Smart cities and urban laboratories

Disabled access and inclusion are some of the factors that smart cities want to promote [Keoni Cabral/Flickr]

The Smart City World Congress provides a platform for innovators to meet with people who can implement their ideas. This year’s edition is promoting projects that solve everyday problems. EURACTIV’s partner El País – Planeta Futuro reports.

Helping visually impaired people enjoy a walk more safely. Enabling an unemployed neighbour to find work delivering packages. Knowing where and how to dispose of problematic waste. These are some of the solutions that are on show at the Smart City World Congress being held in Barcelona this week.

One of the criticisms most frequently levelled at the smart city concept, which uses digital or information and communication technologies to enhance quality and performance of urban services and to reduce costs and resource consumption, is its high economic cost and alleged disconnection from reality.

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Governments invest billions of euros in equipping their cities with digital infrastructure that citizens either do not know about or simply do not notice. The point of StartUp4Cities, an initiative run by the Spanish Network of Smart Cities (RECI), its Portuguese counterpart and Fundetec, is to promote proposals that have a direct impact on city management.

“The idea is to create a network of urban laboratories,” explained May Escobar, director of innovation at Fundetec. On many occasions, entrepreneurs find it difficult to test their products in real-world conditions before developing them. StartUp4Cities provides a platform where businesses and cities can collaborate on projects, with the possibility of allocating grants.

At this year’s call for proposals, the second of its kind, more than 100 Spanish and Portuguese projects were submitted. Twenty reached the final round and presented their ideas to representatives from 50 cities and communities. Escobar explained that this was a good way of exposing the projects to real-world considerations. A start-up is considered to be an SME when it has proven the viability of its business model. “Validating their ideas within a short period of time can help increase their chances for success,” she added.

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Mapp4All was one of the five highest rated projects. It is an app developed by the Equipara Foundation and, in the words of one of its creators, Josep Esteba, seeks to be the “Wikipedia of accessibility”. The application collects data on a city’s main points of interests and collates information relating to disabled-access. It also uses publicly-available information about buildings and their construction with everything being checked by a dedicated team.

“These proposals cost governments and authorities nothing, but add excellent intangible value,” said Ana Puertas, co-founder of DisabledPark, the start-up that won the first edition of the scheme last year. The app has already geo-tagged 25,000 disabled parking spaces in Spain. Puertas, who herself is handicapped, said that she came up with the idea when she was unable to find a suitable parking space one day and no-one was able to help her.

“We’ve carried out a test in Rivas Vaciamadrid, and another in Santander, and now the governments of, among others, Madrid and Zaragoza, have sent us data about their disabled parking spaces,” explained the co-creator of DisabledPark. It is not the only project to have been actually field-tested in an urban environment.

Vadebike has been operational since last April and has 150 points scattered around Barcelona. It consists of a network of bike stands that can be paid for using contact-less payment. The inverted-arch design secures not only the bike frame, but also the saddle. “This system costs a fifth of what you would pay for a bike-sharing scheme,” explained Javier Achiaga, one of the project’s creators.

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The call for proposals considers projects in different stages of maturity. “In some cases, start-ups need to be assessed in a large urban environment,” explained Escobar.

It seems that cities are interested in the ideas, if the number of questions levelled at the projects were anything to go by. “Here is where innovative projects can be seen and where people can get in on the ground floor. They can become pioneers in implementing their ideas,” Escobar added.

Another highly-rated idea is Participare, an innovation from the Portuguese start-up, ChangeTomorrow. It is a platform that is dedicated to implementing participatory, multilingual budgeting and facilitating open management. “Initiatives of this nature often fail due to lack of participation from citizens or a lack of trust between the parties concerned. We seek to ensure that participants can be identified, that commitments are maximised and that the voting procedure is reliable,” explained Cesar Silva, director general of ChangeTomorrow.

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