Cities - 10/July/2016

Copenhagen Firms Up a Fluffy Concept

Collecting and mining data lies at the heart of making cities smarter and cleaner places to live. Copenhagen’s Street Lab is a living demonstration of the latest technology at work

At first glance, the heart of Denmark’s capital city resembles every other buzzing metropolis: tourists tirelessly shoot pictures, harried workers dash between buildings; families enjoy picnics on handy benches; trash is thrown into Copenhagen’s iconic green garbage bins; and lines of cars snake their way along the main thoroughfares.

Underneath the ordinary progression of life, however, hums a large infrastructure of new technology, all with the purpose of saving energy by making the city infrastructure more operationally efficient and helping people live cleaner lives.

Denmark is coming up against the limits
of what it can achieve opportunistically

Echo sensors hiding in trash bins around City Hall let the public waste collection unit know when to drop by and collect the garbage. At a nearby square, cameras watch for empty street parking spaces and signal to drivers when a slot opens up, reducing congestion and energy wasted on going round in circles. A few steps away, sensors hidden in flowerbeds notify gardeners of the temperature and humidity of the soil, preventing excessive watering, or withered plants that need replacement before time. Meantime, white boxes on lampposts along the main boulevard daily register the air pollution from 60,000 passing cars, information that is relayed back to citizens.

Welcome to Street Lab, a new laboratory in central Copenhagen and a literal hub of fibre-optic and wireless connections linking intelligent garbage bins, flower beds, parking spaces and real-time internet monitoring systems. Free wifi is also available to everybody in the area.

Launched in June as a public-private partnership between the City of Copenhagen, telecom company TDC, IT giant Cisco, and light company Citelum, Street Lab is the latest contributor to Denmark’s expanding smart city environment.

“This is an extremely innovative project where the interaction between companies, citizens and the environment is key to grasping future technology. We want Copenhagen to be a smart city that uses digital solutions as wisely as possible—without directly monitoring people and everything they do,” says Morten Kabell, the elected official in charge of technical and environmental affairs in Copenhagen.

Downtown data

Over the past decade, the somewhat fluffy concept of a “smart city” has been used to describe technology-driven urban benefits and the products and services that deliver them. Global cities from Seoul to Stockholm, from New Delhi to New York are making urban areas cleaner, nicer and more fun to be in.

According to a report by Arup, an engineering and technical services company, the market potential for making cities smart is huge—estimated at around $1.3 trillion, with annual growth of 17%.

More than half of Denmark’s municipalities have launched smart city solutions to everyday challenges. As well as Copenhagen, which won the World Smart Cities Award in 2014, examples of intelligent planning in Denmark include DOKK 1, a huge and futuristic multi-functional citizen centre on former dockland in the country’s second largest city, Aarhus; Vinge, a sustainable suburb 40 kilometres north of Copenhagen, to be built from scratch; and DOLL, a technology platform masterminding a “future-proof transition” to LED lighting, based at Albertslund on the western outskirts of the capital.

Realdania, Denmark’s leading philanthropic organisation and supporter of several smart city projects countrywide, sees an attractive market for digitalising and sharing data. “Smart cities can make our everyday lives better and more resource efficient,” says Realdania’s Anne Skovbro, though she warns that the ends must justify the means. “We must ask how can data help us create better cities without letting data control our lives.”

Smart city facts

Data is gold

One of the players generating the huge volumes of data in Copenhagen’s Street Lab is LeapCraft, a ten-man start-up. The firm specialises in small-scale, low-cost sensors that monitor air quality in real-time as a supplement to the few older measurement stations in town.

The information collected, including data on air pollutants, temperature and humidity help the city authority improve awareness among its citizens. The aim is to nudge people into thinking about their choice of transport, or to consider using an alternative outdoor sports facility where the air is cleaner, or allow them to weigh environmental considerations when selecting a kindergarten, says LeapCraft’s August Ussing.

“In many of our projects it’s only the individual company and its customers that benefit from the data. When we work with smart cities, there’s plenty of opportunity to foster synergies that benefit municipalities, businesses, researchers as well as citizens. There’s a gold mine of potential in these datasets,” he says.

Even so, “data protection” is the company’s middle name, states Ussing. “We don’t own the personal data in this project and if we were to handle personal data it would be in accordance with data protection laws. As a company, we are interested in the greater perspective and behavioural patterns in order to understand the city better. In this way, we can empower citizens and political action to make Copenhagen the cleanest and most liveable city,” he says.

Eco-industries

More vision, less detail

Denmark may be in the vanguard of smart city development, but it still faces challenges. Arup points to an uncertain market for investors and a shortage of skilled professionals. “Denmark is coming up against the limits of what it can achieve opportunistically,” states a recent Arup report.

Danish smart city projects, it adds, rarely continue after initial public funding runs out. They are suffering from “pilot sickness.”

One of the biggest obstacles to creating more intelligent cities is the lack of strategic cooperation between public and private sectors, says Henrik Kærgaard from Niras, a consulting firm. He sees too much focus on technical details and too little focus on innovative business models.

“We tend to talk a lot about smart cities as holistic and integrated, but there are very few people who articulate how we do it. We need more joint visions and workings processes to make smart cities happen,” he says.

The problem of “pilot sickness”, however, is not unique to Denmark. The failure to scale up smart city projects reflects a broader tendency in many countries around the world. To avoid otherwise good projects to end due to “pilot sickness”, one of the solutions pointed to is a better use of industry clusters. Arup states that Danish clusters are some of the strongest in Europe, especially in the fields of environmental industries, architecture and urban design.

As a company, we are interested
in the greater perspective and
behavioural patterns in order to understand the city better

Street Lab has until 2018 to prove its worth. A total of $2.3 million has been invested in smart parking, waste management, and city wifi among other things. “We are very focused on demonstrating how well all these new city functions work so that we can scale up in the longer term. One of Street Lab’s advantages is that it’s very realistic and practically located,” says Marius Sylvestersen from Copenhagen Solutions Lab, which runs Street Lab.

Potential new projects may include measurement devices to help manage cloudburst flooding, expanded traffic control, and tracking the city’s infrastructure technology, from vehicles to garbage cans. “We must be experts in decoding the needs of the city,” says Sylvestersen. Street Lab is a pilot project with the potential to become a game changer for smart cities he adds. •

TEXT Sofie Buch Hoyer

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