alternative workspace for people to work remotely rather than commuting into the city center on a regular basis. The Smart Work project is the first pilot program to test whether an expansion of coworking spaces would improve the commute and reduce emissions during peak hours. The facility offers telepresence technology, an inexpensive option for employers who want to enable colleagues to work remotely.

Throughout Amsterdam there are “Living Labs,” or communities that act as petri dishes for ideas and initiatives to be tested before scaling them across the city.

“ASC is focusing on solutions that are replicable or scalable— of course, this can only be done if you look closely at local relevancy as well,” van der Stoep said. “Last year the Amsterdam Energy Atlas was launched, mapping the energy use and potential in the city, based on real data, no estimates. We know now that in the western part of Amsterdam, there is a lot of potential for solar energy on roofs.”

Traffic density is a major problem for the small IJburg community, so ASC is also partnering with TrafficLink to create the Digital Road Authority, an automated system that can tell residents what the traffic will be like at any point throughout the day. By using traffic data from private and public organizations, the application can automatically tell drivers the quickest route to whatever’s on their mobile calendar. It even takes green lights into consideration, and the Digital Road Authority will soon be able to program lights to stay green for a specific amount of time during high-traffic times.

Other programs that found their roots in Living Labs and are now scaled across the city are the Climate Street project, which focuses on creating sustainable shopping districts, and the smart home energy management system called the Quby, now used across Europe and in Japan.

Residents can use such technologies to make managing their homes easier, and with the help of the city’s sustainable energy programs, they’ll be able to use more solar power to do it.

Greening Amsterdam

Amsterdam is one of two European pilot sites for City-Zen, an energy saving program that will significantly lower the amount of carbon emissions and improve the city’s energy infrastructure.

City-Zen stands for “city zero carbon energy,” and through projects like smart, future-proof energy grids and retrofitting buildings to be more sustainable, it’s expected Amsterdam will save 59,000 metric tons per year in carbon dioxide (CO2). According to the EPA, that’s roughly the same impact as removing about 12,000 cards from the road.

“How we can find a feasible way to connect existing multifamily buildings to the heat grid, and how can we keep the hassle for them to a minimum? asked van der Stoep. “What makes the change towards cooking on gas over electric cooking acceptable for them? “Once we demonstrate this within City-Zen, we’ll share our insights in Amsterdam and in Europe.”

The City’s Vehicle to Grid project is attempting to balance solar energy use and consumption by using the batteries of electric vehicles to store energy generated during the day to be used during peak hours in the evening. It increases the use of individual’s own, renewable solar energy from 30 percent to 60 percent, van der Stoep said.

Amsterdam is one of two European pilot sites for City-Zen, an energy saving program that will significantly lower the amount of carbon emissions and improve the city’s energy infrastructure.

Last year, only 17 percent of the energy consumed by Vehicle to Grid participants was clean energy. In March 2014, that number rose to 73 percent. Through this program, people could be entirely self-sustainable, relying on stored solar energy to power their homes and appliances.

“This is great, but it also helps to keep investments in the local electricity grid acceptable,” van der Stoep said. Boats drastically improved their energy storage and consumption by storing surplus energy and using it to power them at peak hours. The University of Applied Sciences is working on a business model, and ASC is working on securing a location and project partners for a large scale test in Amsterdam.

How to smarten a city

Amsterdam is far from alone in its efforts to experiment with and build new technologies that make cities smarter. Toronto, Ontario, Canada, the country’s largest city, was named the 2014 Intelligent Community of the Year by the economic and social development thinktank Intelligent Community Forum, thanks to its efforts to make technology more accessible to community members and improve the economy and transportation for residents.

“The focus on smart cities is for many people, all about technology,” Councillor Michael Thompson, chair of the city of Toronto’s Economic Development Committee, said in an interview with the Kernel. “For us, it’s about technology but also important for us to understand how to ensure that people use the technology for their advantage, to improve their social status and improve their lives.”

Despite a political climate that wanted to move away from investments on infrastructure that would help make the city smarter, Toronto changed the tide to ensure the city spends money on resources like energy-saving buildings and telecommunications needs like Wi-Fi. It’s now willing to take investment risks to advance the city as a whole.

Not only does revamping municipal infrastructure require the approval of community governments and other authorities, but it also costs huge amounts of money and strong partnerships between municipalities, contractors, and businesses. It can cost anywhere from hundreds of millions to over $1 billion for cities to make their communities more livable and sustainable. And revenue from smart city technology is expected to grow from $8.8 billion this year to $27.5 billion by 2023.

Over the next decade, many cities will have become more efficient, providing people with new opportunities and livable spaces, but Thompson says to do so, cities must also focus on maintaining environmental resources urban areas can often destroy.

“We want to make sure that we create opportunities where people are able to focus on things that are more natural,” Thompson said. “We want to figure out how we can utilize the balance between the natural environmental resources that are abundant along with the adaptation and augmenting of technology to ensure that we can be much more efficient as a society.”

Photo via Luke Ma/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)