Tallinn University of Technology

The FinEst Twins Smart City Center of Excellence has launched an idea competition in October to initiate high-potential smart city pilots. This approach has not been used before in Estonia or globally. First, it differs in terms of input collection - generally, investments in research and development (R&D) have not been based on systematic input collected from local governments. Secondly, we also involve people to from outside the university to submit ideas, which is not usually the case for such projects. This approach is used for three reasons.

Ralf-Martin Soe

  1. Local governments are a direct source of information to understand the future urban challenges. We did not want to know what the acute problems of one local government were; instead, we were looking to find an intersection in terms of future challenges. To raise an example, if an apartment building in one town has high energy costs today, then this is not a future challenge for us. However, if several local governments have a systematic problem with district heating solutions, then this is important input for us as researchers and development managers.
  2. To launch new pilots, we also want to be open to ideas from outside the Smart City Center of Excellence; above all, in order to not get stuck in our own narrow areas of expertise. This does not mean to say that we would not have ideas and wishes for pilots ourselves; primarily this means that we really want to start testing the ideas with the most global potential in Estonian local governments, and we are also ready to acquire new skills to do so.
  3. Scientists have been criticised for performing research that is not compatible with the long-term interests of the Estonian economy. Our idea competition will allow everyone to provide the researchers with input on exactly which solutions should be implemented in Estonian local governments.

Several example pilot projects have been carried out before, but we do not wish to repeat those exactly as such. If we were 5-10 years back in the past and looking for ideas for pilots, these are the projects we would have liked to launch:

  1. Energy-efficient buildings - a sample solution of how it is possible to renovate old houses or build new ones in a smart way (for example, the nearly zero-energy dormitory building rebuilt in the University of Technology campus, a new model building of the Rakvere town government’s smart house and the so-called “Smartovka” panel houses in Tartu). See also: Estonian example, Estonian and European example.
  2. Self-driving minibuses – a sample solution of how it is possible to develop a self-driving minibus from scratch and to have more self-driving buses manufactured in Estonia than you have fingers on two hands; the buses have reached Greek and Finnish cities in addition to Tallinn. Also see the Estonian example, Estonian and European example.

In the case of both solutions, we are able to see that investing in these ideas has already paid off today, new skills and knowledge has been created in research and development, new investment has been attracted based on competition. However, both pilots are also characterised as still being complex and expensive solutions for solving challenges in today’s cities. Put simply: one old house could be renovated much more easily and cheaply than was performed in the case of the nearly zero-energy building of the University of Technology; today, using a conventional bus instead of a self-driving minibus is many times cheaper and also more reliable. Learning to create these solutions does however bring about new skills that can already be sold outside and thus be grown as new business models in the long term.

Therefore, it is important for us that pilots are knowledge-based and innovative. This does not necessarily mean that these pilots could not have been brought about anywhere else before, but these solutions should not have come into mass use. Thus, the proposed idea can also be one that is already being tested as a concept in one or two cities of the world; our work would be to quickly bring this knowledge and ability to Estonian local governments. It is also important for us that these pilots be repeatable, i.e. the idea should be able to be used in other local governments as well.

Projects should be of a reasonable volume. For example, it is not a sufficient challenge, if a solution only requires financial support (e.g. the installation of a solar panel or heat pump already on the market). Also, if a solution involves extensive infrastructure investments (e.g. the construction of a bridge or tunnel), then this is not realistically feasible for us. The most important point however, is that pilots have a potentially positive impact on the citizens.

These pilot projects are financed by the European Regional Development Fund and the Estonian Ministry of Research and Education.

See more: taltech.ee/en/smartcity