Brussels unveils ‘smart cities’ innovation scheme


The European Commission has announced a new €365 million a year innovation partnership scheme aimed at boosting the development of ‘smart’ technologies in cities, EU officials told the press on Tuesday (10 July). 

For 2013, €365 million in EU funds have been earmarked for the development of urban technology.

The European Innovation Partnership (EIP) will see private business and the EU executive pool research from energy, transport and ICT to develop a limited number of approved projects.

Examples of mooted projects included silent electric city buses that use digital technology, satellite technology aimed at improving traffic flow, a smartphone application for reserving alternative fuel rental vehicles, and fast charging mechanisms for electric vehicles.

The EU communication on the scheme said improving the efficiency and sustainability of European cities was a vital commitment for 2020 targets since urban areas consume 70% of the EU’s energy, while about 1% of the entire region’s GDP goes towards congestion costs.

Research and innovation

EU Commission Vice President Siim Kallas, who is responsible for transport, called for urban research and innovation since “Europe’s cities suffer most from road accidents, congestion, poor air quality and noise” compared with rural areas.

Neelie Kroes, Commission vice president responsible for the Digital Agenda, also mentioned “tiny sensors that harvest energy from the environment and smarten up our clothes, our cars, streets and the wider world around”, adding that this was “no science fiction”.

Under the goals of the ‘smart cities’ partnership, Kroes said that at this moment in time, “most cities are probably ‘dumb’,” underlining the Commission’s drive to ease traffic, cut energy waste and reduce emissions.

“Smart cities are green cities”, she said, adding that advances needed to be made in reducing ICT’s environmental footprint, which she said some estimated as accounting for 8% to 10% of electricity consumption.

Calls for ‘smart city’ proposals dovetail with other Commission innovation drives, including a ‘future and emerging technologies’ programme that will provide €1 billion in funding over 10 years. Among the projects in the pipeline are domestic ‘slave’ robots and nano materials that record minute fluctuations in body behaviour.

'Not overnight'

Kroes said introducing new technologies to cities could take some time, due to “strong vested interests, and a resistance to breaking down barriers” in sectors like ICT, transport, energy, healthcare and waste management.

Companies were sometimes disinclined or could not afford to take big risks in overhauling their current systems, she said.

The Commission EIP communication also said that Europe had scarce resources for experimentation, and stressed it would be looking at the projects that were most cost-effective.

This, the statement said, would mean reusing and finding multiple uses for existing infrastructure, especially since current systems were likely to be surpassed or made redundant by newer technologies in the coming years.

Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger said it was the aim of the EU executive to "get industry on board working together for our cities" and that the private sector was essential for developing laboratory-tested technologies which can then be used for town planning, procurement and building policies.

The Smart Cities and Communities Initiative was launched in 2011. In the first year (2012), €81 million was earmarked for the initiative, covering only transport and energy.

From 2013, the budget has been increased from to €365 million, covering ICT as well as transport and energy.

Pooling sources together, the EU executive said, will mean using synergies across these areas.  

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