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Why Europe’s cities must work together to make smart future a reality

The future, says NATHAN PIERCE, belongs to the European cities that genuinely embrace collaboration

Europe is brimming with vibrant cities, each with their own unique flavour. At one end of the scale, sprawling metropolises like London, Paris and Berlin are renowned as global centres of commerce and culture. On the flipside, at least half of all cities in the EU are home to less than 100,000 people. Cities like Lisbon ooze renaissance charm, while municipalities like Warsaw are home to the kind of Baroque architecture that is the envy of the world. The sights and sounds of landlocked Milan contrast sharply with those of port city Bordeaux with its rich maritime heritage.

The brilliant diversity of Europe’s cities is something to be cherished. But that is not to say the continent’s conurbations don’t face shared challenges. Municipalities across Europe are racing to find solutions to problems that transcend city limits and national boundaries. Virtually all European cities are grappling with the challenge of urban air pollution, while tackling chronic traffic congestion keeps many a city mayor awake at night. Traffic jams cost Europeans around €100bn per annum, while EU air quality standards are consistently breached in more than 130 cities across the continent.

Smart city technologies are at the vanguard of efforts to ensure that cities can rise to the challenge of answering the key social, economic and environmental questions that will vex both this and future generations. Since 2014, 12 Smart Cities and Communities Lighthouse projects have focused on making sure that people who live and work in cities can enjoy all the quality-of-life benefits derived from innovative smart technologies.

Powered by €280m of European Commission Horizon 2020 funding, the Lighthouse projects are pioneering the delivery of smart technologies in municipalities. They are bringing cities together to demonstrate that technologies like electric cars and smart lampposts can be a cost-effective way of tackling some of the most profound problems facing city authorities.

In Sonderborg, innovative district heat networks are being established as part of the SmartEnCity project. In Milan, under the Sharing Cities programme, the retrofitting of buildings is helping to deliver radical improvements in energy efficiency and reduce CO2 emissions. In Lyon, under the Smarter Together programme, an electric-vehicle car-sharing system and an autonomous driverless electric shuttle are being introduced. In San Sebastian, under the Replicate programme, smart lampposts are being installed in a bid to slash city electricity costs.

Core to the Lighthouse movement is the idea that we achieve more when we collaborate. The Lighthouse projects are all about cities coming together to share technical learning, spread the risk of investing in new technology and to use their scale to drive down costs via joint procurement. Technologies tested as part of the Lighthouse programme can then be implemented on a wider scale at a vastly reduced cost-per-unit.

Evidence suggests that joint procurement can generate huge cost savings for cities bold enough to embrace inter-city working. Following a reorganisation of regional procurement in Austria in 2001, city authorities were able to achieve savings of 30% with an administrative workload reduction of 60%.

Involving 80 cities across Europe, the Lighthouse projects have made huge progress in demonstrating both the innovative potential of smart city technologies and the amazing things that can be achieved when cities group together and align their objectives. But there always remains room for improvement. Going forward, it’s crucial that European cities take bold steps to reject silo-working in favour of a more collaborative approach. Grant funding of the 12 Lighthouse programmes isn’t going to last forever, and it’s now incumbent on Europe’s cities to come forward, work together and ensure European citizens can enjoy all the benefits of smart city technologies at a price that represents a good deal for taxpayers.

The untapped potential of smart city technologies is immense. The future belongs to the European cities that genuinely embrace inter-city collaboration in a bid to fulfil the promise of smart cities. Together we can be the generation that confines scourges like air pollution and climate change to the history books.

Nathan Pierce is current Chair of the Board of Coordinators of the 12 Lighthouse Projects. He is Programme Director of Sharing Cities – one of 12 Horizon 2020 Smart Cities and Communities and Lighthouse Projects. To learn more about the work of the Lighthouse Projects click here.