When you think of Amsterdam you tend to think of a city of canals, cannabis and culture with a cycle-mad population. But beyond the overt tourist towns is a city that has embedded the Internet of Things into its ecosystem so successfully that it’s considered one of Europe’s (and arguably the world’s), most successful smart city.
Despite the virtues of healthy cycling Amsterdam’s relatively small size, density and fixed urban infrastructure means that urban growth can contribute to increased problems for locals like traffic and air, water, and noise pollution. Enter new infrastructure and a series of new initiatives that aimed to utilise technology to make Amsterdam a better place to live in the future. Here’s how they did it:
1. Strong infrastructure
Amsterdam has the world’s first iBeacon Living Lab and public LoRaWAN network with city-wide connectivity going live about a year ago, in September 2015. The iBeacon Mile is explicitly intended as living lab, where all interested parties (citizens, companies and universities) can test and develop application, in effect a large, public and open IoT testing ground to push the development of a rapidly growing IoT economy across public and private verticals.
For many companies – both in software and in the creative sector – it is difficult to develop smart city applications and applications because there are a lack of good testing environments. You would require consent of all parties (municipality, companies, etc.) to create an effective test environment. The data and platform are open and all developers can use the beacons to develop on the basis of new applications and concepts.
This kind of initiative is underpinned by a desire for the Netherlands to be competitive according to Frank Meeuwsen, Community Architect at local IoT startup Triggi. He explained:
“One of the core strengths of Amsterdam is it’s IT sector combined with a strong internet backbone. Secondly high speed internet penetration is very high in the Netherlands. So citizens are already very used to many online services (like online banking). The investments into a smart city is mainly driven by Amsterdam economic board, which combines companies, local government and knowledge institutes. They want to keep Amsterdam competitive.”
Amsterdam’s smart city efforts are underpinned with the philosophy of collaboration. For example Amsterdam Smart City is an initiative of the Amsterdam Innovation Motor, the City of Amsterdam, Alliander and KPN and has grown into a platform with more than 90 partners involved in projects aimed at energy and open connectivity in several ways. By bringing partners together and to set up local projects, ASC creates the opportunity to test initiatives. The most effective initiatives can then be implemented on a large scale.
Another leader in this area is the Waag society institute for art, science and technology. A collaborative thinking and maker space where curious Amsterdammers, artists, designers, hackers, university researchers, government officials and socially minded entrepreneurs come together to understand how the latest technological innovations ought to be appropriated for solving societal issues from the perspective that users themselves are, in fact, the best designers of the solutions-this leads to opportunities for project which engage locals at all levels from school aged to the elderly.
3. Real solutions to local problems
Traditionally, urban problems have been solved through policy generated by municipal officials and urban planners in collaboration with the private sector. One of the great benefits of smart cities is that information and communications technologies like predictive algorithmic software, big data and IoT can be utilized to streamline local government, and transportation infrastructures and the local environment to make it more sustainable and liveable. At a local level this means creating local solutions to local problems.
Throughout Amsterdam there are “Living Labs,” effectively communities that act as petri dishes for ideas and initiatives to be tested before scaling them across the city. In IJburg, Amsterdam’s youngest neighbourhood, projects like free Wi-Fi and a new Fibre network, personalized television and transportation services, and a co-working space allow residents to experiment and test city projects to improve healthcare, environment, and energy programs in the city.
An example is their work into the issue of heavy traffic during rush hours. In response the city created Smart Work@IJburg, an alternative workspace for people to work remotely rather than commuting into the city centre on a regular basis. The Smart Work project is the first pilot program to test whether an expansion of co-working 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.
There’s also the creation of 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.
4. Still room for start ups
Whilst there are plenty of big players in the smart city space like Cisco, Philips and IBM, Amsterdam is successful at creating an environment where start-ups can still get a voice and presence in the ecosystem. There’s a plethora of incubators, accelerator programs, co-working spaces and hackathons which enable startups to thrive. StartupAmsterdam is founded by serial entrepreneurs and governmental bodies, and represents the start-up ecosystem of Amsterdam and there’s almost 1000 start ups registered. Amsterdam ranks in the European Digital City Index, a European survey that ranks 35 major EU cities on how well they support digital start-ups and scale-ups. Many of the startups utilise IoT to solve local (and global) problems. For example, Enevo works to address the problem of waste management utilizing intelligent wireless sensors that measure and forecast fill-levels in waste containers. This means that instead of garbage trucks at fixed times with fixed routes, to run a fixed route, Enevo tells the garbage collection points are almost full, and furthermore calculates the optimal driving route between different points. The start-up took this year 15.8 million dollar growth money.
As to Frank Meeuwsen from Triggi explains, big companies also create opportunities for start ups:
“We tend not to compete with companies, but we cooperate with them. Philips for example recognizes that we enhance their Hue lights with extra functionality and therefore promote us as an ‘app we like’ towards their end-users. We will save the big companies a lot of time, because we have a solution for the long tail of applications their customers are asking for, so that they can focus on their core products.”
5. Smart citizens not just smart cities
Amsterdam’s utility of citizen science creates interesting opportunities for local engagement through the use of IoT technology in response to local issues. Whilst it’s a well intended practice that in the past has been criticized for projects where “volunteers mostly ended up being nothing more than ‘citizen sensors’, i.e. tech-enabled corporal data collectors for academic and governmental research”, Amsterdam has been able to facilitate a critical approach that generates social capital and fosters relationships between scientists, designers and everyday people that would otherwise not occur.
An example of this is the Smart City Lab project which empowered citizens to use open source technology to understand their environments better, and take action based on their findings. Citizens met over a series of months to collaborate on local problems such as noise and traffic pollution. This included learning to design and build their own sensor measuring kits (or using ones like the smart citizen kit), data collection and interpretation with the end goal of mobilizing either citizens, public authorities, or both, to take action on the findings. It was an extensive project and the process was an enlightening as the end results.
Ultimately there’s no one size fits all approach to smart cities but where Amsterdam succeeds is their capacity to meaningfully engage all sections of society in their initiatives. People need to create their own smart city rather than simply having it created around them. Amsterdam is a perfect blueprint of how other cities can achieve this.