Karl-Filip Coenegrachts: Creating a smart city — local initiative is most important

Reference: Karl-Filip Coenegrachts, Master of Laws, specialized in European Law. In 2004 he became head of Department of Strategy and International Relations of the City of Ghent and Chief Strategy Officer in 2015. Deals with the long term strategy of Ghent including the implementation of horizontal policies, smart city strategy, data and information management, international relations, policy participation and European funding programs. Currently also Ghent representative and President of the Executive Committee of Eurocities.

 

— Mr Coenegrachts, about a hundred cities seeking for a title of a smart city are being built in the world presently. Isn’t the idea of building a smart city from the ground up an utopia? Meaning, how much will people be interested to quit a traditional city and move to a smart one, will they do it just for the sake of the use of advanced technologies?

— I do not think so. It is not a good way to work over smart cities. Of course, for certain countries it is important that new cities are being built. But building a smart city “in a box” is not a good solution for people. We may refer to Jane Jacobs (the author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities – ed.) who said that people feel scared when they have to change the place of their living and they do not feel like. In the US people go by their cars to other cities to work and then come back, so I do not believe that’s a solution. But to co-create a new city with citizens and companies and academicians – yes, it is possible. Then you have a look into a mix of different functions in every part of the city – and that’s an advantage – you CAN put in the current new technologies and be flexible enough to be ready to adopt the new technologies in the future. And that is a big challenge, I guess…But a feeling that people have arises from the fact that they co-create their own city, their place to live, to work, to shop etc.

 

— So, from your point of view, cooperation with citizens is the most important factor in creating a smart city?

— It is essential.

 

— Ghent is considered to be the “smartest” city of Europe – what underlies the creation of a “smart” city in a city with rich history?

— In fact, we do not have an ambition of becoming a smart – or the smartest city in Europe – we are talking about the city of people, and that is our strong point. We try to connect people with their surroundings, with the city itself and also with politics – we have a very complex political system in Belgium, it’s a system of compromises because of the fact that there is a French-speaking, a Dutch-speaking part in the country, six governments for 11 mln people, we have 5 different levels of government, etc. That creates a distance between a politician and a citizen. What we have done in Ghent – we have taken away all the distance: our Mayor goes to the city every day, talks to people, he works 24/7 but he does it! He is very open, very approachable… Doing that he created a culture of cooperation with his colleagues, civil servants and people, and other officials do the same. We have a lot of projects, methodologies and systems to go deep into what people need in a certain neighbourhood. We invite them to round-the-table discussions and focus groups, even using 3D models in order to show them what the possible needs could be and to get a response what their needs are and how the city should be developed further. So, our strong feature is working together with citizens and civil society.

Another aspect is cooperation with companies: we have two universities and six schools of higher education in the city — 74,000 students — this gives us a very strong basis for new business models, start-ups, new scale-ups. 40% of all the ICT start-ups in Belgium are from Ghent. So, we have very strong assets — but just having it is nothing: you have to tap into all those possibilities. We created an eco-system with all our start-ups and scale-ups where we connect them with each other, with academicians, with the logic contents and with the government. By doing that and by making the vision of the city development very clear we have something to work on. And then there is money: for all the goals we are having we bring together the available budgets — not only ours, but of the other levels of government, companies that want to invest in a project, new models to test in our city and scale them up to other cities of Europe. These are our assets, that we are strong at, that make Ghent one of the 10-top cities of Europe.

The third aspect is data awareness – it is important to have an open data portal as part of the government data assets and as a decision making foundation which enable people and government to take decisions on specific operational topics, like energy analytics, for instance. It is a basis for new vision and the development of the city itself.

Karl-Filip Coenegrachts: Creating a smart city — local initiative is most important

— But Ghent is a small city. How can such smart technologies be implemented in such metropolises as Moscow, from your point of view? 

— By taking it step by step, the same as in London, for instance: they do have strong co-creation projects based on new developments or redevelopments of certain parts of the city. Moscow also has new developments – so, take new philosophy in new developments making use of future proof technologies and data management strategy, and it is open enough to make new evolutions for the future, creating new environment to enable everyone to innovate the city in societal, economical and technological sense.

 

— In many cities there exist energy efficient projects: smart lighting, water supply, heating… What is more important – to attract an interested investor or an intellectual basis, the implementation of digital technologies?

— Equally important, but first you need an infrastructure to be able to create applications, energy grids, communication networks – all technological assets needed for the future. And on top of that applications are built which influence the development of the infrastructure, so it goes in both directions, and it is a constant process.

 

— What is the share of state and private financing in environment development projects?

— In Ghent, about 30% — PPP, about 60% — public funding — professional, regional, and 10% also public funding from other levels of government.

 

Please, tell some details about the creation of the system of horizontal policy: what does the notion include, how does the system provide for the development of a smart city?

Breaking down sectoral and organizational siloes is essential to come up with innovative solutions for smart cities. What we do in Ghent is actually using a living lab methodology meaning that you may gather different market parties at a round table to work on certain real life challenges. We scaled that model to a society level: if mobility is one of the priorities at a certain moment we provide all the data, facts and figures for different companies, start-ups etc., citizens to clear out what is more important to be done taking into account the prospects of further evolution. We have the platform to develop the solutions.

 

— What is more necessary for the implementation of the innovation solutions of a smart city: carefully developed state legislation in this sphere or is the effort of municipal authorities enough?

— The local effort is more important, but you need cooperation with every level of government. Flexible regulation is necessary to be able to experiment, to prove if the legislation is still actual or it should be adapted. So, it all starts from the local level, the local initiative is primary. Also because of the fact that no two cities are the same.

 

— Is there a correlation between the creation of smart cities and the economy’s recovery on the whole?

— Absolutely!

 

— How does the implementation of smart city solutions turn a city from a demanding investment to profitable ones?

— That’s difficult. I suppose there’s hardly any smart city project in the world that proves to be profitable, presently. When looking at a local development, if the smart city applications have been developed by larger companies — I do not think anyone of them has a case to prove that a smart solution has been profitable. It was predicted that the “Open data” would create a profit of $80 bln — I’d like to see a first euro, actually. Which does not mean that in the near future the new business models will not be profitable. The profit is more on the societal level — when you create a solution for a problem that has existed for ages. That’s the value.

 

— There is information that the economic effect from the application of smart technologies is about 10–15% in some years? That is a kind of delayed profit: how, from your point of view, to convince an investor and the authorities that it will do a lot of good for them (if they do not receive their margin at once) and for people? (there are only 2 multifamily blocks of flats in Moscow built with the use of smart technologies)

— There is certainly income, but not on smart city solutions. First of all it is a societal income — meaning that a lot of start-ups increase income because they have an opportunity to work in the city. We get more business, we get more business models, most of the companies are scaling — and that’s the real value. They may be focused on different things, not a smart city idea, - for instance, mobility. But the platform of a smart city offers great opportunities for the development.

 

— Moscou — is one of the districts in Ghent. Are there any projects of the complex development of urban environment implemented there and which could be taken by Moscow - the capital?

— Not really big projects. It is only a small part of our city. There is a part of a train station which is under redevelopment presently.

 

— Does the size of the city matter for the successful implementation of intellectual solutions?

— It is easier to implement all the solutions in a smaller city: actually we know how the whole of the city works, we are very motivated individual people who are really involved in those projects because it is their city. That makes it easier. On the other hand, I do not see any reason why projects we implement would not work in the city like Moscow. You should create some districts to experiment first and then use the results in other districts.

 

— So, you think that creating a smart city is based mainly on the idea of open society. Do people in Ghent take an active part in crowd-funding projects?

— Yes, but it is not the main source of income, it’s an additional source, not for big infrastructure projects. It is mainly used for small ideas implementation.

 

Thank you very much, that was very interesting.

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