Umeå in Sweden has a proud boast: It claims Europe’s most environmentally engaged citizens*. It is relatively small – 125,000 inhabitants – with 36,700 students, 130 nationalities and an average age of 38. It is also proud of its 262km of cycle paths.

Located 600km north of Stockholm, it is perhaps no surprise that energy has been a key area of focus for Umeå’s smart cities work. It has a subarctic climate, with short and fairly warm summers, but lengthy and freezing winters. “We are kind of obsessed with heating,” says Carina Aschan, Umeå’s smart city project lead.

The city is seeking to cut its CO₂ emissions through reduced energy use and sustainable transport by developing smart business models and working methods. In this, it is part of a European Union Horizon 2020 Lighthouse project alongside Glasgow and Rotterdam, with follower cities being Palma, Brno and Gdansk.

Theory into Practice

Umeå has designated a “Smart City Innovation District”, in the university area to the east of city centre. Here there is a mix of residential, academic and research facilities, with two universities, a regional hospital, and community, recreational and commercial buildings.

At the university, there has been work to put smart energy solutions into practice, to show what can be achieved. Many of the buildings are from the 1960s and were inefficient when it came to energy use. More or less all rooms were being heated, cooled and lit equally all of the time.

Rebuilding secondary education for refugees

The project launch in Rotterdam

An intelligent energy system has been implemented. This is now linked to the university’s system for booking lecture theatres, with the heating and, in summer, air conditioning adjusted based on usage. This alone has seen a saving on energy use of around 20%, which constitutes a big reduction in a facility as large as this, points out Aschan.

Next, it implemented sensors in the university’s corridors and rooms, which created maps showing the movement of people through the buildings. This similarly has allowed smarter heating and cooling, to match the need. The newer parts of the facility are more energy efficient and, informed by the sensor maps, there has been an attempt to move people into these. Comfortable seating and free WIFI have been used as “lures” but the most effective inducement, says Aschan, has proved to be slightly cheaper coffee.

Changing behaviour

In residential and student accommodation in the area, sensors and controls are also now being used, with tenants able to manage their energy consumption via smart phone apps. Through gamification, residents can meet challenges, such as better sorting of waste and greener transport choices. Rewards are tickets for the city’s electric buses, which further reduces people’s carbon footprints.

There has also been a challenge for people to give up their cars for a month, with the incentives of free public transport tickets, car shares and e-cargo bikes. As a result, to date, two families have relinquished their cars for good and three others have decided to share a single car. There has been a lot of information gained from the trial, says Aschan, which will support a wider roll-out.

More widely, the energy projects will be extended in the Innovation District – the hospital is an obvious next focus – and beyond.

Rebuilding secondary education for refugees

The EU Horizon 2020 ‘Ruggedised’ lighthouse projects

Other initiatives

Another project related to energy is the development of a new business model to enable the storage and exchange of energy between organisations. It includes reduced energy consumption at the hospital; new geothermal energy storage; and shared use of a common thermal energy storage tank and biomass boiler. The end goal is to make the area 100% renewable.

An E-charging Hub with solar panels will be installed. Energy can be used directly or stored in batteries in the facility. The electricity generated by the solar panels can be used to charge bicycles and cars, or to relieve the power grid during times when the peak load is high.

One other initiative in Umeå is a smart city data infrastructure to provide open source data on the city’s energy consumption and production, buildings and technologies, and travel patterns, plus non-technical information such as business models and support processes. Citizens, as well as other potential users, will be able to access the data.

There are projects along similar themes in Rotterdam and Glasgow, with uptake then planned for those that are successful and relevant in the follower cities. This is the model used within the Horizon 2020 projects to try to build replicability and scalability. There is also a wider remit to share the findings and showcase the projects, including hosting visits.

Students and residents in environmentally-friendly Umeå no doubt constitute ready-made enthusiasts for such projects, with the long, cold winters providing additional incentives, but what’s been achieved and what’s planned is perfectly applicable elsewhere including in towns and small cities as well as large ones.

* According to the 2014 European Smart City benchmarking by Vienna University of Technology