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Update on Amsterdam Smart City

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During our European trip (see also my previous blogs on France), the Netherlands has been our home base; so there are and will be plenty of opportunities to also make contact with our many smart city friends and colleagues here.

Amsterdam remains the smart city capital of this country, but cities such as Eindhoven, The Hague, Utrecht and Rotterdam are also punching well above their weight.

Nevertheless, Amsterdam sticks out, not only in the Netherlands but also internationally. In most, if not all, international smart city ratings and awards the city consistently scores highly.  They now have more than a decade of strategic smart city experience. Strategic is the key here, as many other cities can claim to have smart city projects running for such a period. But to have a holistic strategic approach is not easy in a society and a bureaucracy that is based on silos, and Amsterdam had to struggle to establish a strategic approach that operates as a horizontal layer throughout the city. Even now they still have to defend this way of working, but with leadership and support right from the top it has become much easier over the years.

I have visited Amsterdam many times and have written many blogs on its activities. Furthermore, many of you will have met Frans Anton Vermast, who has presented at dozens of smart city events around the world and has visited Australia many times as a smart city ambassador of Amsterdam Smart City. He most certainly has helped spreading the Amsterdam message beyond the Netherlands.

As I will be back in the Netherlands after our trip to Iceland, which is where I am now, I will report on some of the many projects that are taking place in Amsterdam at a later stage. For now I would like to concentrate on the more high-level strategic developments, as this will most certainly assist other cities that are perhaps not as far along their smart city journey as Amsterdam is.

From its start, over a decade ago, Amsterdam Smart City has made this a collaborative project with private industry, universities and other R&D organisations. But initially it operated separately from the local city council, and, while this created a large number of partners (and hangers-on), in order to be more effective the smart city operation has since moved inside the city council’s organisation, and this is working much more effectively.

However, large-scale collaboration remains the key, and dozens of projects are now running based on that principle – some within larger projects but increasingly more independently, thanks to the many start-ups and innovators that have been attracted to the city and the opportunities that have become available through this smart city policy. Active policies and facilities are in place to secure the synergy effects that can be generated from this.

The other area that has been finetuned is collaboration with the citizens.

For hundreds of years Amsterdam has been ruled by its citizens (albeit the elite) and this has made the city fiercely independent. Since the 1960s those ‘elite’ have been replaced by ordinary (vocal) citizens. Within this tradition smart city communication has now been established with the citizens also. However this often ended up in the so-called ‘town hall meeting’ and ‘not in my backyard’ protests.

Having learned from this the smart city team has established a far more focussed and concentrated engagement policy. This is built around specific projects in specific areas with the participation of local community experts, stakeholder groups and those willing to be engaged in ongoing participation through email, chatrooms, websites, online collaboration, etc. This is proving to be far more productive and successful. People feel they can have ownership in such projects and this enables everybody involved  to create outcomes that suit the community, employing the inevitable give-and-take process.

In many of the projects it is possible to see these key elements of collaboration and engagement in practice and it is certainly worth paying attention to those critical elements needed to create long- term positive social and economic outcomes.

Is Amsterdam the smart city nirvana? Certainly not. Many projects still fail or disappoint, and working with such a large variety of people and organisations – all with their own agendas, business models, opportunities and problems – continues to be a struggle. Investments remain a key stumbling block for which Amsterdam has not yet found a good solution, so in many situations it will always be compromises and muddling on.

However slowly but surely a more widespread understanding of what a smart city strategy can do for the city and its citizens is becoming clearer and more accepted, providing it with an increasingly more robust foundation upon which these projects can be developed.

Paul Budde