Amsterdam Smart City (ASC)
Amsterdam is on a mission to turn itself into the smartest city in the world
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
Student comments on Amsterdam Smart City (ASC)
Great read, JSG. It’s very interesting to see how cities are approaching “getting smart”. I don’t think most politicians get elected on the promise of turning a city smart, but rather on solving a certain issue (e.g. solving mobility in Boston, or providing affordable housing in NYC). Amsterdam followed a grassroots approach and tried to be a “match-maker” between corporations and citizen’s proposals to be more environmentally-friendly (they have lots to lose from rising sea levels!). In contrast, other cities such as Barcelona and Atlanta are being more deliberate and following a top-down approach, which might be less painful in terms of organization. I wonder what’d be right for Boston?
Great post! I think the data collection and sharing of data here is so interesting. I wonder how many partners have actively added to the shared data bank or if companies primarily want to hold onto any data they have in order to monetize it for their own good. For example, Sidewalk Labs – Google’s arm focused on developing solutions for cities and urban development has created “smart city kiosks” that provide wifi and collect data on both internet usage, as well as measuring congestion, gas leaks, air quality. (https://www.engadget.com/2016/07/01/sidewalk-labs-smart-city-kiosks-go-way-beyond-free-wifi/) I wonder if Google would really want to open that data to anyone to build on top of – or if they want to own it themselves so they can monetize and personalize their services based on that.
Thanks for the fascinating post! After reading your findings, I’m reminded of some of the problems that General Electric (GE) encountered when it tried to coordinate the transition to the Industrial Internet. In that case, we saw GE struggle to standardize the processes of its different, silo-ed divisions. This remains a big obstacle to migrating GE — as one organization — to Predix.
I wonder if online platforms for smart cities would find a better opportunity in emerging markets, which are always looking to “leapfrog” infrastructure and technologies, and skip right to modernization? In these cases, the online platform might have an easier time promulgating one or several data classifications and organization. But one big obstacle will still be the willingness to share data. In many emerging markets, citizens are wary about relinquishing and/or consolidating data, for fear that it might be abused or stolen.
Love this post thanks! I especially agree on the fact that cities, especially in places like continental Europe and the Schengen zone are ripe for people essentially “shopping” their future city for work / home. I wonder, has Amsterdam seen any fruits or is pursuing any major collaborations regarding its actual urban fabric design? This would mean that they have been able to seek out feedback data compelling enough to actually inform their decision making in regards to how to continuously design the city. That would be tremendous.
Smart city projects are always very visionary and inspirational. However, real-life applications are always very weak. First reason is the lack of capacity and commitment from public institutions. IBM has been in smart city business for decades and couldn’t cross the chasm yet. Instead of converting entire city to smart, it is definitely better to focus on low hanging fruit use cases such as environment and traffic. An definitely bringing private capital on board is much more effective.As in the PE infrastructure projects, smart cities should be developed incentivizing private firms and investors.
Love this, thanks! I think the point about timing and setting expectations is important. Hans mentioned the similarities to GE; I just want to add on the similarities I saw working in digital at The New York Times. We had to migrate the whole organization over to Google Analytics (the newsroom, advertising, marketing, etc.) and it was a slow and painful process. The idea was that it would make everyone more efficient if we were all looking at similar dashboards, and had access to the same information. And perhaps now in the time that I’ve been at school it has started to be effective, but for a very long time people were frustrated by the migration and unclear on how valuable it was since it wasn’t immediately. Cluing an organization into the idea that something has a long term vision can be a really important part of introducing new methods or technologies.
It’s exciting to see so many cities finding new ways to experiment with sensors, data, and technology to become more efficient and responsive. I’m very bullish on the idea, but there has been significant pushback recently in terms of data privacy and the need for government or private contractors to protect personal data. That needs to be addressed—likely by both private companies and through smarter government regulations and contracting—but I hope the push for control over data doesn’t slow the potential benefits, especially as many cities are falling behind what is possible in smaller environments.
This post was great, I really enjoyed reading it. I have always been fascinated by the “cities of the future” concept but always wondered how the transition would take place. This article addressed those issues clearly. As I get ready to move back and work in the merging market, I often wonder if new infrastructure developments by governments in those economies e.g. Dubai, with focus bigger focus on sustainable, clean, connected cities would allow countries to leap-frog through and mitigate the pain points mentioned.
Thanks for a great post. I think as more and more parts of our lives are getting wired and connected, I personally think smart cities are definitely where the technology innovations would take us. At the moment, consumer devices have been pioneering the movement, such as Amazon Alexa and Google Home. It would be very interesting if more governments are proactively driving the development which I believe would largely speed up the innovation process.