Getting smarter

Budapest hosts European smart cities conference

October 12, 2017 | By Nathan Johnson

“Empowering Smart Solutions for Better Cities”, a two-day conference that took place at Millenaris Park in Budapest on October 2-3, 2017, attracted more thatn 150 creative thinkers and decision makers from throughout Europe. Organised by the Smart Cities Information System (SCIS) and the European Commission, the goal of the conference was to facilitate “the replication of solutions, good practices and lessons learned among cities and business to drive forward a smart and sustainable vision of Europe”.

Described by many as “setting a new standard” in achieving interactivity and maximising exchange of experience, the event represented the culmination of three years of work by the EU’s Smart Cities Information System project consortium.  Led by GOPAcom, a Brussels-based consultancy, and with the added support of the REC in charge of multiplier outreach, events coordination and conference-hosting, the consortium has successfully established the EU’s SCIS initiative as a central information hub of European smart cities demonstration projects.

The first day started with a 'Smart Walking Tour of Budapest', continued with a keynote address from architect and Umbrellium founding partner Usman Haque, and then featured a panel discussion involving high-level city representatives from Gothenburg, Brno, Bilbao, Budapest and Warsaw. The day concluded with an interactive session on replicating innovation. Day two featured more mixing and sharing with two parallel sessions in the morning, following by an interactive session, a sharing of outcomes, and closing remarks.

Welcome and kick-off

Noting that “we can’t be smart without innovation,” Central European University Associate Professor Michael LaBelle welcomed the participants and introduced the opening speakers: Budapest Deputy Mayor Balazs Szeneczey; Eric Lecomte from DG Energy, European Commission; and Jorge Nunez Ferrer, Senior Research Fellow, Centre for European Policy Studies.

Szeneczey shared some thoughts on what has been done in recent years to make Budapest a smart, liveable city. Mr Lecomte’s theme was on the replication and scale-up of innovation in Europe. Staying in a European context, Mr Ferrer explained the main features of the Smart Cities Information System—or, SCIS—a Europe-wide smart project database.

“SCIS is unique because it brings information under one roof,” said Ferrer. “We have created a user-friendly way for projects to share their data, and to ensure consistency and comparability between projects. After all, non-technical barriers create some of the biggest obstacles to implementation.”

Architect Usman Haque delivered an upbeat keynote address, stressing that engagement is what makes cities so valuable.

“A city is more than just buildings,” Haque said. “Cities are engines for generating unexpectedness, which means that we need to embrace complexity. Complexity has aspects of messiness and risk, but it also leads to innovation. People must be part of the process of sharing risk. The barriers that hinder us have more to do with how large groups of people carry out decision making. When you’re over-reliant on tech systems, you tend to undermine the human factor and limit the potential to gain from accidental discoveries. We should use technology for connective purposes—for connecting things and people that haven’t been connected before.”

Reflecting on technologies that “connect people, places and things”, and highlighting five projects in which he has taken part in just the past five years, Haque asked a series of questions that the participants would put to good use in the several interactive sessions to take place over the next day and a half, namely:

  • Do these technologies compel people to work together?
  • Do they require people to make decisions? Are those people invested in the outcomes of their decisions?
  • Are people making decisions about decisions?
  • To what extent does the technology embed notions of agency, accountability and responsibility?

The event’s panel session came next, featuring: Ulf Kamne, Deputy Mayor, city of Gothenburg; Jaroslav Kacer, Deputy Mayor, City of Brno; Gotzone Sagardui, Deputy Mayor, City of Bilbao; Balazs Szeneczey, Deputy Mayor, City of Budapest; and Tomasz Pactwa, Director of Department of Welfare and Social Projects, City of Warsaw. Professor LaBelle moderated the hour-long discussion and Q&A period.

The panellists described some of the biggest opportunities and challenges they face in city management, and were also asked to describe the future of their cities—in one word: “balanced” (Sagardui); “liveable” (Szeneczey); “sustainable” (Kacer); “adventurous” (Kamne); and “excited…about meeting new challenges” (Pactwa).

Responding to a variety of audience questions about the most effective ways to move programmes forward, the panellists variously recommended: “braver politicians at any level of decision making”, “collaboration between different institutions” and “heightened levels of education and awareness”.

Time to get interactive

Compared to events in which participants sit through a series of speeches and PowerPoint presentations, the SCIS conference had a quite different agenda. After a short recess, Ian Andersen, Participatory Leadership Advisor from the European Commission, asked the participants to divide into small groups and to identify and prioritise amongst themselves some key prerequisites for successful replication of innovation in their respective cities. The groups mixed and moved around several times before the session concluded, which helped to break the ice between participants and prepared them for more interaction the following day.

Starting at 9:30 a.m. on October 3, the participants dove right back in with two parallel sessions on the theme of “Urban innovation in practice: success stories”, with each session offering information and lessons from 15 different projects. The two-group format allowed for detailed and engaged discussions running up to lunchtime.  Following the break, the participants returned to form different groups according to their field of expertise of interest and to brainstorm ideas and creative ways to address challenges. A final interactive session brought everyone together to share outcomes to solidify new partnerships.

Parting thoughts

“For me, networking was the biggest opportunity,” said Luca Giovannini from Bologna, Italy. “At least for my company, Dedagroup Public Services, we have to be introduced to people to handle the problems we want to solve. It’s also good for understanding the topics that are important now.”

Bruno Dezeraga is a Chilean who has worked for a year with the Ferencvaros District Local Government in Budapest: “This is my first meeting with EU Commission people,” Dezeraga explained. “In my work with the municipality, our focus is on citizens and city planning. To make a smart city, we need smart people, smart building, smart factories. It’s not just one thing, but a dynamic combination of assets. In the past two days, I’ve been able to learn how many projects there are to improve your city.”

Lukas Kranzl, a senior researcher at the Technical University of Vienna, was grateful for the opportunity to present the results of a project that he is in: Renewable Energy in District Heating and Cooling: Best practices and challenges from the cities of Litomerce [Czech Republic] and Brasov [Romania].

“As we’re developing heating and cooling tools, this conference has been a great opportunity to meet people working in similar fields,” said Kranzl. “I’m also pleasantly surprised about the interactive structure of the event, which enabled me to learn some new things from people working in other fields as well.”

TAGS: Smart cities | Urban sustainability | Urban mobility | Best practices | Best available techniques | Hungary