Which cities are truly ‘smart’? Amsterdam is rightly held up as a flagship so how did it achieve so much in the last ten years?

It is hard to find a major city today that doesn’t have a ‘smart’ brand. But scratch below the surface and it is often difficult to find much more than fine words and slick marketing. ‘Aspirational’ would be the polite description of many cities’ efforts to date.

Amsterdam, alongside Barcelona, has arguably achieved more than any other European city. While it has many things going for it, including being a desirable place to live and work with an engaged, well-educated population, this alone doesn’t explain why it is so far ahead.

As Amsterdam Smart City Ambassador and having been involved for almost ten years, Frans-Anton Vermast is a good person to ask about what is needed to identify, design and deliver true innovation.

1. Be at Arm’s Length to Government

Cutting through traditional local authority bureaucracy and siloes looks key. “One of the first things we did was to tear down the walls,” he says. “It is one of the imperatives, from our perspective. It is a cultural thing, nothing to do with technology. We had people saying, we can’t share our data or we want to be the owner of the problem.”

This was a main reason for setting up Amsterdam Smart City as an arm’s length, not-for-profit entity, with only ten per cent of the funding coming from the local government. There are twelve partners paying between €30,000 and €100,000 per year but, more importantly, says Vermast, they also commit one full-time employee, to work alongside Amsterdam Smart City’s seven staff. The partners include commercial players, including a couple of energy companies, educational establishments, the Dutch post office, Amsterdam Arena and the Amsterdam Economic Board.

The partners appreciated the detachment from the local authority. “There were quite a few private partners but they got crazy because of the bureaucracy.” Another important benefit of the detachment is the ability to fail. “In the start phase, we wanted to do pilots and have the ability to fail without the political consequences.”

2. Engage with Citizens

Problems are raised by citizens, the public sector or private companies and the appropriate partners within the network are identified to work on solutions.

There are six main themes: Infrastructure and Technology; Energy, Water and Waste; Mobility; Circular City; Governance and Education; and Citizens and Living.

A ‘”bottom-up” approach and complete openness is important. “All citizens in the Amsterdam Metro Area have the opportunity to come up with problems, things they don’t like in their area,” says Vermast. In addition, citizens are polled for their opinions, such as through an exercise four years ago that engaged with 8000 people across 180 different nationalities and large and small companies for their vision of the city in 2030.

On around 50 per cent of occasions, the problem can be solved just by involving the people, he says. An example was a street in the city where residents were concerned about air pollution as a result of tourist parking. They were provided with sensors and are now able to measure air pollution levels to build the evidence for future action.

Government thinks it can do everything and this is the wrong approach, says Vermast. He also believes reliance on subsidies is flawed because as soon as the funding stops, so does the project.

There is a well-tested process to include start-ups in the projects, with a ‘Start-up in Residence’ programme, now in its third round, whereby challenges are defined, start-ups are invited to come up with solutions, and one is selected. It then works in-house for six months with access to all of the expertise within the Amsterdam Smart City network.

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3. Share Experiences

“A lot of people see Amsterdam as ahead but we learn as much from other cities as they learn from us,” says Vermast. He gives the example of India, where so much focus is on sanitation, so that the country has built up a lot of expertise. Amsterdam works closely with cities such as Charlotte, Dubai, Dublin and Quito.

It has a well-structured programme whereby it can host visits on a wide range of areas. “What we have found is that lots of people have tried to find the solution,” says Vermast. However, one reason he believes Amsterdam is so popular for presentations and visits is that it is happy to share its failures and disappointments, as well as its successes.

4. A Level Playing Field

A role of government should be to create a fair environment for everyone. For instance, Amsterdam was the first city in the world to charge a tourist tax on Airbnb and it is very strict in enforcing the rule that properties cannot be let for more than 60 days in the year.

With Uber, the city has engaged with the company, particularly to promote electric vehicles. In September, together with Dutch financial institution, LeasePlan, Nissan and energy company, Nuon, Uber launched an expansion of electric vehicles available through the Uber app in the city. The target is to have over 200 electric cars available through the app by the end of 2018 and the current phase of the roll-out will provide useful information about the current charging infrastructure in Amsterdam and the battery capacity of the vehicles for this sort of use.

5. Be Inclusive

The concept of a level playing field also applies to citizens. Smart cities are often about physical nuisances, such as congestion. While it is very annoying to have to spend an extra 15 minutes in traffic, says Vermast, what about the people who can’t afford to travel? “Poverty and social inclusion are among our main priorities.”

For instance, there is currently a pilot to try to tackle personal debt at an early stage. Now, if someone doesn’t pay their rent for three months in a row, the city council is alerted that there might be a problem and a worker is sent to visit. In the past, the city often only engaged when someone was evicted, which clearly has a major impact on the individuals as well as cost implications for the council.

It is early days and there are issues to be resolved around privacy, but there is also a pilot to use big data to try to identify domestic violence within households.

Amsterdam Smart City also engages with homeless people and one response was to put in charging points for mobile phones at tram stops, based on feedback that many homeless people carry mobile phones but have nowhere to charge them. Of course, the initiative also benefits residents and tourists, and there are now moves to add WIFI.

After “ten years on the road”, Vermast is not keen on still using the words “Smart City”. Arguably, acting smartly should just be part and parcel of a city’s operations. Nevertheless, Amsterdam’s achievements set it apart from most other cities in the world to date and that’s not just luck. It looked to develop a strong governance model from the start that allowed it to move onto a long-term sustainable footing that also had the benefit of removing many of the traditional inhibitors to innovation of local government.