Close to 50% of the world’s population lives in cities, a figure that is expected to grow to 70% by 2050. The influx of 2-2.5bn people will add to already strained municipalities and challenge the capacity of local governments to provide basic services like sanitation and waste management. However, European cities struggle to implement growth initiatives given their ages and the environmentally conscious demands of its citizens. In a city like Amsterdam, much of the infrastructure was built during the Reformation Era. Clearly, the challenge of sustainable growth requires an innovative solution, which is why in 2009 Amsterdam sought to become the “Smartest” city in the world.
Introducing Amsterdam Smart City
Launched in 2009 by the local government, Amsterdam Smart City (“ASC”) is an online platform where citizens, government and business can build, and test projects aimed at guiding the city’s sustainable growth. The ASC represents the City of Amsterdam’s commitment to move away from government bureaucracy and siloed thinking to capitalize on agile public-private partnerships.
The bedrock of the ASC is open source, shareable data that cross-sector partners can pull from to build projects and contribute data to. Through the ASC platform, companies can share an idea for a public project, request guidance and seek out partners and investment. Since inception, ASC has helped manage more than 150 projects and includes 2,300 members and 200 organizations.
Challenges Building a Data Infrastructure
Early on, the municipality ran into challenges, beginning with organizing the data from various sources each using their own classification schemes. As Amsterdam’s first ever CTO, Ger Baron, described “It’s a boring, boring job.” To get to a point that the government or its private partners could run analytics on the data, Baron led an effort to compile, classify and organize information from 12,000 different data sets. The government’s experience is reminiscent of challenges faced by corporations making the transition from mere data collection to building a solid and scalable data infrastructure. The painstaking process begins with defining and disseminating a common vocabulary around data (the government struggled to pin down the definition of a concept as simple as a bridge), setting rules on who has access to what data and how/with whom they can share it with and establishing how the entire organization can use the data to create value from it.
Amsterdam’s government has also had to managed expectations. Publicity around Smart Cities has created expectations that technology will create rapid changes when the real payoffs are long-term. Apart from patience, flexibility was also important. The government realized early on that allowing for private sector input would make the platform more valuable and better equipped to solve problems like traffic congestion. For instance, the city began using GPS data from a local navigation software and technology provider to manage traffic flow in real time – including changing red lights to green during peak traffic hours.
Signs of Success
Close to ten years later, the ASC initiative is showing signs of promise. In one partnership, the city in conjunction with local businesses and corporations tested sustainable solutions on Utrechtsestraat, a major shopping avenue. The “Climate Street” initiatives included energy-efficient lighting, waste reduction and recyclable tram stops, and helped cut energy use on Utrechtsestraat by 10%. City-Zen which stands for “city zero carbon energy,” was another successful partnership. The project sponsors the use of smart, future-proof energy grids and retrofitting buildings to be more sustainable. As a result, Amsterdam will save 59,000 metric tons per year in carbon dioxide. According to the EPA, that’s the equivalent of removing 12,000 cars from the road.
We don’t often think of cities as “competing” against each other but that’s essentially what they’re doing when they launch initiatives to attract wealthy, skilled residents or give large tax breaks to companies. However, lowering taxes (the equivalent of lowering prices) can be a race to the bottom, and Amsterdam’s smart city initiative is a move to compete on quality. Fortunately, the strategy seems to be working. In the latest IPSOS survey, which asks opinions of adults across 26 countries to weigh in on their favorite cities to visit, live in and do business, Amsterdam is the first city to break into the top ten (from 14th), with the youngest, most tech savvy cohort voting the city 5th. 
- Lauren Macpherson, “8 Years On, Amsterdam is Still Leading the Way as a Smart City” Towards Data Science, September 07, 2017, https://towardsdatascience.com/8-years-on-amsterdam-is-still-leading-the-way-as-a-smart-city-79bd91c7ac13 , accessed April 5, 2018
- Jennifer Guay, “Amsterdam solves city problems with cross sector platform” Apolitical, April 10, 2017, https://apolitical.co/solution_article/amsterdam-solves-city-problems-cross-sector-platform/ , accessed April 5, 2018
- Selena Larson, “Inside Amsterdam’s efforts to become smart city” The Kernel, January 4, 2015, http://kernelmag.dailydot.com/issue-sections/features-issue-sections/11313/amsterdam-smart-city/ accessed April 5, 2018
- “Lessons from Becoming a Data-driven Organization,” MIT Sloan Management Review, https://sloanreview.mit.edu/case-study/lessons-from-becoming-a-data-driven-organization/ accessed April 5, 2018
- Leslie Brokaw, “Six Lessons From Amsterdam’s Smart City Initiative,” MIT Sloan Management Review, May 25, 2016, https://sloanreview.mit.edu/article/six-lessons-from-amsterdams-smart-city-initiative/ accessed April 5, 2018
- “Ipsos top cities 2017” Ipsos, July 9, 2017, https://www.ipsos.com/ipsos-mori/en-uk/ipsos-top-cities-2017 accessed April 5, 2018