The beauty of the smart city approach is that everything is somehow directly or indirectly connected

Interview:
Carsten Rothballer
26 February 2016
Carsten Rothballer

Carsten Rothballer is Coordinator in ICLEI’s Sustainable Resources, Climate and Resilience team. Expert at ICLEI Europe since 2009 addressing climate policy issues, with project experience in training, energy planning, integrated management and infrastructure, resilience, risk assessment and international networking on climate and energy issues. He supports local governments in Germany as well as throughout Europe in the development, improvement as well as financing of Sustainable Energy Action Plans (SEAPs) and Smart city  solutions.To this end, he coordinates capacity building of political and technical decision-makers in all processes of urban climate and energy management. Furthermore and in this context, he develops stakeholder engagement and public relation strategies and concepts together with public authorities and accompanies their realization through moderation or expert input. General activities include monitoring current developments in international and European energy and climate policy, conducting advocacy on behalf of local governments at the Conference of the Parties (COP) and facilitating local-national dialogues. Carsten worked in Brazil for several years as development worker and holds a M.A. in International Development from the University of Vienna, Austria.

Tell us, how would you describe GrowSmarter in a nutshell?

GrowSmarter is special. It aims to showcase a series of 12 integrated smart city solution packages with numerous measures in the three Lighthouse cities Stockholm, Cologne and Barcelona. The solutions range from advanced information and communication technology and better connected urban mobility, to incorporating renewable energy sources directly into the city’s supply network. The project enables public partnerships with the private sector in innovative, but not yet fully developed, profitable market segments. The idea is to create a ready market for these smart solutions to support growth, replication in our five Follower cities and enable the transition to a smart, sustainable Europe. Overall the project’s goal is to contribute to sustainable development at a local level and provide a high(er) quality of life to citizens.

GrowSmarter was one of three projects (Remourban and Triangulum are the other two) chosen from over 19 submissions to receive support from the European Commission’s first ‘Smart cities and communities’ Horizon 2020 funding call. The project kicked off in January 2015 and will run until December 2019.

What is ICLEI’s role in the GrowSmarter project?

ICLEI is a global association of local governments committed to achieving sustainability through local advocacy and action. In Europe we count 160 active and dedicated members including Stockholm and Barcelona. Naturally, networking and connecting leaders with inspiring ideas is one of our added values. Therefore specific and facilitated knowledge transfer and capacity building of political and technical decision-makers has become one of our core competences. This role we are also fulfilling in GrowSmarter where we lead the overall dissemination and communication work. Furthermore, and that is my task, we are coordinating and guiding the replication of the smart solutions in the five Follower Cities – Cork, Graz, Porto, Suceava and Valletta – and manage the City Interest Group of GrowSmarter.

You mentioned the City Interest Group, can you tell us a bit more about this?

We didn’t want to keep the great results, as well as the struggle of the implementation process for ourselves. Often difficulties of local governments are process- and management- rather than technology-related. However, GrowSmarter is challenging us on all sides. Therefore it is even more important for the peer-to-peer exchange to happen during the organisation and implementation of a “Smart city ”. This is the reason why we decided to create a City Interest Group for 20 other European cities that are interested in closely following and learning from the implementation of the smart solutions. They will have the unique opportunity to exclusively meet and exchange with the Lighthouse and Follower Cities and obtain information that is not necessarily shared with everyone. I already received the expression of interests from various cities in Europe, but a few places are still available. I invite cities to contact me directly. Find out more about the City Interest group here.

 

Which areas do you find that cities are particularly interested in: (for example energy savings, procurement, waste and water management?)

Their key interest is likely problem driven or opportunity based. Our Follower Cities, for instance, have a very clear idea about which solutions they would like to focus on for replication. Smart measures that are of particular interest to them are smart mobility solutions, alternative fuel driven vehicles and lampposts as hubs for communication in addition to smart lighting. Alongside this common interest each city also has a focused interest on measures suitable or meeting the needs in their specific context. However, the beauty of the Smart city  approach is that everything is somehow directly or indirectly connected. Therefore I see the key interest really to be that projects like GrowSmarter offer a gateway to explore other solutions.

Taking your Lighthouse Cities: Stockholm, Barcelona and Cologne, can you tell us a bit about their energy focus/the energy related smart solutions which they are implementing?

Energy is like a thread running through almost all solutions in GrowSmarter. But those bundled packages that have their primary focus here are namely: (1) Efficient and smart climate shell refurbishment, (2) Smart, energy saving tenants through information, (3) Smart local electricity production and integration with buildings and grid, and (4) Waste heat and local heat integration by new business models. You can find out about these and the other smart solutions, here.

What is/has been the greatest challenge involved in the GrowSmarter project?

In GrowSmarter I have found what you could describe as a strategic urban on a scale not seen before. The € 25 million co-funding of the Horizon 2020 Framework Programme of the European Union enables the Lighthouse Cities to test some of these new smart ideas in new combinations and complex partnerships at demonstration sites. These sites are test-beds for measures that due to their technological readiness levels and high costs are not fully ready-to-market. But they are likely to present solutions to pressing urban problems of today and tomorrow. In this context, the greatest challenges from the city perspective lie probably within the procurement process and balancing public and private investment needs and benefits. The private partners are mainly challenged by finding a business and revenue model that is open, flexible and integrative to other products and services. In other words, only the combination of measures might be able to balance the price of the high-end equipment with high energy savings and other benefits, while being (still) socially acceptable meaning affordable. Last but not least, the question on (local) sustainability in all its aspects should be our critical friend and pathfinder. 

Do you believe that Europe is making progress? Where do you think greater effort is required to move forward? What excites you most about an energy sustainable future?

I believe that Europe is making good progress on the Smart city  initiative. Nowadays I often get to hear about lots of exciting thoughts and projects being implemented. The debate has definitely evolved, become more self-reflective and taking things beyond the very conceptual ‘smart city ’ buzzword to more practical in-depth applications. Moreover, we’ve attracted the interest of cities outside of Europe, especially in India and China. In regards to greater effort required, personally, I am very concerned about the social cohesion and climate ambition of Europe. Here, I think greater efforts are needed also from the Smart city  approach. Some solutions are already very deliberately addressing these concerns, but some are also far from it and even counter-productive in their current application. The potential of community energy projects and civic economy excites me the most about our sustainable energy future. I am convinced that in particular smart ICT is able to tap further and more accelerated into this potential and engage society more easily in option of sufficiency, efficiency as well as local renewables.