By Anne-Kirstin Berger, photos by Guki Giunashvili
Phones have become smart a while ago. TVs followed and, step by step, entire houses are being digitalised and interconnected. The next ones in the line to turn smart are cities. More and more municipalities use information technologies to improve their services and living conditions. This does not only mean installing fancy software in the registration offices and replacing paper documents by digital archives. Every single aspect of a town, the buildings, parking lots, trash bins and lights, have the potential to become intelligent, interconnected.
There was a spirit of Silicon Valley at Dokk 1 that Friday morning of the Internet Week Denmark 2018. Beyond the windows emerged the skyline of Aarhus, with the tower of the cathedral standing out behind brick houses. Inside Dokk 1, city managers from around the globe, IT developers and citizens were catapulting ancient towns like this one into the digital century. “We want to develop and position Aarhus in the frontline of new technologies”, said the CEO of the city, Niels Højberg.
Under the label “Smart Aarhus”, the capital of Midtjylland cooperates with the local government and numerous research institutions to develop and implement IT in its daily life. In a constant exchange with partners from Europe and other parts of the world, the city administrators want to find out what works well – and what does not. Niels Højberg is also the chief of Smart Aarhus. “In Aarhus we have been struggling with creating platforms and working with smart city solutions”, he says. “And I think we are entering a new phase where we want to look at concrete results and see effects of our investments.”
One such concrete result comes from Porto in Portugal, the home of Rui Costa. He is the founder and CEO of a company that develops ideas for smart cities. The key for many of these technologies is a chip, ten centimetres in diameter, round and flat. This little gadget can turn waste containers into intelligent objects. “The sensor measures the fill level of each container. When it reaches a threshold the container automatically appears on the route of the trash car driver. This way there is no need to pass at containers that are almost empty.” A similar technology can guide drivers to free parking lots and send data to traffic lights, so congestions can be avoided.
There is, actually, not a single object that is not on the developers’ radar. Street lamps, for example, bear an unexploited potential. They can be a charger for electric cars, a WLAN-antenna, a measuring station for the air quality and – almost as an aside – they can give light and enhance the public security perception. But what happens when a car crashes into such a smart lamppost? The costs to repair the sensible technology would certainly be high. Apart from that, it is an ambitious idea to replace the tens of thousands of lampposts that have already been installed around the city. “You could introduce the new lights step by step”, is the suggestion of IT developer Rui Costa. “We have already experimented to equip them with a stronger metal so that they are more resistant than usual lights.”
Despite the immense creativity among developers, municipal projects in the spirit of the internet of things are not yet more than prestigious exceptions. “The biggest challenge in implementing a smart city is actually not the technology. It is how to get it to fit the need of the citizens in cities”, says Martin Brynskov, researcher at Aarhus University. The case of the lamppost illustrates two issues: firstly, streetlight infrastructure is often owned by electricity companies; and they have little interest to cannibalize their business. Secondly, “there are issues with the procurement law – what you are actually allowed to buy as a city”, knows Brynskov. The lamppost with an integrated WLAN-antenna, for example, would be around 15 percent pricier than a simple model. Since municipalities are notoriously in a tight financial situation, they are not allowed to spend more than the minimum.
Despite the challenges, when Martin Brynskov watches out of the second floor of Dokk 1, he sees nothing but opportunities: the harbor buildings, the old town, the tower of Grundfos in the distance. “All of these constructions have their technologies. What we want to do now is to interconnect them and to make them smarter.” It is a long way to go, but ideas are certainly not lacking.
The session about smart cities is part of the Internet Week Denmark. For more information visit internetweekdenmark.com