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BW Businessworld

A City Becomes A Lab

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Imagine 'office working' moves out from the office buildings into open spaces, where people work in Wi-Fi  enabled gardens under the shade of solar petals generating their own energy and providing power to your laptop. While the idea may seem way too revolutionary but that is what exactly Amsterdam is trying under its 'Smart city project'.

The aim of Amsterdam's 'smart city' project is to transform the entire city into a one of the smartest, sustainable cities of the world and a crucible for economic growth. The project has turned the city into a laboratory where companies, research students, universities and governments are coming together to test new concepts that are focusing on four aspects of the urban experience- living , working, transport and public spaces.- and is testing new projects under each of these category. This in effect may end up changing pretty much the entire urban living experience.

A project that started in 2009 has till now attracted 132 global companies for testing cutting edge technologies in the city. From putting 21st century fuel cells into 17th century monuments to mega business districts powered by solar energy, the project is testing an eclectic range of technologies in the city.

At homes the project is installing smart energy meters, people are participating in community meetings and even writing blogs where they discuss their energy saving experiences. At offices, buildings are generating decentralised energy through fuel cells, employees are pooling in money to buy solar panels and government buildings are being monitored online for their energy performance. In the transport sector the city is encouraging electric vehicles and the port of Amsterdam is allowing ships to plug in at ports for electricity rather than running diesel gensets.

One of the most pertinent reasons for engaging a whole city in testing is that most of these future concepts are not just technologies. These are concepts that interact with the way people live. Therefore the behavioral aspects of these concepts, i.e. how people are affected or respond to these concepts is also a very important determinant in the success of these concepts. For e.g. palmtop was an amazing technology aiming to bring computing onto the palm yet the people never found the idea good enough, instead computing might actually shift to tablets. It is this human aspect that needs to be studied in introducing new concepts. This is exactly what the smart city project aims to do among other things.

Students from local universities are collecting data and doing market research by installing smart energy meters in communities, analyzing what kinds of many meters they installed work and which ones don't. Local companies who are manufacturers of these meters are gaining consumer insights on these products. This will convert into leadership for these companies in such products and business domains. Needless to say this will convert into greater economic performance of local companies and city too. That is where economics, sustainability and innovation goals get together.

Many of these projects may have limited direct influence but indirectly this boosts the ambitions of the city and their residents which multiply into deeper indirect results- both economic and social.  For e.g. when the US drags its feet to achieve 3 per cent reduction in carbon emissions, Amsterdam is aiming at an ambitious 40 per cent reduction. Infact the project showed that the full scale potential of these projects is a whopping 50 per cent.

A recent report from the government of the future centre and oxford economics appreciated the project for its ability to boost economic growth. The project beyond redefining urbaneness could also prove to be an engine of economic vibrancy and might just hold valuable lessons for many cities across the world tackling poor growth.

Yash Saxena is a sustainability consultant with Emergent Ventures, a climate change mitigating consultancy. He also works on innovation evangelism with Techpedia