Yesterday, the third edition of the Intelligent Cities Challenge (ICC) City Lab kicked off with two panel discussions open to the general public.

Session 1: The Zero Pollution City: Leading the green transition of local businesses

The first session, called ‘The Zero Pollution City: Leading the green transition of local businesses’, was an EU Green Week partner event moderated by Anna Athanasopoulou, Head of Unit Proximity, Social Economy and Creative Industries, DG GROW, European Commission. She opened by introducing recent European initiatives to guide cities in their efforts towards a greener and more sustainable future, namely the EU Green Deal, the updated Industrial Strategy, which supports pathway towards more sustainable industrial systems, cleaner technologies, business models and consumption habits; as well as the Zero Pollution vision for 2050, for air, water and soil pollution to be radically reduced, including a 50% reduction of waste in cities.Ms Athanasopoulou emphasised the critical role cities play in the recovery as they have the power to engage directly with citizens and businesses. The staggering statistics that cities account for 50% of global waste and 70% of global CO2 emissions were discussed. If we want to deliver on climate ambitions, we must involve cities more in the discussion.

Keynote speaker Tadashi Matsumoto, the Head of the Sustainable Development & Global Relations Unit, OECD, stressed the need for a ‘place-based approach’ to tackle sustainability and climate issues, such as air pollution. “Although air pollution has been declining on average across OECD cities in the last 30 years, two-thirds of OECD-city residents are exposed to harmful levels of air pollution in 2019”. Given the significant intra-country differences in air pollution, there is a need for a tailored and targeted approach across cities. National governments need to set strategies and guidelines to empower local actors.

Reducing air pollution goes hand in hand with digitalisation and the circular economy. “The circular economy is creating an opportunity to mix city and industry efforts to reduce air pollution”, declared Mr Matsumoto. He also warned about the risks of a shift towards a more digital and smarter city model. “If the needs of all population groups are not taken into account, smart cities can widen the digital divide. It is crucial to design – from the onset – smart cities as a tool to improve well-being and promote inclusive growth”.

Following the keynote, four ICC cities presented their progress in the Challenge. Michael Koh, Executive Fellow, Centre for Liveable Cities (City of Singapore), explained how Singapore keeps five key pillars in mind when creating a clean and green environment:

  • Pillar 1: City in Nature. “The aim is for each family to live within 10 minutes walking distance of a park and to plant over one million new trees in the city.”
  • Pillar 2: Energy Reset. The increase of solar energy deployment as well as improving the energy efficiency of buildings and transportation.
  • Pillar 3: Sustainable Living. “The aim is to become a zero-waste nation. One way to achieve that is to create prefabricated buildings and thereby reducing construction waste”.
  • Pillar 4: Green Economy. Singapore has the ambition to take the lead in the sector of green finance and carbon trading.
  • Pillar 5: Resilient Future. “A resilient future depends on how we build our climate resilience, like food security. We want to produce 30% of our nutritional needs locally”.

Mr Koh finished by highlighting the core role of community, “The community plays a vital part. We want to spread responsibility towards the community and engage with them”.

Rosa Väisänen, Sustainable Urban Development Specialist, Espoo (Finland), presented the ‘Espoo Story’. This programme outlines the ambition of the city to achieve the UN sustainability goals by 2025 and be climate neutral by 2030. She shared inspiring insight on how to achieve that goal: “The Espoo Story is created with our residents because that is what this story is about: it’s about people. Working in partnership is the only way to achieve a zero-pollution city”.

To bring that into practice, Espoo created Kera, a district in the city that can be seen as a test site and playground for innovative and green initiatives. Kera is testing the repurposing of old industrial buildings, creating new green infrastructure and installing digital pilot projects like 5G smart poles. When asked about challenges Ms Väisänen stressed: “It is much easier not to be open for testing. New ways of working are always challenging. Working together takes more time, effort and tolerance for uncertainties, but we believe it is the right direction. There is no guarantee for success. Experimenting means that you can fail. The challenge is the keep people involved and engaged”.

Geertje Pronk, Researcher and Programme manager at KWR Water Research Institute, Mechelen (Belgium), shed light on how effective water management can help cities achieve their sustainable goals. Efficient management of water and water systems is one of Mechelen’s top priorities in the ICC programme. The Belgian city wants to be a smart one where technology and data are used to make life more pleasant for its inhabitants. The long-term goal is to create a Digital Twin for the city, and the first test case was improving water management by connecting the city with local agriculture. “Instead of letting water flow away to the North Sea, we redirect it to local farmlands and make better use of the water. By retaining water locally, we can use it far more efficiently”, explained Ms Pronk.

She also echoed the message of Rosa Väisänen. “What is key is working together with local partners and across sectors. By linking companies and organisations with each other, change can be put in motion”, said Ms Pronk. “We benefited from working together, involving others right from the start and listening to different perspectives. Everything affects each other, either in a positive or in a negative way. You can only use water once, so you have to identify priorities and find a good balance”.

 Victor Dimoulis,  Scientific Advisor to the Mayor on Waste Management and Circular Economy affairs, Corfu (Greece), concluded the ICC representatives. Corfu experienced a major waste crisis in 2018, where the only landfill of the whole island was overloaded which led to a decrease in tourism and health implications for local residents. “After a restructuring of the municipality of Corfu, the Mayor and the municipal authority embraced the vision to transform the municipality into one of the most sustainable islands of Europe”. To achieve that goal, Corfu applied to become a member of the Intelligent Cities Challenge initiative and chose ‘Waste Management and Circular Economy’ as its priority City Goal.

The municipality focuses on several key actions to improve the waste management situation.

  1. It informs and raises awareness among the general population
  2. It organises smart waste collection management focusing on bins and the fleet
  3. It successfully implements separate waste collection across the entire municipality

Corfu wants to engage more with its residents to continue improving the issue of waste management. “Each individual has duties. We believe that a problem like waste management can only be solved collectively, by working together”.

Session 2: City of the future: New urban trends for a climate-neutral and socially responsible industrial future

The second session of the day focused on ‘The City of the future: New urban trends for a climate-neutral and socially responsible industrial future’ and was moderated by Dana Eleftheriadou, Head of Cities and Proximity Team at DG GROW, European Commission.

Jan Olbrycht, President of the URBAN Intergroup at the European Parliament emphasised the vital role cities that play in the recovery. “Without cities, we will not manage to recover from the pandemic neither to reach our Green ambitions. We need a very integrated approach”, stressed Mr Olbrycht. It is important to identify what citizens will expect from cities after the pandemic. “We are seeing a change of habits and behaviours. People will be used to teleworking and buying online, which in turn will impact ways of mobility in cities. Cities have to be prepared for it”.

Technology will play a crucial role in making public services more accessible. Cities are responsible for the practical application of the policy work done by governments. “It is not a theoretical exercise; you have to see in practice what works. In the European Parliament we work on urban policies, but we cannot succeed without cities”.

Valentina Superti, Director of Tourism and Proximity at DG GROW, European Commission, highlighted the role of cities:“Cities cover only 3% of the land on earth yet produce 80% of wealth in this world and amount for most emissions in this world. They are critical in forming a new resilient, green society”. She referred to the EU Industrial Strategy, and notably the Proximity and Social Economy ecosystem which offers a renewed vision of local economic activity, enhances local production and consumption, and improves citizens’ lives with a focus on human-centric city models.

She explained the contribution of the 100 Intelligent Cities Challenge (ICC) to help cities “build back better” and prepare a better, greener, more human lifestyles for their citizens and businesses; and

focused on the forthcoming Local Greens Deals Blueprint, reskilling initiatives and the Cities Guide for reskilling, and a Renovation Wave to reduce greenhouse emissions.

Next, five panel experts engaged in a discussion on the future of cities after the pandemic.

  • Carlo Ratti, Director at the MIT Senseable City Laboratory and ICC advisory board member, explained that working in a physical space is very important for human beings through the concept of strong and weak ties. Strong ties are the relationships between people who work, live and play together. Weak ties are relationships between members of different groups. They are important for the flow of new information. “During the pandemic, the number of weak ties decreased by 80%, which is a big issue because it changes the structure of social networks”. Mr Ratti claims that physical spaces remain very important to meet new people, exchange ideas and create new ‘weak ties’.
  • Gesa Ziemer, the Head of CityScienceLab, UNITAC Innovation Technology Accelerator Centre in Hamburg (Germany), focused on the importance of data tools in the city of the future. “Having sufficient meaningful data can decrease social inequalities in education and improve social health care. Access to data is therefore important. There can be an abundance of data, a significant lack of data or data that is simply not connected.” The city of Hamburg created the online platform Dipas to increase citizen participation and gather data for the city.
  • Michela Magas, Chair of the Industry Commons Foundation advocated for the involvement of culture and inclusion in city development. “Radical inclusion is crucial. It is a style of leadership that educates us and opens all kind of possibilities. It turns weak ties into strong ties and provides new opportunities for interactions between governments and citizens”.
  • Nicolás Rivillas Hincapié, Medellín (Columbia), expressed the main challenges for Latin American cities: create opportunities in the peripheral city and borderlands; build sustainable public facilities; finding the best methods to implement social innovation; organise and manage changes in the territorial urban subsystems; and organise community training to introduce new technologies.
  • Daniel Gonzalez-Bootello, Director of Smart City Cluster, shared an approach based on co-creation for cities to identify their problems, goals and ambitions. “The first thing you need to do as a city is tor reflect. When we sit down with cities to help them on different projects, we always ask them where they want to be in 5 to 10 years. This will allow them to identify goals, city problems and what they want to accomplish. In the end, cities need to be attractive and have a positive story to tell”. To build resilient city economies, cities need to have a strong backbone of SMEs. Cities should take this into account when developing policy, so they guide the companies towards a greener future.

On the second day of the third ICC City Lab, the cities will spend the day working together in closed groups.  Further open sessions to the public are available on Thursday 3 June where the focus will be on Green Initiatives. Discover the programme and register here.