Tallinn University of Technology

Last summer, the FinEst Twins centre of excellence for smart cities asked 36 Estonian cities and rural municipalities about their challenges connected to the topic of smart cities. It turned out that larger cities such as Tallinn and Tartu have realised tens of different projects. However, the different digital capacity level of municipal governments is a point of concern. How to find solutions?

Henry Patzig, Deliverable Manager of FinEst Smart City Centre of Excellence

Who needs a smart city? I will try to formulate one of many possible definitions, to answer this question. The concept of a smart city is used in extremely many fields, so it is quite difficult to define it unambiguously. The term, when taken into use in 2007, defined a smart city as uniting human capital, social capital and information technology infrastructure that would allow sustainable economic development and an increase in the quality of life1. The European Commission now also sees under this term the possibility to fulfil climate targets and solutions to challenges arising from population growth, ageing and urbanisation.

A smart city is thus a place where multiple information and communication technology (ICT) solutions are integrated to ensure a more efficient use of resources and lower emissions. Smart city goes beyond the use of ICT by implementing this technology in a manner that positively impacts the local community, fulfilling the needs of inhabitants, as well as improve their quality of life. It means striving for sustainability through many areas of the city, incl. transport, energy, circular economy, health care, buildings, urban planning, governance, etc. Initially, inhabitants were merely dehumanised sensors or data points to be taken into consideration when developing strategies. The latest trend is to actively involve people in the creation process of those systems that would allow for achieving a broader positive impact to the community. It turns out that precisely, we the people that live in the city, need the smart city the most.

How smart are Estonian cities?

Last summer, the FinEst Twins Smart City Centre of Excellence asked five simple questions about challenges related to the field of a smart city, from 36 Estonian cities and rural municipalities.

The questions focused on five areas: mobility and transport; buildings and urban planning; energy, data and governance. The questions did not define the concept of a smart city, to leave interpretation free. This gave us an opportunity to see what the perception of the respondents was of a smart city, as well as of the problems it causes or solves.

On a broad scale, Estonian municipal governments certainly understand very well what a smart city is and they have a great interest to actively contribute into corresponding projects and to move on in this field.

Larger cities such as Tallinn and Tartu have realised tens of different projects. Tartu for example has contributed to smart transport – taken into use CNG buses, performed an efficiency analysis of bus routes, which combined many data sets (incl. mobile data). In addition, the public transport has been connected to the network of electric bicycles.

There are 45 intersections in Tallinn with smart traffic lights that make public transport faster and more efficient, as they give an advantage to public transport vehicles. Many smaller municipal governments have also shown good initiative. Elva for example took into use their own app in order to improve the transparency of the government and its communication with the inhabitants. The community commission functions very well in the Lääne-Harju Rural Municipality, the aim of which is to assist people in the information exchange with the municipality and to boost the social and economic development of the municipality.

Despite these efforts, Estonian cities do not figure in the forefront of smart city rankings. Tallinn, for example, is in the 74th and the 59th place in the SMART CITES INDEX 2019 and in the IMD-SUTD Smart City Index Report 2020, respectively. Be it mentioned that our northern neighbours are highly successful in the development of smart cities. Helsinki, Stockholm and Oslo are all taking top places in the rankings.

How is it that a country that on a global scale is in the absolute top ranking as a digital country, has "stupid" cities?

Striving towards the aims of a smart city has been reached by only a few for different reasons. Municipal governments often do not have someone who would take the leading role in the corresponding field. Daily activities also obscure the possibility of dealing with developments, the benefits of which will be revealed at some point in the future.

The lack of political will and the lack of sufficient state support and guidance were additionally highlighted. There was interestingly little mention made of the lack of finances, rather there was the opinion that finding financing is not a problem for realising projects.

The different digital capacity level of municipal governments is a point of concern. Larger cities usually have a greater capacity to execute such projects and invest in them. At the same time there are many smaller municipalities on a very good level. The most important factor here was the past experience, initiative and vision of the future of the people employed by the municipality.

It is important, in order to break this fragmentation and inconsistency, to create tools and standards to enable to take into wider use the already established practices regardless if the municipality has had a chance or not to hire a capable specialist of the field.

The challenges of Estonian municipal governments

We collected 19 challenges, as a result of the responses received from the municipal governments and the interviews that followed, to which we in turn asked to give priorities.

The output of the whole process is the wording of ten of the most important problems and challenges of smart cities:

  • Urban mobility does not combine the full potential of different modes of transport
  • Insufficient public transport for a comfortable way of life
  • Lack of fast and economical connections to other key cities
  • Urban planning of the city/municipality is not comprehensive, optimal and sustainable
  • The energy consumption of (depreciated) buildings is too high
  • The energy supply and transport infrastructure for industrial development is low
  • The energy production is too carbon intensive
  • Capabilities to collect and use urban data are low
  • The urban data collected is not available to different user groups
  • Public services are not available to all target groups

Let us find solutions!

We have taken as the aim at the FinEst Twins Smart City Centre of Excellence, within the next 4-6 years, to raise the smart city expertise of Estonian cities to the same level as is currently the Estonian digital state. We have to this end created a partnership with the Aalto University and the City of Helsinki, through their innovation company Forum Virium Helsinki, in order to learn as much as possible from what has been done in Finland and to find ways to apply their experience in Estonian cities.

Having now formulated the challenges of Estonian cities, our next step is to find solutions for them.

For this, an idea competition for solutions is open until the 6th of November where we seek researchers, municipal governments, product developers, designers, entrepreneurs, project managers etc. as participants. In other words, everyone who has an idea on how to solve any of the highlighted problems in the urban environment is welcome to join the competition.

More information about the competition can be found here: www.taltech.ee/en/smartcity

The process of smart city definition at EU level Francesco Russo, Corrado Rindone, Paola Panuccio DIIES - Dipartimento di ingegneria dell'Informazione, delle Infrastrutture e dell'Energia Sostenibile Università degli Studi Mediterranea di Reggio Calabria, Italy

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