To become a smart city requires a comprehensive city-wide sustainability plan, strong leadership from local authorities, effective public/private partnerships and enthusiastic buy-in from citizens with several EU funding opportunities there to help out along the way.

Getting off to a Smart Start

Jamie Robinson | Scottish European Green Energy Centre

Cities represent approximately half of the world’s population and 80% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions1. As a consequence, implementing the concept of ‘Smart Cities’ has recently grown as a priority for governments, particularly across Europe.

However, Smart Cities is a concept that can mean many different things – it is not a single, technical change that makes a city ‘smart’, but a number of planned, complementary activities that result in significant improvements. It is about delivering solutions for urban areas in an effort to increase their sustainability, often utilising ‘smart’ ICT-based systems. It encompasses, but is not limited to; energy efficiency, district heating, smart meters, demand side management, energy storage, distributed microgeneration, electric vehicle infrastructure, low-carbon public transport and water and waste management strategies. Smart city projects typically present excellent opportunities to invest in urban infrastructure, boost local economies, reduce energy use and greenhouse gas emissions and improve the quality of life of people living and working in cities.

The key to becoming a smart city is ensuring that an integrated, strategic approach is taken to identify sustainable solutions across the urban area and making sure that developments complement each other and come together to form the most energy efficient overall solution. An uncoordinated scattergun approach to implementing ‘sustainable’ projects is likely to lead to an unsatisfactory end result. Cities must therefore develop a holistic overarching plan for their sustainable future, an approach that is strongly supported by the European Commission. 

These plans must be driven by the local authority representing the city. These public sector bodies are democratically elected and should be driven primarily by serving the community rather than by profits. They have sufficient local knowledge, significant influence over urban developments and a high degree of social responsibility allowing them to develop plans which offer the best possible solution for the local population.

Accordingly, local authorities across Europe are being encouraged to sign up to the Covenant of Mayors2 agreement. This requires signatories to commit to going above and beyond what is required by EU legislation in terms of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and energy use. Specifically, it requires local authorities to develop a Sustainable Energy Action Plan (SEAP) representing the city’s short, medium and long term sustainability strategy. The Covenant of Mayors can help local authorities develop their SEAP whilst also creating a rapidly expanding network of cities from across Europe.

Other networks also exist to connect smart cities across Europe and the world including Energy Cities3, Euro Cities4, and the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group5. These networks can create vital knowledge sharing links between cities facing common challenges, reducing the amount of time and money they require to reach their sustainability goals.

Of course, leadership from local authorities on developing city-wide plans is one thing, but implementing those plans is something very different. The increasing constraints on  public expenditure at present is no secret and the large scale infrastructure projects often required to make a significant impact on the overall energy efficiency or greenhouse gas emissions of a city generally don’t come cheap.

The long term economic benefits of technologies such as district heating, smart electricity grids, low carbon public transport etc. are clear to see, but high upfront costs mean that local authorities need help to deliver these visions.

The EU’s preferred model moving forwards is public/private partnerships where local authorities work together with commercial organisations, for example energy utilities, construction companies, ICT companies, transport providers or waste processing companies. This model provides a mechanism for local authorities to maintain a stake in projects and influence their direction (i.e. ensure that they fit within the city-wide sustainability plan) while taking advantage of the substantial balance sheets of commercial organisations as well as their technical and project management expertise.

While large scale public/private partnerships are perhaps the best way to implement the smart cities concept, they are by no means easy to run. The ways in which the public and private sectors operate are intrinsically different and often highly incompatible. Particularly complex and costly financial and legal models are often required to ensure a fair deal for all. Local authorities and commercial organisations need to engage with each other as early in the process as possible to establish effective working relationships and bridge the divide. A point should also be made of learning from other cities that have already carried out projects based on a public/private partnership model, whether they were successful or not.

Another key requirement which must be fulfilled in order to become a truly smart city is to fully engage with citizens. The sustainable city plan must always have local people’s needs and concerns as a top priority and people should be encouraged to participate in decision making processes wherever possible. Smart cities projects by their very nature should improve the lives of citizens and so can usually expect a good deal of local support. However, every project will have costs, both financial and social, and it is important to take people’s views and ideas into account. For example; many people may be in favour of reducing traffic congestion in a city centre, but not if that means paying a congestion charge, and many people might be in favour of a district heating system reducing heating bills, but not if it means enduring disruption caused by digging up roads.

Becoming a smart city is not a straightforward task, but there is help available. The various city networks mentioned above can help generate ideas and solutions and the EU is also keen to support projects directly. In June 2011 the Commission launched the Smart Cities and Communities Initiative (SCCI)6. This is one of only 7 European Industrial Initiatives (EIIs) covering what are believed to be the key areas which must be addressed in order to implement Europe’s Strategic Energy Technology Plan (SET-Plan) and meet the 2020 targets. The initiative will provide yet another trans-national platform for cities to share ideas and will also provide funding for demonstration projects. This will come via the Framework Programme 7 (FP7) funding mechanism until 2013 and will then comprise a significant part of the 2014-2020 EU budget. The connection between the SCCI and the Covenant of Mayors was stressed at the SCCI launch conference in June, and the two will be very closely aligned going forwards. While signing up to the Covenant of Mayors is by no means mandatory, it is certainly looked upon very favourably by the EU institutions, particularly when bidding for funding.

At present the funding coming through the SCCI is relatively modest. Like other public bodies, the Commission is under pressure financially and is looking for ways to stretch the impact of its Euro wherever possible. Recently, this has meant an increased number of ‘innovative financial instruments’ such as the European Local ENergy Assistance (ELENA)7 facility and the European Energy Efficiency Fund (EEE-F)8 which offer alternatives to the straightforward grants traditionally distributed by the EU. These innovative EU funds are also being directed towards smart cities with the phrase ‘in particular in urban settings’ cropping up frequently in the project eligibility criteria.

So, to become a smart city requires a comprehensive city-wide sustainability plan, strong leadership from local authorities, effective public/private partnerships and enthusiastic buy-in from citizens with several EU funding opportunities there to help out along the way. The common strand running through all of those aspects and the most important take-home message is that to become a smart city requires collaboration. Many cities have already taken great strides in this sector. Learning from their experience is vital, as is working together with other less advanced cities to ensure that repetition of effort is avoided at all costs. Increased communication between local authorities both within the UK and across the EU is an essential first step leading on to opportunities to work together on large scale collaborative projects, potentially with funding from the EU.

And it is within this context that the Scottish European Green Energy Centre (SEGEC) is working with the Scottish cities to access some of the above funding opportunities. In facilitating such collaborations, even between competing cities, SEGEC is working to ensure that smart city projects are deployed and knowledge and experience is shared to achieve local, regional, national and European emissions reduction targets – something we are sure most would agree is a ‘smart’ way forward for all.


Established in 2009, SEGEC has delivered over €110M of EU funding for low-carbon energy projects. An independent, not-for-profit organisation, SEGEC is supported by the Scottish Government, ERDF, Scottish Enterprise, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, ScottishPower and SSE.

Jamie Robinson
Thematic Manager – Renewable Heat
Scottish European Green Energy Centre
Tel: +44 (0) 1224 489 980




The content & opinions in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of AltEnergyMag

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