L’Atelier met up with Professor Arjan van Timmeren, an expert on the City of Tomorrow. Here he talks about some of the initiatives taken in Amsterdam and the overall issues raised by the ‘Smart City’.

Smart City residents “need to stay in control of their own data”

 [Smart City Circle - Amsterdam] Interview with Arjan van Timmeren, Professor of Environmental Technology & Design at the AMS (Advanced Metropolitan Solutions) Institute based in Amsterdam. This institute, which works in close collaboration with MIT, the Delft University of Technology and Wageningen University in the Netherlands, carries out research into innovative solutions for the development and prosperity of urban areas.

L'Atelier: How would you describe the approach taken by Amsterdam to the ‘smart city’?

Amsterdam is special in that its citizens are very keen on innovation, they’re open to experimentation and quite liberal in this regard. This, plus certain special features, is Amsterdam’s great strength on the Smart City front. Amsterdam’s approach is basically to collect data locally in order to deal with energy issues and to make urban mobility more efficient. Today it’s first and foremost ‘crowd-sensing’ – i.e. gathering data from the general public – that we’re focussing on.

What challenges is Amsterdam facing today?

Like Barcelona and Paris, Amsterdam is seeing an explosion in its tourist numbers. So today’s real issues are overpopulation in some areas of the city and, more generally, availability of space there. The city’s inhabitants have to be able to live their lives normally. They need to get to work every day, and so on.

 ‟The challenge lies in balancing the equation of improving energy efficiency while at the same time keeping returns profitable.”

Let’s say that we need to find a balance that’s workable and sustainable for everyone. More generally the challenge lies in balancing the equation of improving energy efficiency while at the same time keeping returns profitable.

Could you give us an example of a ‘smart city’ initiative coming out of Amsterdam?

The Rain Sense project, set up in October 2014, is an initiative which helps the city authorities to take precautions against the kind of damage that torrential rain has caused in the past.  The idea is to collect data on rainfall in the city from two sources: connected umbrellas which double as mobile rain gauges and an app which any resident can use to signal a problem by taking a photo and/or reporting a downpour at a precise location. Rainfall is usually assessed by weather stations in the countryside. But that means that city microclimates are not taken into account and so the weather in cities cannot be forecast accurately. In fact the situation may vary from one street to the next!

AMS has also carried out experiments in the Schiphol [near Amsterdam] airport area.

Yes, this is a pilot project which began in 2008 when people were just starting to talk about hybrid cars. Working with a team of engineers and researchers we discovered that it was possible to connect up to the batteries of what’s known as ‘flexible’ equipment – such as electric cars and bicycles, for example – when their owners weren’t using them. By plugging into the batteries of electric vehicles in the airport car park, we were able to meet ad hoc demands for electricity, which has enabled Schiphol airport to achieve its targets for reducing CO2 emissions.

"Today we’re trying the same thing out elsewhere, mainly in residential areas."

Right now companies such as Siemens, IBM and Cisco are each developing their own ideas of the ‘smart city’. Isn’t there a risk that cities will no longer be able to communicate with each other?

Well, it’s no longer a risk that cities will go ahead based on different types of operating systems. It’s actually happening already! Today there are 80 companies in the market worldwide and each of their solutions has its own particular algorithm. So we can already imagine the danger of having cities that cannot communicate with each other. However, I’m optimistic. At first we had a similar situation with electric car battery chargers differing from manufacturer to manufacturer. But two years ago the industry established a set of standards and now all chargers conform to these standards.

‟A city mustn’t forget that its citizens need to stay in control of their own data.”

The challenge for cities is more about citizens keeping control over their own data. The companies that supply the backbone of smart cities certainly find themselves in a dominant position but a city mustn’t forget that its citizens need to stay in control of their own data.

So what’s your definition of a ‘smart city’?

The term ‘smart’ can be interpreted in a thousand and one ways and it is sometimes misunderstood. Cities should first of all think about what really marks their identity, and the goals they want to achieve. Then on this basis they can build strategies in line with the concept of a smart city.

I believe that ‘smartness’ is directly underpinned by the intelligence of its users, i.e. the citizens. The whole purpose of the smart city should be to enable more intelligent decision-making – by citizens and local players – based on collecting and analysing data.

By Pauline Canteneur